On a picturesque acreage, Melody and her baby Adagio quietly graze on a luscious green pasture. This mother and son pair are part of a herd of 13 alpacas owned by Stan and Janetta Bauer. Their acreage, known as der Bauernhof Farms, is located just off Illinois Highway 9 near Bloomington.
The alpaca adventure started when Janetta participated in a yarn spinning class and fell in love. The Bauers first tried their luck with sheep, but it wasn’t the perfect fit they were hoping for. Then, a friend mentioned getting alpacas and they never looked back. Stan and Janetta purchased two alpacas in hopes to spin their fleece, also known as fiber, into something great. Now, 12 years later they are doing just that.
Today, Stan and Janetta produce and process around 200 pounds of alpaca fiber each year. In addition to their own fleeces, they also source fleeces from the Synergy Alpaca Alliance, an association of small alpaca farms focused on breeding animals that produce high quality fiber for the fashion industry. They sell their products at their annual Trunk Show, Alpaca Farm Days and a couple of retail stores in Door County, Wisconsin. Products currently available through the couple include ponchos, sweaters, hats, socks, buttons, scarfs, jewelry and yarn. All have a tag with their brand, “5milE” (Five Miles East) tag. This tag brings a distinctive aspect to the products, because it features who has been a part of each stage in the production of the item, ranging from the name of the alpaca that provided the fiber to the knitter who completed the piece.
The process starts in the spring when the alpacas are sheared. Everything sheared off of the alpacas is categorized into either firsts, seconds, or thirds, with each category going towards a different product. Firsts come from the area on the back and sides of the alpaca, are the highest quality, and will be used for yarn. Seconds come from the legs and neck of the alpaca, fall in between high and low quality, and will be used for felt. Thirds come from the belly area of the alpaca, are the lowest quality, and will go towards mulch or bird nesting. It takes approximately seven minutes to fully shear an alpaca.
“We send a test fiber to a lab to assist us with our breeding process,” says Stan. “This way we know if the fiber is good enough for clothes, and if it isn’t we can know who to breed them to in order to improve the fiber of their offspring.”
After being sheared, the fiber from each alpaca is stored in separate bags so the Bauers know who produced the fiber, and it can be expressed correctly on the tag of the final product. From there, the fleece has to be sorted by hand to pull out any unusable pieces. This process is done mainly by Janetta. After this, the fleece can be sent to the mill to be spun into yarn. The Bauer’s use a mill in Minnesota for yarn and rovings, and a mill in South Dakota their 100% alpaca color blends. Janetta continues her love for spinning, using the rovings and color blends at home to spin.
“The finer the thread I spin, the longer it takes,” says Janetta, “The finest thread I do, called fingering, takes about five hours to make a spindle.”
It takes about three months to receive the finished yarn back from the mills. Once received back, there is a staff of five part-time knitters, plus Janetta, that create the finished products. Some of the yarn is left for purchase for those who wish to knit their own.
“We like alpaca fiber because it has no lanolin, so it doesn’t have to be washed with chemicals and makes it more environmentally friendly,” says Stan.
“It’s also incredibly soft,” Janetta says as she strokes six-month old baby Adagio. The rest of the herd quietly hums as they finished their supper. Stan and Janetta watched over them with soft smiles, truly embracing the country life.
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