In the Winter 2019 issue of Spin Off, we shared the story of how Long Thread cofounder Anne Merrow returned to the office excited about a chance meeting with an alpaca shearer while grabbing a pick-me-up at a local coffee house. Pete Hofmann’s alpaca shearing business, Top Knot Shearing, might be based in Fort Collins, Colorado, but his work takes him and his crew to alpaca farms near and far. Eager to know more, we asked Pete a few questions about his unusual occupation.
Spin Off (SO): How did you get started shearing alpacas?
Pete Hofmann (PH): My dad, Paul Hofmann, was a renowned sheep shearer and traveled the world shearing sheep and competing in world-class sheep-shearing contests. Sheep shearing was my dad’s passion, and he wanted to share it with all 10 of his kids. So the rule was that at the age of 15, we would all learn to shear sheep.
Each of us had to shear 1,000 sheep, and then we could decide to take it or leave it. This usually meant shearing sheep with Dad during our summers in high school. It was a great skill to learn. Not only did we learn a trade, but we also learned to run a business, people skills, time management, and pain management. Only myself and two other brothers still shear.
While I was in high school, my dad started shearing alpacas to help out a fellow shearer. I started to travel shearing alpacas with my dad once I got out of school in May. Later, after I graduated high school, I attended a small Bible college near Milwaukee, Wisconsin. My school-related bills started to roll in, and I needed to get a job to pay them. Recognizing the potential in the alpaca industry, I decided to pursue shearing wholeheartedly. I sheared 200 alpacas during my first year, but the business and my skills have grown every year. I’ve been shearing for 10 years. Now my crew and I shear just under 4,000 head of alpaca in 60 days.
SO: What is the most challenging aspect of shearing, for both you and the alpacas?
PH: Honestly, the most challenging part of my job is the travel and being away from my wife and 3 kids for 2 to 3 months at a time. Our services are in such high demand that it is almost like a marathon. We start the shearing season during the first part of April in Arkansas and travel to multiple farms a day. We work 14- to 16-hour days by the time we leave the hotel, shear at 3 to 4 farms, and travel to the next day’s farms. So, there really isn’t time for me to stop and go back to Colorado and see my wife and kids. It is a sacrifice that my wife, Whitney, and I have chosen to make because the business allows her to stay at home with our kids and homeschool them. This year I sheared at 180 farms over a period of 60 days in 12 states and drove 15,000 miles.
The most challenging aspect for the alpacas would be the stress of shearing day. We strive to make it as stress-free as possible for both the animals and the owners, but it’s kind of like going to the dentist: nobody likes going to the dentist, but it needs to be done. Shearing day causes the alpacas stress because there’s lots of activity in the barn: they are being handled, the clippers make noise, and they are being restrained with shearing ropes.
To minimize the stress, Top Knot Shearing crews travel in teams of 3. We take care of all the animal handling, restraining, fiber sorting/bagging, and shearing. We always work in a very quiet and calm manner with the animals so that they are at ease. The animals are gently laid on a wrestling-type mat before shearing, and then restrained for their safety with shearing ropes during the shearing process. We shear the fiber off the animal in a smooth and efficient pattern, which takes less than 5 minutes. Then, the animal is let back up and set free to go back to the pasture; it forgets about the whole experience.
SO: How is shearing an alpaca different from shearing a sheep or a llama?
PH: We pretty much shear alpacas and llamas the same way. The only difference is how we restrain the llama, since they are twice the size of an alpaca.
Sheep shearing is totally different than alpaca shearing. The sheep shearer holds the animal with his knees and legs while the sheep sits on its rump. The shearer uses his feet and legs to position the sheep so that he can shear it and so that the sheep is comfortable while sitting there for him. Sheep shearing truly is an art and takes years and tens of thousands of sheep to perfect.
Alpaca shearing is not as technical as sheep shearing because the animals are restrained and stretched out on a mat while you shear them. We do this so that the animals don’t jerk and kick while we are shearing them, and also so they won’t get injured by the clipper. With the animals securely restrained, the shearer only has to think about how to safely shear the animal and not about positioning the animal.
SO: What advice do you have for new alpaca shearers?
PH: For anyone looking to get into the business, I would tell them to apprentice with a master shearer for three years before trying to go out on your own. It takes 1,000 hours to become a professional, and by learning under someone else, you can learn all the little tricks that they have learned over the years.
For more information about Top Knot Shearing and its services, visit www.topknotshearing.com.
Elizabeth Prose is a former associate editor of Spin Off.
Originally published February 13, 2019; updated May 1, 2023.