Christian values, quality alpacas, fiber and handmade products grown near Craig | CraigDailyPress.com

Christian values, quality alpacas, fiber and handmade products grown near Craig

CRAIG — A ranch north of Craig is bucking the trend with its artisanal products.

Rather than raising large numbers of commercial livestock, John and Laura Ilko, of Thunder Holler Ranch, are focusing on artisan products produced in small batches, mostly by hand, with fiber obtained from a herd of alpacas.

"Quality is like buying oats. If you want good, clean oats you must pay a good price. However, if you are satisfied with oats that have already been through the horse … well, they are a little cheaper," according to a plaque the Ilkos keep on the wall of the family ranch house.

John's father, who was a dentist in Craig, also named John, originally placed the saying on the wall of the family ranch house to remind his children to focus on quality.

Two years ago, when the Ilkos started their fiber business — Living Water Fibers & Alpacas — with a herd of 13 Huacaya alpacas from Loma, quality was and continues to be their top priority.

"All of our alpacas are registered, and we're breeding for the best fiber," John said.

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The business is rooted in the family's Christian faith and named Living Water from the Gospel of John, 7:38.

John Ilko said they are working to make the most of "God's gifts" by developing fiber that is soft, warm and long-lasting.

"You should be able to have fiber that lasts a decade," he said.

After two years, their herd has grown to 27 animals — 10 males and 17 females — and the Ilkos expect to continue to raise animals with a goal of growing to a 100-strong fiber-producing herd.

It's the high-quality fiber produced by alpacas that set them apart from other livestock producers.

"Compared to wool, alpaca fiber doesn't have lanolin. Alpaca fiber is hypoallergenic. Less than 1 percent of people will react to it," Laura said.

These characteristics make processing less intensive than for other fibers, such as cotton and wool.

"Alpaca also has better insulating properties than most fibers; it feels about 25 degrees warmer than wool, making it the third most sought-after fiber in the world," John said.

Fiber is shorn from alpacas in the spring. It goes through a wash and is carded to straighten it. Some of it is left as roving, and some is spun into thread to make yarn.

About 50 percent of the fiber from Living Water alpacas is processed at the Ilko ranch, and the other 50 percent is shipped to an alpaca-only mill near Phillipsburg, Kansas.

After processing the fiber is sold either as material for projects or as part of the products Laura and John make by hand.

"We have roving, yarn, hats, scarves, mittens, woven blankets available now and rugs, saddle blankets, lead ropes and cellphone covers in development," Laura said.

During the winter, she will be working on a new line of patterns specific to their yarns.

While she's busy creating new patterns, at this time of year, the alpacas are "busy growing fiber and babies," Laura said.

John and Laura are also willing to work with people to make custom orders, but there are limits, and special orders can take time.

"This is handmade work. We are bringing back that artisan, special, one-of-a-kind product," John said.

Contact Sasha Nelson at 970-875-1794 or snelson@CraigDailyPress.com.