Beth Brown has some unusual pets: alpacas - 18 of them at the moment. They go by names like Almond Joy, Bailey and Loxie and are watched over by a 130-pound Great Pyrenees dog just a stones throw behind her home at Odelia Farms in rural Troy.
But even though Brown considers them her furry friends, these alpacas have an important business purpose. They supply the wool used in the classic, luxurious apparel and accessory pieces she designs under her Odelia label.
Though a lifelong animal-lover, she was attracted to the many outstanding qualities of alpaca wool first - before she learned the many lovable qualities of the animals themselves.
She and husband Rodney got their first two alpacas in 2005, and she debuted her signature alpaca wear the following year. She has slowly been increasing both her alpaca herd and her clothing offerings ever since.
Brown, the associate director of Independence Center, a psych rehab facility in St. Louis Central West End, said she plans to retire from that long-held post in about a year and then devote herself full-time to her alpacas and her design business.
The 411 on alpacasHerd animals, alpacas originated in the South American countries of Chile, Peru and Bolivia, and were first brought to the United States in the 1980s, according to Brown.
Baby alpacas, called crias, are about 15 pounds at birth, and an adult male weighs from 150 to 200 pounds, with females being slightly smaller. Available in a multitude of colors, they yield three to five pounds of wool when sheared once a year. There are two main alpaca types: huacaya, by far the most common, and suri. The alpacas at Odelia Farms are all the relatively rare suri type, known for the luster and fineness of its fiber, which creates a yarn with exceptional draping qualities. Garments made from alpaca wool are also prized for their soft texture, water resistance and wicking properties.
Like a catHowever, aside from their wonderful wool, alpacas have delightful personalities, she stressed.
They have a nice way of being. They are gentle with each other, and Ive seen the other moms actually help the first-time mothers with their crias.
And they can be finicky, curious and smart - each one has a unique personality. The more Im with them, the more Im convinced that they are very much like cats.
Birth of a businessAfter the couple bought Odelia Farms in 1999, Brown began thinking about starting a business there that she could focus on in retirement.
Growing up in a home where knitting and sewing was second-nature, she doesnt recall ever not doing both. And, in the previous year or two, a friend had let her spin some alpaca fiber, an experience that left her enamored with the wool.
Remembering all this, her husband, suggested she consider alpacas.
We were discussing possible business ventures, and he said, What about those alpacas you like so much? That was the start.
Open to the publicBrown enjoys sharing her alpacas with others and hosts two public events at the farm each year: the Annual Shearing in late May and Alpaca Farms Day in late September.
At the shearing, guests can watch as all but newborn members of the herd lose their heavy winter coats - and even volunteer to assist with the process.
Then, on Alpaca Farm Day in the fall, visitors can learn more about the alpacas and watch spinning and dry felting demonstrations as well as check out Browns new alpaca wear designs. Go online to www.odeliafarms.com for the latest event information.
Labor of loveThese days Brown cant say which she prefers: caring for her alpacas or creating special garments and accessories from their wool.
Shes made scarves, sweaters, jackets, tunics, tops, dresses, skirts and more.
Each year she comes up with a new set of designs and often customizes these further for special orders from customers.
A lot of people get into alpacas from the animal husbandry side of it. But me, I saw the yarn and loved it. Its a great fit. Theres not a part of this I dont like.