AMHERST — Weaving together romance, compassion and a keen business sense, Karina Pomroy has bridged the more than 10,000 miles between tiny Amherst and the South American nation of Peru to create a thriving enterprise through soft, silky wool.
For over 20 years, Peruvian Link has served the niche market of apparel created from alpaca’s super soft fibers. Unlike sheep’s wool that itches against bare skin or through a thin underlayer, alpaca wool is soft and lightweight, yet still durable. In fact, alpacas are members of the camel family rather than the Bovidae family, which sheep and most livestock belong to.
“Alpaca used to be known as the fiber of the gods,” Pomroy said.
Of the two alpaca breeds, huacayas and suri, huacaya fiber accounts for 90 percent of all alpaca clothing, while suri fiber, silky smooth and with a shine to it, is often used for shawls and scarves.
A native of Peru, Pomroy was working for an exporter in Lima when she friended Americans at a Brazil airport. Photos were taken. Michael, now her husband of 23 years, saw them, and the two began exchanging letters. About a year later, he flew to Peru.
“And the rest is history,” Pomroy smiled.
She arrived in the United States on Sept. 5, 1997, to find him waiting, wilting flowers in hand, after she was held up in immigration for hours. That November, they married.
“Now I’m here. I have to do something, but what am I going to do?” she recalled thinking.
At the time, they lived in Bangor, and Michael had the idea of opening an alpaca store. And so Peruvian Link was born, with its first retail shop on Main Street, Bangor.
“Little did I know [the company] was going to take off in another way,” Pomroy said. “It just kind of happened.”
“It” is the incredibly successful wholesale business that makes up the bulk of the company’s earnings, with about 700 accounts across the United States and Canada.
The Pomroys moved to Amherst in the early 2000s, and purchased the building housing Peruvian Link’s showroom and headquarters located on Airline Road.
“I was very skeptical. Very, very,” Pomroy said. “I fought it to the end. Now, I’m glad we did it.”
She finds great satisfaction not just in running Peruvian Link but by employing upward of 30 knitters in Peru, mostly single mothers who are able to create, from their homes, Peruvian Link sweaters, capes, shawls, socks, hats and stuffed animals, in a host of fashionable colors and styles.
Pomroy remembers her mother buying knitted alpaca gloves for Pomroy as a child, on the streets of Peru’s ancient Incan capital of Cuzco, and how the woman would spread their wares out on a blanket after a 14-hour bus ride.
“In Peru, you’re on your own. If you don’t work, you don’t eat,” Pomroy said.
Fair pay for the knitters’ work has lifted them out of poverty and sent many of their children to college, Pomroy said. “If I can change just one life, that is huge. It’s a different type of fulfillment. It’s great to be successful at business. But it fills your soul to be able to make a difference in someone’s life.”
In Peru, alpacas graze in herds in the southern part of the country and have been domesticated in the north. In Amherst, thousands of miles from South America, the Pomroys keep two alpacas, not for their soft fleece, but to quietly graze, a symbol of the thousands of alpaca pieces, including 65,000 pairs of socks, that Peruvian Link ships to wholesalers each year. Prices for a sweater can run high, but a pair of socks? Within many people’s reach also are the stuffed animals (including alpacas) that can make a cuddly gift for a small child.
The showroom at 589 Airline Road is open weekdays 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with items available at wholesale prices. For more info, call 584-3200, email [email protected] or visit peruvianlink.com.