by Kim Carr
Okay, I admit, sometimes I get caught up in modern technology. I did it the other day. I just left a farm outside of Gerald, MO. They gave me directions to get to Deb Wellinghoff's home in Sullivan. They told me to turn left on Jakes Prairie Road but my super intelligent gizmo-of-a-phone told me to turn right, so I did. Things didn't seem correct, so I turned into a driveway, gave my phone some dirty looks, then looking across the blacktop in the other direction, I could make out a large sign that looked like an alpaca to me. I tossed the phone aside and headed toward the wooden alpaca greeting me at the end of the driveway.
Pulling up to the house, Deb greeted me with a huge warm smile. We stepped into the garage/studio/shop....well, maybe not so much a garage unless being able to park a ten- speed would qualify as a garage. Half of the space is devoted to a work area where her sister, Pat Robertson, was using the Picker to open fleece up after it had been washed. The picker looked a lot like a mid-evil contraption but Pat demonstrated how running the fleece across nails helped clean out some of the junk that may still be in the fleece as well as prepare it to be carded, then spun into yarn.
The other half of the space was devoted to a small retail shop where Deb offers hand-spun and woven rugs and scarves that she and her sister create in their little studio space. You can also purchase yarns from Deb's herd of alpacas that graze the pastures surrounding the house.
As a cottage industry, Deb prides herself in having a hands-on experience with her creations from start to finish. She has worked very hard to grow and maintain a herd of top quality alpacas from which she pays close attention to the quality of fleece and the art she creates from it start to finish. Her animals are selected for quality fiber, desirable traits, confirmation and temperament. It takes much preparation and planning to pull off shearing of the herd which happens once a year. The shearer takes the fleece off in one piece which is then bagged and tagged with each animals name so fleeces are kept separate and yarn is made in small batches from individual animals.
Deb especially loves the different colors in her herd and takes full advantage of the natural colors they produce. When shearing, to keep from contaminating one color animal with another, the shearer starts with the lightest animals first then goes to the darker ones and ending with the greys who have a mix of all colors of fibers in their fleece. The difference between a small farmer such as Deb and a commercial alpaca farm...well, there are many. Debs alpaca are family. Also, commercial alpaca farms mainly raise solid white alpacas and then the fleece/yarn is dyed to the desired color. Deb, on the other hand, lets nature shine through. When she does have yarn dyed to create additional colors, the fleece is sent to a local mill and dyed to Debs specifications. The fleece is still kept separate so she knows which yarn was produced by which animal. Shearing normally takes place the first weekend of April before the heat sets in which affects the comfort of the animals.
With the slogan Fresh from the Farm, Deb is delighted that she can utilize 100% of the fleece from each animal. The very best of the fleece is spun into yarn which is used to create her hand-woven items (anything that goes next to your skin) such as her handmade scarves. The remainder of the fleece can be used for felting or made into items such as felted soap, dryer balls, and ornaments. You will also find other fine products from local artists in the shop such as alpaca socks, shawls, gloves, toys, and a few other fine alpaca items that are made right here in Missouri. The shop is open by appointment and has scheduled hours during the holiday season. You can also visit her website at www.NorthernPrairieAlpacas.com to view handmade items for sale. Rugs range in price from around $200 for a 2x4 to $375 for a 3x5. Deb and her sister can do custom order rugs up to 48x50.
As a small farmer myself, I've seen some cool things but it really was impressive to see a full alpaca fleece that had been sheared from her prized alpaca, Sunshyne. This fleece is of such high quality that Deb has it set aside to enter in a couple fleece shows this year. Deb enjoys entering and showing her fleece as it gives her objective feedback and allows her to see how she stacks up against other alpaca breeders. She is always working to improve the quality of fleece in her herd by providing a happy, healthy environment, excellent nutrition, selective breeding, superb health care, and of course, lots and lots of love and attention. A wall full of ribbons is a sure sign that Deb is doing something right and no wonder her yarn, fiber arts, and animals are sought out by those who expect quality, respect, and the time and attention Deb gives to everything she does.
As a kid, Deb grew up in Bellville, Illinois with her mom, dad, a sister and two brothers. The family had a couple acres but they were not farmers. She did have a pet flying squirrel and a few ducks on their pond, not really much training in becoming an alpaca farmer later in life. Her parents did instill a love of the outdoors, nature and being a good steward of the land. These early lessons have served her well.
Looking back, Deb recalls a great fascination with macramé a kid. Perhaps that is why she is so drawn to the loom and weaving now. There is a sense of accomplishment in figuring out patterns and the mathematics that go along with weaving. The time spent weaving is therapeutic and peaceful. Deb believes that this tranquility and easy-going nature of her animals passes through the fiber into her work. She hopes that those who have one of her handwoven rugs or scarves get a sense of the peacefulness through the work she creates.
Most of her life, Deb spent working in Human Resources. She chuckled when she told me that nobody back then would have believed she would become an alpaca farmer. In 2009 after a move to North Dakota and with her husband retiring, Deb took the plunge into the world of fiber animals. She had researched the curious looking creatures for several years and finally decided it was time. Over the course of the last several years, Deb and her husband moved to Missouri as she dabbled in many fiber-related arts, taking full advantage of her growing alpaca herd.
A common question, and one I asked myself, Do you ever get spit on? I know personally that Debs animals have never even acted like they wanted to spit on me. I did see some activity when one female wanted to graze where another was. It was more of a dominance sneeze. I saw this behavior again when two males tried to show who was boss. They had a little spitting contest but nothing like you see on the show Funny Home Videos. Deb said that alpacas really don't like to spit; its more of a last resort. She referred to an old saying, "Eyes on the side you run and hide, eyes in the front you hunt". So, with that being said, alpacas eyes are situated on the sides of their head, therefore they would prefer to run from danger. If cornered and they have no escape, then they may try to kick or bite. Spitting is saved for last resort as it does not taste pleasant to the alpaca to dredge up half digested contents of their stomach, plus it causes a temporary paralysis to their lips and face. Most often when you see or hear of animals spitting on people, it is animals that are under stress or being mishandled or over handled in situations such as petting zoos. Alpacas also possess the ability to communicate through clucking and humming. They use these noises between a mom and her baby or a female trying to get the attention of a male. Normally these are peaceful communications but can also be used in times of stress or to alert the herd of danger.
Alpacas can live into their twenties with adults weighing between 105 and 185 pounds, standing 32 to 39 inches in height at the shoulders. Baby alpaca are called cria. Debs herd consists of both types of alpaca, Suri and Huacayas. The Huacayas are the fuzzier, fluffier than the Suri which have a more crimped-type fleece that makes me think of the Beatles-John, Paul, George and Ringo-when I look at them with their mop-like hairdos. Alpaca fibers possess a wonderful trait; their fleece lacks lanolin like wool. Therefore it is hypoallergenic and is naturally flame resistant, making it a perfect material for Deb and her sister to create handwoven rugs, scarves and other items...Fresh from the Farm.
Deb is delighted to have joined the Best of Missouri Hands. She looks forward to meeting and learning from other members. She appreciates the common connection between artists and crafters. The positive feedback and nurturing environment the BOMH offers has been a great motivator as she moves forward in pursuit of her dream. To date, Deb and her sister Pat have only offered their creations at the farm shop, online and at a few smaller farmers markets or local shows. She is looking forward to expanding her visibility through exhibits and shows. She is encouraged by the support of the group.
In her spare time, Deb enjoys spending time with her grandson (also an animal lover), reading, if she can stay awake long enough, hiking the woods and should time ever allow again, she loves to scuba dive. A dream vacation would be to spend time in Peru to see the vicunas, a wild relative of the llama or hike the countryside of Italy. Any day spent on the farm sitting at her loom with the alpacas grazing near the house while her old dog Lucy keeps watch is a good day in Debs book.
You can follow Deb on Instagram and Facebook under Northern Prairie Alpacas. You can also visit her website at www.NorthernPrairieAlpacas.com Farm & Shop visits are available by appointment 573-627-2341 We are already planning my next visit!
Side Note according to Wikipedia: The vicua or vicugna is one of two wild South American camelids which live in the high alpine areas of the Andes, the other being the guanaco. It is a relative of the llama, and is now believed to be the wild ancestor of domesticated alpacas, which are raised for their coats. Vicuas produce small amounts of extremely fine wool, which is very expensive because the animal can only be shorn every three years, and has to be caught from the wild. When knitted together, the product of the vicua's wool is very soft and warm. The Inca valued vicuas highly for their wool, and it was against the law for anyone but royalty to wear vicua garments; today the vicua is the national animal of Peru and appears in the Peruvian coat of arms.