I’ve learned that animals have an incredible power about them to lift moods. I’ve also learned that they often reflect their owners. Thank goodness for this. The morning I drove to Meadowview to visit Dreamland Alpacas was a rough morning for me. For whatever reason, I had woken up in the worst of moods and now had to navigate the full day ahead. Lucky for me, I had something waiting that turned it around. I got to spend the morning with fuzzy alpacas and 2 individuals who’s passion for them is contagious.
Meet David and Debbie McLeish. They own and operate an alpaca farm about 15 minutes from downtown Abingdon. To say they’re full-service is an understatement. You can purchase items made from the alpaca fiber at their farm store, which is open daily from noon-7pm, or find them at the Abingdon Farmer’s Market. They offer education and outreach for explorers and crafters of all ages in weaving and crocheting to birthing and raising your own alpacas. This family moves non-stop. But I have no doubt about where that energy comes from, because you can see the love and adoration they have for their animals from the moment you meet them.
As we walked out into the field, Toasty and Sweetie took an interest in my camera. Sweetie is a baby alpaca, currently being boarded with the McLeish’s. She circled me roughly 7 times, making sweet little noises. Alpacas are curious beings. Toasty went to Debbie’s side, and we all proceeded to the next field over.
The McLeish’s often allow schools to field trip to their farm to meet and pet animals. For children especially, education and kindness towards animals is of the utmost importance. Animals also have that incredible ability to light up a child’s world. In our society of instant gratification, going back to the source of our clothing and “stuff” helps give it value and meaning. If we all took the time to learn about who made the sweater on our backs, maybe we would treat it with more care.
I fell in love with alpacas that day, and I’ll certainly be going back to visit. And now when I wear my fuzzy socks, I know who to thank. Enjoy the interview and photos below, and check out the smiles on those alpacas!
David: Those she’s made, so they have a business card on them, “Made by Deb”.
Sarah: Do you dye all of them here as well?
Debbie: Anything that is here that has been dyed, I’ve dyed it. I dye skeins or I dye fiber, like all the little baggies over there is fiber that I’ve dyed myself.
Sarah: Where do you do the dyeing?
Debbie: In my kitchen. I have a special crockpot and a special microwave. Once you’ve dyed in it, it has to be specific for dyeing.
David: It’s an acid dye that she uses. So it’s permanent.
Sarah: All these colors are so comforting to look at.
Debbie: So then I dye it red. And when I dye, I always dye 2 skeins at least. And that way, because sometimes I’ve made a hat for somebody that wanted a red hat and I get it to them and they go, oh I really love this, could you make me a scarf to match? So if I haven’t dyed the other one, I won’t get an exact match. And red is so funky. You know, you can get 2 red shirts and they can be not exactly the same shade of red. I’ve just learned from experience, always dye 2 skeins, and then that second skein I kind of keep away from the general public until after I’ve delivered it and give them a week or so.
Sarah: That’s so smart. Are there different kinds of fibers depending on the different kind of alpaca?
Debbie: Yes, 2. This color here, the tan color, is from a Suri alpaca. Suri alpacas look like they have banana curls and it hangs down. Huacaya alpacas, which is the only other breed…which is most of the animals I have here…looks like a teddy bear and their fiber grows out. So when you’re making something that you want to be fluffy, you use Huacaya. If you want something to be drape-y, then you use Suri. They feel different, too.
Sarah: How long have you been here?
Debbie: We moved here in 2002. We moved down here because our youngest daughter wanted to go to Virginia Intermont College. Plus, for years and years David had wanted me to move up to Maine or New Hampshire because of the mountains. And so this was a really good compromise for us because I didn’t wanna be up in the mountains of New Hampshire or Maine with feet of snow, stuck in a cabin way back in the woods. Because that’s what we would have ended up having. This was a perfect solution for me, because by noontime whatever snow we get basically melts. That’s the long and short version.
Sarah: And did you have alpacas up there as well?
Debbie: No. We had horses, or a horse actually, at the time that we moved down. I grew up with horses, so I have some minor experience with livestock, but taking care of them [alpacas] is more like taking care of a dog than it is taking care of cows. It really just kind of fell into place. Don’t you think? I mean, when we bought our first female alpaca I took a neo-natal weekend seminar with 4 vets that taught me all about delivery kind of stuff, because I really feel like people who own pets need to be responsible about them. Or have someone around that can be responsible for them. We have clients that bring their females here about a month before they’re ready to deliver and I’ll board them. In my opinion, that’s just as responsible. If they know that they can’t do deliveries, or don’t have the time to be on their farm…or some of our clients have their animals kept on a piece of property that isn’t where their primary residence is, and the last month that they’re pregnant you really need to keep an eye on them just in case you have a situation.
David: During birthing season, one of us is here 24/7. We schedule everything on when we’re leaving the farm so one of us is here.
Debbie: Most of the time there isn’t a problem.
Sarah: How many do you usually have that are pregnant at the same time, like this past year?
Debbie: I think we just had 4. This has been our slowest year for births. We usually have at least 6 to 8. It kind of really depends. But we do so many things that sometimes it’s a little more confining to be on the farm. We try to plan the births, which you can because they don’t go into heat like dogs and horses. So we plan our birthing season to a relatively short period of time, about 6 weeks from start to finish. Because then we have festivals and fairs and you name it, we’re all over the place. Plus, we also like to have babies for our open house.
Sarah: What’s your favorite part about having alpacas?
Debbie: Definitely the birthing part. That’s my favorite part, well by far.
Sarah: Is it really?
Debbie: Really, if I didn’t have to leave my farm to do all these other things, I could have babies year round. I’d be very happy to do that. I love assisting when I need to, and watching when I don’t. Both parts of it. A lot of times when clients decide they’re going to have babies on their own farm, they always call me and say, oh she’s in labor! What do I do? Get a chair, sit on your hands. That’s my first advice. Then if you have a problem, call me back. Most of the time, unless they have a problem, you shouldn’t be in there because you need to let Mom and baby bond. You need to give Mom the opportunity to do that. You don’t wanna pull a baby that could possibly come out by itself, and most of the time they do.
Sarah: Nature’s process knows what to do.
Debbie: Because it can complicate things. So, that’s really the biggest advice I give to people. Sit on your hands, call me if you have a problem. And most of the time, I’m on the phone for an hour. Ok, I see a nose, I see a nose. Relax. And when you breed an alpaca, they’re pregnant for 11 ½ months. So during that 11 ½ months, I have females that deliver babies on my farm. And I just tell them, I’ll call you when mine goes into labor, you can come over and hang around all day if you want to. Watch how the process goes. And I do that often, often, often for people. So they watch mine, and then they do 1 of 2 things. They either bring their female here, or sometimes I end up at their place.
Sarah: 11 ½ months is quite a bit of time. I’m sorry girls.
Debbie: But you know what? Most of the time, you can’t tell that they’re pregnant. Really, maybe the last 3 months you can see movement, you know. Because their bellies will, like, jump a little bit and there might be a little flutter kick. Belly watching day, I get out there and feel bellies because they’re all exposed now. It’s difficult when they’re at full fleece to really see and feel. I get out there and just start feeling bellies, because I can feel a kick. Or I’ll feel a knee, something.
Sarah: And they must grow so slowly.
Debbie: They do. And most of the time, they’re about 16 to 18 pounds at birth, so that’s not really a lot. Ya know?
Sarah: Is it in the spring then?
Debbie: Yes. We shear the first weekend of May, and breeding season is right after we’re done shearing. It’s more comfortable for the females and males, because it’s hot that time of year. I don’t want them having heat exhaustion from breeding. And in the same token, the following year when they’re getting ready to deliver their babies, I don’t want them to be overheated when they’re in labor. I call it naked, I like them to be naked when they’re breeding and birthing. It’s just easier. So, that’s what we do.
Sarah: Is there something that stands out to you about the Abingdon community? Why the local community here is important to you?
Debbie: Well, it really honestly is important to us. We try to do as much as we can for the local community. Yesterday we had a special needs group from E.B. Stanley come out. We don’t charge for that. They come out, I do a whole presentation. They meet the animals, pet the animals, and we bring everything. We have a couple of sheep, a goat, some free-range chickens, and they pet them all. Then after they’re done, I do a little spiel…because kids nowadays don’t have a clue where their clothing comes from. They think Wal-Mart. So, I show them fibers and I show them knitting and weaving and crocheting and needle felting, depending of course on the age of the kids. If they’re little teeny tiny, all they really care about is petting the animals. It takes a village. I think that. I think it’s important to expose kids to as much information as you can.
Sarah: And you said you have sheep and….
Debbie: Yeah, and chickens. We have 3 chickens and we get enough eggs for myself and our kids. And we started with the goat and the sheep because of the field trips that the kids do. All of them are little, they’re not more than 30, 40 inches. And they’re all very friendly and very pet-able. They’ll eat out of the kids hands and stuff like that. I wanted to have something more to, kind of, expose the kids to. I don’t wanna have a whole petting zoo, but I wanted a little something that kids could see the variety and that they’re friendly.
Sarah: I think that’s so important to bring it back to where things are coming from. Because it is, it’s like where do you get stuff? Walmart! Yeah, but where does Walmart get it? You know, where is this coming from? When you place more importance on things.
Debbie: Because it cycles through. What somebody comes and buys at my store…the majority of what comes in goes out to our community.
David: And stays local.
Debbie: Stays local, exactly. We really do concentrate on trying to do that. And most of the things that are in our store are either things that I’ve made or we contribute fiber to our co-op, and they combine our fiber with other American alpaca and they make things that we order from them. I do have a few things that I get from Peru, only because I can’t make them myself or I can’t get them from the co-op.
Sarah: Where did you learn all the stitching and knitting?
Debbie: I’ve always been artsy and crafty. And when I was a kid, my mom worked full time and we had a babysitter and she taught me how to knit. And I did it for a little while when I was a kid and maybe stopped when I was 10 or so, and then I didn’t do it forever. And when we got alpacas, I got to feel their fiber. I went for one quick, refreshing lesson and 15 minutes into the lesson I was teaching the person on the side of me. Because it’s kind of like riding a bike. And crocheting, I just picked up a book and did it. Weaving, I went to a fiber festival down outside of Asheville, North Carolina…which is the best fiber festival in the universe…they had weaving looms there, so I bought a weaving loom and I bought a book. I opened up the book and I learned how to do it. Really, I’m self-taught in most of the things that I do. Weaving is my favorite part of it. If I only could do one thing, weaving would be what I do. I end up doing a lot more crocheting than I do weaving.
David: The fiber dying, we had somebody come down from Northern Virginia that dyed. She taught a class here, and we had a bunch of clients here and did all that stuff.
Debbie: That’s one of the things that we have done too, in the past, because we are full service. We really do a lot of mentoring, so I get my clients together and I say okay, what do you guys wanna learn this year?
Sarah: Education and outreach.
Debbie: Yeah, pretty much. But it also gives my clients, who have now bought alpacas from me and now have alpaca fiber, something to do with their fiber so that they can be profitable too. I think that that’s what makes us successful. It’s all part of that community thing, and it’s all part of business too.