COLUMBIA — Three Columbia women had something in common: They owned alpacas, an animal native to the mountains of South America.
But what brought them together was a felting machine that creates fabric from alpaca fleece.
The three alpaca herd owners — Mary Licklider, Linda Coats and Diane Peckham — and textile artist Carol Brown pooled their money to buy a FeltLOOM, a machine to turn their alpaca fleece into products.
Later, they founded Heartfelt LLC, an enterprise that produces and sells rugs, winter insoles, wall hangings, holiday ornaments and e-reader covers.
“We have had a serendipitous partnership," Licklider said. "Our team has a wonderful synergy. Everyone contributes in a unique and ingenious way."
The company recently completed an order of 2,760 pairs of winter insoles that was contracted by Natural Fiber Producers, an agricultural cooperative.
Once a year, the fleece of their alpacas is shorn and sent to Zeilinger Wool Co. in Frankenmuth, Mich., for processing into fiber. The FeltLOOM turns the alpaca fiber into a high-quality fabric called felt.
“It is a wonderful tool that improved the quality and quantity of our felt production, giving a lot more creative control," Coats said.
The women sell their products online and at craft shows across Missouri and operate a booth on most Sundays at the North Village Arts District Farmers and Artisans Market. They also plan to set up a booth at Artists on the Green events.
Since the time of the Incan empire, alpaca fleece has been highly valued in South America.
"Alpaca fiber is lighter and warmer than wool, stronger than cashmere and possibly an alternative for people with wool allergies," Licklider said.
Since making their way into the U.S. in the 1980s, alpacas have become increasingly common. This year, 223,087 alpacas were registered in the U.S., according to records from Alpaca Registry Inc. In 1986, there were 608.
Alpacas have also gained popularity as pets, and in recent years the animals have been used as therapy participants.
"Diane Peckham and her husband were amongst the first people to raise an alpaca herd in mid-Missouri," Licklider said. They and other alpaca herd owners founded the Midwest Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association in 1999, is known for its alpaca educational programs.
Raising alpacas has been a rewarding experience, but it has also come with challenges, Licklider said.
“While raising alpacas is believed to be simple, the alpaca livestock enterprise is relatively young with no established protocols," Licklider said. "Livestock owners often rely upon one another to resolve challenges."
The challenges of raising alpaca and creating their own products caused the four women to collaborate.
In 2010, when Coats found out about the FeltLOOM, the women went to Kentucky to get trained to operate the tool.
For a cottage industry or a small enterprise to be profitable, Licklider said, it is important to be vertically integrated — to control all steps of production, from creating raw material to marketing the finished products.
“It is incredibly satisfying when former customers tell me how wonderful it is to have a fuzzy warm coat underneath your feet on a cold day,” Licklider said.
Brown, who has a degree in textiles, finds designing and making alpaca felt products creatively rewarding. She finds alpaca felt a versatile textile to work with.
“When I am at the studio working with alpaca felt, it seems like the clock stops," said Brown, the only member of the team who does not raise alpacas. "I enjoy getting immersed in the creative processes."
Licklider, who also works as a grant writer at MU, said she enjoys having alpacas as pets.
"It is a joy to come home to these really funny and loving animals at the end of a long workday," she said.
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