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JOCELYNN BROWN

Handmade: Gibraltar couple enjoys alpaca farming

Jocelynn Brown
The Detroit News

Richard Steffke, who once did handyman work on Grosse Ile, and his wife, Gail, a former professional race car driver, never saw it coming, but one day their lives took a turn down a road that would lead to an entirely different livelihood.

“Back in 2000, I walked in here to fix a fence. I was doing handyman work on the island, and I came in here to inquire about fence repairs, and fell in love with the alpacas,” recalls Steffke. “ By the weekend, I got my wife in here, and about three months later, we purchased our first alpaca, and by 2008, we had 15 alpacas. The former owner of the farm passed away and my wife and I decided to buy the whole farm in 2008.”

Of course, life hasn’t been the same since the adventurous couple, now owners of 24 alpacas, purchased Gibraltar Bay Alpacas, a 12-acre farm on Grosse Ile, just seven minutes from their Gibraltar home. Together, they spend long hours each day tending to a total of 53 exotic hairy animals that look similar to llamas and camels. The thick fleece from the wool-bearing animals is sheered and spun into yarn.

“We sheer the animals out once a year, and each animal produces 7-10 pounds of fiber. We send it down to Tennessee and they clean it, cart it, and spin it into yarn, and send it back to us,” says Steffke. “All the colors are natural colors. We won’t have a green or brilliant red, but we have a rose gray. It’s naturally that color off the animal.”

The yarn is then sold in their gift shop, located on the farm, along with knitted garments, accessories and other items made in Peru with alpaca fiber. The yarn sells for $6.50 an ounce, with skeins weighing at least 3 ounces each. And, where there’s yarn, there’s sure to be knitters! Michelle Pappas of Wyandotte instructs beginner to advanced knitting lessons inside a classroom on the farm. The fee is $30 for three two-hour classes scheduled around the students.

Because the quality of fleece can vary greatly from one animal to another, so does the fiber/yarn it produces. Steffke sells alpacas priced from $500 to $25,000 each, and they come micro-chipped, DNA coded and with a registration number. The price point is a good indication of the quality of the animal and fiber it produces. Fleece from a $500 alpaca wouldn’t produce the best fiber. The higher-grade fiber is turned into clothing, while that of lesser quality is sent to the New England Alpaca Fiber Pool where it’s made into felt foot beds and boot liners. (I must say, this helps one better understand the sticker shock price of some yarns — and wool fabric/garments!)

There are approximately 300 weekly visitors to the farm, including groups of knitters, adults and children with disabilities, wounded warriors, and children who are home-schooled. Many visitors purchase either yarn or clothing, but Steffke says, “Some come to see the alpacas, (but) it’s not a petting farm — this is people’s investments here. We have an owner who has two animals here, and she comes (quarterly) from Eugene, Oregon to see her animals and to see our yarn. We produce yarn for her yarn store.”

Once a year, the Steffkes host a trunk show called “From Fiber to Fashion” at the Pilot House on Grosse Ile. Steffke says, “We have people, primarily women, from all over come, and we serve a pretty good (catered) dinner.” This year’s event is scheduled for Nov. 14, and tickets are $15 advance and $20 at the door. For more information, call (734) 675-6220.

Gibraltar Bay Alpacas is open year-round Wednesday-Sunday from 10:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m., so why not put together a group of your favorite knitting buddies and head on down to the Grosse Ile farm for a day of stitching? Who knows, you may return home the proud owner of a new four-legged animal!

Detroit News Columnist Jocelynn Brown is a longtime Metro Detroit crafter. You can reach her at (313) 222-2150 or jbrown@detroitnews.com.

Contact Gibraltar Bay Alpacas (8545 Groh, Grosse Ile Township 48138) at (734) 675-6220 or on Facebook.