Llama Fiber Article

           With the growing numbers of llamas in the United States today, and the decrease in demand, breeders around the country need to find new ways to market their animals; fiber is a great option.

            Fiber and fiber arts has always been a part of my life, even before llamas.  My mom weaves, and she taught me how when I was six.  Since we’ve had the llamas, I became interested in learning how to spin and do other fiber crafts that I hadn’t tried before.  I taught myself how to spin about five years ago, and have learned how to do several other crafts, including wet and needle felting, locker hooking, and knitting.

            Llamas and fiber crafts just seem to go hand-in-hand.  With all the beautiful fiber they produce, why not use it.  Llama fiber has some very interesting characteristics, which is why it is so nice to use.  It contains no lanolin (the oil found in sheep’s wool), so it is not greasy and is hypoallergenic (people are only allergic to the lanolin).  An annual fleece grows about four to six inches per year, and weighs around three to seven pounds.  The fiber from a llama can be used for anything that one would use any other type of wool or fiber.  The best fiber comes from the barrel of the llama.  The fiber is made up of two coats: the undercoat and the guard hair.  The undercoat is soft and downy, and is what most people use.  It provides warmth for the llama.  The guard hair is coarse and is normally removed during processing.  Guard hair provides protection from the elements (rain, snow).  Any more, people are breeding llamas with very fine guard hair that is barely visible and doesn’t need to be removed.

            Llama fiber is fairly simple to harvest.  There are major differences between shearing a llama for the heat or a show, and harvesting the fiber for later use.  To harvest the llama fiber to be used later, there are some easy steps to follow.  First, thoroughly clean the llama (mainly barrel) by blowing and brushing until all the dirt and debris is out.  Second, wash the llama (make sure you get all of the soap out) and let it air dry.  Third, shear the llama and skirt the fleece as you go.  Skirting a fleece involves removing any second cuts (little pieces) and the coarse belly hair.

            Once you have the fiber off of the llama, it can be processed by hand or sent to a mill.  If you process your fiber by hand, it is less expensive, but you will need to purchase or borrow the needed equipment.  It is also easier for small amounts.  Llama fiber is relatively easy to process by hand.  The first thing you need to do is pick out any debris that is left in the fiber, as well as any unwanted fiber (second cuts, belly hair).  Next, you card the fiber.  Carding separates the fibers and aligns them in the same direction so spinning is easier.  You can use hand carders or a drum carder.  Hand carders look like big dog (or llama) slicker brushes.  You put fiber on the end of one of the carders and gently brush the fiber between the two carders so it is separated.  This produces a “log” of fiber called a rolag.  A drum carder has two large drums, with teeth like the hand carders, which are connected to a crank.  You crank the carder and let fiber attach to one drum, and it is transferred to the other drum.  As you crank, the teeth on the drums separate out the fibers.  This produces a roving.  Carded fiber can be used as-is or can be spun.

            Once you have the fiber carded, there are many things that it can be used for.  One of the easiest things to do with carded fiber is felting, either wet or needle.  Wet felting typically uses carded fiber, either in rovings or batts (large rovings).  To wet felt, lay out the design in rovings (between two pieces of material) and soak in hot, soapy water.  Agitate the fiber by rubbing, rolling, or kneading.  Once the fiber sticks together, rinse the piece of felt in cold water.  The science of wet felting is actually very interesting.  The hot water opens the scales of the individual fibers, the agitation interlocks the fibers, and the cold water locks the scales together.  This process, if done correctly, can produce a very strong and durable piece of felt.  With wet felting, you can make flat pieces or 3-D pieces, such as hats and purses.  Another felting technique is needle felting.  You can use any type of fiber- raw, roving, or yarn.  The one necessary piece of equipment is the special felting needle.  It has scales on the bottom half that push the fiber through the material and then leave it on the other side.  Needle felting is fairly simple.  You lay a piece of material (anything works) on a piece of foam or pillow (the pillow protects you from the sharp needles).  Put the fiber on top of the material in the design that you want.  Punch the needle through the fiber and material into the pillow, and then carefully pull it back out.  Keep sticking the needles into the material and fiber until the fiber stays on the material by itself.  Needle felting is very good for decoration because you can do very small and intricate work. 

            The most common use for carded fiber is spinning.  You can spin with a roving, batt, or rolag.  A spinning wheel or drop spindle can be used.  The wheel or spindle provides twist, which holds the fiber together as yarn.  Starting out, you spin one piece of yarn, called a single, and then ply, twist two or more singles together, to create a thicker and stronger yarn.  A spinning wheel is better if you want to spin large amounts of fiber, but most wheels are hard to transport.  A drop spindle is convenient because it is very small and can go anywhere with you.  It just takes a little longer to spin yarn on a drop spindle.  Spinning takes a little more time to master, but the results are worth it.  There are also other uses for fiber, either carded or spun.  You can weave, knit, and crochet with carded wool or yarn.

            With all the interest in llama fiber, ALSA has added fleece classes such as hand spinner’s choice, full fleece, and walking fiber to some of their shows.  In hand spinner’s choice, you enter a two ounce sample of fleece and it is judged on how well it processes and spins.  In full fleece, you enter the entire fleece (minus the bad parts = skirted), and it is judged on its overall quality.  Walking fiber is a new class to ALSA this past year.  In this class, judges look at the barrel fleece while it is still on the llama.  The fiber is judged almost the same as in a full fleece class- for overall quality.  There are also several shows that have non-ALSA sanctioned classes for products made from lama fiber.  There are classes for woven, knitted, crocheted, felted, and spun pieces, and they are judged on quality and difficulty. 

            With all the wonderful reasons to use the fiber that our llamas give us, you would think that more people would utilize it.  With the ever-shrinking llama market, we as breeders need additional uses for llamas so we can market and sell our animals.  Fiber is a very obvious and easy use.  Llama people need to look at what alpaca breeders have done.  We need to send our best fiber to fiber cooperatives to get processed so it can be marketed.  We need to sell or use the fiber produced by our llamas.  We also need to get involved in fiber craft groups and spread the word about how nice llama fiber is to use.  We need to market our fiber as alpaca and sheep breeders have done.  As we all know, llamas and their fiber are much nicer!


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