Journey from South Africa leads to alpacas, hats

The Connellans started raising sheep but eventually switched to alpacas, which nudged them into the world of hat making

COWLEY, Alta. — Anne and Tony Connellan took a long and winding road to their farm in southwestern Alberta, and an equally unique path to their current on-farm operation.

Originally from South Africa where they raised 3,000 sheep on 5,000 acres, they moved to Canada in 1976 and raised sheep, then Highland cattle, then chinchillas and finally alpacas.

Then they became milliners.

Their hats made from alpaca fibre are sold at various southern Alberta craft markets and have proven popular for their style and warmth.

“We have found that the hats have been the biggest sellers,” said Anne, noting they used to also make and sell toques, scarves and other items made from alpaca.

Now they’ve narrowed their focus to chapeaus.

“We have always done sort of the retro style, but there were the odd ones that you couldn’t sell. One year, we couldn’t sell any fedoras or cowboy hats. The next year, we sold them all.

“We honestly don’t know from one year to the next” what will be popular, said Anne.

The couple and their four boys moved to Canada during apartheid, when the South African government was buying land for Africans, including property adjacent to theirs.

“I would have had to walk around with a gun on my shoulder, not because of the people themselves, but because the people moving in there had no way to survive, so thieving would have happened,” said Tony.

Anne said the high crime rates at the time made it unsafe for her to walk or drive alone, and their sons would have faced mandatory army service when they came of age.

They knew some Canadians so they came to investigate, originally thinking Saskatchewan might be their new home.

But when they drove through Alberta and saw their very first Canadian sheep flock near Pincher Creek, Alta., they decided to stay.

“This seemed more like home with the mountains and things,” said Tony.

“Where we came from, we had a big range of mountains 10 miles away — about this distance away,” he said, indicating the Rockies visible through the living room window.

At first Anne managed the farm while Tony worked various off-farm jobs. Sheep gave way to a herd of Highland cattle but the workload took a toll on their physical health, so the cattle were sold.

“We miss them. I loved my Highlands, I really did, but then we decided we’d try the alpacas instead.”

That was the beginning of Smiling Valley Alpacas.

The animals are docile and easy to handle.

“Smart too,” said Tony. “You show them how to do something once, and they know what to do.”

They’ve had as many as 33 alpacas but now maintain a flock of 17. The animals are sheared in June and the fibre is carded, felted and made into hats. Some retain the natural colours of the alpacas themselves, while the brightly coloured ones are the product of natural dyes.

Dying the fibre is a popular task with their many grandchildren, who visit in summer and enjoy the process.

“It’s amazing what they come up with,” said Anne. “They seem to have the modern ideas. I’m an old lady. You need those new ideas.”

As for styles, Anne said their first priority is to make hats that will withstand the region’s infamous high-speed western winds.

“We needed something that you could wear in Pincher Creek. That’s why we started with the 1920s and ’30s styles, because they were low down. They were wind resistant. You didn’t want anything with a big brim.”

Now in their 70s, the Connellans said they have no plans to retire, although they may curtail the number of trade shows at which they sell their wares. They also plan to explore internet sales options.

Though Tony often sports an alpaca toque, Anne has other tastes.

“I don’t like hats. I love to make hats but I never wear them.”

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