Aymara herders who tend llamas and alpacas in the remote grassland areas of the Chilean Andean plateau 11,000 ft above sea level, depend on their animals to earn barely enough to survive. Tired of eking out a living in harsh conditions for pitiful pay, Chilean Aymara herders preferred selling their animals to buyers from Australia, North America and Europe, and left their small villages in the highlands in search of better opportunities in the cities. Our country, which lost 30% of its camelid population, is on the verge of an irreversible loss of a millenary identity, as well as a centuries old industry.
Three years ago we took the first step to change the lives of the camelid community in the Andes with an idea of refining llama fibers into luscious yarns for hand knitting and rovings for hand spinning… so soft, awesome, unique and functional that would conquer the minds and hearts of thousands of needleartists worldwide who knit and spin for fun, stress-therapy or artistic expression. Our unique llama products would favorably compete against alpaca produced in Peru, the US and Europe.
A steady demand of raw fiber, purchased directly from the herders at fair prices, would reawaken their interest in producing high quality llama hair. Ancestral skills such as spinning, dyeing, weaving and knitting with natural camelid fibers would come back to life. Job opportunities in an emerging industry, training and education, entrepreneurial skills, exposure to the world, and business opportunities, would rise from the success of this venture. Thousands of llamas, alpacas, guanacos and vicuñas would graze again in their natural habitat in the Chilean Altiplano.
It was not until Aymara herders saw these yarns made of amazingly soft llama fiber coming out of our machines, that they realized there was a real chance of change in their lives. With their own hands they have shorn and carefully sorted these fibers, which later turned into luscious yarns that would delight hand knitters all over the world.
Thousands of hours and lots of cash coming from our savings, were invested in developing and building amazing machines from scrap that would enable us to “dehair” the llama fiber. This unique process consists of mechanically separating the guard hairs and coarse fleece from the soft under coat fibers that will be used in the production of yarns. Countless trial and error attempts were made to get things right, including yarn testing by knitters in Chile, the US and Germany.
We call our product Royal Llama for its majestic beauty and natural softness that rivals that of any luxury fiber, and for its innate properties that impart phenomenal performance and durability at a very low cost to the environment. A hollow fiber, llama is extremely strong and warm as well as thermostatic (wide comfort range) due to its natural moisture regulation. Llama fiber is naturally antimicrobial, will not pill, it is washable, flame retardant, and durable.
Royal Llama took its ultimate test last june at the 2013 TNNA (The National Needlearts Association) show held in Columbus, Ohio where knitters, designers, finishers and store owners praised the quality of our products and learned of our plans to make a change in the Andes. We came back from Columbus with an encouraging number of orders of trial packs and our hearts loaded with hope and optimism, and a bunch of new ideas storming in our heads!
Export markets are an essential pillar of our project, and US market acceptance of Royal Llama was the message we all needed to get us busy implementing our export plan with immediate impact in the community:
Future plans for the export market including luxury Royal Llama and guanaco garments, and high tech insulating materials made from Royal Llama byproducts, will increase our demand for raw fibers, and incorporate local artisans and designers.
Our next challenge is to be export-ready!
My name is Jorge del Carpio, a mechanical engineering graduate from the University of Iowa. After ten years of executive work in the private sector, I rediscovered my true passion: entrepreneurship. My 110% commitment with the project doesn’t stop me from playing my guitar, writing short articles about entrepreneurship and going around delivering motivational speeches to wannabe entrepreneurs, including university students and frustrated salaried employees.
I am responsible for involving my wife and soulmate Isabel, sharp marketeer, private pilot and mother of two in a project that changed the way we feel about life.
Also on board is our dear friend Stan Ebel, an outstanding llama expert from Colorado with 35 years experience in raising, breeding and training llamas as wilderness pack animals, and 15 years developing ready-to-wear garments made from llama fiber.
We love week end trips to the Chilean Andean plateau where the scenery of its snowcapped mountains is as spectacular as the picturesque white washed little towns spread all over. Sadly, these villages are almost empty. Younger Aymaras moved to the cities in search of better opportunities of survival. The elderly resisted relocation and preferred to spend their last days growing some crops and caring for a few llamas and alpacas.
The state had spent millions in camelid related programs in Northern Chile, that seemed to have little effect as Chilean fiber production was meager compared to Peru and Bolivia, where fiber exports are a multimillion dollar business. “There’s got to be a niche for small volumes of top quality fiber” I thought. Then hand knitting stroke my mind. There is indeed a market of about 800.000 needle artists spending more than USD 630 million a year in the US only. High end knitters and spinners would appreciate exotic camelid yarns produced in Chile. The idea was further refined to “unique, super fine llama and guanaco yarns that would compete with the well-known alpaca produced in Peru”.
After months of spreading the idea among lots of friends, textile experts, herders, artisans, state agencies and authorities, we succeeded at inspiring the right kind of people to help us converting a good idea into a thrilling start up named Fibras Andinas Chile.
The rest of the story is about endurance and plain stubbornness. We had loud falls and sad failures. Yet, we also had tremendous satisfactions. In April 2011 we were selected by Start Up Chile (http://startupchile.org), a program of the Chilean Government to attract world-class early stage entrepreneurs. We also received a Corporate Innovation Recognition from ProChile - Chile’s Export Promotion Bureau, and were featured in the 2012 Annual Report of Chile’s BCI Bank as Outstanding Entrepreneurs. A grant from Chile’s Foundation of Innovation in Agriculture (FIA) was awarded to us for the development of dehairing techniques for guanaco fiber. In april 2012 we presented the first llama fiber yarn produced in Chile to our President, Mr. Sebastian Piñera.
After exhausting all of our financial resources in the installation of Chile’s first camelid processing plant, we need the support of the global community to reach export-readiness, a key milestone to the sustainability of our venture.
USD 60.000 will allow us to cover raw materials, training, marketing, equipment additions and minor constructions necessary for massive scale production. USD 30.000 will give us the kickstart to make a change in our community!