Woman turns her alpacas’ fiber into yarn, hats, scarves

• Click here to read about an upcoming Nowthen Farmers Market meeting.


Judy Riess will be a vendor at the Nowthen Farmers Market.

by Joni Astrup

Associate editor 

In a pasture along Rum River Boulevard in Oak Grove, alpacas grazed and frolicked on a recent mild spring day.

Their home is Rum River Alpacas, an operation run by Jim and Judy Riess.

The Riesses raise and sell alpacas and Judy spins alpaca fiber into yarn. She learned to knit and crochet as a girl, and also makes some of the alpaca yarn into hats, scarves and other items.

She will be one of the vendors again this year at the Nowthen Farmers Market, which opens June 21 for its second year. There she will sell alpaca fiber products such as yarn, hats, scarves and other items. She also usually brings along her spinning wheel and gives demonstrations.

Country life beckoned

Judy grew up on a Shetland pony ranch in southern California and was “into livestock.”

After she and Jim served in the Peace Corps, they eventually landed in Minnesota and raised their family in the suburbs of the Twin Cities.

But once their children were adults, country life beckoned.

“They went off to college so we bought property near Elk River,” Judy explained.

They never intended to get into the alpaca business, but that changed after seeing an ad for alpacas and visiting the farm.

In 2002 they got their first two alpacas, Snickers and Hershey.

It worked out well and, needing a place more suitable to raising alpacas, in 2003 they moved from Big Lake Township to Oak Grove (near Nowthen). There they have pasture land and a quonset that provides a shelter for the alpacas.

Today the place is home to 29 alpacas, 22 of which are owned by the Riesses. Judy knows each one by name.

All but one are huacaya alpacas. One is a suri alpaca, which produces a silkier fiber that Judy says makes nice shawls and scarves.

Eight of the females are pregnant. Alpacas typically have one young alpaca a year, called a cria.

Judy said alpacas are intelligent, curious, gentle, clean and easy to handle.

The oldest one they own is 15 years old; alpacas live to be in their upper teens and early 20s.

Alpacas are sheared yearly

The Riesses have their alpacas sheared every spring, typically in late April or early May. Each adult produces four to five pounds of top quality fiber plus additional fiber — “seconds” —  from areas like the neck.

Judy sorts the fiber and puts it in a mesh lingerie bag, then soaks it in soapy water followed by rinse water. She cards the cleaned fiber into long batts, some of which she spins into yarn. Her spinning wheel is an Ashford brand and was made in New Zealand.

She said she finds spinning to be very relaxing.

While there are 22 recognized colors of alpaca fiber, most of the alpacas the Riesses raise are light colored. Judy prefers that because she likes to dye the fiber. To produce yarn in a wide range of colors, she uses either a dye made for natural fibers or Kool-Aid — including Grape, Orange, Tropical Punch, Lemon-Lime and Cherry.

Her favorite Kool-Aid color is Ice Blue Raspberry, which produces a rich teal-blue color of yarn.

For more information about Rum River Alpacas, go to www.RumRiverAlpacas.com.

About alpacas

•In the United States, alpacas are raised as breeding stock and for their fiber and are shorn once a year.

•Alpaca fiber is generally classed with luxury fibers like cashmere, mohair and angora, both because of its fineness and its relative scarcity. It comes in more natural colors than fiber from any other fiber-producing animal.

•Alpacas are members of the Camelid family, which also includes camels and llamas. Unlike the llama and camel, which are used primarily as a pack animals, the alpaca is raised for its fiber. The two main breeds of alpacas are huacayas and suris.

•Though native to the high Andes plateaus of Peru, Chile and Bolivia, alpacas have been imported into the United States since 1984. Some of the first imports to the United States came from Chile and Bolivia. Later imports also included Peruvian animals, which came from regions and farms with more controlled breeding programs.

Sources: Great Lakes Alpaca Association, Rum River Alpacas