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Could alpaca fleece be the downfall of the down feather duvet?

PUBLISHED: 00:00 24 February 2016

Alpaca duvets ready to go

Alpaca duvets ready to go

©Justin_Slee 2016

How a passion for alpacas has led to the launch of Yorkshire's newest mill. Photographs by Justin Slee

Julie and Shaun DanielJulie and Shaun Daniel

Building a business empire on the back of a ridiculously cute South American camelid with a tendency towards bouffancy might sound like a crazy idea, but it worked wonders for Sir Titus Salt. The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Salt’s Mill and the surrounding village of Saltaire were built on alpaca fleece. Sir Titus us first came upon some stray bales in a Liverpool warehouse in 1836. He wasn’t the first in England to work with the fibre, but he was the man who popularised it as the most fashionable of fabrics.

And now, 180 years later, Shaun and Julie Daniel are attempting to follow in his pioneering footsteps at their own mill. Yes, their small industrial unit on The Craggs Country Business Park at Cragg Vale, just south of Mytholmroyd on the Yorkshire-Lancashire border, might not be on the scale of Salt’s gigantic riverside mill, but their ambitions are just as lofty.

They want their business, Alpaca Comfort to be the world’s leading producer of high-end Egyptian cotton duvets stuffed with top quality alpaca fleece.

‘We are truly passionate about alpaca and want to reflect that in our products,’ said Shaun. ‘There’s only one other company in the world that comes anywhere near us in terms of quality, and they’re in Australia, so it’s within our grasp to really make this market our own.

Alpaca fleece is unique, says ShaunAlpaca fleece is unique, says Shaun

‘For us, it’s all about quality, not quantity. We’re not looking for a giant order from Ikea, but a professional partnership with Selfridges or Harrods would be right up our street.’

But before we get on to world duvet domination, we have to ask – why alpaca?

‘We first came across them on a family day out at a petting farm in South Yorkshire about 15 years ago,’ said Shaun. ‘It was a real lightbulb moment when I was finally convinced to stroke one. It was so unbelievably soft.

As soon as I felt that fleece, I knew people needed more of it in their lives.’

Soon after, Julie and Shaun welcomed three woolly new arrivals – Gerty, Lexi and Lewes – into their own lives and, before long, the trio became a herd and the whole ‘blended family’ relocated to a farm on the edge of Sowerby Bridge, transforming a hobby into a business, County Alpacas, selling quality fleece-made products from around the world.

The couple set up Yorkshire Alpaca Group in 2007 and Shaun joined the board of directors of the British Alpaca Society. He was later voted in as chairman of the board for two years, during which time he had the privilege of leading the World Alpaca Conference in 2012 at Keble College, Oxford.

While still caring for their own 30-strong herd, Shaun and Julie also now run British Alpaca Fleece Buyers, the largest operation of its kind in the country, buying upwards of 40 tonnes of fleece a year from more than 400 breeders around the UK.

This might sound like big business – and it is when there’s only two of you and a whole fleet of farms to cover – but Shaun is quick to point out that there are still only around 40,000 alpaca in the UK (compared to around 23 million sheep), making it a rare and, therefore, expensive fibre to work with. A king size Alpaca Comfort duvet will set you back £650 – so, what makes it worth it?

‘It’s a very fine fibre indeed,’ he said. ‘It’s officially a noble fibre, like cashmere and mohair, but it’s a truly unique fleece because it comes from an animal that’s designed to live in dry, high, often cold deserts. It’s naturally evolved to deal with extreme temperatures so, as a duvet, creates a lovely, ambient product.’

It’s also a dry fleece, without the usual levels of lanolin found in its woolly counterparts, is largely allergen-free and, mercifully for the myriad light-sleepers among us, provides a silent night with none of the noisy crunch you expect from feathers and down.

‘We’ve had several sleepless nights getting Alpaca Comfort off the ground but we use an alpaca duvet, so at least we’ve been comfortable,’ said Julie. ‘There really is nothing like it. It doesn’t cling or wrap itself around you and it works with your body temperature, so you’re not forever kicking it on and off.’

Shaun and Julie spent 30 years in public service before setting up their alpaca empire and, as they give Yorkshire Life the grand tour of their miniature mill, complete with original mill machinery sourced from Huddersfield and Bradford that’s been cleverly retro-fitted with the latest computer technology, it’s obvious that their new venture still delights and surprises them.

They never expected to become alpaca breeders or get into the luxury duvet business but, as they’re less than an hour away from where it all began two centuries ago at Salt’s Mill, perhaps they shouldn’t be too startled by their unexpected career change.

‘We like to think Sir Titus Salt would be proud,’ said Shaun.

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