Toodyay's Hidden Treasures - Lavender Hill Mob Alpacas and Fibre of the Gods

Published on Friday, 16 April 2021 at 10:27:09 AM

Toodyay is a town with many claims to fame, and locals Hazel and Michael McKone are the minds behind one a little more unusual than the rest. Housed in an unassuming shed on their sprawling property on Bindi Bindi Road is the sole alpaca fleece spinning mill in Western Australia – and it’s accompanied, of course, by a herd of the friendly and fleecy animals themselves.

Alpacas weren’t always on Hazel and Michael’s agenda: when they first made the move to Toodyay in 2000, their plan was to start up a snail farm that would supply relevant restaurants with the traditional French fare. Then a twist of fate from the front porch of Freemasons Hotel ensured that wasn’t the way they would escargot. Spotting a newspaper advertisement for the sale of a dozen alpacas in 2001, Michael heard the knock of an opportunity and was on the phone to Hazel in an instant. Just days later the pair were the proud owners of the whole herd, sold by a stud in Boddington and including a Perth Royal Show blue ribbon winner. And so the Lavender Hill Mob – named in honour of both the 1951 film and Toodyay’s lavender-loving landscape – story began.

Since then the size of the herd has almost tripled, with 32 alpacas currently living the Lavender Hill lifestyle. They’re far from anonymous, having been named after everything from planets (in Saturn’s case) to pop culture (shout-out to Lady Penelope and Morticia) and their palette (no prizes for guessing the colour of Ebony’s coat). Cecilia might be dignified by name, but she has an aversion to being fenced in that sees her appear wherever and whenever she wants. Hazel and Michael have given up trying to keep her contained, but something they haven’t given up on is constantly improving the standard of fleece in their herd. All stud decisions are based on the processing quality of the huacaya fleece they’ll be dealing with (known as the ‘teddy bear’ type as opposed to dreadlock-style suri alpaca fleece) and that’s where the famous mill comes into play…and gets to work.

In 2008, keen to showcase the versatility of alpaca fleece and expand on the Lavender Hill enterprise, the McKones sought out a specialist mill in Canada – the only place they could find one at the time – and had it imported all the way to Toodyay. After two weeks’ worth of operating lessons (taught by an expert also imported from Canada out of necessity) they were on their own, and are still learning how to manage the complex machinery (as well as their mob) today.

Fleece-processing doesn’t come easy. Fresh off the back of each alpaca, it goes through a handful of stages, starting with washing and ending with spinning. For Hazel, a weaver from way back, it’s then ready to be transformed into a range of handmade products: balls and skeins of yarn, felt sheets, scarves, shawls, blankets, baby clothing and even miniature knitted alpacas (because knitting life-size alpacas just wouldn’t work). All of her products are made on the premises and belong to the McKones’ purpose-built business, Fibre of the Gods – a common way of referring to alpaca fleece, which was once considered luxurious enough to only be used to clothe royalty by the Incas in the animals’ native homeland of Peru.

500 years later and 15 000 kilometres away, Hazel sells her collection of handmade creations to anybody interested, blue-blooded or otherwise, through Uniquely Toodyay and on Facebook. Each piece is handcrafted from the 40 kilos of fleece the McKones’ own herd produces during their annual shearing. The Fibre of the Gods mill also processes fleece for other alpaca owners and farmers from as far afield as Tasmania – on average, almost 400 kilos each year.

With stats like that plus a mill to maintain, both businesses are labours of love for Hazel and Michael. As with anything, there are plenty of troughs to the peaks, from machinery issues to fleeces that just don’t feel like processing. Then there’s the balancing act both put on working “day jobs” off the farm (Hazel as a mobile bookkeeper and Michael as a builder). Still, they’ve never regretted swapping snails for farming fleecier, four-legged fauna. The satisfaction gained from taking fleece and transforming it into wearable warmth and one-of-a-kind handicrafts – and from providing fellow alpaca people with perfectly-processed fleece from their own animals – is a pro that outweighs all the cons.

So what’s ahead for the Lavender Hill Mob and Fibre of the Gods? According to Michael, quite a lot: continuing to promote alpacas and their fleece through animal and product sales; securing funding for tourism to ‘become a bit more of a destination’; and appearing at next month’s Moondyne Festival. You’ll also find Hazel fighting fibre with fibre every June at the Fibre Festival, where she’s sold her goods from the start. Show your support (and find out what the fuss over the fuzz is all about) by stopping by her stall at either festival, Peru-sing the handicrafts at Uniquely Toodyay, or visiting Fibre of the Gods on Facebook. If it’s alpaca antics you’re after, you’ll find plenty on The Lavender Hill Mob Alpacas Facebook page. For fleece processing or alpaca purchasing enquiries, call 9574 5577.



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