Jan and Karl Heinrich’s alpacas showed up at the Country Music Awards last November. Well, not the animals, but their fleece.
The Heinrichs, who raise Suri alpacas, were asked to provide designer scarves for each CMA presenter as part of a package of locally sourced gifts.
Their 100 percent alpaca scarves couldn’t be more local. Not only are the animals raised and sheared every April on the Heinrich’s Long Hollow Farm in Gallatin, the fleece is processed and the yarn is packaged at their on-site fiber mill. Jan and Karl recently purchased a new commercial knitting machine, so their scarves and other products are made right there as well.
“Alpaca fleece has the quality of the best merino and the best cashmere,” Karl says. “It’s warm, it’s hypoallergenic and it has a natural luster. Alpaca fleece creates the softest, most supple garments.”
Consumers agree, and that means business for the Heinrichs. They are among the growing number of agriculture producers in Tennessee who are making an impact in the fashion industry. At Long Hollow Farm, they do more than process the wool from their 140 Suri alpacas. They process alpaca fleece into yarn for alpaca breeders from Alaska to Florida.
“In the world of alpaca fiber, Jan and Karl are queen and king,” says Van Tucker, CEO of the Nashville Fashion Alliance (NFA). “We are so proud of the work they’re doing not just within our community but across the country.”
Tucker says the Heinrich’s business represents the kind of ingenuity and creativity you can expect from Tennessee farmers. “Fashion begins in the dirt,” she says. “That’s true for raising alpacas or for the growth of fiber, whether cotton, hemp or flax. Tennessee also has young, passionate farmers who are carving out new areas in the fashion industry.”
She mentions Nashville farmer Will Tarleton’s work in the development of hemp as a fiber for apparel. Sarah Bellos of Goodlettesville is another visionary farmer Tucker praises. Bellos is growing indigo for denim dying and working with Tennessee tobacco farmers to help them convert their fields to indigo beds.
It’s the kind of forward thinking the NFA is determined to support. They provide emerging designers and fashion start-ups with the resources to create successful and growing businesses.
“The Nashville area has the largest concentration of independent fashion companies per capita outside of New York and Los Angeles,” Tucker says. “Two-thirds of NFA members are not designers but rather are in the trades. They’re farmers and fiber companies and textile mills, and we’re dedicated to creating the support network for fashion companies to grow, thrive and become solid employers.”
As NFA members, the Heinrichs can vouch for that. They currently employ six full-time staff in their operation. One is a designer who trained at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and was attracted to Tennessee because of its growing reputation as a destination for creative designers.
What does that fashion-forward future look like? A report recently released by the NFA sees potential for phenomenal growth in the start-up fashion scene. They project that such businesses could generate up to $9.5 billion in economic impact and employ 25,000 workers in Tennessee by 2025.
Tucker says farmers are sure to be an integral part of that growth. “Any farmer will tell you that the supply chain is changing very fast, especially in the fiber business,” she explains. “The greatest advantage in Tennessee is that we have a community of people, from farmers to designer-led brands to textile mills, who are willing to come together to creatively solve problems. Together, we’re committed to building a new model for the fashion industry. We don’t want to be New York or Los Angeles. We’re Nashville. We believe our region belongs on the fashion map, and we’re here to make that happen.”