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A pack of 'pacas

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Ballardsville farm owner creates clothing, crafts from alpaca wool

By Tracy Harris

She calls her baby boy for kisses. He runs over, hair flopping, big brown eyes like liquid jewels in a sweet face.

This baby is the newest addition to Denise Coonley’s alpaca family, currently numbering a dozen. And they all get kisses, not just baby Seven.

Coonley’s farm, Bluebonnets and Bluegrass Alpaca Farm, is located just off Ky. 22 in Ballardsville and is pretty much a one-woman operation.

She feeds, she grooms, she shows — and she crafts. Wool from her alpacas is used to create a number of textile products, including handbags, scarves and wine bottle wraps.

Coonley’s husband, Rusty, helps with the farm, too. But he’s a UPS pilot who travels frequently, although Coonley said he’s great with the big projects.

So it is often just Coonley and her extended family.

The Coonleys moved to Ballardsville about 13 years ago because of the UPS WorldPort hub in Louisville. When their only son went to college four years ago, Coonley said she needed something to do.

Enter the alpacas.

Low maintenance, docile personalities — they’re close to being pets. Just larger.

They run, Coonley said, like Pepe Le Peu from the Looney Tunes cartoon, with bounding, bouncy strides.

Each of her alpacas has a formal show name. Seven, for instance, is Denise’s Blue Biggio. 

Despite how much fun she has with them, Coonley operates the farm like any other business and last year broke even for the first time in four years. 

Some profits last year came from selling five alpacas — the farm just isn’t big enough for 17, she said. Female alpacas sell for about $2,000, while neutered males sell for only about $200.

But, she said, most of her profits came from textiles.

Once a year, the alpacas are sheared. Each grown alpaca will yield eight or nine pounds of wool, Coonley said. 

Once processed, that wool finds its way to Coonley’s basement.

Coonley’s basement is an organized workspace, bins full of various craft supplies and alpaca wool in various forms.

In the center is a FeltLoom, a large machine that weaves the wool together into sheets of felt.

Felting is an ancient method for creating cloth and produces a non-woven cloth by matting or condensing woolen fibers. Several methods exist, including a wet process where water and friction bind the fibers, and needle felting. 

Coonley uses a needle felting method; the FeltLoom is a recent investment.

Hers is one of the smaller machines — it can produce a sheet of felt about three feet wide. 

The wool is processed into sheets, and the sheets are layered so the hairs run in opposite directions. It is then passed through the loom several times, where thousands of barbed needles pull the cross-hatched wool into a solid piece of felt.

Once the sheet of felt is ready, Coonley dyes it by hand. She prefers earthy, subtle colors, blending blues, greens and purples with embellishments. Beads and metallic threads are added by hand.

Coonley said she often leaves a piece of felt laying on her worktable until she becomes inspired by it.

The felt, she said, can be sewn like any other fabric — she’s made jackets and vests that feel like the highest-quality store-bought wool.

The alpaca wool can be felted with other fabrics, combining the two into one piece of cloth. Coonley will use burlap to create alpaca rugs; silk makes lightweight scarves.

Surprisingly, last year her big sellers were wine bottle wraps. She sold 120 of them, including 50 to the Virginia Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association.

Twice a year, Coonley packs her alpaca crafts and travels to various shows across the country. She sells her products locally at It’s a Word of Art in La Grange and also takes custom online orders.

Coonley’s products have won industry awards, like a recent second place in a show through the Cottage Industries Alpaca Products Association. 

Coonley said she’s always busy when the show season approaches, and the spring shows are coming soon. 

But she’s also looking forward to summer, when she and Rusty sit on the back deck and watch the alpacas roam.

The Coonleys are keeping Oldham County’s agriculture heritage alive — and that’s something worth kissing an alpaca about.