In many respects the Otways is the ideal place to develop an agricultural business designed to keep people warm. Our high rainfall and ‘serious’ winters seem to encourage the production of warm scarves, jumpers and hats. Most sheep do not do well here, but on many properties in the region alpacas have proved to be an attractive and useful alternative.
It began around 15 years ago with a few alpacas on a small property at Marengo, just out of Apollo Bay. Back then Lauris and Andrew Jephcott thought long and hard about making the most of their small alpaca herd. “We didn’t have the capital to quickly develop a good stud breeding business, and our fleece is generally not superfine, so in conjunction with friends we decided that knitting yarns may be the way to go. We were able to use our fibre to produce a few yarns for hand knitting which were soft, light and warm”, said Lauris. The ‘knitalpaca’ brand was born. Now a group of local growers known as the Otways Alpaca Mob works together to breed, manage and shear around 350 alpacas in the Otway Ranges. These animals provide fleece in a range of natural colours, from white to jet black, which are used to produce yarns for hand knitting.
Alpacas have also proved invaluable for sheep farmers to reduce lamb losses to foxes, and for many of those making the lifestyle change to small acreages in the Otways. They are relatively low maintenance, small enough to be manageable, and as a bonus are very attractive animals. In addition alpacas are much lighter on the landscape than heavier, hooved livestock.
In 2008 the Jephcotts moved to Ferguson, near Beech Forest, to provide more land for a growing herd, and other breeders became involved. The alpacas are run on properties throughout this area from Marengo to Wyelangta and Ferguson, and fleece of all colours and both alpaca breeds (suri and huacaya) is skirted and sorted at the Jephcotts’ Ferguson property, then sent to a specialist Australian processing mill.
Lauris has worked closely with the mill for more than 10 years to develop a range of knitting yarns in the natural colours of alpaca. Creams, browns, greys and black alpaca yarns can be produced without dyes, and blends of natural colours have yielded subtle tweeds and flecked effects. Alpaca is one of the very few natural fibres which can display a true black without any dyes, and the Otways black yarns are always in demand. Colours other than natural ones are created by skilfully blending other natural fibres, such as merino, into the mix.
“The people at the mill are very good at what they do. We have a strong working relationship which is both practical and creative and that produces some lovely, unique yarns”, said Lauris. The group is now moving toward a positive future developing a wider range of unique luxury yarns, all grown in Australia. The Otways Alpaca Mob continues to expand and develop new life in the region.
“It’s unusual in the textile industry for a product to be conceived, designed, grown and entirely produced in Australia. That is what we do and we’re very proud of that.”
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