My sister, Mary, and I were sitting on a wooden bench by the horse barn at the Cass County Fair (near Backus, Minnesota, population 250).
We were there to attend a Lions Club pancake breakfast, and then to stroll around the fair. County fairs are the epitome of rural America. I highly recommend them. Less hectic and stressful than state fairs (really!), although I enjoy those, too.
Our activity at the time was to watch young horseback riders. These little cowboys and cowgirls needed to race across a corral to the far end where there was a man-made arrangement of a cluster of wooden poles. The kids needed to navigate their horses through the maze created by the poles, and then to race back across the corral and over the finish line. And, these were little kids. kindergarteners and first-graders. On full size horses.
If you are not familiar with horses, understand that unnatural things (such as a forest of poles in a corral) act as an alert and an impediment. Horses are cautious about the unfamiliar.
Success in this race depends on the rider’s ability to convey confidence and assurance to the horse, while riding as fast as the rider and the horse can go through the course. Some horses bucked the rider off. Some horses stopped stock still and would not move. And, some tried to go around the pole forest.
The 4-, 5- and 6-year old cowboys and cowgirls were the most astonishing sight. They were too little to have their feet in the stirrups, and too young to be able to shape their little legs over the sides of the horses. So, they simply bounced along on top of their horse, blazing toward the obstacles and then working through the maze. Sometimes a mom raced from the stands into the corral to grab the reins of an obstinate or balking horse. But one way or another the kid was soon kicking it up to race back over the finish line.
The little ones were fearlessly bouncing pogo-stick-like on top of these horses. It was riveting.
That’s where we happened to meet a couple who owns an alpaca farm near the fair grounds. Being familiar with “Minnesota nice” (it really is a thing), we struck up a conversation. Within a few minutes my sister and I decided the next day’s activity would include a trip to the Foothills Alpaca Farm.
I knew very little about alpacas. I knew they had fleece (or wool or fiber) that was used for yarns and fabrics. I don’t spin yarn or weave fabric, but I’m always on the quest for material to use in rug hooking, I wondered if I could use yarn from alpaca in the fine craft of rug hooking.
Rug hooking as we know it today as a fine folk art, is generally worked with thin strips of wool fabric. Traditionally, the fabric was worn fabric cut from clothing or blankets in disrepair. Today, many rug hookers buy new fabric. Sometimes we visit Goodwill or Salvation Army shops for old wool clothing.
To create a hooked rug, you start with pulling a loop of a thin strip of wool through a canvas web. Then you create subsequent loops to cover the face of the canvas or linen fabric. In The Hooked Rug, William Winthrop Kent, describes the result as:
“Loops of colored wool left standing, above the surface of a base material of coarse or of fine cloth.”
The density of the loops against each other acts as the pressure to hold the loops in place. The bit of roughness, or kinkiness, in the wool fabric helps to mesh the loops to each other. The pile created from the loops doesn’t pull out even though the loops of fabric are never knotted or sewn to the fabric. It’s a bit miraculous. It simply holds itself together.
I had never tried hooking with yarn. In my collection of historic hooked rugs, I had one from the early 20th Century made of yarn. I was interested to see if the Alpaca yarn would work as well for me as sheep wool strips.
At the Foothills Alpaca Farm it was a surprise to me how docile and friendly alpaca are. And, it was a surprise to learn that the fiber on the animals comes in 22 natural colors, from a white to russet, to a charcoal and to black, and on and on in an array of browns and grays. Lovely colors!
Alpacas in the US are domesticated animals from the camel family that originated in the Andes Mountains in southern Peru, Bolivia, and Chile. They are smaller than llamas and, in the US, raised for their fiber. The alpaca fiber is similar to sheep’s, although it has no lanolin. Some of the fiber is exquisitely soft. Some can be coarser depending on the age of the animal and the area from which the fiber is shorn.
In the barn, we met the females with their young babies, known as “cria”. It was so relaxing to see them standing or lying on the floor of the barn, quietly chewing, and looking around. Owner Scott Elmore showed us how the fleece. It is thick, plush, and deep. Surprisingly to my sister and me, the colors of the fleece of the offspring were sometimes significantly different from the mother’s hue.
The warmth of an item made of alpaca fleece is 3 times as warm as sheep wool. Scott and Linda Elmore, the owners of the farm have made wonderful items from their Alpacas. “We shear them once a year to harvest the fiber. It produces incredible items like socks, scarves, roving natural colored yarns, mittens, hats, gloves, and toys”.
I bought some thick rug yarn in a natural creamy white color and a luscious charcoal color. The rug yarn, made from the coarse fiber, had a good amount of the roughness you need in rug hooking.
Some roughness to the fiber helps hold the loops together. I learned how essential this is when I made a poor choice and used a wool fabric that had been finished too smoothly. It slipped when the loop was pulled. The tendency to slip is counter-productive to being able to rug hook quickly and to expect the loops to hold.
When I got home with my yarn, I created a pattern on a piece of burlap. It was a simple circular design of lines, blooms, and petals.
With the charcoal-colored yarn, I started with the lines in the pattern.
The yarn had a rustic, gnarly feel. It was just what I wanted. It worked up the same way that my typical strips of wool fabric worked. That was satisfying and familiar. I moved to the cream-colored yarn. It also felt familiar and appropriate in my hand and the yarn moved through my fingers to create the loops. There is something not only satisfying, but exhilarating and energizing about using a material or tool that creates a tactile, sensory experience that is pleasing. Like the feel of a pen that has just the right glide, or a garden shovel that is heavy duty and aggressively cuts into the soil.
I changed my mind about halfway through my project. Although I had planned the piece to be exclusively the two colors of yarn I had purchased from Foothills Alpaca Farm, I wondered if the yarn could be combined with my traditional strips of fabric. Would adding this additional component of color and material create a successful look and feel for the project?
Choosing to make the blooms and buds a sky blue, I finished the front of the project with some blue strips from my collection. I was very pleased. There is a harmonious feel with the combination of yarn and fabric.
In my completed design, it is a bit difficult to discern what is a line and what is a bloom. And, that means I probably should have spent more time on my design. I admit I rushed through it not knowing what to expect from this yarn.
Bottom line, I loved the yarn I purchased from Foothills Alpaca Farm. It is a pleasure to use in a rug hooking project. It combines well with wool strips. The natural colors suit my rustic, natural sensibilities. I smile as I think of the calm, sweet alpaca curiously watching me as I met them in their barn.
You too can meet the alpaca who created the fleece used in the yarn. It feels very collaborative to work with them on this little project. I will be going back to get more yarn. Or, you can order yarn from Foothills Alpaca Farms online.
I encourage you to check them out, and if you are in the neighborhood, stop by and visit the Foothills Alpaca Farm
Scott and Linda Elmore,
Backus, MN 56435