03/19/2013 03:34PM ● Published by Enjoy Magazine
Kathy Grimes' Feltpaca Products
Picture this—on one half of a balance sheet, there’s a CPA who grew up in suburban Minnesota and works fulltime as Mercy Medical Center’s business systems analyst. On the other, there’s an imaginative designer and maker of unique alpaca fleece clothing, blankets and accessories who also raises the alpacas and processes their fleece.
If you find it hard to reconcile that one person is all of the above, you haven’t met Kathy Grimes. She laughs. “It does seem a little unusual, doesn’t it?”
Unusual is a perfect word to describe both Grimes and her line of “Feltpaca” products. Start with Grimes, whose creativity, capability, entrepreneurial spirit and willingness to roll up her sleeves and dive in have made her business a winner.
It’s a success story that owes its beginning to a couple of unlikely characters—pet llamas that Grimes and husband Paul Wunderlin bought to keep their Oak Run pastures “mowed.” While the llamas concentrated on the grass, Grimes contemplated their fleece. A knitter since childhood, she wondered if it would make good yarn. Ultimately research led her away from the llamas and toward alpacas. “It’s hard to describe how soft their fleece is. There’s really not anything comparable,” she says.
Breeding alpacas is big business, she learned, which appealed to her practical side. And it doesn’t hurt that they look like giant stuffed animals, with their long, straight necks, mop-topped heads and fluffy fleece, which is incredibly soft (imagine a combination of goose down, cashmere and clouds).
She started with one female, but the herd quickly grew. Soon she had bags of fleece, designs whirling in her head and a workshop where she could bring it all together.
Like many artistic ventures, hard work comes first. For Grimes, this starts with caring for the alpacas (she’s been known to dash home during lunch to bottle-feed babies). Then comes the fleece preparation. It’s washed, cleaned of debris, rolled into batts and dyed. Recently, she’s farmed out some of the prep work. “It gives me more time for the creative part,” she says.
This might start with spinning the fleece into lace-weight yarn for a sweater she plans to knit. More likely, she’ll “felt” it, a process in which thin layers of fleece are wet with a water/soap solution and repeatedly rolled together between two cylinders. The result? A strongly bonded, smooth fabric.
From the beginning, felted alpaca fleece was at the heart of her designs. There was one problem—people said alpaca fleece was too soft to felt. But that didn’t stop Grimes. She smiles. “I’m one of those people that doesn’t give up easily.” To enhance stability, she added a small percentage of high-grade sheep wool to her fleece. She was pleased with the results—a sturdier, yet alpaca-soft product. “Now I don’t have to worry about it coming apart,” she says.
The variety of Feltpaca items she produces is reason enough to call them unusual. Scarves, tank tops, vests, cowls, light and heavier weight jackets and blankets are among them. But it’s her imagination that sets her apart. She often incorporates silk into a design, creating a warm yet lightweight piece, vibrant with color and rich in texture. “They’re so delicate looking,” she says. “But the silk is very, very strong.” It’s not indestructible, though. “One person asked if she could stick her finger through it and I said, ‘Yes, if you buy it!’”
Grimes has come a long way from the “scary” beginning days of the business. “You never know how you’ll be received when you first start out,” she says. Her Feltpaca line is both a financial and critical success—she’s a repeat vendor at two prestigious, invitation-only craft shows. “It’s a lot of work, but I enjoy it,” she says. “It’s especially fun when people come back and say, ‘I love the piece I bought from you.’”