When global nomad Andy Nailard arrived in New Zealand in 1999 to undertake a Master of Business Administration at Otago University, little did he know how much his life was about to change.
Soon after he finished his masters, he was offered a job and decided to stay on in Dunedin. He purchased a lifestyle block in the Flagstaff hills on the outskirts of Dunedin (hence the name, Flagstaff Alpacas), and wondered how he could make a living from it. The alpacas came along in 2001, after he decided they might be the right product for a small acreage block. They fast became a source of great interest, and eventually, his full-time occupation.
Andy started out by breeding alpacas for sale. In New Zealand, alpacas were (and still are) popular as endearing ‘pets’ to keep down the grass on a lifestyle block. He says “New Zealand had alpacas and we had an industry body that was focused on the alpacas and husbandry, but not many people were actually doing anything with the fleece. The fibre was not valued – most of it ended up as moth food, stored in plastic bags in people’s garages. They didn’t know what to do with it. People would comment “These animals have lovely fleece, what can you do with it?””
Andy would tell them it could be made into yarn which could then be woven or knitted/crocheted, so he decided to start spinning some, more as a showpiece of what you could do with alpaca fleece to encourage sales of the alpacas. To his surprise, he found people readily bought the yarn.
No one else was processing alpaca fleece at the mill in Milton (just down the road from Dunedin), and his business eye saw an advantage in producing it locally. There were a few hurdles to overcome:
The entry requirements to spin were high for a bespoke lot – 200kgs at a time. (When you consider you can only get 2.5kgs of useable fleece a year from one quality alpaca, you can start to appreciate the scale involved).
There was also a lack of technical knowledge of alpaca spinning in the NZ milling industry (it’s not quite like wool to spin). The mill had been stung with bad alpaca which had gummed up the machines back in the late 1990’s, which had then produced bad client relationships. Alpaca was not held in high regard. Andy, coming along soon after these bad experiences, had to push hard to convince the mill to process his fleece.
Around 2003, media comment began to talk about alpaca, increasing market awareness of the product. Andy was also lucky to make the acquaintance of Joan Ayson, a local machine knitter and spinner who gave them comments about the yarn and helped the mill with technical advice. The next spin lots were much better.
Andy’s own property holdings had by then increased to farm 45 acres, with an 80 something strong herd, but the alpacas could only produce so much usable fleece (it’s the males that produce beautiful fibre – the females devote their energies to producing cria, and the fleece quality suffers as a result). To supplement the fleece from his own alpacas, he looked to acquire fleece from other growers who were offering it for sale. Initially though, he found it hard to source quality alpaca fleece. A lot of beautiful fleeces were made unsuitable by the fact that the coarse outer hairs or short fibres were not skirted from the fleece before it was bagged. These factors would produce an inferior yarn.
These days, there are around 200 alpacas on the Flagstaff Alpacas property, but Andy also now has supply agreements in place with other alpaca herd owners around New Zealand to maintain a sustainable and steady supply of fleece. He is absolutely particular about being able to personally sort and skirt the fleece at the time of shearing to ensure quality, and travels around New Zealand during shearing season to perform this task himself. He chooses fine fleece (20 – 26 micron) for the yarn, and the rest goes into making the popular alpaca duvets that he started developing, and which are also now proving extremely popular. Fleece supply is now guaranteed, although there is plenty of room for more.
All through my conversation with him, there’s the sense that all he’s interested in is making sure that New Zealand alpaca fleece gets used, and the beauty and qualities of alpaca fleece are fully showcased, and it doesn’t end up in someone’s shed, rotting. You can hear his genuine appreciation and passion for the alpaca itself come through as he speaks. What better example too, of sustainability than ensuring that a readily-available resource is used, and by cleaning, processing and producing it locally!?
In fact, he’s so passionate about ensuring the fibre gets used and out into the market into the hands of weavers, knitters and crocheters that he says, “If someone comes along tomorrow and offers me a good price for the herd, I’d sell up (maybe keep a few of the old girls) and devote myself full-time to developing the yarn business.”
I asked him about his favourite alpaca yarn product, and he says “It’s the boucle, actually.” (I make an unenthusiastic noise) “No really” he protests, “I just love the finish of the yarn when it has been woven. It exemplifies what alpaca is all about.” A grudging mental note is made to use the boucle when I eventually learn to weave…
As if to prove his point, he sent me some photos of himself and Doe Arnot having a light-hearted moment during a recent dyeing day (notice it’s boucle they’re holding).
Until about 2006, Andy was producing natural and solid colour alpaca, with mixed results (the dye lots were not even and gave him a lot of angst). He met Doe Arnot around this time, and she encouraged him to think about hand-dyeing. They gave it a go, demand was good, and you could pretty much say that the rest is history!
Andy doesn’t knit, (“I can’t do everything!”) but he does like wearing knitted alpaca (which he either gets from partner Vicki or the generosity of Doe).
I asked him whether he was considering producing single-colour commercially dyed yarn again. He commented that producing hand-dyed yarn works with the limited quantity of quality fleece available to him. He has also found that the majority of his customers are individuals who choose to buy the naturally coloured yarn for their projects, or New Zealand indie dyers who buy the naturally cream coloured yarn as a base. In light of this, he has made a business decision to focus on spinning and selling the yarns in their natural colours and stick to hand-dyeing a small amount of it with Doe.
This season, in addition to the current range of yarns, Andy is experimenting with producing a limited quantity of marled alpaca/wool blend in various natural colour combinations in DK weight. He showed me a list of colour combinations that are currently being processed at the mill (white/black, black/white, fawn/white/brown were some of them) that had my mouth watering. I’ve put my order in!
Andy shies away from taking much credit at all for the success of his yarn, and still struggles with what to say to customers (like me) who compliment him on his product. He attributes the success of the yarn firstly to the alpacas, and then equally to the mill and Doe Arnot and then himself, describing his own contribution merely as the person who sorts the fleece and ensures its quality for spinning. He credits Doe as the real brains behind the success of the yarn.
In addition to the hand-dyeing idea, it is Doe who has been instrumental in coming up with new product concepts – such as the ideas for the blended sock yarn (merino, alpaca and nylon), the new aran weight blend (20% merino, 80% alpaca) that was released last winter and now, the marled yarn. He’s incredibly thankful for her friendship and for her generosity of spirit in sharing her talent, working with him on the yarns.
Last year, the business suffered a setback with the temporary closure of the Qualityarns Mill, while a new group of buyers was found and negotiated with. The mill is now open and running as Bruce Woollen Mill. He was part of the body that bought into the mill – he’s now a stakeholder and he’s happy that once again, they can work with the mill to process the fibre for his duvets and spin the yarn. Andy sees complete business sense in producing the yarn locally and comments that it is in fact more cost-effective and convenient to produce in New Zealand than it is to go overseas to the supposedly cheaper manufacturers. There is not only cost effectiveness, but quality can also be assured.
“In the ideal world,” Andy concludes, “we’d like to sell the herd (there are a lot of people who know how to breed alpacas well these days) and end up with five alpacas in the back yard, and focus on working exclusively with alpaca fleece. There is so much that can be done to develop this side of the industry in New Zealand.” I hope he gets his wish.
He hopes that with the new partners and business plan for the mill, Bruce Woollen Mill will be able to attract alpaca producers from further afield, and encourage Australian alpaca growers to consider using the mill for their own spinning requirements.
For my part, I wish there were more people like Andy Nailard. He is someone who truly personifies the meaning of sustainability. It’s the reason Flagstaff Alpacas exists, and I find that even more motivation to enjoy his yarn!