Alpaca knits business stays warm and cozy in Steamboat

Katie Haynes, left, and Julia Hebard, right, model some of Alpaca Imports’ latest styles. The two purchased the business in 2019. (Alpaca Imports/courtesy)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — It’s easy to fall in love with the hand-knit sweaters offered by Alpaca Imports.

But it wasn’t just the classic designs, the warm cozy feel or that soft fabric that pushed Julia Hebard and Katie Haynes to purchase the Steamboat Springs-based business in 2019. Hebard, who grew up in Steamboat, said it was more about the opportunity to continue long-time relationships with partners in Peru and Nepal and follow the type of business practices she thinks will be rewarded moving forward.

“I believe the way businesses are run is changing,” Hebard said. “Beyond profits, there is increasing emphasis placed on how companies impact the environment, the communities in which they operate, and the people who work for them. Alpaca Imports can make a difference through working with our partners to further our social and sustainable objectives.”

The company, which was started by DeWayne Watson and Carol Applin — lifelong friends of Hebard’s parents — in 1995, works directly with knitters and a Peruvian family business that helped train, counsel and helped promote sustainable economic independence for the knitters.

“We could have gone to China like everybody did, but we chose to stay in Peru, and keep knitting there because that’s where alpaca comes from,” Watson said. “It provided people, and it still does, with much needed work. Knitting and weaving is in their heritage. … We worked with co-ops, we worked with family-run businesses that were 100% Indigenous owned. They took care of everyone that they employed under them, and it was just a very good experience where we made lifelong friendships. That’s what made it work.”

Today the company continues to be a direct importer of fine hand-knit products, including colorful sweaters, hats, mittens, gloves, scarves and throws, which Alpaca Imports sells wholesale.

Products can be found locally at Christy Sports and Straightline Sports, as well as at retailers around the country. Alpaca Imports offers high-end pullover, zip-up and cardigan sweaters made from alpaca wool, which is light weight and warm.

“We work with really small businesses and developing countries to pay fair wages and get their products into the hands of consumers,” Hebard said. “It’s just been really good to us so far, but obviously 2020 was a weird year.”

Hebard and Haynes were both part of Colorado State University Global Social and Sustainable MBA Program. Haynes had graduated from the program a couple years prior to Hebard, but the two developed a friendship after Hebard rented a room from her.

Hebard took part in the program from 2015 to 2016, before returning to Steamboat where she grew up. But a few years later Haynes got a text from her old friend.

“She texted me, ‘Hey, would you like to get into the alpaca business with me?” Haynes recalled. “I responded, that sounds interesting.”

Two years later, Haynes is handling the finance and operations for the business and Hebard is in charge of marketing and design.

“It’s a super small business, and we do everything out of my house,” Hebard said.

The business has endured the ups and downs that COVID-19 brought in the past 12 months, including interruptions in the supply chain and an uncertain outlook for ski resorts where most of Alpaca Imports retailers operate.

However, both partners remain optimistic about the future.

“It was a little bit of a strange year just because not just us, but everywhere was shut down kind of mid-March,” Hebard said. “It’s been crazy, but everyone is feeling pretty good about where things are headed.

“We’ve talked to all of our clients that are feeling good about the future, and I think it really helps that the vaccine is in sight and people want to be outdoors right now. That’s kind of what we are really geared towards — this kind of outdoor, active lifestyle.”

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