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Entrepreneur's business began with knitting

Small Business Week 2013

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Beth Lutz, owner of The Alpaca Yarn Co., displays an array of roving, which is unspun wool fiber. The York-based wholesaler's signature products are its hand-dyed yarns. Photo/Amy Spangler
Beth Lutz, owner of The Alpaca Yarn Co., displays an array of roving, which is unspun wool fiber. The York-based wholesaler's signature products are its hand-dyed yarns. Photo/Amy Spangler

Originally, Beth Lutz just wanted a couple of animals as sources of fiber for her knitting and hand-spinning avocation.

"This started out as a very small, low-key venture," she said.

Today, about 40 alpacas graze at Painted Spring Farm in Jackson Township, York County, which is owned and operated by Lutz and her husband, Neal. And Lutz owns The Alpaca Yarn Co., a wholesaler dealing in "the most luxurious yarn products in the world."

Tucked away in the Industrial Plaza of York at West Philadelphia Street and Roosevelt Avenue in the city, The Alpaca Yarn Co.'s warehouse shelves are stacked high with box upon box of alpaca yarn skeins. More boxes are piled up in the hallway outside.

Dyed in every conceivable color, the yarn is measured out by the kilo for shipment to farms and shops across the United States and in several European countries.

Lutz, an accountant by training, had always enjoyed knitting and learned how to spin. In 1999, she opened a yarn shop, Uncommon Threads.

As her interest continued to deepen, she thought it would be fun to raise a few animals for shearing, and alpacas were becoming popular at the time. She acquired a couple in 2001, found she enjoyed working with them and started to breed them.

Meanwhile, she was doing design work for the Alpaca Fiber Cooperative of North America. In 2004, she learned the organization was planning to sell its yarn division but didn't have a buyer.

Lutz began talking with the co-op and eventually visited its headquarters in Decatur, Tenn., to look through the books. Ultimately, hers was one of two bids. And though the other bid was higher, "they picked me anyway," she said.

"I'm not sure why," she added, "but I wasn't going to fuss about it."

A few weeks before Christmas, the Lutzes borrowed the largest trailer they could find, hitched it to their pickup truck and drove to Decatur. They loaded up with the stock of yarn they had just bought, plus the other odds and ends of the business's physical capital.

"There was not an inch to spare" when they latched the cargo door for the drive back to Pennsylvania, Lutz said.

In the ensuing decade, The Alpaca Yarn Co. has shown "slow, steady" growth, Lutz said. She has one full-time and two part-time employees, and the work keeps her busy enough that she decided to sell Uncommon Threads about two-and-a-half years ago. It continues doing business under its new ownership at Queensgate Towne Center.

Lutz has a small yarn shop at her farm, like the shops many of her customers run. That helps her understand their needs, she said. And she understands their customers' perspectives, too, as an avid knitter and spinner herself.

The Alpaca Yarn Co.'s signature products are its hand-dyed yarns. What started as six to eight colors has expanded to more than 80 colors and patterns, all produced in-house. Skeins are given carefully timed dunks in various cans of dye, then hung to dry on a rack, explained Heather Sakell, one of the company's two dyers.

"It's just exquisitely done," said Wendy Ellis, one of Lutz's regular customers. Ellis owns Lancaster Yarn Shop in Kitchen Kettle Village in Leacock Township, Lancaster County.

The spectra of related colors make for beautiful displays in the shop, and customers like knowing the yarn was hand dyed locally, she said.

"That speaks to people," she said.

The yarn itself comes from Peru, where alpaca herding and commercial spinning are major industries. It would be cost prohibitive to try to source from the small-scale, fragmented U.S. alpaca industry, Lutz said.

Alpaca farmers in the U.S. typically have a dozen or so animals, unlike the hundreds or thousands in Peruvian herds. And Peru has a solid infrastructure of spinning mills, whereas most U.S. mills shut down ages ago, Lutz said — though there are a few holdouts, such as Kraemer Yarns in Nazareth, she said.

Alpaca yarn is soft and silky, and the animals are charming. Pennsylvania is one of the top alpaca states in the U.S., and the midstate is "very well represented," Lutz said. There are 35 farms within 25 miles of Lutz's Painted Spring Farm that belong to the Pennsylvania Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association, PAOBA, and that doesn't include hobbyists who may have just one or two animals, she said. Lutz serves as PAOBA's treasurer.

Lutz said she loves being her own boss and loves coming to work.

"I have not been happier in anything I've done," she said.

Why alpaca?

Alpaca wool is hypo-allergenic, according to the Alpaca Yarn Co., so people sensitive to regular wool can still wear it.

Also, the structure of the fiber makes it light yet strong, cool in summer and warm in winter.

Write to the Editorial Department at editorial@cpbj.com

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