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Laura Solomon of Windmill Hill Alpaca Farm spins alpaca wool at the farm in Brookline. (Zachary P. Stephens/Brattleboro Reformer)
Saturday September 29, 2012

BROOKLINE -- It's important for businesses to stay connected with the world.

Especially if it's an alpaca farm in southern Vermont.

Looking for green-living and artisan products to showcase on an e-commerce site she plans to launch, Annie Bond started browsing the Internet and came across fireandfiber.com -- the website for Windmill Hill Alpaca Farm & Artisanry.

Windmill Hill, started by Norman and Laura Solomon about 10 years ago, sits peacefully at 842 Grassy Brook Road, where the husband and wife team raise and shear alpacas for fleece to spin into hats and other products for sale. Having grown up in northern New England, Bond contacted the Vermont couple about a month ago and explained her idea.

"I was eager to find out more about those gorgeous hats," Bond said. "They are so beautiful."

The author and editor even arranged to travel from her home in Rhinebeck, N.Y., to the Solomons' property to take a look in person.

"It was something she felt was worth doing," Norman said. "She came down, she saw the product, she looked at all of them."

Norman said Bond is known nationally for her expertise in utilizing the web as an important means for both social interaction and business development -- which is crucial for companies nowadays -- and is an expert in green living. He said his products met her criteria.

Bond said she hopes to launch the site, atruefind.com, shortly before Halloween.

Norman said being spotted online has been a wonderful opportunity to network across the country and gives the farm another outlet for its artisan products. He is excited about what he is calling a new adventure, which he said never would have occurred without technology.

The timing of Windmill Hill Alpaca Farm & Artisanry's joining the ATrueFind project coincides with the arrival of American Craft week, Oct. 5-14, and the Vermont Crafts Council open studio weekend, Oct. 6-7.

Norman, 80, said his farm will participate in both those events.

As you walk into the Solomons' home, you are first greeted by dozens of white Styrofoam heads sporting Laura's handmade hats -- they sell for between $75 and $150. Just around the corner is the living room, which is filled with books about alpaca farming, photographs of the animals and Laura's own spinning wheel.

"Everything is a one-of-a-kind, original design by me," Laura said. "(The fleece) is very durable."

Norman and Laura, 75, have lived a storied life to get to this point. They lived along the Charles River in Cambridge, Mass., for a while before getting married in 1966 and moving to Switzerland for 14 years, where Norman worked on the faculty of an international management development institute and served as the co-director of the World Economic Forum.

The Solomons had three children while in Europe -- their son Alexandre works for Microsoft in Zurich; Elizabeth is a wildlife biologist in Alaska; and Tanya is a classical musician currently residing in South Hadley, Mass. Norman and Laura (a bi-lingual educator) moved back to the U.S. in 1980 and lived on the West Coast and on Martha's Vineyard. When they settled in Brookline, Norman was anxious to bring some of the farmland back to life and considered raising sheep for the wool.

Then, as Norman puts it, an interesting event occurred. About 10 years ago, Tanya and her husband, Scott, were members of the São Paulo Symphony in Brazil and were traveling through Peru on a concert tour. It was there that they discovered alpaca farming and brought a bunch of information about the industry to Norman and Laura.

"We had never heard of them. So we looked through the material and got all excited," Norman said in his living room, while Laura strung yards of fleece through a spinning wheel. "This stuff is really great. It's very, very soft and it's one of the few fibers you can wear up against your body it doesn't have the allergens that sheep's wool has.

"If you take a strand of sheep's wool and a strand of alpaca fleece, you can just see the difference," he went on to say. "We went out and talked to people and we purchased a number of animals and started the activity."

Norman said alpaca fleece has small openings in it that work as a thermal trap, making it at least five times warmer than sheep's wool. He and his wife now own 11 alpacas, though they keep the males on their property and the females at a farm in Putney.

As most New England mills are not equipped to process fine fibers, many alpaca farmers in New England mix the fleece with a more course fiber to avoid sending their material outside the region for processing. But the Solomons prefer to use 100-percent alpaca fleece and, therefore, send it to the Midwest to be processed.

Norman and Laura agree it's a high-end market but even people of moderate means are drawn to the fleece products -- and get their money's worth.

"Hair measures about a one-hundredth of a micron -- that's one-hundred-millionths of an inch -- and alpaca fleece is probably anywhere from 15 to 25 microns," Norman said. "So that can give you an idea of the fineness."

Domenic Poli can be reached at dpoli@reformer.com, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277.