Coco Business Inspiration : Cape Alpaca and Quenti Mill

The story behind Cape Alpaca and their garments is not ordinary. After 30 years in the food import business and once their family was  grown, they wanted something a little different – a bit more authentic, a little more in touch with the earth. They found a 300 year old derelict farmhouse on a lovely piece of land, nestled between vineyards and mountains, just an hour’s drive from Cape Town and it was here that their business was born. 

Here, we went behind the brand to find out more..

Tell us more about the journey…
We imported a small herd of alpaca from Chile, drawn to their gentle beauty and luxurious fleece and filled with ideas and excitement about all the beautiful things we would make. And so began a wonderful journey of learning – how to care for them, how to breed for volumes of long super-fine fibre and how to make yarn. Our old mill machinery has come from all over Europe, carefully reconditioned and set just right for our extremely low micron fibres. Our girls give us beautiful cria in spring and autumn and for fun we name each animal. We shear in early spring and with great delight and anticipation, grade and batch the fibre whilst imagining the finished shades of yarn and planning what to make.

So, our garments are not ordinary. Our alpaca are gently nurtured and we know who has contributed to each batch of yarn. We sort and wash and card and spin right here on the farm. Much of the knitting and finishing is done right here too. Great care and attention is devoted to each and every garment from planning the shades and design, to wrapping in tissue before tying the bow on the box. We hope our garments give many years of comfort and warmth and perhaps a little extra pleasure knowing a little about its journey.

Tell us a bit about your journey to getting the brand to where it is today?
People talk about a learning curve when doing something new. For us it has been a learning cliff. I had loads of experience using yarn – knitting and crochet but absolutely none making yarn. But, how difficult can it be? Absolutely incredibly difficult actually. After the fact we discovered that people study for years and are apprenticed for years and generally specialize in just one aspect of the process. I think we were enormously naïve when we embarked on this adventure. We had no idea just how technically challenging it is to convert a substantial pile of dirty raw alpaca fleece into good quality yarn. Just a tiny bit too much twist created a complete disaster when the yarn is knitted, or the incorrect dilution of anti-static agent causes untold havoc on the machines. Learning how the machines work, when to tweak this or fiddle with that makes all the difference to the final product. I think we have many miles to go before we can say that we really know what we are doing, but our range and brand is honest and authentic. Our alpaca live a fabulous life and every step of the process is done with great care and passion and pride.

What has been your highlight since launching the brand?
Our first foray into exhibiting our little range at Design Indaba 2014. On reflection we were entirely unprepared but people were so wowed by what we were doing and the whole “story” seemed to captivate our audience. It was terribly exhilarating and satisfying and gave us a much more refined vision of what we needed to do in terms of the range as well as how to market our brand.

Explain the process with your yarn?
I think we were no different than most people. We had no idea just how much it takes to make a simple garment. For us the process starts with the alpaca. Peaceful, unstressed and well-nourished alpaca grow better fibre. Genetics has a huge impact so understanding how this works and breeding accordingly is really critical. Every single fleece is laboratory tested so we know the micron of the fibre. We batch accordingly since coarse micron fibre will feel itchy against the skin. Once batched, we wash and air dry before blending and conditioning. From there the fibre is carded before combing and levelling. The next step is quite magical. A thickish sliver of combed fibre runs into the drafting zone on the spinning machine and from the other side an impossible fine thread emerges. And so our yarn is born, almost. Still a couple of stages to go – plying, steaming to set the twist and then either knitting or weaving. There is loads of technical “stuff” – draft ratios and sliver weights and perfect carding technique …….the list seems endless.

Describe the brand in 3 words?
Simple, stylish, luxury.

Alpaca is the most gorgeous fibre and our hope is that our garments simplicity allow this beauty expression. The beautiful natural colours, delicate luster and soft, light warmth with incredible drape make it hugely difficult not to love.

Tell us what a typical day in your life looks like?
Hmmm. Is there such a thing? Our days follow a bit of a rhythm but are quite bound by the weather and seasons. We breed and have birthing season in spring and autumn and is a wonderful time to be with the alpaca. I just love seeing each newborn cria learn to walk on their impossibly long “spaghetti” legs and try over and over until they figure out how to operate the udder. Sometimes we have tour groups here and the visitors’ fascination and awe at our herd, mill and studio is an absolute treat. We shear early in September and that is a big time consuming job but so exciting too. That’s when we really start planning our shades and blends and the ideas come together about what we want to make with our harvest. Mill wise there is always something on the go. There are so many steps and stages to making pure alpaca yarn which makes it extremely time consuming.

We offer personalised tours which are a lot of fun – for us and the visitors. Our alpaca are used to people so they interact with the visitors and the young cria are inquisitive so they capture hearts. People are fascinated by the alpaca and particularly the mill. It is always wonderful to see the awe and wonder as they see all the processes.

Our Farm

Winter is coming, what one item would you recommend from your range to brighten up your life?
All our products are soft and squishy and just beg to be cuddled into so it’s tricky to choose one thing. Probably a poncho which just drapes in all the right places and is so easy to wear.

Before you launched the brand, what did you do on the work front?
I trained as a nurse and Stephen as a chartered accountant, although we have never worked in either discipline other than during our training. We started our first business in 1983, importing and distributing Asian food into the shipping, supermarket and restaurant sectors. We grew the business over almost 30 years and sold once our children had “flown the nest”. We took a gap year after the sale and moved to the farm where we started exploring what we fancied doing next.

It can be hard to juggle life and business, what do you do to switch off from work?
We live on the farm and our mill and studio is right here too. We mostly do what we want to do when we want to do it, which is a marvelous and satisfying way to spend ones days. I go and sit with the alpaca if I am frustrated or lacking in enthusiasm and Stephen will vanish into a book for a couple of hours.

Who/what inspires you?
We live in a spectacular part of the world with huge mountains, sweeping vineyards and fruit orchards surrounding our farm. Through my eyes it is a constantly changing quilt of colours depending on the season and weather, endlessly inspirational. We were both fortunate to have grown up financially challenged and learned a solid work ethic from our parents. Both our fathers ventured into their own businesses quite late in life and that also added a layer to our belief system of what is possible. I think we are inspired by many things on many levels.

Are there any sources you go for support with running your business?
Mostly each other. There is very little support for us locally but we have a dear friend in the UK who has many years of mill experience so he is our “go to guy” when we are stumped. Oh and don’t forget our friend Google.

What are your plans for the brand in 2016?
We are showing in the UK for the first time at Pure London. Exciting and daunting but we are hopeful that we will “be discovered” and our range recognized for its pure, simple quality and authenticity.

Did you always know that one day you would have your own business?
We have worked for ourselves almost all our adult lives. I think we are both unemployable since we only know how to dance to our own respective drummers and are probably not too good at being told what to do.

If there’s one entrepreneur activity you could get better at, what would it be?
Communication. How to effectively and honestly convey the magic and marvel of our range and what we do.

For people aspiring to run their own company, what advice would you give?
Feel the fear and do it anyway. We humans are a peculiar species. We so often get caught up in the stories we tell ourselves that over time we believe the narrative and that is so limiting. Yes, you need skills and knowledge, but if you are willing to put your shoulder to the wheel and you love what you do, there is almost nothing that is impossible. I often think it would be so useful to be able to remember our experience of the world in the first year of life. How diligently and stoically we learned to crawl and stand and then walk. Imagine who we could all be if we were driven, just like a toddler, not bothered about how many times we toppled or what people thought of our efforts or how many more times we would have to try before we finally managed to figure it out.

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