Cut the Fluff

Meet three women raising sheep, rabbits, and alpacas for fiber on the Big Island.

Text by Anna Harmon | Images by Megan Spelman and John Hook

The winding drive from Hilo to Honoka‘a rivals that of the Road to Hāna on Maui but with fewer bends and more awe-inspiring bridge passes as the elevation climbs and the ocean remains within view. On the outskirts of the destination, a sleepy town that was home to bustling plantation life until the ’90s, farmhouses look out over the tans and greens of pastureland onto the Pacific. The area is often shrouded in mist. Hawai‘i Island is one of only two isles in the archipelago that welcome snow, and its soaring peaks remind visitors that the world can, indeed, be a cold place.

It makes sense, then, that Honoka‘a is a literal breeding ground for herds of fiber livestock in the islands: sheep, alpacas, even rabbits. These animals have been important to keeping humans warm for millennia, but their time in Hawai‘i has been relatively short. Traditionally, clothes here were cut of kapa cloth, created by beating wauke (paper mulberry) into a fabric-like sheet; ti leaf was used to make cloaks to protect from rain; feathers plucked from native birds were sourced for the capes of royalty. Largely, clothing made from animal fibers would have been overdressing.

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But where temperatures get brisk on Hawai‘i Island, animals raised for their wool thrive. When Jan Dean, the owner of Maluhia Farm, moved to Honoka‘a in 1976 with her husband and first of two sons, she saw sheep grazing on pastureland. Later, she worked at a ranch that had its own flock. Hoping to maintain the pasture at her family’s new property, she decided to get sheep of her own 12 years ago. At the time, Dean was taking a fiber arts class in Waimea, and the teacher recommended the Romney breed since they were developed in the wet weather of the English marshlands, hence they would be able to withstand the frequent rains in Honoka‘a. She brought the starters for her flock, eight ewes and two rams, from California.

Today, she has a docile herd of 24 sheep that grazed the 11 acres surrounding her farmhouse. Seated on its patio, Dean gazes out at her pasture. “People and sheep have had a symbiotic relationship for at least 10,000 years,” she says. “Contrary to popular belief, sheep are very intelligent animals. The flocking instinct is what can get them into trouble.”

While Dean enjoys her sheep, she is no-nonsense about the fact that they are dual purpose, meaning that they are good for both fiber and meat; she sells lamb from her own herd and other producers she knows well alongside her yarn at the Waimea Town Market. Nearby ranches and residents have bought sheep from her, though she keeps those that produce the best fiber and offspring, and gives them names. “They’re not pets, though there are a few of them that would like to be,” she says. “One of my biggest pleasures, just on a daily basis, is the disposition of this breed. They’re easy to be around.”

Hefty in size, Romney sheep grow dense locks of wool. Once a year, before springtime lambing season, Dean has them shorn, leaving them with short summer cuts. In 2016, she harvested roughly 120 pounds of fiber. Once rinsed clean, Romney fiber has a warm luster. Dean sends this fluff to a small mill in California, which spins it into yarn. She dyes most of these skeins in a shed turned dyehouse in her backyard. The sheen of the wool brightens the colors she creates, which range from demure greys to brazen blues.

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Yarn is only as good as the fiber used to make it, and this quality depends on the animals from which the fiber comes. Like Dean, Cathy Perrins proprietor of Hillside Farms and Hula Bunny Yarn, strives to improve genetics with each generation by choosing carefully which animals they breed, and which they bring into the fold. But when Perrins set out to raise a fiber animal herd in 2009, she did not settle on sheep, but rather, rabbits—specifically, English angoras, one of the breeds that produce angora fiber. She bought two from someone on O‘ahu, then brought in six more from Arkansas. Her home herd now numbers around 20; she aspires to grow her business by recruiting others in the islands to adopt a bunny, and then, when the time comes, trim the fluff and send it to her for reimbursement.

A draftsperson by trade who moved to Hawai‘i from Detroit in the ’70s, Perrins was leasing 3 acres for farming in Pau‘uilo when she got her first rabbit, but has since relocated with her husband to a fixer-upper house on a quiet street off Honoka‘a’s main drag. Here, she set about building hutches for the animals. They eat ti leaf, mulberry, and trimmings gifted from farms or friends. Before shearing, which takes place every three months, the rabbits look like living clouds, and feel like ones, too—after their trims, the bunnies look comically small, relieved of between four and six ounces of silky soft fiber. Twice a year, Perrins ships this to a small mill in Pennsylvania, where it is blended with merino and silk to create a fluffy, stretchy, shiny finger-weight yarn. All of her yarn, and the knitted goods she makes with it, are sold at Vera’s Treasures in downtown Honoka‘a.

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Her rabbits are shades of white, black, and brown, and all are named: There’s Sunny, Petunia, City Slicker, Maile. Perrins takes pride in the critters, even taking one to a rabbit show. “Joe’s got great shoulders, good confirmation, plus all this white fur, so he could be a competitive show bunny,” she says. “He went when he was eight or nine weeks old. The judge said, ‘If I could give points for attitude, he would win.’”

Despite the wisecracks that reference the species’ prolific tendencies, she has found it to be a struggle to produce baby rabbits, due to warm summer temperatures, which can cause the bucks to be temporarily sterile. Sometimes, things don’t go as expected, like Perrin’s low reproduction rates, or Dean’s struggle with wool rot in the coats of a few of her lambs. Jenny Brundage, a relief veterinarian and owner of the island’s oldest existing alpaca farm, Ahualoa Alpacas, located on 5 acres in Honoka‘a, found that some of her new mainland stock were inexplicably getting sick and dying. The creatures, which look like a mix between teddy bears and miniature camels, are native to the Andes Mountains in South America. Known for their silky, durable fiber and ecofriendly characteristics, they come with hefty price tags due to their potential for luxury textiles.

As a good veterinarian does, Brundage doggedly pursued the cause of these health issues, even bringing them the attention of a top camelid expert on the mainland. Soon, she discovered the alpacas were deficient in copper, a mineral which they typically get through grazing. “We had lots of people telling us, ‘No that’s impossible,’ so it took us a while to figure out,” she says. “Copper is an essential nutrient for them; we were off by a factor of 10.” Now, she provides them with a surplus of copper, and her herd of 13 is faring well. While the cause of the copper deficiency is undetermined, she believes it’s connected to volcanic eruptions.

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Brundage holds a bachelor’s degree in genetics from Ohio State University, which she applies in her aim to create the ideal foundation stock for those on the island interested in starting or improving herds, focusing on alpacas of smaller stature that produce an ideal fiber that doesn’t deteriorate with age. She collaborates with several nearby farms, including Kalani Alpacas of Hawaii, which focuses on producing alpaca fiber in a range of greys. Brundage clearly enjoys the company of her herd: “They’re very quiet, zen creatures,” she says. ”They’re kind of like cats.” In fact, she used to show cats, and it was at a show in San Diego County that she encountered her first alpaca. She began researching it as a potential tenant for her new property, and bought her starter animals in 2007. “They’re my size, they look me in the eyes, they don’t test gates or ruin fences,” she says, ticking off the pros of raising alpacas. She also takes pride in their lineage, which dates back to a pre-Incan era. “It’s very different from what other fiber producers are doing because it’s not European. I call them Peruvian sheep,” she says.

Every year, Brundage brings in an experienced team from the mainland to shear her alpacas, after which she sends the fiber to a mini mill in New York. After dyeing some of the returned yarn, she hands off most of it to Dean, who sells the skeins at her Hawaiian Homegrown Wool Co. market booth.

In the islands, where few have cause to wear winter apparel, there is still a strong demand for such fluffy goods. And as the alpacas, rabbits, and sheep thrive in the foothills of Maunakea, their dense coats keep them warm in the mountainside mist.

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