HEYWORTH, Ill. | Soft, copper-colored fleece falls gracefully off an alpaca as Brian Houchin passes his clippers across the animal's belly and torso.
His wife, Karley, and a group of volunteers help collect the fleece into bags labeled by the grade, either 1 or 2. Shearing alpacas is not only a practical thing as the summer months approach, it's also a business move for the Houchins, who operate Houchin Family Alpacas.
The popularity of alpaca yarn and fiber to make hats, gloves, scarves and other clothing is on the rise among knitters and crafters. The number of alpaca farms across central Illinois also has gone up in recent years, said Brian Houchin.
"It's really soft," said knitter Angela Yandel, of Heyworth. "It holds up well. It's soft and usually the colors are nice, even undyed."
Yandel said alpaca yarn is among the fibers she chooses for her handmade projects.
The fleece that comes from the midsection of the animal is the softest and referred to as "firsts." Fleece that comes from the animal's neck, "seconds," has a rougher feel and is used to create rugs or other non-clothing pieces, said Karley Houchin as she held one of the family's 16 alpacas.
The Houchins also offer alpacas for sale to others who want to raise the South American animal.
Fiber from the animal's coat is either sold raw or cleaned into what is known as "roving" material, which is used by crafters to hand-spin into skeins of yarn. The Houchins also sell fiber to a co-op that makes yarn for knitters.
Raw fiber sells for $20 to $40 per pound, depending on the quality of the fleece, said Brian Houchin. Roving material is sold for $4 to $6 per ounce, while alpaca yarn can cost from $35 to $50 per skein, said Brian Houchin.
Janetta Bauer, who operates another central Illinois alpaca farm, der Bauernhof Farms in Ellsworth, with her husband, Stan, said she has seen a rise in demand. The couple hosts a special sale of handmade accessories each fall.
"Seven years ago, we had our first open house and we had about 45 people. They actually bought things that we had made and it was so exciting," said Bauer. "This last show, we had over 500 people come and they bought a lot of pieces."
Interest in raising alpacas for their fiber or as part of a breeding business has increased across the state, added Don Kent, president of the Illinois Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association. The group now has about 45 member alpaca farms, up from about 25 two years ago, Kent said.
"Interest in the animals is increasing and the prices seem to be going up, too," said Kent. He said female alpacas for breeding can cost from $2,000 to $20,000, depending on the quality of show records. By comparison, a male not intended for breeding can typically cost $300 to $800, said Kent.
Yandel said the interest in all things local is driving the demand.
"It's probably like the local food movement; it's a local fiber movement," said Yandel. "I like the idea of supporting local vendors. And it's cool to think of fibers coming from animals that are here and that we sheared here."