For centuries man has looked to wool for a source of warmth In clothing
and blankets. As trade routes opened from Asia, exotic fibers found their
way to Europe. Angora goats, producers of mohair, originated in Asia's
Himalayan mountains and migrated with their nomadic herdsmen to Turkey.
They are named after the province of Angora, Turkey. The Kashmir goat,
whose fine undercoat produces cashmere, got its name form the Kashmir
region of India. It still makes its home in the central Asian countries,
with the best quality fiber coming from China. The camel has been used for
centuries in the deserts of Africa and Asia for transportation as well as
wool. The world's finest fiber, musk ox, is rarely available, though in
1954 an effort was begun to reestablish their numbers in Alaska.
American llamas and their relatives, romantically nicknamed "Camels
of the Clouds," are native to the Andean mountains and include
llamas, alpacas, guanacos, and vicunas. As early as 1628 a Spanish
chronicler wrote about "Peruvian Sheep," describing them as
in pre-Incan times, the multi-purpose llama is highly revered by Andean
Indians who make use of everything from its hair to its droppings. Llama charqui
(jerked meat) nourishes them, its fleece keeps them warm, the hide is
used for crude sandals, the long guard hairs for ropes, and burning the carbon
peruano (dried excrement) wards off the chill of the high country.
were not the first to take breeding for wool seriously. The earliest
recorded application of genetic principles is aptly described in Genesis
30 where Jacob separated colored sheep from white, selecting only the
strongest animals from his father-in-law's flock for his own. In the
Andes, llamas and alpacas were domesticated over 5,000 years ago, though
their exploitation in the advancement of a great civilization didn't occur
until the 11th to 13th centuries. The rules and regulations of Incan llama
herd management are ranked among the top in the annals of world animal
husbandry. Their immense llama and alpaca flocks were thoroughly
classified for uniformity in age, sex, and color on "quipu," a
ledger made of knotted strings. As a result of the Spanish conquest,
however, many of the Incan herd management programs were abandoned.
years steps have been taken to Improve wool quality and production in
South America through the establishment of private and government breeding
The llama is a two-coated animal. Its fine, downy undercoat gives
protection from cold and heat. The second coat of crimp-less guard hair
allows moisture and debris to be shed. Llama fleece varies from 0-20%
guard hair. In North America today, many llamas have a coat more like the
alpaca (who historically has been selectively bred for fineness of fiber,
and has lost both the hair coat and the ability to shed). While the
altiplano offers Andean llamas as little as 2% protein, every North
American breeder has access to the 8-16% protein ration recommended for a
regular maintenance diet, as well as vitamin and mineral supplements.
of llamas and alpacas varies greatly from Individual to individual.
(Though we refer to it as wool, what grows on llamas and alpacas is
technically a hair because of its cellular composition.) Magnified
cutaways show that it is a somewhat tubular hair with a medul-lated, or
hollow, core, structurally different from the solid or corticated fiber of
sheep and most other wool-bearing animals. The degree of medullatlon
decreases with fiber diameter, with the finest llama and alpaca fiber
having an interrupted medullatlon, or none at all. This unique structure
may account for the remarkable warmth and insulating quality of camelid
fiber, and contribute to its tensile strength and durability.
by F.H. Bowman shows the following relative strengths of fibers:
Down wool 62.6
The Incan civilization could likely not have thrived at its high, harsh
altitude without the warm fleece of these native animals. While the
exquisitely soft wool of the vicuna was reserved exclusively for Inca
nobility, shorn llama wool was placed in public warehouses and doled out
to Indian families for fabrication into the common man's cloth. Because it
was coarser than alpaca, llama wool was used mostly for utilitarian items
such as outer clothing, blankets, ropes, and sacks used for packing. Then
and now, alpaca is used primarily for clothing.
with the popularity of our wooly friends growing throughout North America,
a closer look at what Mother Nature has given us in llama fiber and what
we can do with it is needed. The wool is remarkably light and warm, sheds
rain and snow, and comes in 1 an array of natural colors. Unlike sheep
wool, it shrinks little during washing or processing. The grease or
lanolin of sheep wool accounts for 30-40% of its weight. Because llama
hair lacks natural oils, it is very light and thus has 90-93% yields.
selective breeding and good diet we have been able to improve the coats of
many North American llamas, with some comparing in fineness and length to
study at La Raya, Peru shows that age and breeding status also affect
wool production in alpacas and llamas. In females, wool production levels
off when they begin reproducing, or at about three years of age. Male wool
production accelerates until seven years of age. Fiber diameter, measured
in microns (1/1000 millimeter or 1/25,000
inch), ranges from 20 to 40 for llamas in South America. Wool
samples from 39 U.S. llamas tested by the University of California at
Santa Cruz during the 1984 ILA conference in that city averaged 20-22
microns in diameter. By comparison, sheep wool measures from 12 to 39
microns, with Merino being the finest.
World's Finest Fibers
The British Wool Marketing Board uses several tables, Including the
Bradford Count, to determine wool quality. These tables include fineness,
staple length, presence of outer hair, luster, crimp, vulnerability to
chemical damage, etc. For our purposes we are using only the fineness
chart which gives the diameter of the fiber in microns (1 micron = 1/1000
millimeter). The Information below is from the British Wool Marketing
Board and other sources.
|Musk Ox (Qivlut)
Not only did the Incas have some of the world's finest fibers to work
with, but they had astonishingly sophisticated hand spinning and weaving
techniques. Pre-Incan woolen goods found in the Lake Titicaca area have a
weft count of 190-240 threads per inch which, amazingly, is finer than our
finest percale sheet today. Other ancient samples show vicuna mixed with
the hair of bats and The viscacha, a large chinchilla-like rodent of the
high puna. A vicuna sheared annually produces Just 6-8 ounces of wool.
or Collecting Wool
Methods of collecting wool vary from person to person. Many have
discovered that a commercial blower or leaf blower make quick work of
removing dust and debris. A wire brush such as a dog grooming brush is
often used to remove more stubborn debris.
Initial cleaning, llamas, like sheep and alpacas, can be shorn, clipped,
or brushed. Brushing removes primarily the fine, luxurious undercoat next
to the body. Shearing and clipping take both the down and the coarse.
outer guard hair. It's important to leave at least 1-2" of wool on
the animal to prevent sunburn.
The type of restraint
used will depend on the animal's temperament.
Shearing Although spring shearing isn't popular in the U.S., it
efficiently gives the greatest yield. Shearing should be done In a clean
area, or over a tarp. For an amateur, fewer second cuts (the shorter
fibers caused by shears passing through wool in the same area twice) will
occur if the animal is hand-shorn rather than using electric shears.
Shearing is not recommended for animals with a heavy coat of guard hair
because, unless it Is de-haired in processing, the yam will be quite itchy
as the coarse hair ends poke out rather than blending in.
fleece normally grows 3-4" per year. A full-grown coat averages 5-10
pounds, with exceptionally wooly, mature, unshorn animals bearing as much
as 20 pounds. If shorn, it takes two years for most normal coats to grow
Clipping Clipping is easier than shearing for a novice, and doesn't
produce as drastic a visual change. It is especially useful If wool Is
matted or too thick to brush through, and will yield a blend of guard hair
and down. If several animals are to be clipped, hand shears are a good
investment (around $30). If not available, scissors will do.
is to start by securing a 4" row of wool down the back ridge with
clothespins, large hair clips, etc. This ridge will be left to hide the
uneven cut rows and prevent sunburn. Cut below this ridge in 1"
horizontal layers from withers to rump. Continue in this manner until one
side is completed. The fleece will stay together and peel down as you go
with the exceptions being a very clean (show-groomed) or very young
animal. Repeat on the other side. Release the secured ridge and brush
Brushing This method is time consuming but yields a much softer, finer
yam than methods which also collect the guard hair. Most easily done when
the animal is shedding, brushing is a wonderful way to really know your
llama, who will benefit from the handling. Cosmetic winter brushing will
not Interfere with the insulating function of the wool. The annual yield
from brushing averages 3-4 pounds, but ranges from 2-8 pounds.
wool can be spun for use, it must be cleaned -and the cleaner the better.
Most communities have specialty shops where the various tools for wool
preparation are available. A variety of helpful publications are listed
in the bibliography. The neck and leg wool from animals with shorter,
coarser In these areas hair should be discarded,
Picking This is done by teasing small amounts of wool with fingers so
dirt and vegetation falls out. It takes time, but spinning directly from
hand-picked wool creates a wonderfully textured, natural or rustic
thick/thin type of yam. Some like to hand pick the wool before carding.
Carding Carding is done to open fiber, remove debris and double cuts,
and arrange fibers so they are easily drafted, or drawn out, during
spinning. The use of hand carders (flat or slightly curved wooden paddles
with closely set rows of short, metal teeth) is time consuming but
produces a fine, even yam that is easy to work with.
Carding Passing fiber between two cylindrical drums covered with metal
teeth produces a batt of carded fiber. Ranging from 6" wide
hand-cranked to 12" wide electric models, these machines vary in
effectiveness because of the wide range of cloth coverings used on the
drum. The most effective is one with closely set teeth which remove a
great deal of dirt and debris and best align the fine fibers. The
remaining vegetation is evenly distributed throughout the finished batt.
The cleaner the wool before carding, the better the end product. Hand
picking prior to carding is recommended.
Some mills process llama wool (see bibliography). however, keep in mind
their equipment is so large that the handling of small amounts is
Impractical, The end product depends on the quality and cleanliness of the
wool they receive. Wool with lots of debris will come back with much of it
ground up and evenly distributed throughout.
will de-hair llama fleece as is done with cashmere. By request, they may
also blend llama with silk, mohair and other fibers. Some spinners find
that mixing In a small amount (10-33%) of lamb or other fine wool
Improves the end product by increasing manageability and preventing
static cling in the rollers. Prices for commercial processing vary
depending on mill and quantity.
finished product will be returned to you In "batts" which look
like quilting batts. In roving, or in a coiled sliver which looks like
loose rope. The yield can be as little as 50% of the original weight
depending on the quantity and cleanliness of the wool sent for processing.
and the size of the machinery.
Prepared llama wool Is a spinner's delight - clean, odorless,
greaseless, and light. The finished yam depends on the spinner. It can be
very textured, or smooth and fine. I prefer working with pure llama wool
that is not blended with anything, but novices will find a blend of llama
with 15-25% good quality sheep wool easier to begin with.
selection of a spinning wheel depends on many things. Prices range from
under $100 for a kit to several hundred for elaborate wheels. When
choosing one, remember that you want It to work for you and not just be a
decorator piece. Try to visit shops that offer more than one brand, and
test them. Paula Simmons (1977) has quality drawings of 77 wheels with
statistics on each, and does an excellent job of explaining wool
processing equipment and how to weave.
I hand wash the spun wool in a mild dishwashing liquid or shampoo, attach
weights and hang it until almost dry before removing weights to set the
spinning, you are limited in the creation of a finished piece only by your
imagination. The natural colors work will together, can be piled for
tweeds, or dyed any color of the rainbow. I recommend a 2 ply for knitting
as It gives ribbing on cuffs and the bottom of the garment greater
durability. Spun wool can be woven into yardage for use in shawls,
Jackets, skirts, shirts, blankets, vests, and more. Mill-carded llama
wool also makes a superb quilt batt.
present time in North America this wonderful fiber supports a number of
cottage Industries. However, until our llama wool harvest is much greater
or is cooperatively collected. It is doubtful that it could be processed
on a large, commercial basis here.
Your Involvement in this creative industry can be as simple as owning one
animal, hand carders, a drop spindle, and a pair of knitting needles, or
can be expanded into a full-fledged home production line with pickers,
carders, spinning wheels, and looms. It's exciting to explore the
possibilities, led by whatever tickles your fancy and imagination.
Mills Which Process Llama
Wool Warehouse, 7 East Main St., Winters, CA 95694
The St. Peter Woolen Mill, St. Peter, MN 56082
The Forte' Cashmere Co., 148 Hamlet Ave., Box 869,
Woonsocket, RI 02895
WoodsEdge Wools, P.O. Box 275, Stockton, CA 08559
Hodge, W.H. 1946. Camels of the Clouds. National Geographic LXXXIX(5): 641-656.
Escobar, R.C. 1984. Animal Breeding and Production of American Camelids,
Lima, Peru. English translation published by Ron Hennig - Patience. 358
Mclntyre, L. 1973. Lost Empire of the Incas. National Geographic 144
Ross, M. 1983. The Essentials of Yam Design for HandspinnerS. Crook of
Devon, Kinross, Scotland. 126 pp.
d'Harcourt, R. 1987. Textiles of Ancient Peru and Their Techniques.
University of Washington Press. 186 pp.
Cahlander, A. with S. Balzerman. 1985. Double Woven Treasures of Old
Peru. dos Tejedoras Press,
St. Paul, MN. 198 pp.
Simmons, P. 1977. Spinning and Weaving with Wool. Pacific Search Press.
Link, Pablo. 1949. Alpaca, Llama, Vicuna, Guanaco article from All
American Wool Production. English translation by Fen-art Hermanos. Buenos
Alres Press. 45 pp.
Beula Williams has been
actively involved In raising llamas since 1975. She served as co-chairman
of the 1984 ILA Conference In Santa Cruz. Her background in retailing and
interest in spinning and knitting have evolved into a gift shop at the
Williams' Big Trees Llama Farm that carries hand-spun llama yarn as well
as hand-spun alpaca from South America. From 1984 to 1988 Beula and
husband Jim sorted and processed 1,000 pounds of shorn llama wool. In 1986
the Williams moved to Valley Ford, CA and find the mild coastal climate
ideal for their longer-coated llamas.
additional information contact:
International Llama Association