Going back a bit, John had decided after 15 years teaching that it was time for a change, and was setting up a small gardening and landscaping business. We needed some extra garden space for him to use as a plant nursery and equipment store, and quite by chance we happened on the walled garden at Duns Castle. It had been unused for years, and the owners were happy to rent it to us to turn those weeds and stones into something beautiful.
We started planning what we could do with the space – fruit trees, currant bushes, strawberry plants, lots of lavender, and bee hives. But we realised pretty early on that planting up the whole 2½ acres was going to be too much even for us. Which is when something that had been lurking at the back of Juliet’s mind for years suddenly leapt to the fore: alpacas!
And that was it! Once you’ve fallen under the spell of these beautiful, graceful, gentle, characterful animals, there’s no escape. So another four boys soon arrived from Barnacre Alpacas (the first three just looked a bit lonely in that big paddock), and then two pregnant females (well, a couple of the boys had stud potential) … and once you’ve seen a newborn alpaca cria (think a fluffy Bambi), the battle is well and truly lost. That’s how it was for us, anyway.
We called our herd “Lavender Bee”, after the walled garden. And the alpacas and the garden were a great combination: bees + alpaca poo = oodles of strawberries!
What you’re left with is a huge pile wonderfully fine, warm, lustrous, soft fleece – 3 kilos or so per alpaca, of which about half will be the best quality ‘blanket’ from the back and sides. Alpaca fibre has a much lower ‘prickle factor’ than sheep wool because of the flatter scales on the fibre shaft, and most alpaca fleece has a diameter of less than 30 microns (thousandths of a millimetre), which is generally too fine to be felt by human skin. The best quality alpaca fleeces are less than 20 microns – as fine as cashmere – but much more robust and hard-wearing.
So we started looking into getting some of our fleece spun commercially. But rather sadly, given the long tradition of the textile industry in the Scottish Borders, we couldn’t find anywhere in the Borders or elsewhere in Scotland that could process alpaca fleece – the nearest mills were 250 miles south of the border. And unless you had at least 20 kg, there was waiting list of over a year.
Clearly something had to be done! So after much plotting and planning, and more than a few sleepless nights, we took a very deep breath and placed our order for a lot of eye-wateringly expensive machinery from Belfast Mini Mills in Canada. And so The Border Mill came to be!