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The 30,000 pounds of alpaca fiber usually stacked in large bales at the New England Alpaca Fiber Pool in Fall River arrive from farms in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and other states in New England, the mid-Atlantic and the Midwest.
The 10,000-square-foot facility processes about 80,000 pounds of alpaca fiber a year. The fiber is graded, finished, then sent out to be manufactured into gloves, scarves, socks and other items and returned for inspection, warehousing and distribution.
“We do the finishing. The fiber has to be finished in a very specific way,” said Christopher Riley, president of New England Alpaca Fiber Pool. “Alpaca doesn’t finish like other textiles.”
The alpaca industry locally is small and informal, with an estimated dozen breeders in Rhode Island, many of whom hold down other jobs, and others who keep the animals as pets.
New England Alpaca Fiber Pool is the sole alpaca manufacturer in the U.S. that uses only 100 percent American-raised fiber and in its line of 17 items manufactured in specialized processes at several East Coast mills, said Riley.
“There’s an awareness now of ‘made in America’ and buying local and all-natural products and those are very strong indicators for us,” said Riley. “Our growth over the past five years has been 30-40 percent every year and we expect that to continue.”
In addition to raw fiber that’s shipped in, the company makes collections at alpaca shows across the U.S., including upcoming shows in Lebanon, Mo., Essex Junction, Vt., Syracuse, N.Y. and Richmond, Va., according to its website.
The business model is based on fiber credits. The value of the raw fiber goes into a “fiber bank” and the farmer buys finished goods back at a modest price. The best-selling alpaca product, by far, is socks, said Riley.
“For a dozen pairs of socks, for example, a farmer sends 5 pounds of fiber and pays an $82.50 manufacturing fee,” said Riley. “Then the farmer purchases a dozen pairs of socks for about $6.88 a pair, and they retail for about $18 a pair.”
Built into the business model is an expansive distribution network. The Fall River company works with 1,600 farmers, who sell the finished products at farm stores, farmers markets and other outlets across the country.