Alpacas and Art at Waldron Grove

I cannot decide whether to say Susan Waldron is an artist who farms or a farmer who arts.  Susan and her husband Ron own Waldron Grove Alpacas.  They were kind enough to have me over to learn more about alpacas and the art Susan creates from their wool.  The Waldrons met their first alpacas eight or nine years ago when Ron’s daughter expressed an interest in them.  They attended a show, met some nice folks, some good-natured animals, and discovered their future as small farm owners. 

When I arrived, I was greeted by Susan and a very cute and energetic little dog called Oliver Twist, who did not jump on me even though I could tell he wanted to.  There is also a barn cat named Cocoa.  I have never seen another cat the color of a Hershey bar.  I could see the alpacas in their paddocks from my parking spot next to the well kept farmhouse.  Notice the photo of Sunshine (the handsome stud) above.  I was itching to get out there for a meet and greet with those alpacas, but wanted to learn more about the whole operation first. 

Susan invited me into her studio.  It is in the attic and there are skylights and windows on either side of the sloped ceiling.  Light pours in and enhances the color of yarns sorted by hue on wire shelving.  There are two large work tables and neatly stacked tubs of supplies, works in progress, jars of dye, paint brushes, and wool.  When I arrived, Susan was hand dying wool in jewel-tones.  Yum.  You may not fully appreciate this art until you feel it.   Suri Alpacas have very silky, lustrous dreadlocks.  The texture is hard to describe, but the wool is what you might imagine angel wings to feel like.  Or cotton candy without the stickiness.

I asked about the whole process; how the wool gets from an alpaca to art.  Susan explained that the animals are shorn mid-May, in the perfect moment between the last freeze and the summer heat.  The Waldrons own 35 alpacas right now and they hire someone to come in and do the shearing.  Fellow alpaca farmers bring their animals over to combine resources and 45 animals take most of a day to shear.  (Apparently it takes a contortionist and a lot of muscle to get the job done.)  Susan then goes through all of the wool and picks out the leaves, dung, burrs, and anything else that can attach itself to an alpaca during the winter months.  Once that is done, she sets up big plastic tubs of hot soapy water, clear water, soapy water, clear water, and washes all that wool.  An alpaca is not a huge animal, but imagine washing the long, dreadlocked fur from about 700 Persian cats.  It sounds like a back breaking job, but to hear Susan describe it one gets the feeling it is a labor of love and very much a part of her art. 

When the wool is clean, it is laid out to dry before being sent out to be carded or spun.  Susan does some hand spinning herself and said the process is so labor intensive that she would never get to the art without the help of a mill to prepare the wool for dying.   The photograph to the left shows the tools used to hand-card wool.  (Try doing that to 700 cats worth of wool!)  Alpaca wool is deliciously soft!  It is warmer than sheep’s wool from what I read.  It is washable, and does not contain the allergins found in other types of animal fur so a majority of folks are able to wear it.  

I would like to roll around in it, but that’s just me.

Anyway, the wool is gone from the farm for quite a while, which gives Susan time to hold her Open House in June, travel to art shows, and keep up the farm over the summer months.  When the clean, spun wool comes back in the fall, the dying begins.  Did I mention how SOFT it is?  The dyed wool hangs on racks in the garage, skeins of color ranging from soft pastels to deep burgundy and blue.  The texture in the fiber art is really magnificent. 

Susan and Ron take the month of December to spend time with family (nine kids between them) bake cookies, and enjoy grandchildren.  In January, it’s back to the studio for a couple of months of intense fiber art creation.  Susan does felting and makes jackets, tunics, scarves, vests, and tapestries from the wool of her alpacas.  She teaches classes in her studio and likes to have four students per class if you’re interested in a new skill.  Her work is beautiful and unique.  This Foxglove tapestry was created over the winter.  This is about 3 feet wide by 5 feet tall and it is all hand felted of dyed alpaca yarn!  It’s sumptuous!

If you happen to be in the Fox Valley west of Chicago, Illinois, drop by the Open House this year on June 11th and 12th to meet other alpaca farmers and artists. (And a certain Mental Farmer.)

There will be a new retail shop on the premises (open on Tuesdays only, for now) this spring.  Stop by and check out the yarn, the color, the art and the beauties themselves.  If you’re lucky, you may get a genuine Suri Alpaca kiss!  I got one and I highly recommend it.  It’s not every day you can go back to the office and brag about being kissed by an Alpaca Stud.  (Or any stud, for that matter.)  Their kisses are super soft just like their wool.  

 The alpacas are positively charming.  They are calm, sweet natured, obviously well cared for at Waldron Alpaca Grove.  Their gigantic, dark, liquid eyes are framed by eyelashes so thick they make Liza Minelli’s appear seriously lame and spidery.  I met three boys up close: Sable (who kissed me more than once), Sunshine, and Rainbow.  Sable is, well, sable… like a mink.  Sunshine is super studly because he has really big wool to pass on through breeding.  And Rainbow is young and cute with a mix of light cream to dark rust.  The females were in their own pen and I waved to them from a distance due to mud and the fact that I needed to walk back through that pretty house.  There was some posturing and gentle shoving among the females while we watched them.  Apparently Auntie Alpaca will dole out discipline to nieces and nephews as needed.  

Did you know that Alpacas have been domesticated for 5,000 years?   They live 20-25 years.  They hail from the high plateaus of South America.  They are related to camels and llamas, so yes, may spit.  As a rule, they won’t spit at humans.  Susan said they have not spit AT her in her 8 years of raising them, but she has been caught in the crossfire between animals on occasion.  Suffice it to say it is not pretty spit and will make you run for the shower, pronto.  It’s a mix of saliva, stomach acids, and grass.  This is not stuff you wipe off your forehead with your sleeve to keep on working.  Nosireeee.  

I found out via Wikipedia (insert disclaimer here) that:

  • They have a 3-chambered stomach, so chew cud much like a cow.  This allows for maximum extraction of nutrients from grass on the semi-barren high plateau.
  • They don’t like to be touched a whole lot, especially in their midsections.  (I can identify with that.)  They do like to kiss your face, but keep your hands to yourself and avoid rapid movement that may spook them.
  • They are too small to be pack animals, but they are favored for meat in their native lands of Peru, Bolivia, northern Ecuador, and Chile.  (Way too cute to consume, in my humble opinion.)
  • There is a cross bred version of a llama and alpaca, called huarizo,which has straight, thick wool.

I read about breeding, but I am going to be discreet (Ladies do not kiss an alpaca and tell.) and let you read up on that subject on your own.  Some of these sweetie-pies are for sale. I got the feeling Ron doesn’t like to give his babies up, but one must keep the herd size proportionate to the land.  There will only be one baby this breeding season since the herd is large.  I have every intention of visiting that baby!  With alpaca eyes and silky wool, it must be like a cross between E.T. and a lamb.  It may even fit into my purse…  Stop by for a kiss if you have an hour on a pretty day.  You won’t regret it.

(Check out the link to Susan’s art-site in the list of links on the right.)

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3 Comments on “Alpacas and Art at Waldron Grove”

  1. Jennifer Richardson Says:

    Love this….love those sweet wooly beasts
    and the beautiful lives their people
    have built!
    I’m gonna vote for artists who farm.
    Because their lives ARE their art.
    Bravo to those bravehearts.
    And to you for seeing and singing about it:)
    -Jennifer

    Like

    Reply

  2. Kelly Says:

    Mary,

    Thanks so much for sharing this beautiful story. How wonderful to learn about Alpacas, meet the owners of Waldron Grove and peak into their world for a bit. Saving my pennies for a beautiful shawl for sure…

    Like

    Reply

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