“Girls, come inside,” Carol De Witt calls out, while clapping her hands.
The six female alpacas come into the barn from their outdoor penned area, eager to eat carrots De Witt feeds them by hand.
“Oh, they’re acting like such little piggies,” she said with a laugh as Lady Godiva gobbles a baby carrot from De Witt’s fingers.
A bit more than a decade ago, De Witt and her husband, Richard De Witt, purchased four alpacas to raise at their home in the town of Portland.
Richard De Witt said when the pair first purchased the alpacas, there was a demand for breeding the animals and the fiber created from their coats.
“We didn’t think the breeding was going to work out for us so we basically scaled back and decided to stick with the fiber,” he said.
“And they’re pets basically,” Carol De Witt added.
“When they’re young they’re so cute,” she said. “They go running down the field … They bounce when they’re little. The older ones do it too. They’re friendly, they hum (to communicate).”
Each of the mammals has a distinct personality – the boys, Indy and Bogey, can often be heard arguing with one another in the barn and Greta Garbo can put up a fuss when it comes to the monthly toenail clipping.
“But they all seem to like little kids,” De Witt said. “When kids come out here they (the alpacas) all come out to meet them.”
It was her impending retirement from WPS that prompted the couple to buy alpacas. In 2009 she knew retirement was only two years away.
“We needed something to keep me busy here and we saw the alpaca show was coming to Madison and we decided to go and check it out,” she said. “That’s where we got started.”
While at The Great Midwest Alpaca Festival hosted at the Alliant Energy Center in Madison, De Witt met Donna and Clayton Smith, the owners of Irish Ridge Alpacas in Cottage Grove. They helped introduce her into the world of raising the animals. The Portland couple chose to purchase their first alpacas from the Smiths.
Carol De Witt said the original four alpacas were selected based on the color of their fur, commonly known as fiber.
After purchasing the mammals, the De Witts needed to prepare their property by building a barn and fencing in a portion of their acreage.
“It was a project in the making,” Richard De Witt said.
While the couple stepped away from the decision to breed the animals, Carol De Witt still wanted to use the soft, luscious fiber for craft projects.
Each spring, the alpacas are sheared and the fiber is shipped to a mill where it is “skirted,” sorted, washed, dried, fluffed through a picker, and put through a carder. The material, which has some sheep wool mixed into it, is then returned to De Witt.
To process the fiber into yarn, she uses three foot-pedal operated double-treadle spinning wheels at her home.
De Witt uses the yarn to crochet mittens, scarves, booties and hats; she is in the process of learning to knit.
Additionally, some of the fiber is turned into felt for needle felting projects.
For the last several years, the De Witts have created a seasonal shop where people can come to their Portland home to buy Carol De Witt’s hand-crafted items.
While the couple is deciding what their alpacas’ futures will entail (they are considering selling the animals this spring), the De Witts have enjoyed having them.
“They’ve been so wonderful,” Carol De Witt said. “They have just been a great addition to our lives.”