STONE RIDGE – Some businesses start almost by accident. Chaim Tolwin’s tale for how he and his wife Rachelle started up Maloca Alpaca in Stone Ridge has all the ingredients for a miracle play.
Chaim is a drummer, and used to doing other things to support his “drumming addiction.” In 2014, he took a ten-day trip to the Amazon jungle in Peru. He had one purchase in mind, an alpaca throw to wrap his one-year-old son in. The trip was not planned, but it did bring him into contact with the world of alpaca farming in Peru’s Ariquipa district.
Alpacas may be the fiber animals of the future, and the alpaca industry is poised for a global makeover and tremendous growth. Alpacas are also cute to the point of absurdity.
“My wife, Rachelle, and I have always been enamored of alpacas, and always interested in Peru, with its long history and vibrant culture,” said Chaim. “Peru has given so much to the world, when you think of it.” (Yep, like the potato, the world’s fourth largest food crop.)
Alpaca fiber is really amazing — there are two varieties, Huacaya, which grows soft, naturally crimped fiber, and Suri, which grows straight, silky fiber. Huacaya makes great yarn; Suri is a natural for woven products. Also, the growth scales. All animal fibers exhibit tiny scales reflecting growth along their length. Camelids (llamas and alpacas, which are related to the two species of camels alive today) have very smooth hairs, and the scales show a very low “relief” on the fibers. That means the microscopic edges of the scales are so smooth that humans cannot feel them. This is one of the big differences between alpaca fiber and sheep’s wool. Fine grades of alpaca therefore provide ultra-smooth and comfortable next-to-skin garments. It doesn’t stop there. Alpaca fibers are hollow as well, and filled with air — like those of Polar Bears — and thus retain body heat in cold weather. Alpaca fleece does not contain lanolin, which sets off allergies in some people, and it is also extremely waterproof. Finally, it is very hard to set on fire!
It all started in 2011 for Chaim and Rachelle, who had just moved up to the Catskills from Brooklyn. “I had spent fifteen years working all kinds of jobs so I could be a drummer,” he said. “We dreamed of moving out of the city up to the mountains. Eventually we bought a place in Sundown. I raised chickens, we did some flower farming. Obviously, we suffered the usual culture shock of urban people coming from the city to the country and never having owned a home. I had never used a chain saw, or a maul.”
But after his accidental trip to Peru, Chaim and Rachelle had a big idea. “That first throw for our son was so cozy, it inspired me. I was looking for business opportunities. Rachelle had graduated from school in California, and she had enough Jet Blue miles left over for another trip. So, I jumped on a plane with two big duffel bags and I came back with them stuffed with 100 alpaca throws.”
“We sold all those throws that winter, made some money and we were launched,” says Chaim. “And it’s been an organic style of growth ever since.”
Now the family has grown again, with another boy, and they have an office in Stone Ridge and their oldest at High Meadow School.
Chaim says that while most of their sales occur online, they are looking at local outlets. “Our latest is Hops Petunia on Broadway in Kingston’s Rondout district. It’s a floral shop, with home goods as well.” This fits to their concept of the business. “We are approaching this from the home goods and accessories angle, rather than from fashion concepts.”
For a little background, the camelids are an ancient group that first appeared in western North America in the Eocene 45 million years ago, falling extinct in North America in the so-called Blitzkrieg extinction event, 11,000 B.C. However, alpacas should not be confused with llamas, which at 250-450 pounds are twice the size of alpacas. Llamas make great guardians of sheep, while alpacas are raised for their soft fleece, as well as meat.
Currently Peru is the home of the alpaca, with 3.5 million of them, about 80% of the total world population. (For comparison sake, note that in 2015, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization estimated the global sheep population at approximately 1.17 billion.) Today, the alpaca herds are concentrated around Ariquipa, in the southern part of Peru, in a district poised between the dry Pacific coast and the Andes just to the east.
Thinking back, Chaim said he learned a lot on his ten-day trip to the Amazon. He saw how the natives there built a large central structure, the Maloca, as a gathering place, even a “village hall.” The thatched roof traditional meeting house remains part of the culture and has become part of their company name.
Looking ahead, Chaim is excited by new possibilities. “The Alpaca industry is very sustainable and socially conscious. The animals are well cared for. Through a connection I obtained some very special Alpaca throws, these are Royal Alpaca, the very finest fiber. You see these at Hermes and other outlets priced at $4,000. We have them at a much more reasonable price and these will not be found anywhere else in the world outside Peru. So, right here in the Rondout Valley we’re selling a really exclusive product.”
Maloca Alpaca, says Chaim, will always be environmentally-conscious. “That’s my personal feeling, and I have to say it’s been a pleasure and a privilege to work with those people down there in Peru.” For more info, check out malocaalpaca.com.