As the wheel turns … at North Saanich alpaca farm

Alpaca farmer helps invigorate Island fibre industry.

Tracy Brennan’s alpacas keep a close eye on her as she sorts a handful of fleece. Brennan processes the fibre herself through every step

With an unearthly medley of chirrups, humming and warbles, Tracy Brennan’s alpacas warily approached a certain reporter who had just invaded their pasture at Bailiwick Farm in North Saanich.

“They’re probably most like cats,” says Brennan, smiling as she reaches out a hand to brush the soft fleece.

The dozen animals mill around her as she points out individuals by name. Nutmeg, Velvet, Sophia; Brennan explains there are several generations within the small herd. With enormous black eyes, they stare unblinking, skittering away at any quick movement until they become accustomed to the stranger in their midst.

Originally a sheep farmer and current owner of Inca Dinca Do Farm, Brennan fell into a love affair with alpacas after being introduced to them while at the Equestrian Centre in Parksville.

“I walked in the door, and I was amazed at how quiet it was,” she remembers.

“There was just this beautiful humming, and there was no smell! Hundreds of animals, and the only thing you could smell was fresh hay.

“I was hooked ever after.”

A lifelong knitter whose life “revolves around fibre,” Brennan is just as enamoured with the texture and rich variety of colours of the animals’ fleece and quickly took up spinning and weaving as well.

Handmade has taken on a different connotation since she began down the alpaca path. After the animals are sheared every year, she hand picks the fleece, washes it, cards it, spins it, and eventually knits or weaves with it.

“I really don’t consider something handmade anymore unless I do it all,” she laughs. “People always ask me how long a sweater takes, and I tell them, ‘well, first I have to go feed the alpacas.’”

Though labour-intensive, it’s something that she treasures.

“To be spinning Nutmeg’s fleece and be thinking about what Nutmeg did in the field that day…” She pauses. “Being able to make things from your own animals is such a satisfying process.”

And spinning is a meditative process in itself, she adds.

The repetition, the whirr of the wheel, the feel of fleece through your fingers — it’s something you have to be relaxed to do, she says. Though all but vanished now, the calming sound of the spinning wheel used to be common in households.

On a recent visit to her 98-year-old grandmother — who still lives on her own and still crochets — Brennan began to spin.

She looked up to see her grandmother, eyes closed and head resting on the back of the chair.

“I asked her, do you need a nap? And she said ‘No, I’m sitting on the floor playing with blocks’.”

The sound had taken the near-centenarian back to her years as a small child, listening to her own mother spin. Brennan’s grandmother convinced her to take the spinning wheel down to the commons area in the building.

“All the little old ladies came and sat around me. And it wasn’t about watching me spin.” says Brennan. “The stories that came out, all of them talking about their childhoods. It was amazing.”

With the help of her camelid companions, Brennan is doing her part to help keep the fibre crafts a part of our culture.

“I like that I’m keeping something alive that has that much history,” she says. “I’m carrying on a tradition that is age-old.”

A tradition that, at its heart, has remained the same over centuries. There are dozens of different spinning wheel designs nowadays, says Brennan, but they all have the same fundamental principles as when the wheel first emerged in the 13th century.

Brennan is currently setting up a studio at Sunhill Orchard with a fellow fibre-addict, where they hope to offer drop-in weaving, loom leases and spinning, weaving and knitting lessons.

And for those who might be interested in trying their hand at the spindle, Brennan’s best advice is to join a guild.

“You’re surrounded by years and years of experience. You can rent spinning wheels, and we have a whole library of books you can borrow.”

For more information, visit dcwsweavers.blogspot.ca, or contact Brennan at incadincado@gmail.com