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Alpaca fiber mill customers receive their livestock back
By ANN ALLEN
Indiana Correspondent

ATWOOD, Ind. — Until Michael Rheinheimer and his wife, Lisa Gilman, opened Indiana’s first mill dedicated to processing alpaca fiber, Hoosier alpaca breeders had two choices - they could take their fiber to a co-operative specializing in wool or ship it to Chile or Peru.

“The problem with the latter,” Gilman explained, “was that you got back either credit or a finished product and it wasn’t your own fiber. I bought a sweater but later learned it was really llama. Our customers get their own animals back in the form of yarn or finished products.”

Their Frontier Fibers LLC is the only complete mill devoted exclusively to the Camelid family, which includes alpacas, llamas, vicunas and guanacos, and the only mill in Indiana doing all the spinning and yarn making on-site.

“We feel having a one-stop shop is important,” Gilman said. “People want to know how soon they can get their fiber back.”

Neither Rheinheimer nor Gilman had any farming background when they married three years ago and moved to a 15-acre Kosciusko County farm where they worked together to build a log home. He was, and still is, vice president of manufacturing for an area company. She was executive director of the Elkhart Housing Partnership and owned her own development company.

As a wedding present, Rheinheimer gave his bride an alpaca.

“I’m the only woman I know who can say her husband gave her livestock as a wedding gift,” Lisa says with a chuckle.

She cares for their 20 alpacas, shears them and looks after the mill. Until they purchased the mill, she carded and spun their fiber by hand.

“I didn’t know the magnitude of the alpaca business three years ago,” Rheinheimer said. “Back then everyone was getting into alpacas for the fiber, but no one knew anyone doing the processing. That’s why we decided to start our own mill.”

Located in the basement of their log home, which in turn gave their fledgling business its name, Frontier Fiber Mill has been in operation a scant six weeks but already has produced nearly 50,000 yards of alpaca yarn, described as warmer and less abrasive than sheep wool.

“Our main focus is on custom work,” Gilman said. “If we had 100 or more alpacas, we could keep busy for maybe a month. Our goal is to serve as many farmers as possible.”

The couple purchased the complete plant - a washing and recycling system, picker, draw frame, carder, spinner, skein winder, felt maker, steamer, cone winder, separator and ball winder - in December from a Canadian firm that not only installed it but also worked with them until representatives were confident they could work on their own.

Each has developed his or her specialty but can spell the other as needed.

“We’ve been spinning like crazy ever since the company left,” Gilman said. “We refine our skills as we go. The company will come back to teach us unusual things you don’t do every day.”

Gilman keeps a record of the “recipe” she uses for each farm’s fiber. “There are so many variables,” she said, “things that impact the way fiber is spun, such as draft, spindle and bar speed and tension. I want to keep these files so I can repeat what the customer likes. Our goal is to keep our customers happy.”

Frontier Fibers, located at 7135 W. 200 North, Warsaw, Ind., is open for retail yarn sales. The phone number is 574-298-4312; and its e-mail address is Frontierfibers@aol.com

This farm news was published in the February 8, 2006 issue of Farm World.

2/8/2006