COLUMBIA — To some, paying $20 for a pair of socks may seem extravagant. But if the socks are made from alpaca wool, they're likely to be worth it.
"Some people come in and say 'Twenty dollars for socks?' But then they buy some and come back and ask if we have any more," said Mary Licklider, an alpaca breeder and partner in Alpacas & Artisans, a downtown Columbia store open for the holiday season.
What: Alpacas and Artisans Holiday Store
Where: Downtown Columbia in Alley A, located between 9th and 10th streets, one block south of Broadway
When: Open from Nov. 16 through Jan. 2
Weekdays 3 p.m. to 7 p.m
Saturday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Sunday 12 p.m. to 4 p.m.
"They might just be the warmest socks known to man," she said.
In addition to socks, items for purchase at the store range from $3 ornaments to $300 comforters filled with alpaca fleece. Scarves, rugs, hats, gloves, sweaters and even jewelry fill the shop, which is snugly tucked into an alley between Ninth and Tenth streets just south of Broadway.
This is the second year the shop has opened for the holidays. Five local alpaca farms provided the fleece for the products sold at the store. About eight partners run the store, and all of the breeders are artisans as well as farm owners.
The store opened last year after a few of the breeders got together and decided to establish a location to sell alpaca items over the holidays.
"We were pretty successful last year considering we had no advertising," said Ann Mayes, who owns one of the local alpaca farms that contributes to the inventory. "This year we're trying to get the word out," she said.
According to the Midwest Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association, Missouri has 49 alpaca farms. The average farm has about 15 alpacas, Licklider said.
The animals are typically sheared once a year, before the hot summer months.
"You can shear one animal about every seven minutes," she said.
Fleece from one alpaca will fill one to two big garbage bags.
"You can get anywhere from four to 10 pounds of fleece from each animal depending on their size," said Diane Peckham, another breeder.
Once the alpacas are sheared, their fleece is graded according to fineness and length. The hay is picked from it to prepare it to be carded, a process that aligns the fibers to make them parallel.
Then the carded fleece is ready to be spun into yarn, which can then be knitted, woven or crocheted.
Raising alpacas is a fairly recent industry. The animals were first imported to the United States in 1984, according to the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association Web site.
"The national herd is about 150,000, which is small compared to the millions in South America," Licklider said.
The industry is growing because the animals are so easy to care for. "Alpacas are really low-maintenance animals, and they're very calm," Licklider said.
Alpaca fiber is valued for many reasons. It holds dye better than wool and is softer, stronger and warmer than wool, according to the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association. It does not have to be cleaned with the harsh chemicals needed to treat wool before it can be used.
"Alpacas are bred for their fiber. You'll always have a product you can do something with," Peckham said.
The Alpacas & Artisans holiday store will be open until Jan. 2 and is located in Alley A between Ninth and Tenth streets one block south of Broadway.
"We're so proud of it," Mayes said. "Just to get our fiber out there and let people see what we can do with it."
"We do have people saying 'I hope you're going to be here next year,'" Peckham said.