The alpacas started it. If it weren’t for those fluffy South American camelids, Kris and Paul Francoeur might still be a Rutland Middle School assistant principal with a thing for knitting and a general contractor with a love of woodworking, respectively. But when three alpacas joined their family, the couple found a perfect way to meld their hobbies. Now, in addition to their two day jobs, the Francoeurs own and operate Green Mountain Spinning Wheels out of their Leicester home. Paul, 53, builds the wheels; Kris, 41, spins the fiber. The alpacas hang out by the vegetable garden, providing endless entertainment — and the softest fleece.
The Francoeurs saw alpacas for the first time about 13 years ago. Intrigued by a piece in the Rutland Herald about a local farm that bred them, the family of six took a day trip. “We were really broke and looking for free things to do with the kids,” says Kris.
It was love at first sight, especially for Kris, an enthusiastic knitter. But alpacas are expensive, particularly breeding females, which can cost upward of $20,000 each. The Francoeurs didn’t want to breed the animals, though, they just wanted to sell their fiber and keep them as pets.
In 2003, they took the plunge. They approached Champlain Valley Alpacas in Bridport about buying males for fiber. “You can’t have one alpaca alone, because they will die of unhappiness,” says Kris. So they went with three: Marc, a handsome brown rescue; Erv, a large white alpaca who, on a recent afternoon, is covered in mud from his hips down — “He loves to stand in his water bucket,” Kris says — and Jack, who was killed in a bear attack last year.
These days, Marc and Erv have two newer friends: Ellsbury, a smaller black alpaca, and Ferdinand, a ram. “They were terrified of him at first,” Kris says of the sheep. But after 24 hours, the alpacas accepted Ferdinand as one of their own.
“Alpacas naturally have a guard instinct,” explains Kris. They take turns sleeping against the shelter door at night. But they’re also playful, wrestling each other with their long necks during the day. “It’s no different from our boys fighting out on the porch,” observes Paul.
The Francoeurs seem just as mesmerized as their visitor is by watching the alpacas do their thing. “It’s farm TV,” quips Kris. She tosses corn husks over their fence and holds out some grain. Sometimes, she admits, she tosses carrots and apples into the food processor and offers her alpacas a smoothie.
“They are exceedingly spoiled,” she says with a smile. Still, the animals give back. The Francoeurs shear them once a year and get about six or seven ounces of fiber from each.
Kris learned to knit when she was 4 years old. But she didn’t learn to spin on a wheel until she got the alpacas. “In a moment of stupidity,” she says, she imagined she would be able to spin all her fiber on a drop spindle, a small hand tool. For the first few months, she took her spindle with her everywhere and still spun only about six feet of yarn. “I didn’t have the patience,” she says.
So Paul bought her a PVC wheel, the most affordable spinning wheel he could find. The first time she tried it, she ended up with “great big hairy knots,” Kris says. “It was awful.” She got help from a woman who used to share knitting patterns with her grandmother. Still, the PVC wheel was noisy. “Every time she got it out while we were watching TV,” Paul says, “the three boys groaned.”
Lucky for them — and for Kris — Paul loves nothing more than holing up in his workshop and building things. “I’m an engineer’s son,” he explains. “I like to figure out how things work.” So he set out to design and build a quiet spinning wheel for his wife.
A neatly mown path leads out behind the house and through some trees to Paul’s workshop. Inside, two finished spinning wheels are propped up on a worktable. Paul points out his father’s and grandfather’s rusted tools and saws, mounted on the walls like works of art. The shop smells of fresh wood shavings.
Paul presses on the treadle, which sets the wheel spinning. It was important to the Francoeurs that the wheel be durable as well as attractive. Paul wanted a fairly simple design — a traditional, single-treadle Saxony wheel with modern amenities.
He tries to use as much local material as possible — the red oak comes from Lathrop Forest Products in Bristol — but not all the parts are. The bobbins come from a Wisconsin manufacturing company, and the axels are PVC, because “it’s durable, nice and smooth,” says Paul.
The Francoeurs’ other priority? The wheel had to be relatively inexpensive. Their Otter Creek wheel costs $495, a price that includes shipping, bobbins, fiber oil and six to eight ounces of fiber. They have sold about a dozen of them since launching their business last fall.
Paul says he’s looking forward to the summer building season coming to a close so he can get more time in the workshop. “My job is so physically demanding,” he says. On a typical summer night, he gets home and finds his youngest son waiting to play catch. “Then it’s a shower, dinner, maybe TV, and half an hour later…” He flops his head over to illustrate.
Back in the house, Kris puts her spinning wheel to work. She slips off one sandal and pumps the treadle with her bare foot. It makes the soft, breathing sound of a sleeping animal. Feeding the raw fiber into the wheel — a mixture of brown and black for a felted teddy bear she’s making for a friend’s new baby — Kris explains that natural fibers have tiny hooks that keep the thread from unraveling once it’s spun.
She likes using the natural colors of her three alpacas’ fiber, but sometimes dyes it. Her technique? “Sugar-free Kool-Aid in the microwave,” she reveals. You can buy a packet for a quarter at the grocery store. Mix it up, add a little vinegar and plop in your fiber. Then microwave it until the water turns clear.
Kris picks up a bright-green skein. “Blue lemonade and lemon-lime,” she says proudly. “It does make the house smell like SweeTARTS, though.”