Ruthann Dies of Lehigh had felted before, but nothing like this. After a quick Internet search, she began using wool from her family’s alpaca herd to create small animal figurines.
“Once I got the technique, I went from there,” she said.
So far, she has created about 20 figures, ranging from seals and dogs to goats and a lion. Dies said she enjoys making the animals because it is like art.
“It requires a lot of patience but I really enjoy it,” she said. “I really like making animals that resemble my own and wild animals.”
Dies has done a variety of things with alpaca fiber, including crocheting and wet felting, but she said she enjoys this the best because of its artistic side.
To start the animals, Dies first makes a wire frame and then wraps it in pipe cleaners.
“The pipe cleaners help the fibers stick to the wire frame,” she said.
Dies then wraps cleaned alpaca wool around the frame. For some figures, such as the rabbit, no frame is used. Instead, Dies ties a knot in the middle of the alpaca fiber and wraps the fiber around the knot.
Once she has the desired size, Dies takes sharp needles with different ends to weave the wool together in a process called felting. This method allows the figures to be made without adhesive to hold them together.
“I have stuck myself a lot,” she said.
In order not to ruin her table, she uses a burlap pillow filled with rice to stop the needles from gouging the wood.
“You try to make them smooth, especially animals like the seal and lion, but with these fibers it’ll never be smooth, no matter how much you try,” Dies said.
Once Dies gets the desired body shape, she works on the face, which takes the longest because of all the small felting.
“I have to work on them a long time to get it just right,” Dies said. “I use a photo and an image in my mind about what they should look like.”
Dies said it takes a surprising amount of fiber and time. Simple animals like a bird, rabbit, or seal Dies can complete in a few hours depending on the size, but others like the lion took days because of its multiple textures and large size.
“The panda took the longest because it has no armature and multiple appendages,” Dies said.
To get the color just right, Dies takes two different colors, for example dark gray and white, and tears the fibers in half until its well mixed. She prefers the look of the nature fibers and only uses dyed colors for accents like eyes and noses.
The animals are durable but not toys. Because the pieces are only felted together, they can come apart easily. They can also fray and shed.
“Fixing the fray is easy,” Dies said. “You just smooth the fiber and if you don’t have a felting needle, use a touch of hairspray to keep the fibers in place.”
Dies has only been making the figurines for a couple of months and is constantly learning. Her next project will be an elephant.
“There are people in the Kansas Alpaca Association that want me to teach a class on how to make them, but I don’t know yet. It’s a pretty complicated process,” she said.
She hopes to sell them at alpaca shows later this summer.
“They’re all made from the fibers of our animals,” her husband Ron Dies said. “We had to come up with ways to use the fiber.”
The couple began with two alpacas in 2005. Now their herd consists of 25 alpacas ranging from dark, almost maroon red, black, gray, and white.
Ten pounds of wool with fibers nearly 8 inches long can be gathered from one animal.
The animals are shaved once a year in May to get all the fiber for the year.
“Alpaca wool is unique because it’s warm in the winter, and cool in the summer,” Ruthann said.
“All the money we make from things like this goes back to the animals,” Ron Dies said. “It’s not about making money we’re retired and we love working with these animals.”