Steamboat Springs Local alpaca breeder Larry Block has to answer one question asked by acquaintances around town time and time again: "So, how are your llamas doing?"
Though closely related, Block said, alpacas are smaller than llamas and their fiber is much more fine and soft and considered high quality by fashion experts.
After Sunday's Champagne Fiber event at the Depot Art Center, which the Yampa Valley Alpaca Breeders organized to educate the community about alpaca fiber products, about 200 locals will probably never ask that question in the future.
The Yampa Valley Alpaca Breeders consists of local breeders from the San Miguel, Crescent Peak, Never Summer and Noonan ranches who commercially raise the animals.
Block explained it is important for American alpaca breeders to educate their communities about the animals, which is why the event was organized.
Overseas, clothes made from alpaca fibers are considered top shelf, and top fashion houses buy most of the processed fiber there. Americans, however, may own alpaca sweaters, but many don't realize the high quality of the animal's fiber.
The fiber is softer and finer than sheep's wool, as well as llama fleece, making the material perfect for hats, sweaters, gloves and a variety of other products. However, unlike the European market, there is not a major market in the garment industry for American alpaca breeders.
"There isn't a millhouse in the United States that's set up to produce finished goods on a commercial scale," Block said.
Therefore, alpaca fiber is a cottage industry in the United States, mainly selling handmade clothes on a small scale and yarn for personal use. Clothes, as well as yarn, were available at the Champagne Fiber event (local breeders say alpaca fiber is soft and dry, just like Champagne Powder).
Ideally, Block said, he would like to see alpaca fiber take the route of cashmere a fiber made from a particular type of goat that has become a household name in America.
"There is definitely a growing interest," breeder Karen Kosakowski said of the garment market for alpaca.
A national fiber co-op has been organized and it grows every year, she said.
Plus, with a great local showing at the Depot Sunday, more people in Routt County were introduced to the animal and its fiber.
Locally, raising alpacas makes sense, Block said. Five to 10 alpacas can live on one acre of land, making it possible for smaller landowners to raise and breed the animals.
"It's really small-scale agriculture," he explained.
That is why breeding and selling the animals is really what drives the market in the United States, not the fiber the animal produces.
"It's really the people who are moving to the small ranchettes," Block said.
Many are escaping urban life for a rural culture and are interested in being in some sort of agricultural production. Alpacas make sense because they are small, well tempered, relatively easy to take care of and are good with children.
Also the climate in the Yampa Valley is perfect for the animals, Kosakowski said.
In her experience, Kosakowski explained, the animals are most comfortable when it is 10 degrees or cooler.