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Alpacas give up coats to make sweaters

With bits of fiber on the cutting table, Sonny Gustamantes begins shearing around the head of the alpaca.

Normally the Kathy Butler ranch is calm and serene, sitting peacefully at the edge of the San Juan National Forest on Boggy Draw. Alpacas grazing in the open pasture. A quiet bird watching walking path through the pine trees with blue bird houses along the trail.

Then, one day a year, it becomes a beehive of activity. The alpacas are rounded up and herded into the corral.

Animals are led one by one into the barn to be brushed by the local 4-H Alpaca club members before being sandwiched in a specially made frame. The frame is made of steel, padded on one side and a sheet of plywood on the other.

The frame is twirled and the alpaca ends up laying flat and then tied down at the legs and head.

That's when Sonny Gustamantes begins quickly shaving off the fiber, slowing only occasionally when smoke starts to swirl up from the electric shears. A quick squirt of oil on the clippers and it's back to shearing.

Following close behind the clippers, Rachel Nellingan and Hank Gustamantes gather the fiber, placing double handfuls into paper sacks.

Each of the 23 alpacas yield 10 to 12 pounds of fiber. The back of Butler's Subaru is stuffed with sacks of fiber ready for the mill.

"It's quite a day once a year," said Butler. "The rest of the year it's calm and serene. You wouldn't know anything was going on."

Butler takes the fiber to a fiber coop mill in Grand Junction where it is spun into yarn similar to wool.

The best fiber comes from the body of the animal, which Butler uses to weave jackets and blankets. The fiber along the legs of the alpacas is considered seconds. Butler gives that fiber to the 4-H Alpaca club for their help with the shearing.

The 4-H kids make alpaca wool items to sell and raise money for the club.

After the haircut, the alpacas return to pens where they rub noses, as if to reassure each other that life will return to the normal serene setting.