Kelly Friedlen believes every home should have three alpacas in its backyard.
She’s so adamant that, in the two days we’ve known each other, she’s said it three times. The last time she’s moved to repeat the sentence, we’re about to enter a fenced-in lot next to the two-acre pasture where she keeps her sheep, horses, ponies, and alpacas of various colors, who bear names like Holly, Miranda, Stormy, Noir, and Tina.
Having never met an alpaca before, I’m surprised to hear them called by such…domestic…names. But when Friedlen opens the gate to introduce me to her “babies,” the alpacas immediately distinguish themselves from other animals.
The sheep stay curled on the ground in fluffy balls by the far fence, and the horses and ponies keep to themselves, grazing here and there in shady spots, but the alpacas respond to the metallic sound of the gate latch by running toward us, stumbling over each other like puppies.
It takes a moment for them to realize it isn’t just “mommy” entering the lot; when they do, the front line stops suddenly, about 25 yards away, causing those in the back to bump them from behind.
“It’s because they don’t know you,” Friedlen says. She reaches a hand toward them and lightly snaps her fingers. “Come here, Miranda. It’s okay. Come on, Holly.”
It’s Holly, a cream-colored fuzz ball, who first ventures forward. Within a minute and a half, we’re surrounded by big-eyed, big-toothed (they only have bottom teeth) wooly creatures with long necks. Friedlen assures me we’re safe just as Holly takes a bite of my notebook paper.
“Oh, look, Holly likes you.” She rubs her hand in the animal’s wool. “I’m telling you, everyone should have three alpaca in the backyard. I don’t care if you live in the city or in the country.”
Friedlen, a pediatric-nurse-turned-shepherdess, is a talker, and when she’s on a roll, it’s hard to get a word in, but when she pauses to pull out a bit of hay hanging from Miranda’s mouth, I ask her to expound on her fondness for this species of domesticated South American camelid.
“Oh, absolutely,” she says. “When I bought my first alpaca, one of the kids [from the alpaca ranch] came to me with a little Ziploc bag full of alpaca poop, and she said, ‘Wherever you want them to [defecate], put this little pile of poop, and they will all go there.’ I thought, Oh, my God, these people are crazy. But when I went home, I did just that. And guess what? They still poop in the same spot.”
That was three years ago.
“They will stand in line at the poop pile,” she continues. “And you can put a bale of hay out for alpacas. Anything else I know of will gorge themselves, but the alpaca don’t overeat. They’re just really easy. They’re idiot-proof. They’re so kind and so loving.”
Friedlen loves her sheep, too. The previous day, at one point during our phone conversation, she went out to the pasture and began calling the sheep to round them up and pen them before she left the house. “Come here, Violet! Rocket! Now!” she’d shouted. And then, to me, she’d laughed and said, “They look like Fabio, running across the yard with their hair flowing in the wind.”
We pass the big alpaca-poop pile while heading toward the far fence where the sheep lounge. Holly remains at my side, nudging me every few moments, but it’s Tina, the knock-kneed ten-month-old alpaca who has stolen my heart.
Friedlen holds out a hand and calls the sheep by name: Louise, Rocket, Ella, and so on. Kate stands up heavily and ambles over. Her legs are skinny, and she looks like she might topple over from the weight of her wool. They all do. It’s six months’ worth of growth. The shearer will be here at the end of the month.
Although Friedlen won’t disclose exactly how many animals she has, she explains that the majority of her sheep are Bluefaced Leicester, Wensleydale, Lincoln, and Gotland; her alpacas are Huacaya; her goats are Angora.
“Pets with benefits,” she calls them.
“This is a spinning flock,” she says, meaning that she raises the animals for their wool. “From Ramona to Norco, you can assemble an absolutely top-notch spinning flock, including sheep, goats, and alpaca that have originated from all over the world. That’s important for people to know. Put a star by that.”
You have to choose
In 2012, Friedlen joined seven other women to compete in the International Back to Back Wool Challenge, a competition in which teams of eight race to shear a sheep, spin the wool, and knit a sweater — in one sitting. They called themselves the San Diego County Spinners, and Friedlen was the designated shearer. As the only U.S. team to compete, they came in 10th out of 11, with a total time of 11 hours, 39 minutes, and 15 seconds. The winning team, out of Netherlands/Germany, did it in 6 hours, 3 minutes, and 28 seconds. The record of 4 hours, 51 minutes, and 14 seconds, set in 2004, belongs to a team out of Australia.
“That team was together for ten years,” Beryl Warnes, Friedlen’s teammate and designated right-sleeve knitter, tells me of the record-setters. “They actually bred the sheep so that the wool would spin faster.”
We’re standing in Julian Weaving Works, Warnes’s studio and store on Highway 78, in Santa Ysabel. The shelves are piled with spools and skeins of yarn in every color, some machine-made, some handmade. Shawls, scarves, and rugs hang on racks around the room’s edges, and two six-foot-tall stand-up looms take up half the 600 square feet of floor space. Friedlen, an amateur weaver, apprenticed here in 2011, and according to Warnes, she never left. She makes the 15-mile trek up from Ramona once a week, helping dress looms, weave scarves, or wind bobbin — whatever Warnes needs.
“The shearer starts shearing the sheep,” Warnes continues, “and he hands the wool to one of the spinners, and then to another spinner. [The competition] starts off with about six of the eight women spinning.”
For more, read author Elizabeth Salaam's Backstory