Arts & Life
Canstar Community News
Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/2/2015 (2051 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
MANITOU -- As everyone is starting to find out, socks have become the latest consumer rip-off.
Like modern windshield wipers, many socks manufactured today don't last a year before they wear out. Needing to buy socks every year increases sales.
That's part of the reason some people will drive more than 150 kilometres and lay down $40 for a pair of Angie Baloun's socks. Her products are made from the fleece from her alpacas. Alpaca fleece is purported to be six times stronger and six times warmer than wool.
"I can't keep up with the demand for my socks," Baloun said in an interview at her restored farmhouse, built in 1896, that was in husband Dale's family.
When she sets up at festivals, some people stick up their noses at her price tag. "You have people who look at the price and say that's insane. Then you have people who have worn alpaca socks and say they want two pairs because they can't be without them."
Alpaca fleece wicks away moisture and doesn't absorb odour, dirt or body oil, said Baloun. So you can get by with just a single pair. "You really don't know what synthetic fibre is until you've worn natural fibres," she said.
Baloun is one of about 30 alpaca ranchers in Manitoba. Her herd of 28 alpacas is about an average size, she said.
Alpacas are one of the oldest domestic livestock in the world. There are no wild alpacas. The animals are a cross between vicunas and guanaco, two camelids, bred 6,000 years ago by the Incas in South America. The Incas treasured alpacas for their soft, luxurious coats.
Alpacas look like lamas but are much smaller, from 130 to 175 pounds, and are not packing animals. In fact, people transport them in the back of minivans. They're clean, quiet, intelligent and disease-resistant, and are typically raised by people with small acreages, such as the Balouns' 80 acres. They also use a communal dung pile, which is pretty convenient.
Curious, too, is the high-pitched humming sound they make. It's different for every occasion. "They have a happy hum, an anxious hum. One of the older ones has an 'I'm going to get food' hum. They have a 'stranger in the barn' hum."
The one problem is alpacas are almost defenceless. They practically have a heart attack if a dog chases them. In fact, pet dogs are the No. 1 cause of death of alpacas, Baloun said. Alpacas could never survive in the wild.
"They're shy. They're extremely gentle and curious. Llamas are aggressive but alpaca are not," Baloun said. They are also a social animal and require another alpaca for companionship.
The other caveat is they're so darn cute you want to wrap your arms around one, like a stuffed animal at the Red River Ex, but they don't like being petted. They have very strict boundaries. People have to restrain from running their fingers through the soft coat.
"I know a woman who takes her alpacas for walks with a halter. Just don't be kissing and hugging them," Baloun said.
Baloun has the fleece milled in Ontario, and sells the yarn. She and a business partner also make socks, caps, mitts, scarves, sweaters and insoles. Having purchased a $20 pair of alpaca insoles from Baloun, I can vouch for them. They're like heated car seats for your feet.
They also make rugs and pet beds. "I had a couple who couldn't get their dog off their bed. They got an alpaca bed for him, and he doesn't go on their bed anymore."
Alpaca fibre is often promoted for people who can't wear sheep wool. Alpaca fleece isn't itchy at all because it doesn't contain lanolin oil. "If you stick your hand in sheep fleece, it comes out oily," Baloun said.
She shears her herd each spring and it's like the start of the weekend for the alpacas. They're so happy to be shedding their thick, hot coats. She breeds and sells alpacas and has won numerous show ribbons. A top breeding alpaca can sell for $5,000 to $6,000.
Her website, balounalpacas.com, is homemade, and it's very plain. She plans to update it. Currently, it's more for people wanting to breed alpacas. It doesn't display her products, but she can be contacted at the email on her website. She keeps a little store off Highway 3, near Manitou, that's open by appointment.
Baloun is able to turn a profit but the greatest return has been collaborating with her four children in the business. "They learn so much responsibility. Christmas Day? You still go out and do chores. Not feeling good today? Well, the animals still have to be fed."
Updated on Tuesday, February 17, 2015 at 7:19 AM CST: Adds photo
The Winnipeg Free Press invites you to share your opinion on this story in a letter to the editor. A selection of letters to the editor are published daily.
Letters must include the writer’s full name, address, and a daytime phone number. Letters are edited for length and clarity.