It’s all about alpacas at 350 Third Street in Castle Rock.
There, thrives a small shop appropriately named Everything Alpaca. It’s filled to the brim with what owner Deb Powers calls “luxury” alpaca products.
Prime examples are the $600 coats her customers can’t wait to get their hands on. Coveted for their warm yet surprisingly lightweight material, the coats are one of her hottest-selling items. The distributor once discontinued the coats, but because of high demand, Powers fought to have the products reinstated.
Powers and her vendors provide customers with a wide variety of alpaca products. Their inventory includes socks, gloves, shawls, sweaters, scarves, hats, slippers and authentic alpaca yarn.
They’re sticklers about the merchandise. Yarn containing a measly 10 percent alpaca fiber doesn’t cut it, Powers said. Their yarns are a blend of no less than 50 percent alpaca fiber.
The 10-year-old store is a “farm-to-retail” operation. The vendors’ products come from their own alpaca ranches — most of them in Colorado — but Powers also sells products from throughout the U.S., Canada and Peru. Although some products are commercially produced, others are handmade, and even created from hand-spun yarns.
“The whole group here is just very passionate about alpaca,” Powers said.
Just ask Coral Dillon — alpaca rancher, Everything Alpaca vendor and fiber arts instructor.
Dillon runs an alpaca ranch north of Calhanwith her husband. Today the couple has a herd of 50 alpacas, but she can still remember purchasing her first female. Before the Great Recession, she said, alpacas sold for much more than the going price today.
Dillon started her herd in 2007 with a $17,000 pregnant female. She wasn’t a prize animal, Dillon said, but she could teach them the basics of alpaca farming.
“I still have that first baby,” she said.
Today, Dillon said female alpacas sell for anywhere between $2,000 and $30,000. What a buyer looks for depends on the type of operation they are trying to run. Alpaca farmers and ranchers will typically join the industry to either start a breeding program or produce alpaca fiber.
Alpaca fiber, or fleece, is known for being warmer, stronger, lighter and more resilient than wool from sheep, according to the Alpaca Owners Association Inc. Its feel is often compared to silk.
The fleece comes in a variety of natural colors, such as brown, black and gray, but is also easy to dye.
And although it’s less common in the U.S., there is a market for alpaca meat, which can be found on the menu in New England, Dillon said.
“I can’t eat anything I name,” she said.
Dillon has a history in the theater. All her alpacas are named for characters in her favorite productions. She loves the breed for their gentle nature, she said.
Alpacas are a cousin to the camel and the llama, and although just as guilty of spitting at a foe, they’re not aggressive.
Alpacas have been a fixture in South American agriculture for centuries. In recent decades, they’ve grown in popularity throughout the U.S. According to the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, there were more than 170,000 alpacas registered in North America as of 2011.
Most alpaca productions in the U.S. are smaller, what’s known as a “cottage industry.”
But Everything Alpaca hopes to see the industry grow. On Feb. 8, Dillon was able to spread the word to one more person through the fiber arts classes offered at the shop.
Just before 2 p.m., in walked Susie Johnson, of Castle Rock, for her Introduction to Loom Knitting class.
“I’m a quilter,” Johnson said. “Not much of a knitter.”
Her granddaughter, however, wanted to learn, and Johnson thought it would be a good activity for the two of them. Over the next hour, Dillon showed Johnson how to maneuver a handloom while sharing facts about alpacas through their conversation.
Most ranches are off the beaten path, she told Johnson, and there are more than 300 alpaca farms in Colorado alone. Newcomers will often find a mentor rancher who can teach them the trade.
Overall, she said, the alpaca industry is a supportive community.
She too found her mentors when getting started, and remains close to alpaca ranchers nearby. She knows through experience that if there’s a problem on her ranch, a neighboring alpaca rancher will drop what they’re doing to help her.
That’s exactly what she loves most about the industry, Dillon said. It’s not competitive, but rather an encouraging environment.
“We are trying to grow the industry,” Dillon said, “not trying to outdo each other.”