Today I'm thrilled to get a chance to talk to Ricky of Silver Sun Alpacas. She is both fiber farmer, fiber dyer and purveyor of all things fibery! (all photos taken from Silver Sun Alpacas)
How did you get started with fiber art?
My true fiber passion started about 25 years ago,but long time before that I always had a pair of needles knitting something for someone. My mom taught me how to knit when I was younger, and still helps when I run into problems. She is 82 years young now and still knitting her heart out! She just loves knitting using the alpaca yarn. About 25 years ago I saw my first silk painting in an art store, and I knew then that I had to know how it was done. From that, the road to a living room full of dyes, paints and bolts of silk was very short. Loved the color mixing, applying it on the silk, making my own scarves, than designing my own skirts from my handpainted silk fabric. The walls of my relatives were full with handpainted silk pictures, since I ran out of space in my own home. After moving to the USA (I'm originally from Israel. My husband and I moved to the US 17 years ago with our 3 little kids.), I had a big pause, raising kids and working, but still knitting scarves and hats.
Which came first: the animals or the knitting or the spinning?
The knitting came first, as I mentioned before. Then alpacas just stole my heart 5 years ago, when I saw my first alpaca, and things were never the same again. When the children grew up and all moved out of the house, I had the urge to take care of something. I looked for something special, not familiar... new, exotic. We visited an alpaca ranch in the area, and when I first saw an alpaca, they captured my heart right away and I felt very comfortable around them. I knew then that that was it. Several months later(after lots of research!) we purchased our herd, which started out with 11 total(we're up to 26 now!). We boarded them at a near by ranch until we found our own place. A year after that we moved to a ranch house with my 11 alpacas, now 24. Once we had all the alpaca fiber from our first shearing, I started to learn how to card and spin on my own.My daughter got my passion for animals, so when she got married and her husband got stationed in a close by Navy station, she came back with her own animals. Although, I know she is back temporarily, we enjoy her company and her help with the animals.
How did the business side of it start? Did you start selling on Etsy or some other way?
Usually, during fall and winter, we open the ranch doors to the public for them to see the alpacas. For most of the visitors it's their first time seeing a "small llama". Visitors were very interested in the yarn and fiber, and were asking for spinning fiber. So I pulled out my dyes, dying books, and purchased a drum carder, and experimented with natural colors, bright colors and carded it to batts. I liked the outcome. Put it in my ranch store, and customers loved it. After that, I decided to teach myself how to spin. So I bought a spinning wheel, and after a few weeks of practicing, I started putting up my handspun yarns on Etsy.
Did you set out from the beginning of it to have a business?
In the beginning, I planned to use the fiber for my personal use. But, as time passed, visitors and customers were asking for spinning fiber and handspun yarn. They were looking for handmade items, instead of commercialized things they would find at craft stores. I started slowly to introduce my colored fibers to the public and had a great feedback, especially with return customers.
Did you quit a dayjob to do this full-time? If so, how did you make that decision?
Me and husband had a retail/wholesale store in the city. So, when we moved to the ranch we closed the retail store, and continued with the wholesale department.
It was not an easy decision. But, I had an empty nest syndrome, and we were looking to change our environment. We are both animal lovers and knew that alpacas are for us. We researched extensively, visited several ranches and learned the whole process of raising these beautiful creatures.
Now that you are full-time, what’s a normal working day like?
Early in the morning, I go to the pasture with my coffee mug, filling the water buckets, make sure there is enough hay for everyone. I check on all the pregnant girls and their crias (alpaca baby). If there is a girl that is very close to give birth, I usually stay in the pasture, monitoring progress.
I like to sit with the girls early in the morning watch the babies playing.
During the day, I dye my fiber in pots or paint them individually, and put them up to dry. I card and blend previously dyed fiber, and wash raw fiber in between. I go visit my herd several times during the day. Early in the evening we clean the pastures and pens, add fresh hay, spread small trays with feed, minerals and supplements. That's also the ideal time for us to do some breeding, as needed.
After we finish taking care of all the animals in the evening, I sit in front of the TV - thats my favorite wheel time. I collect my personal fiber and spin it, and by the end of the night, I have several skeins of yarn spun up and ready for knitting!
How is this different than before?
Back when I used to work in a closed office, I didn't have the time to be creative. I had other responsibilities to my employees and to my customers. And by the time I got home, I had the responsibilities for my household - my kids, my husband, my home. No real time for myself, to do the things I want to do.
Now, I do what I want with my time. I still do the things I need to do, but now I have the time to be creative!
Is it easier or harder to be “creative” in your full-time fiber artist schedule?
To create I need inspiration. Most of my inspired ideas come to me from my surroundings, or when I cook, or in nature. A beautiful flower, a lovely sunset or even a very tasty ice cream. I see the colors, and try to implement it to the fiber. It is easier to be creative for me, since most of my day I'm outside with my animals, or inside my studio trying to bring my creations to life.
Can you explain the process from fiber on-the-hoof to finished yarn?
Alpacas are shorn once a year, usually in the spring time. Each alpaca produces 3 - 9 lb. of fiber.
After shearing, I take each blanket (top of the animal, which is considered the best part) and skirt it - clean out all the dirt, hay pieces, etc.
Some spinners like to spin alpaca fiber without washing, I like to wash it first.
I wash it 2-3 lb. at a time, and spread it outside to air dry, or to the dyeing room for added color if it needs it.
Now, it's ready to be carded and blended with my drum carder. Before this batt goes to the public, I spin it for a trial. Make sure it deserve it's name. I usually make a fiber by an inspired subject, sometimes after it's done, it looks different from what it intended to be, so, it gets a different name.
What do you wish you’d planned for before you went full-time?
I wish I would have done it earlier in life!
What has surprised and delighted you about being a fiber artist?
Always surprised to see people's reaction. They are amazed to see their first alpaca, first carding and their first spinning wheel lesson. I am delighted to teach and educate them about the fiber and what it takes to process it.
Anything else you want to add?
My husband always tells me that not very many people love, or even like, their job but that he takes great joy in seeing me love mine!