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Molly Gardner – Alpaca farmer
Molly Gardner and her Suri alpaca. Photo: Johnny Houston

Molly Gardner – Alpaca farmer

At New Zealand Fashion Week in 2010 alpaca breeders invested $15,000 in a showing of Starfish label garments by designer Laurie Foon.

That outlay ensured models loped down the catwalk wearing lustrous garments made from Suri alpaca fibre, marking the beginning of a long term marketing strategy for the silky fleece from a rare breed that makes up just 10% of the alpaca population worldwide.

Wool still dominates fibre sales in New Zealand but possum and mohair offer higher returns for those prepared to step outside the mainstream and Suri alpaca has the potential to end up in the same category.

When Molly Gardner, her sister Phillipa and mother Steph began breeding alpacas nine years ago at their Thistledown Stud at Le Bons Bay on Banks Peninsula they opted for Suri rather than the much more common Huacaya alpaca and they were among the investors who worked with Foon.

That fashion week appearance led to calls from designers in the United States, Sweden, Germany and even Peru (the home of the alpaca) wanting to use the Suri fabric and Suri breeders have received a $25,000 sustainable farming grant to investigate the feasibility of commercially producing it in NZ.

Molly, a highly regarded alpaca judge, says the animals have a very distinctive coat which doesn’t need blending with other fibres such as wool to create a lustrous fabric that drapes well.

“Suri look like big Rastas with dreadlocks. When they move, the fleece moves like a curtain of silk.”

“The fibre is suitable for a wide range of fabric from soft pashmina style through to suiting so it’s very versatile. We need to aim really high. We won’t be making socks.”

The 70 metres of trial Suri cloth sewn into Starfish designer garments was produced at the AgResearch textile facility at Lincoln.

“The guy who finished our fabric for us had been there for more than 40 years. He leaned over and said ‘you girls could blow cashmere out of the water with this’.”

Heartening though that was Molly has no illusions about the hard work ahead.

Suri’s sustainability is a definite plus. The wide, natural colour range of Suri fibre means it doesn’t need to be dyed and, unlike wool, the fibre doesn’t contain lanolin so it can go through organic scours that don’t use a lot of chemicals.

With only 1800 Suri in NZ – compared with 23,000 Huacaya – sourcing sufficient high quality fibre is difficult and Molly says breeding better animals is essential. A bale of fine micron Suri fibre had to be imported from Australia to provide the 300kg of fibre needed for the latest trial.

The easy to farm animals are clipped with electric sheers while lying on the ground. Molly says most breeders are clipping 1-2kg from the saddle area of each alpaca but some males with dense coats yield 5-6kg.

“They do need roughage so they eat a lot of meadow hay. The biggest problem for NZ animals is obesity.”

Thistledown has 100 Suri, but Molly says good breeding animals sell for $10,000 each so breeders tend to be lifestyle block owners with small herds.

Finding NZ companies prepared to scour, spin and weave the fibre is also a challenge.

Molly says there are no fine micron scours left in the country and they will have to use a carpet wool scour where there is a risk of contamination from coarse sheep wool.

Although keen to manufacture the fabric here, Molly concedes it is possible the only commercially viable option will be to have it made in Malaysia or Italy.

But whatever happens, she is confident there is a future for the fabric in high end markets such as Italy where very limited supplies of fabric made from the Vicuna, a rare alpaca relative, sell for US$4000 a metre.

– Amanda Cropp, Young Country Magazine

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