Meet Ken and our Alpaca yarns

by | Sep 10, 2020 | Banner Elk, Introductions, Yarn

Published: September 2020

Ken Simpson and Alpaca go together like … well, like all of the yarn in the mill.  (I was going to say “like Peanut Butter and Jam, but then I realized he’s even more versatile than PB&J).

Alpaca image taken from WikipediaKen is our Plant Manager and makes sure all of our “wheels go round” and all of our quality yarns are produced.  I am, however, introducing Ken with our Alpaca yarns because in another part of his professional life, he was responsible for a community mill that processed a lot of Alpaca for our domestic Alpaca breeders.

Because it is important to the Mill House to use as much domestic product as possible, I asked Ken why we don’t use the domestic Alpaca in our Banner Elk yarns. He said the consistent supply is just not available for the quantity (and price) that would enable us to make a quality, affordable yarn for our Mill House customers.

“Remember, the number of Alpaca in the US is small compared to the foreign market which can give consumers a larger assortment of fiber grades, colors and volume of raw or prepared fleece for spinning than the U.S. can currently supply. And, they can do it at a lower price per pound than the US market can deliver.  But believe me the Alpaca breeders in America are working night and day, every day of the week, to grow the US Alpaca market with a top quality product.” (Quote from Ken)

So, in other words, we spin from top and we can’t get what we need (yet) in the U.S. for producing our Alpaca yarns.  The next best thing?  Our imported Alpaca combined with our U.S. Merino in a blend that gives knitters the best of both worlds.

Keeping in mind that Ken’s early work with Meridian Specialty Yarn Group involved all things acrylic, I thought it was amusing to hear how he was dumped headfirst into the Alpaca world.

“We (the community mill) followed the large Alpaca shows all over the United States.  These shows have breeders and ranchers that come to the shows from all over the country to show off their animals. At the very first show that I attended as the new mill manager, a breeder came up to us and invited me to their booth to look at some shorn fleece and — just as important to me — to see the animal that had just been shorn.  I was holding that warm, soft fleece in my hands while we chatted about making yarn from that very fleece in the mill.  Keep in mind that the first time I had even seen an Alpaca “in the flesh” was that morning when I walked into the Exhibit Hall!

I don’t think the breeder knew that I was bluffing my way through the conversation and that I had never even seen one of these animals much less made yarn from it. I can tell you that when I left the hall that night, I started making phone calls and hitting the books to learn as much as I could about not only Alpaca but as many other fleece animals as I could.  By the end of that first show, I knew I was in for quite an ride.  After all, there are only 2 breeds of Alpaca but over 300 different breeds of sheep.  To be honest, I still keep those sheep breed books near at hand!”(Quote from Ken)

Banner Elk BulkyBanner Elk Sport cone and skein

What’s so special about these two yarns?  Alpaca!  Need I say more?

Really, though, we wanted to make a strong, soft, luxurious yarn that would wear, and wear and wear.

We started by choosing to make a 3 ply yarn. Giving each ply the opportunity to twist and keep the fibers trapped, the 3 plies give strength and stability.  Those twisted 3 plies make it awfully difficult for the fibers to wiggle out and pill.

Combining the Alpaca with the fine U.S. Merino fiber gives us the softness we all want in our knitting yarns (most of the time) but we get some extra special qualities from each fiber.  The Merino gives us some loft that is not usually present in 100% Alpaca yarns while the Alpaca gives us some extra smoothness and sheen that makes the yarn feel (and appear) that much more soft and luxurious. And don’t forget — Alpaca gives the whole shebang a bit more warmth!

On top of that — we chose to use superwash Merino.  Knit a pair of booties from this month’s project and toss one in the washer and dryer just to see what happens — or doesn’t happen!  New sock yarn anyone? I was really surprised how nicely the sport weight condensed into a nice sock yarn.  I used the sport weight in my bootie pattern offered below (knit on size 1 needles). But I also think both yarns would make wonderful soft, sturdy, washable sweaters.

And, of course, our Banner Elk yarns are named after a North Carolina landmark.  Banner Elk is a mountain town that is both homey and a smidge fancy — hence Merino and Alpaca. Merino for homey-ness and Alpaca for fancy. Hannah (who baptizes all of our yarns with their birth names) has great memories of going to visit Banner Elk and enjoying adventures that weren’t available at home.  If you ever get to meet Hannah in person, ask her about her 9-year old self,  Banner Elk, wasps, tobacco and claw foot tubs.  When I try to get more details, she just smiles and says that today’s Banner Elk is quaint and slightly ritzy.

 Interview with Ken

Ken Simpson
Hi Ken, I understand that you are a long-time North Carolinian. Are you originally from the South ?”

Yes, I was born and raised in South Carolina and have lived in North Carolina for the last 35 years.

The way I understand it, you worked with Meridian Specialty Yarn Group for several years before taking a hiatus to work at a small community mill for a while.  It sounds like, besides learning so much about Alpaca, you were worked with a LOT of natural fibers.  Could you tell us a bit about that experience?

I started at Meridian in 2011 as Preparation Manager and later took over the Spinning Department.  In 2014, I was given another opportunity to manage a community mill in Western North Carolina.  It was a hard decision to leave Meridian but a great opportunity. In hindsight, I couldn’t have planned it better. I was recently asked to come back to Meridian Specialty Yarn Group because of all those new skills. There are not a lot of Plant Managers that have both big mill production experience AND have worked with such a wide variety of natural fibers.

The community mill was a great boot camp for not only learning more about natural fibers and understanding the different customer demands but machinery demands as well. Constantly tuning our machinery to work with different fibers and yarn weights is both a science and an art.

Also, working with all of the producers and breeders that came through the mill taught me about the personal relationship between the animals, the fiber, the yarn and the customer.  It’s not a relationship that was present when working with our old acrylic yarn customers. But it is very apparent that our new Mill House customers have a similar, personal relationship with the natural fiber yarns they use.  It’s a different (and useful) mindset to have when manufacturing our new yarns.

You make a very good point about the personal relationship between our new customers and the new yarns. I really liked your description of how much more involved is the production cycle of yarn from an animal than say, acrylic.

Yep. Animal fiber comes from the back of a living animal. The animal is born, it grows and matures and then is shorn.  The fleece is bundled and sent off for production. The fleece has to be sorted for quality; opened up to remove chaff, and then scoured to remove sweat, dirt, feces and grease.  (All of which would mess up or destroy the spinning machinery.) The fiber is then dried and ready for the next step.  In our case, it has to be then be carded and combed multiple times into a consistent top before we can use it.  Then, based on each yarn specification, it is prepared and blended and drafted into a weight/consistency for spinning; drafted again into finer roving, spun into singles; plied, coned, steamed and, in some cases, skeined or balled and labelled.  And that doesn’t even cover raising and caring for the animals.

PickleballWow!  Does keeping all those balls in the air give you any time for fun outside of work?

Funny you should say balls.  I enjoy Pickleball. It is the fastest growing sport in the United States, good exercise and a lot of fun.

Note: Our Pickleball image is from Wikipedia. Lot’s of interesting background on the sport.

 Loraine’s Booty
designed by Jeane deCoster

Description: A small, oddly shaped booty that fits my niece’s (Loraine) foot perfectly. I used my favorite sock construction method — top down with short-row heels and toes.  (I follow the Priscilla Roberts Gibson’s instructions from “Simple Socks.”)  However, since this isn’t a sock tutorial — any sock construction method will do.

Loraine's Booty

  • Measurements:
    • Heel to toe = 7″
  • Gauge: 8 sts/inch and 10 rows/inch
  • Materials: 1 skein Banner Elk Sport
  • Tools:
    • US size 1 knitting needles (set of 4)
    • tapestry needle for weaving in ends

Booty – Make two

Cast on 60 sts.

Join in the round and work  in 1 x 1 rib stitch for about 2 inches.

Change to Stockinette stitch and work in the round for 1 more inch.

Split and work heel in manner of your choice. 

Continue working in Stockinette stitch for about 3 inches.

Weave in ends.

©2020 – This pattern is offered as a free pattern by Jeane deCoster and Meridian Mill House Yarn Shop. Best efforts have been made to provide an error free pattern.

* Meridian Mill House Yarn Store, 40 Rex Avenue, Gastonia, NC 28054 *

Jeane deCoster


Yarn designer, hand dyer, teacher, consultant. Owner (and chief dyer and bottle-washer) of her own indy yarn company, www.Elemental

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