Farm to fiber: From alpaca fiber to creation

  • Karen Borgstein cleans the alpacas' paddocks after feeding them and letting them out into the field on her farm in Medfield, Massachusetts. Photo by Marissa Wu / BU News Service.

By Marissa Wu
BU News Service 

Karen Borgstein spreads a pile of alpaca fiber on a table and begins to separate out the debris. She will usually send it to be processed at a local fiber pool, receiving back yarn, hats, gloves and other products that she sells from her farm and at markets.

A new program is cutting out the middleman and brining farm yarn like Borgstein’s to crafters in greater Boston. New England Farm to Fiber (NEFTF), which opened in the Boston Public Market in 2016, brings local fiber products, including Borgstein’s, to the city.

“It’s becoming more and more popular because of the trend that people want to know where their food and their clothes are coming from,” Borgstein said. “It’s a work in progress, which is quite nice, being a fiber farm, you know?”

Genevieve Day, the owner of New England Farm to Fiber, opened in 2016 at the market as a vertical selling wall. Day, who previously owned JP Knit and Stitch in Jamaica Plain, said she fell into the opportunity a bit by chance.

“I walked around the market and I kind of started to see a few non-food vendors and I thought: ‘You know what? What this market needs is farmed fiber,” Day said. A friend passed along her idea to the CEO of the market at the time and the day after Thanksgiving 2016, NEFTF opened a vertical selling wall. To obtain enough wool, Day did a road trip through New England. She built out a permanent stall, which opened in 2017.

Day said she fell in love with the idea and began to learn more about the different qualities of wool and yarns. As Day spoke with farmers, they told her they would sell fiber products at festivals and maybe at one or two farmers markets. Now, she stocks goods from local farms like Pan Terra, Crooked Fence, Romney Ridge and Borgstein Alpaca.

“None of them really had ever had a pipeline into any shops—maybe one local yarn shop or something like that,” Day said. “This was very different and some of them were very skeptical [about the store’s concept], I would say.”

Every year around May, the alpacas are sheared and their fiber sent off to the New England Alpaca Fiber Pool (NEAFP) for processing. NEAFP sends back finished products, which Borgstein sells at markets and events.

Borgstein is just one of over 4,500 farmers sending fiber to NEAFP for processing. According to Chris Riley, alpaca farmer and owner of NEAFP, the animal, specifically the Suri alpaca, was introduced to the United States in the ‘90s, making them a more recent fiber source, as opposed to sheep, which first came in 1492 with Christopher Columbus. Riding on the trend of “slow” food,” the “slow fashion” movement is gaining momentum with its focus on sustainability, fairness, awareness and responsibility in how clothing is made and purchased. On a niche scale, that means the specialty fiber market has been growing, too, as people have placed emphasis on local goods. Riley said it is a question of how farmers can get their raw fiber to the market.

“We need to make that supply chain for small local farms more efficient because right now it’s very expensive,” Riley said.

Despite this, NEAFP has seen a 30 percent growth in gross revenue over the last three years. The company sells fiber farmers finished products at a “fiber price” lower than wholesale, because they provide the fiber. Farmers can then sell these products — including yarn, hats, gloves, scarves and blankets — in farm stores, markets and events.

“The whole idea of selling local-grown fibers to the local communities, in pop-up markets and in community festivals is something,” Riley said. “Fiber farmers tend to do very well in those spaces.”

Meanwhile, on the farm, the alpacas look at Karen Borgstein expectantly, as she opens the paddock. It’s mid-morning and they’re hungry. They scurry over as she drops grain into their bowls.

I walked away this morning and they looked at me and said: ‘Huh? Haven’t you forgotten something?’,” Borgstein said while laughing. “We haven’t been fed yet.”

A full-time alpaca farmer, Borgstein cares for a herd of 17 in Medfield, Massachusetts, which started at only three in 2011.

There’s been slow and steady growth in the alpaca national herd,” Riley said. “More and more people are getting involved in raising alpacas just because they want to be involved in the specialty fiber market, or in the breed market.”

On a national scale, the organic fiber and textile industry grew nearly 10 percent in the United States between 2015 and 2016, according to the Organic Trade Association (OTA), a trade group for organic agriculture and products. Additionally, the sector is the largest non-food organic category. In a world with over one billion sheep, just over 10 million are certified organic.

The organic label is also cumbersome to obtain and does not add much value to the fiber. Rather, it is the fiber’s quality that matters most, according to Riley.

Borgstein did not bother with obtaining a certification. She said other farmers she knew did not, either. Being deemed organic also means a lot of paperwork and in her opinion was not worth the trouble.

I try to be as natural as possible with the animals,” Borgstein said. “We’re pretty green already and they’re almost organic by themselves… We just let them roam and we don’t clean the fiber.”

While “slow fashion” has taken off, the specialty fiber market has been slower to respond, according to Julie Butler, who has farmed alpacas for nine years in Connecticut.

“I love it [the farmed fiber movement],” Butler said. “I just wish it would move a little faster. There are not enough alpacas in the United States or alpaca owners in the United States who are putting their fiber to use to have a real commercial market.”

Butler conceded that the industry, despite its size, was growing, noting a significant push within the last three years. Lacking unity, fiber farmers receive the most support from regional affiliate organizations, like the New England branch of the National Alpaca Owners Association, when it comes to promotion. According to Butler, raising public awareness also falls heavily on the farmer.

NEFTF partners with both established farms and younger fiber farmers to bring local wool and fiber products to the Market. It is a hyper-local manifestation of what some medium-sized yarn companies are doing, like Quince and Co., based in Maine; and Brooklyn Tweed, which relocated to Portland. The companies source wool locally in the United States and mill the wool in New England.

“We’re kind of doing a very unique thing that I think we can do because New England has such a vibrant, small family farming culture,” Day said. “I only see it as growing. It’s been a really fun thing for us to be involved in.”

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