If you happen to see a group of curious, multi-coloured alpacas out for a walk in Invergowrie’s beautiful countryside, you may just have observed some of Altitude Farm’s star residents! Altitude Farm may just be one of New England’s best kept secrets …
Rianna Feenstra explains how her alpacas and sheep not only produce the most beautiful fleece, but how this fleece is then worked by hand and turned into beautiful products that everyone can purchase and enjoy …
What’s the history behind Altitude Farm – and what’s your role there?
I founded Altitude Farm in November of 2016, when I was in Year 11 in high school. My family was originally from Newcastle before moving to Armidale, and we had bought a few alpacas and sheep as pets when we made the move in 2016 to Armidale.
When shearing time came around, we had no clue what to do with the fleece our animals had produced, so I began experimenting and started making wet felted cushions; next came dryer balls and felted soap.
As I got better, I found I had too many products for just my family and friends to use, so I decided to open up an Etsy store to sell what I was making – and it seemed to take off. Since then I have expanded and now also sell alpaca and sheep fleece from our animals, as well as local farms, and have increased my handmade product options too.
So really, Altitude Farm was started as a way for me to make the products I loved, without filling my house to the brim with too many cushions and such that we just couldn’t use.
What types/roughly how many animals do you look after on the farm?
We have six alpacas of varying colour, as well as two Romney cross Corriedale sheep, one being black and the other moorit (which is a brown colour). I use the fleece from our alpacas and sheep to make products, as well as selling some of their fleece.
We also have some chickens, turkeys and ducks that my younger brother breeds and sells on Facebook as Altitude Poultry and Eggs, so our farm is turning into a bit of a family business.
What are some of the most enjoyable (or conversely, challenging!) things about raising alpacas?
One of the most enjoyable things about alpacas would just be watching them out in the paddock, as each of them has such different and quirky personalities.
One of my favourite things to do with the alpacas is take them for walks around our area; they love getting out and exploring and although they walk incredibly slowly, it is so funny to see their reactions to new things in their environment.
Why do you think alpaca fleece is so popular and versatile?
There are a number of reasons why alpaca fleece is so popular and versatile; these include variety of colour (for hand crafters), softness, it’s hypoallergenic, the warmth (it’s warmer than sheep fleece).
And the advantage for hand spinners is that it doesn’t need to be cleaned prior to spinning, like a sheep fleece does.
How often do you shear your alpacas and sheep … and what’s involved with turning the fleece into usable yarn?
Our alpacas get sheared once a year around November, and our sheep are sheared twice a year – due to their breed growing long wool quickly.
In terms of turning the fleece into usable yarn, an alpaca fleece can be spun basically straight off the alpaca, but we card ours and then spin; the dirt gets washed out when setting the yarn.
For our sheep, because of the lanolin, the fleece needs to be carefully washed to remove the lanolin, whilst maintaining lock structure. We then card or use handcombs to prepare the fibre for spinning.
As our sheep are long wool breeds, spinning their fleece is a dream. As can be seen from our products though, we tend to felt our fibre more than spin, and both our alpacas and sheep fleece felt wonderfully.
You have an online shop, where you sell the products you make on the farm. What are some of the most popular items you sell?
Yes, I have an online store on Etsy called Altitude Farm Store. The three most popular items are felted cushions, raw fleece and dryer balls.
Our felted cushions are one of our most popular items, especially the fluffy cushions, as they give off the look of being a skin; however, they only use the fleece of the animal. In fact, many people put in custom orders for cushions.
Our alpaca felted dryer balls also seem to be quite a hit – particularly in the United States – as they are a reusable alternative to dryer sheets. The felted dryer balls help with static and drying time when using a dryer machine, and essential oils can also be added to them, which will infuse the scent into your clothes when drying.
Raw fleece as well is one of our main sellers, both domestically and internationally, as it makes it easier for individual crafters to obtain fleece in varying quantities, colours, microns etc. which they can’t get from manufactured products.
Of particular importance in all of this providence; people are really wanting to know exactly where their items come from, and in our case we can even name and give photos of the animals they came from.
How important is it to you to ensure your farm operates sustainably, now and into the future?
Sustainability is very important, as it is one of the factors that customers want from a small seller and farm like mine. It helps us distinguish ourselves from larger alternatives and is a point of difference.
Where can we buy your products, or find out more about what you do?
Our products can be bought on Etsy through our store Altitude Farm Store, and we also have Instagram @altitudefarmlife and
Facebook @altitudefarm where I share photos of the animals, products, products in work and sales that the store is having.
Interview: Jo Robinson.