For John and Robin Watson of Hardy, their alpaca business is all in the family. John cards the fiber, Robin felts it onto their organic soap, and their seven-year-old daughter Isabella entertains the alpacas by showing them in competitions.
The three have come a long way in the two and a half years they have owned alpacas. John, Robin, and Isabella Watson did not even know what an alpaca was before they attended Scott’s Strawberry Farm Festival in 2007.
The family went to the Festival to pick strawberries, eat popcorn, and ride the Ferris wheel.
Fate had other plans, however. At the Festival, the family met JoAnn Wood and Nancy Fish from Fishwood Farm, who had two alpacas with them. The Watsons fell in love with alpacas, and before they even left the fairgrounds, they were planning their own alpaca business on their 25 acre Hardy farm.
Little did Robin Watson know that her family’s small alpaca business would grow so much that they would be selling their soaps in 30 states, and shipping hundreds of bars to stores in Florida and Martha’s Vineyard.
Even with all of their business success, the Watsons still live a quiet home life, with their two dogs, two cats, and 12 alpacas.
“We’re having fun with it as a family,” Robin Watson said.
And family is very important to the Watsons. They adopted their daughter Isabella from Russia when she was two years old.
“She’s seven now, and loves animals,” Robin Watson said of her daughter.
In Bella’s honor, they christen all of their alpacas with Russian names. They also named their business Pacabella, a combination of alpaca and Bella.
The business, which focuses on its handmade organic soap wrapped in felted alpaca fiber, was not their original intention. They originally planned to do something with the pounds of fiber alpacas produce every year, but they were not sure what.
“I knew when I felt the fiber that I wanted to do something creative with it,” Robin Watson said.
At first, she had no idea what that creativity would look like. But soon, an idea took the shape of a bar of soap.
“Felted soap is an ancient art,” Robin Watson said.
Felted soap is typically done with sheep’s wool. The Watsons thought that wrapping their certified organic soap with alpaca fiber would be a unique twist on tradition. They took a few bars of their soap to church with them, and people loved them.
“We started making them, people started buying them, so we decided it would make a viable business,” John Watson said. “Pacabella just spawned off of that.”
The alpaca fiber around the soap works similarly to a loofah, exfoliating the skin.
They have branched out to offer Pacabella lotion and body wash. The felted soap occupies most of their time, however.
Every April, the alpacas are sheared. Then, John Watson cards the fiber electrically. Running through a machine, the fiber is cleaned and turned in the same direction. Next, Robin Watson wraps the fiber around the pre-made soap, and felts it with hot, soapy water, so that it adheres to the soap.
The soap-making process is actually more time consuming than caring for the alpacas themselves.
“The animals are nothing,” John Watson said. “Making the soap is a time consuming process.”
Aside from de-worming every six weeks, alpacas take little to no maintenance, except for feeding. They cannot even be brushed or washed, because that will ruin the fiber. Alpacas are also easy because they do not require much affection.
“They’re kind of like cats,” Robin Watson said.
On their 25 acre farm, called Pineview Farm Alpacas, the Watsons recently added a small farm store, where they sell their soaps, lotions, and body washes, as well as bookmarks and children’s activity kits related to the farm, and purses Robin Watson makes from alpaca fiber. They also sell socks, coats, and scarves, which they buy from a fair trade company in South America, where alpacas originated.
Pacabella also sells their soaps at The General Store at Smith Mountain Lake, and Holdren’s County Store in Vinton.
Pacabella loves having visitors to their farm, and even let guests feed the alpacas from their hand. They do require appointments, however. For more information about Pacabella, please visit www.pacabella.com or call 890-8364.