American-Grown Alpaca: Creating Sustainable Luxury with Lynn Edens

Lynn Edens, owner of Imperial Yarn and Little Creek Farm, has transformed a passion for spinning alpaca fiber into a thriving business and is on a mission to help other American-grown alpaca ranchers in the United States find success.

Lynn was running a horse farm when she became interested in spinning. The first time she spun with alpaca, she was hooked. Alpaca fleece is available in grades as fine and uniform as cashmere yet offers distinct advantages over that other luxury fiber. “I loved the buttery handle and the brightness of the best-quality alpaca,” she says. “It was as soft as cashmere with comparable loft, but it also had great strength and longer fiber length, which makes for easier spinning and more consistent yarn.” She also discovered that this premier alpaca fiber was affordable relative to its quality. “This is because unlike cashmere goats, for instance, top-quality alpacas can produce pounds instead of ounces of elite-quality fiber every year.”

american-grown alpaca

The more she worked with alpaca, the more she wanted to know. Lynn decided to breed alpaca for the characteristics she was looking for. She visited a breeder and was so seduced by the beautiful animals that she came home with eight—and four were pregnant! “I let my passion get ahead of my business planning and discovered I hadn’t purchased the right stock,” she says. Lynn identified her goals and expanded her herd, changing its composition to reflect her personal objectives as well as the realities of her new business.

Those eight alpaca have grown into Little Creek Farm. With locations in New York and Idaho and associated breeding programs Snowmass and Accoyo America, Little Creek Farm has about 2,000 alpaca. It’s also home to Our Back 40 Yarns, a small boutique brand that produces 100% alpaca yarns made from American alpaca withthe cashmere-quality attributes that attracted Lynn as a spinner.

As Lynn’s knowledge of and passion for sustainable growing and farming grew, she partnered with Stacie Chavez and bought the Imperial Yarn brand from Jeanne Carver (Jeanne and her husband, Dan, retain ownership of the historically significant Imperial Stock Ranch but provide their annual wool clip to Imperial Yarn). Jeanne had developed Imperial Yarn as a way to market Imperial Stock Ranch’s sustainably grown wool, which aligns with Lynn’s own goals for growing American alpaca; for Lynn, uniting her business with the Imperial Yarn brand created a connection to the sustainable wool-growing practices and legacy of Imperial Stock Ranch.

When Lynn says that working with fiber is about connections, it’s easy to see what she means. “Finding connections that are rewarding, that open doors to other passions, that create excitement to learn about the next thing”—all are central to her work.

Creating a Sustainable Market

Starting Little Creek Farm has led Lynn to connect with organizations that promote sustainable agriculture. She works with the New York Watershed Agricultural Council with the goal of applying to Fibershed to become the first alpaca farm in the United States to receive the organization’s Climate Beneficial Wool designation.

american-grown alpaca

Although “sustainable” is usually used to describe agricultural practices, Lynn is quick to explain that sustainability also has an economic component, “which is creating a product that people can afford and that allows growers to support themselves.” She’s also active with organizations that connect alpaca growers to the resources they need to develop economically viable businesses. And through her yarn brands, she connects with consumers who share her values for sustainability and quality.

The primary issue growers face is one of scale: most are simply too small to market their fiber effectively. To help alpaca growers overcome this hurdle, Lynn helped found the Alpaca Coalition of America. “The Coalition started as a way to give growers the opportunity to be part of a group. After they shear the animals, they bring the fleece to collection points, where it’s graded by quality, baled, and sold to bidders, mostly to American manufacturers and retail brands. “The alpaca industry is very small,” she continues. “We can’t stand alone, either as individual growers or even as an entire industry, and be competitive. We very much focus on working together as much as possible, and much of what we’re doing at Little Creek Farm is happening elsewhere. The goal is to make the people who grow the fiber successful.” But breeding animals and marketing their fleece is only part of Lynn’s vision. Providing crafters with American-grown alpaca or other luxury fiber is the ultimate goal.

Producing to Ensure Quality

As a breeder, Lynn’s goal is to maximize the value of the fiber her animals produce. Companies that use American-grown alpaca fibers, including Our Back 40 Yarns and Imperial Yarn, source their high-quality fibers from farms that meet or exceed standards in breeding, land stewardship, and animal husbandry. These companies take care to ensure that partner farms use sustainable agricultural and breeding practices, and that their animals’ fleeces meet standards for quality. The mills they partner with are also chosen to ensure quality production; these mills often use techniques and equipment that maintain or enhance the properties in the fiber that breeders have worked so carefully to develop.

This whole-picture approach results in high-quality affordable yarn that’s durable and appeals to those who value buying American-made products and supporting local businesses. When you visit the Our Back 40 website, you can learn about farms Lynn works with to source the fibers and read about the mill where the yarn is produced.

All of Lynn’s efforts are interconnected and work toward the goal of creating sustainable value for growers and consumers. It’s a reciprocal relationship, and Lynn is passionate about sharing her knowledge with knitters, designers, and other growers. “Passion opens doors. My driving passion is the fiber—that underlies everything I do—and each passion creates a learning opportunity, with the goal of finding ways to produce more value.”

MARTHA SCHUENEMAN knits, writes, and reads in New York’s Hudson Valley. This article was originally published in the pages of knit.wear Spring/Summer 2018.

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