Beneath the hazy flicker of industrial fluorescent lighting, alpaca farmer Andrew MacArthur likes to spin a yarn or two.
In fact, if you’ve got the raw materials, he’ll pretty much spin all the yarn you want — as much as 3,500 pounds per year.
While the soft-spoken Connecticut native certainly isn’t the only alpaca farmer in Elbert County, MacArthur said his SpringToo Alpaca Farm does own one of only three fiber mills in the state.
“There are roughly 92 alpaca farms here, just within a 20-mile radius,” said MacArthur. “So our customer base is primarily built on processing fiber for other farms, and that’s about 95 percent of our business right now, with clients not only from within the state, but also from Alaska, Hawaii and the Pacific Northwest, as well as the East Coast.”
Located in Kiowa, SpringToo Fibers specializes in small-quantity, high-quality custom milling of artisan yarn and fiber products. From freshly shorn fleece delivered directly to the mill, MacArthur and his two employees oversee every step of processing from initial cleaning to the final spinning and skeining.
A self-identified fleece addict who readily admits he can’t knit or crochet himself, MacArthur happened into the fiber business through alpaca farming, purchasing his first heard of seven animals approximately four years ago.
“They are the most gentle, calming animals,” he said. “And I just fell in love with them, and their fleece.”
Originally, MacArthur was only interested in breeding and showing alpacas, and was off to good start in the show ring, taking his first championship at his very first show, the Great Western Alpaca Show, held annually at the National Western Complex in Denver.
So in February 2010, he took the next step to grow his business and purchased his own mill, SpringToo Fibers.
“Fleece was a whole new thing to me,” he chucked. “I knew absolutely nothing about it when I started, except I liked it.”
Spending time with the previous mill owner, MacArthur absorbed as much as he could about the operation, the processing and the equipment, only to realize the milling business is far more art than it is science.
“One of the toughest lessons I learned was that even minute changes in processing could often make the difference between a good product and a great product,” he said. “You’re dealing with an imperfect fleece to begin with, and that makes it even more difficult to get that nice even yarn everyone wants.”
MacArthur admits he’s made his fair share of mistakes.
“The first two years have really been about learning how to spin the fiber to make the yarn I want,” he said. “So this year I’m now able to focus more on a wider variety of yarns I want to make.”
Rosie DeLullo, a retired Cherry Creek School District administrator and avid knitter, and one of MacArthur’s only two employees, said she just loves her job.
“This is a little piece of heaven right here in Elbert County,” said DeLullo, who confessed she sometimes fantasizes about what kinds of luxurious things she could knit from the client fibers she processes. “It’s a dirty job, but it’s simply the best job I’ve had in years, and I look forward to being here, and having my hands on all this beautiful fiber all day long.”
Unlike larger commercial operations that produce several tons of product per year, MacArthur said he likes to keep the process very personal and respectful of both the animal and the client.
He said larger mills often won’t deal with clients who have small batches to process, simply because their equipment is so large and complex that processing a single fleece would be cost-prohibitive.
Because there are no strict standards in the yarn industry, MacArthur suggested that smaller mills can offer exceptional quality control, often producing an artisan product closer to what the client desires and able to guarantee the fleece you deliver for milling is the same fleece you get back in yarn, not a hybrid blend.
And it’s more than just alpaca fiber. SpringToo Fibers also mills llama, bison, cashmere, wool, yak and even pet hair.
Yes, pet hair.
“Pet fiber is kind of new process that I’ve stared doing,” said MacArthur. “I do quite a bit of poodle, undercoat of Siberian huskies, Newfoundlands and Bernese mountain dogs, but no cat hair yet.”
Conscientious about the environment, and a big fan of small business, MacArthur knows and accepts the fact he’s never going to see great wealth.
“I don’t make a killing doing this,” he sighed. “And I’m never gonna be a millionaire running this fiber mill, but I love what I’m doing. Not a lot people in corporate America can say that on a daily basis.”
In addition to expanding product lines this year, MacArthur hopes to complete a revamp of his website to include online ordering.
“Well, that, and I’m going to learn to knit,” he said.