By Erika Webb
Clifford and Jason were supposed to provide security for Launda Soper's farm. On a mild December afternoon they stood at the fence looking curious, not showing an iota of remorse for their lack of ambition. They get treats anyway.
Ms. Soper and her husband, Tom Soper, trained for a year before they began amassing their herd of 28 alpacas, four of which are boarders. They trimmed toenails and teeth, dressed wounds and fell completely under the spell of the gentle, intelligent creatures. Some might say they've had the wool pulled over their eyes.
But to feel alpaca fleece is to understand worse things could happen.
These members of the camel family are described by the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association as mild-tempered, gregarious animals with an inquisitive nature and a penchant for bringing great delight to their owners.
Considering Ms. Soper had not crocheted since she was a Girl Scout and she now has a seven-foot loom in her living room, it's safe to say she's hooked.
"These are my fur kids," she said as she made her way to the fiber processing area of the 10-acre farm in DeLand, called Willow Hill.
For anyone already thinking alpaca farming and yarn sales might be an easy way out of a cubicle, not so fast.
The hours between shearing and sweaters are many.
Ms. Soper said alpacas are good at math.
"They calculate a distance about two inches past the length of your arm and move there," she said.
In other words, they can be wary.
Asked how that bodes on shearing day, Ms. Soper said harvesting is not a problem.
"It's the happiest day of their life," she said. "They're happy about shearing because then they're cool and comfortable."
She said the first time the alpacas are sheared they may panic but after that they remember the beneficial result and are very cooperative.
The blanket -- from the back of the neck to the tip of the tail and down the sides to the belly -- is removed in one piece.
"It's the best piece. What we're striving for -- the industry as a whole -- is uniform fiber, the same everywhere as the blanket area," Ms. Soper said.
The remaining fleece comes off in separate pieces.
Sorting is the second phase of the process. Yarn quality is determined; the finer fiber is reserved for the higher grades of yarn to be made into more delicate garments, the rest may be used for items requiring durability, like socks.
Hand picking the particles from the fiber is called skirting and Ms. Soper has a special table for that, round with straining wire across the top which she has fashioned to turn as she sits -- sifting sand, hay and other debris from the wool.
Washing is done anywhere from three to 50 times, depending upon how dirty the fiber is. Ms. Soper said it must soak for half an hour each time it's washed. Though some people use washing machines, she said she prefers hand washing for better quality control.
Some wool is then boiled in dye and vinegar to add color. Some is bagged and sold as raw fiber. From bag to spun product takes anywhere from 40 to 80 hours.
Next there is picking. A wooden box with strategically placed nails over which the fiber is dragged is used to fluff the wool, remove any remaining debris and ready it for carding.
Carding is the process of separating wool fibers, using both a small and large wheel, in preparation for spinning it into yarn.
"It's a time-consuming process but so worth it in the end," Ms. Soper said.
Her boutique of end result, housed under a tarp and inside a small shed, is nothing short of lavish.
Sweaters, scarves, gloves, hats, shawls, blankets, socks scans of yarn -- even tiny stuffed-animal alpacas -- beg to be fondled.
"We're one place where you go and we want you to touch everything," Ms. Soper said.
An olive-green blanket is beyond soft, warm and, best of all, doesn't itch.
That's because alpacas do not have lanolin in their wool. Sheep's wool contains lanolin for protection against nature and insects. Alpaca wool is hypoallergenic, water-repellent and difficult to ignite.
The cashmere-like fiber is used for everything from insulation to exquisite heirloom garments.
"Florida alpaca farmers donated alpaca fiber after the oil spill in the Panhandle," Ms. Soper said. "They placed it into pantyhose and floated it in the water and it soaked up the oil."
Not one bit is wasted around the farm, either. Discarded pieces are used for bird-nesting baskets and make an excellent weed block, she said.
She takes her wares to art shows, farmers markets and festivals all over Central Florida, including the DeBary farmers market each weekend at the Gateway Center for the Arts.
Ms. Soper also holds workshops for kids and said today's children share a collective look of amazement upon discovering that clothes and their varied colors are not born at the mall.
Alpacas are terrific producers of material and babies, called crias, and are in all ways tax deductible; even the animals themselves are depreciable, Ms. Soper said. But they are more to her than a commodity.
Especially considering the $1,600 summer-months electric bills. Alpacas require constant cooling via fans and sprinklers.
"Each one is a story unto themselves," Ms. Soper said. "They have their own names, their own personalities. They'll play in the sprinkler all day long but as soon as a raindrop falls from the sky they run for cover."
She said the females are most content when they're pregnant. Currently, there are 11 expectant mothers on the farm. Alpacas have a gestation period of about 11 to 12 months. These happily-pregnant girls are all due next spring.
"Sometimes they'll spit and growl but as soon as they're pregnant they're calm, docile and happy," Ms. Soper said. "We have one boarder who would get behind you and growl in your ear. She was a grumpy, grumpy girl. We successfully bred her and she is the love bug now."
There are two kinds of alpacas -- huacayas and suris. Huacayas are smaller and less muscular than the suris and their fleece grows straight out from their bodies, like a fluffy cloud. Suri fleece grows downward in long spirals.
The Sopers' Prince Arthur of Camelot, a huacaya, is the son of one of the last alpacas to come out of the Peruvian import system. His father, Camelot, lives in Ohio and was chosen to represent the Peruvian herds.
Ms. Soper said Arthur's half-brother sold at auction last year for $9,000. And Arthur took third place in his first show last March.
Al -- last name Paca -- is a suri and a rescue the Sopers obtained through the University of Florida.
"I'm at the top of their sucker list," Ms. Soper said, laughing.
She said the huacayas are more prevalent than the suris because when Spanish conquistadors invaded the alpacas' native Peru in the 16th century, a mass slaughter drove the animals into the Andes. More of the huacayas survived because they were better adapted to the colder temperatures.
Ms. Soper has a friend who likes to sit on the haystacks and listen to the alpacas hum. It combats her daily stress.
Their humming signifies a range of emotions. It can be a sign of separation anxiety between a mother and her weaning cria. But it can also signal the others in the herd that all is well, a message of contentment.
Alpacas have no natural defenses, beyond spitting (which feels more like a sneeze). They only have bottom teeth and a hard palate on the top of their mouths for tearing grass and eating grain.
Ms. Soper said alpacas make a sound like a car alarm when something is amiss, "like a stray cat in the morning."
As for Clifford and Jason, she said they send 98-pound Beverly Rose out to investigate when anything seems out of order.
And as they ever so gently accept the treats they have not earned through safeguarding, a feeling of peace abounds from their very presence.
For information about alpacas, womb rental (yes, really!), agisting -- the alpaca word for boarding -- and more visit alpacasofwillowhill.com.