Written by Amanda Fisk & Photographed by Paige Green
Developing High-Quality Fibers from Alpaca Fleece
Signe Ostby, the owner of Valhalla Yarns and Valhalla Farms, began knitting as a child. After many years of perfecting her personal knitting skills, she began searching for a high-quality yarn perfect for knit projects. She wanted a yarn that was a pleasure to work with, something that felt good in the hands of the knitter, and it was this search that convinced Signe to begin an intensive breeding program involving her herds of Huacaya alpaca and Cormo sheep.
She first began importing Huacaya alpacas from Peru in 1996 with the idea that they would graze and help her maintain seven acres of land. At the same time, Signe was aware of the potential for the fiber from the alpaca to be spun and used to create a soft yarn. Although it wasn’t exactly what she had in mind for knitting, she knew it would be a good start. To improve fiber quality, she decided to begin her own breeding program, which meant beginning with the best foundation females available. She then matched them with award-winning sires from across the United States. She wanted to develop a high-quality fiber from alpaca fleece that create exceptional knitting yarns. Her goal was and still is to breed alpaca to produce a fleece with the fineness of cashmere and the crimp of merino. Most of the fleece has a micron count of less than 20, which is designated as “royal,” indicating nearly the same as fineness as cashmere. “Crimp” means zigzags in the fiber, which gives alpaca, wool, or any animal fiber greater elasticity. The elasticity helps to create a garment that will maintain its shape and wear well.
As her alpaca explorations began, so did Signe’s breeding program for her flock of Cormo sheep. Valhalla yarn spun from this flock of Cormo fleece is incredibly soft, with a micron count of 19 or less. In the world of fiber, Merino and Cormo are two breeds that set the standards for crimps per inch, a measurement of how much the fiber zigzags along one inch. Signe works to achieve a low micron count in the alpaca and Cormo fleece because the lower the number, the softer the fiber feels to the touch. Drawing on her experience as a knitter, she has worked with both fibers independently and she also combines the two into very rich, soft, high-quality yarns. The two fibers are blended and spun together by cottage industry mills, and when knit, the yarn has incredible stitch definition and produces a beautiful product.
Valhalla yarns embrace the natural color of the fleece from the alpaca and Cormo sheep. To extend beyond the neutral hues, Signe is considering exploring natural dyes to add colors to the yarn, but does not want work with chemical dyes out of concern that they may compromise the fine quality of the yarn.
An Alpaca Breeding Program that Stands Out Among the Rest
Valhalla Farms is home to 50 Huacaya alpacas and 40 Cormo sheep. The fiber produced undergoes an Expected Progeny Difference (EPD) test every year to verify the documentation of the fleeces. Definitely an aid for Signe’s breeding program, these tests help to project which traits are found within the progeny of each fleece tested, what traits are present and which animals to continue breeding to intensify certain characteristics. EPD tests are calculated for ten traits, nine fleece traits plus birth weight. This tool helps Signe make breeding choices which help her to achieve the desired qualities of fleece, which in turn enhances the quality of the yarn she produces.
The incredibly soft yarns produced at Valhalla Farms are the product of the 25-year breeding program focused on the finest Huacaya fleece, the dedicated breeding program for the Cormo flock, and the resulting extraordinary crimp and low micron count. After years of development, the fine fibers give a luscious softness and springy elasticity to each strand of yarn.
Signe is very proud to show the exceptional crimp in the Cormo sheep fleece and the extraordinarily unusual crimp found in her alpaca fleece. She feels she has been very successful in creating a very high-quality product, achieved through her diligent breeding program.
The Valhalla yarn shop boasts of these exceptional fibers with skeins named after delectable treats like “Ambrosia,” “Marshmallow Cream,” Whipped Cream,” “Dark Caramel,” and “Cappuccino Froth,” among other. The menu of yarns reflects the seasoned experience for high-quality fiber, paired with an artful eye and dedicated effort to produce the best of the best for hand knitters to enjoy!
Find Valhalla Yarns online, browse their menu of yarns in the online shop, and visit them on Facebook to learn more. Learn more about Fibershed’s Producer Program, a membership-based network of farmers, ranchers, designers, sewers, weavers, knitters, felters, spinners, mill owners and natural dyers living and working within 51 counties in the North and Central regions of California.
Read more about incredible alpaca farms here.