Classic performance llamas
|Merino||17-21 microns||Vicuña||11-14 microns|
|Rambouillet/cross||20-25 microns||Alpaca||15-24 microns|
|Corriedale & Columbia||27-29 microns||Guanaco||18-24 microns|
|Lincoln & Romney||32-40 microns||Llama||25-31 microns|
Compared to sheep's wool, lama fiber is lighter and warmer, and has no oil, and thus produces a greater yield (yards of yarn per ounce of fiber). Warmer also means that a thinner yarn and lighter garment produce the same heat retention. This is terrific for fine dress garments, but not for the bulky look our culture expects from sweaters (unless you REALLY like to sweat!). No oil means that the fiber does not need to be washed before processing or storage, but that handspinners who have learned to spin raw sheep's wool will generally find pure lama fiber tricky to adapt to at first.
Lama wool also is rigid, slippery and has much less crimp. These characteristics make lama fiber resistant to spinning (meaning a different technique is required, not that it is necessarily harder to spin). The resulting yarn also either has drape or lacks bounce, depending on the user's perspective and intended project -- for this reason, most knitters and crochetters prefer to blend about 50% sheep's wool into their lama fiber (to provide bounce), and yet many weavers wouldn't think of committing such a sacreligious act.
Like sheep's wool, lama fiber is susceptible to sunlight damage and natural color bleaching. Also like sheep's wool, lama fiber will take a dye. Pure lama fiber products and garments will shrink (although less than those made from sheep's wool), and because they are natural fibers, lama fiber, sheep wool, and the objects made from them will be voraciously attacked by moths unless protected.
Before the arrival of Europeans, guanaco and vicuña wool was harvested on a four-year cycle -- the vicuña wool was reserved for royalty with a death penalty to violators. Vicuña wool is still the finest natural fiber known to man, and the vicuña was nearly driven to extinction in recent times because of it.
Guanaco fleece has a short wool length, high guard hair content, and a narrow color range. It is difficult to spin because of it's length, is a distinct pain to de-hair, and the overall coat composition and characteristics makes it difficult to keep vegetable matter out of the fleece. Vicuña wool shares the same drawbacks, but it's exquisite fineness alters perception of the limited color range and short fiber length.
Classic llamas have distinctly double coats with more guard hair and markedly less wool density than the coats of guanacoes and vicuñas. Classic llamas' shed fiber combs out readily, unlike any other lama (guanacoes and vicuñas do indeed shed, but other fleece characteristics make them difficult to comb). The underwool ranges from somewhat short to very short. Although classic llamas are found in the full natural color range of any other llama or alpaca, the guard hairs are frequently a different color than the underwool, and the inability to remove all guard hair from the combings means that the resulting natural colors are not as distinctive or pure as those of alpaca or woolly llamas. South American native cultures use classic llama wool for items such as ropes and bags (where guard hair is a distinct asset), and sometimes for blankets and outer garments.
Alpacas are the result of selective breeding to produce a fiber-production-only animal. Alpaca fiber comes in a wide range of natural colors and two basic coat types. Woolly llamas were the original mutation that made alpacas possible, and woolly llama fiber still has many applications. Alpacas and llamas (all types) have distinctly different physical features as well as different original purposes. However, once fiber has been harvested from a lama, South Americans reportedly classify it by its quality -- alpaca, for instance, is any fleece without guard hair. Alpaca wool is reserved for fine clothing, clothing worn next to the skin, and export.
Despite the practice of fleece classification by fineness and lack of guard hair, there are significant differences between llama and alpaca fiber, and these differences can almost always be discerned without knowing what animal it came from. Llama fiber tends to felt well (even on the animal!), and when shorn, woolly llama fleeces tend to be just that -- fleeces. Alpaca fiber, on the other hand, has a different lock structure and when shorn, each cut usually falls from the coat. The lock structure also means that alpaca has a softer handle (regardless of micron count), is easier to keep clean, and the fiber tends not to felt or felts only at the very tips.
Whether llamas make a significant contribution to the South American alpaca wool pool or not, some North American llamas definitely have excellent fiber. The best woolly llama fiber (18-22 microns) in North America does fall in the alpaca range, and both llama and alpaca fiber are significantly finer (on the average) than Lincoln and Romney, the two sheep breeds most often raised for naturally colored wool. When the broader color range of lama fiber is also considered, it's no wonder that handspinners and others interested in natural colored fibers are enthusiastic about llamas and alpacas.
The woolly llama and huacaya alpaca were selectively bred to minimize the percentage of guard hairs -- virtually eliminating them -- in order to produce a very fine and uniform fleece with a lot of crimp for the species (even the crimpiest lama fiber still has notably less crimp than sheep's wool). These lama wools appear dull or matte because only the guard hair of lamas has lustre. The yarn from these lamas is very soft, luxurious, and warm.
The selection practices that produced the silky llama and suri alpaca fleece types have instead maximized the amount of guard hair. The guard hair was selected to be super-fine (and, for the suri alpaca, as crimpy as possible), thus minimizing the character differences between guard hair and underwool to produce a different kind of uniform fleece. The resulting fleece has notable luster, but it has less crimp than the woolly llama and huacaya alpaca, and the resulting yarn is less suitable for knitting and crochetting.
Not all alpaca fiber is of high quality just because it came from an alpaca. Some alpacas are quite coarse, and some have a staple length that is no better than the underwool of a classic llama! If you are purchasing alpaca fiber (or an alpaca for fiber production), be sure to evaluate the individual animal or fiber at hand; if it is a juvenile, carefully evaluate both parents and, if possible, all grandparents.
Most available llama fleeces are the result of crossbreeding llama types for many generations, so even fleeces from apparently woolly llamas are often of low quality and have a significant proportion of guard hairs (around 20%). The guard hairs not only resist spinning and felting, but they give a unpleasant, scratchy feel to any garment. Removal of guard hair is a time-consuming process and is never complete. Such fleeces are best used for experimenting, learning, and non-garment projects (such as wall hangings or even upholstery), although individual fleeces have a wide range of characteristics -- examine before you buy!
Underwool from classic llamas has no guard hair because of the distinctly double coat. However, combings from classic llamas only have no guard hair in theory. In practice, there will always be some long, stiff, and nasty-feeling guard hairs present in combings (and no matter what you hear, no, you will never manage to pull them all out in processing, nor are you likely to be crazy enough to try doing it for very long!). In addition, the fiber is short and can't be prepared or spun by some techniques, thus limiting the types of projects it can be used for. Like the common quality woolly and crossbred fleeces, combings from classic llamas that you already own are very acceptable for experimenting, learning, and non-garment projects. However, classic llama fiber is not for next-to-the-skin garments or as a serious source of fiber.
Although you will find that many people use fiber from the crossbred (or even classic) llamas they already own, it's just a case of making lemonade from fiber lemons. That's certainly a very acceptable alternative for those who already have enough (or too many) llamas before they develop an interest in fiber, but don't be duped into buying crossbred or classic llamas primarily for fiber use.
Last and certainly not least, remember that juvenile lamas have much finer fiber than they will as adults, and their guard hair is much less defined when they are still young. Unless the juvenile fiber llama you are considering has several generations of nothing but the fiber type and quality you hope s/he will have at maturity, you can't be sure what that llama's adult fleece will be like. When crossbreeding produces a woolly-looking llama, it is usual for the adult fleece to turn out quite poor no matter how nice the cria fleece. Either don't buy juvenile crossbred llamas or, if you are willing to settle for a companion-only llama should the fleece turn out to be poor quality, buy only at a minimal price ($200 or less -- that is, the expected value of the cria fleece alone) that is fair for the significant risk you are taking.
Shearing is traditional among fiber users and harvests a great deal of wool at once; the result can be a fleece, and a few spinners prefer that their raw fiber be in fleece form. Raw fleece weights from regularly-shorn woolly llamas range from 2-5.5 pounds and have a 66-84% yield. Shorn wool is valued between $1-$6 per pound, depending on length, amount of guard hair, and cleanliness. Alpaca fleece weights in South America (shorn annually) range from 3.6-5.9 pounds. Alpaca fleeces produced in this country have sold for several hundred dollars; prime cria fiber currently can be found on the internet for $60/pound.
Shearing is the method of choice for woolly and crossbred llamas and for alpacas. Shearing classic llamas, however, would yield a fleece that is quite difficult to dehair (most of it IS hair!) and would result in a very much unprotected llama (the short coat takes much longer to regrow than the longer fiber of a woolly llama) -- shorn classic llamas can and do die of hypothermia when winter arrives and the coat is still too short to protect the llama. Combed fiber from the normal periodic maintenance of classic llamas can be used by the hobbyist (just don't mistake it for being commercially viable), and combing enhances rather than risks the classic llamas' health. To put it simply: DO NOT shear classic llamas!!!
Hand shearing is more easily learned and does not require expensive equipment, making hand shearing quite practical for smaller herds. The greatest advantage of hand shearing is that some wool can be left on the llama very easily, thus avoiding sunburn and greatly decreasing the llama's exposure to the elements and insects. Mechanical shears are more difficult to learn to operate (and are potentially more dangerous), were designed for use on sheep (and clog frequently on oil-less lamas), and remove the coat down to the skin. Mechanical shears can also get hot, and the vibration and noise can be upsetting for some animals. Mechanically-shorn llamas take at least three to four months to grow back enough wool to be fully protected from winter weather. Llamas that are shorn should have plentiful shelter and a good feeding program, and should be shorn when the weather warms in the spring or in early summer to minimize health risks.
Well-trained and desensitized llamas accept shearing very well and can be shorn by one person, but for untrained animals, shearing is a traumatic experience which demands several strong people and special facilities and/or techniques. Good, experienced shearers can minimize trauma, but it is far better to have llamas well-trained to accept handling prior to their first shearing.
Combed wool can certainly be used, and can be practical for nongarment projects when only a small amount of wool is required. Combing is the method of choice for utilizing wool from classic llamas: The fibers are full length (important when you consider the naturally short wool fiber on classic llamas) and far fewer guard hairs are present in the yield. Combing a true classic llama takes about the same amount of time as shearing a crossbred or woolly llama. Complete combing (not necessarily all at once) can yield a pound of raw wool; a llama can produce between 2-3 pounds of combed fiber per year with a yield (after removal of most guard hair) of 70-85% or better.
Woolly llamas and crossbred llamas do not comb out. Combing results in no significant fiber yield and, worse still, an extremely upset, hurting llama. Woolly llamas should instead be shorn completely, and crossbred llamas should be body-shorn (leaving the combable neck fiber on the animal).
Cleanliness is worth a lot to a handspinner. If you use fiber, you already understand the value of cleanliness. If you plan to sell fiber or fiber products and your fiber llama's fleece is not kept clean, it will not sell well, and those products that you do manage to sell will resoundingly discourage repeat customers.
First and foremost, shear fiber llamas every year, and do it early in the season! Shed fibers will felt to the new coat, creating mats and locking in debris. Worse still, if wool is allowed to mat, the animal may become prone to wool rot and dermatitis, ruining the fleece, and sometimes for more than one year. If the weather gets warm enough that the llama sweats, it will start shedding and felting, the fleece will be damp, and the fleece of some llamas becomes unpleasantly sticky and greasy.
To minimize debris and maximize wool quality, don't deep-brush or blow a woolly or relatively guard-hair-free animal until right before you shear -- that only opens up the fleece so that debris can work deeper into the fleece more easily. In general, the longer the wool and the fewer the hairs, the more debris attracted and retained, so pasture cleanliness is the only viable route to a clean fleece.
Straw and debris on the outside of a fleece can be beaten off very effectively with a pair of tools marketed as Qwik and Slick. For llamas whose lock tips get muddy or start to felt, you can (and should) rejuvinate them prior to shearing. Very nasty matts (as are common on the backs of necks) can be treated with a good detangler such as Cowboy Magic and teased apart immediately (be sure to use detanglers at least a month or more prior to shearing so they will wear off, and only use them on the really nasty matts, not the lock tips that can be brushed out -- the detangler residue makes the fiber too slick for spinning for quite some time afterward).
A classic llama kept combed out -- which is important for health alone -- retains less debris, and what little gets in also comes out relatively easily.
Some people are having success with sheets that cover the majority of the useable wool and keep it clean. Sheets, however, must be changed as the fleece grows. Moisture retention (and thus mold and mildew) is also a problem with sheets: waterproof materials result in condensation collecting inside; breathable materials soak up and hold environmental water (rain, wet snow, and dew).
Serious wool users do not want to use wool-producing llamas for packing, which will increase debris, matting, and fiber damage. The best fleeces are grown on pastures that are finely manicured like lawns; deviation from that ideal predictably decreases fleece cleanliness and quality. This alone is reason enough to refrain from using fiber-production llamas for packing.
Short sessions (such as ALSA pack classes) with little weight on a well-fitted pack saddle after shearing and before significant fleece regrowth do not seem to cause appreciable fiber damage. The better the fiber producer, the shorter this window of light use will be, and in any case, the use should be in a situation without vegetable matter and other debris.
Maximizing wool quality independent of cleanliness is largely a matter of careful environmental control to minimize stress. Even a genetically poor animal will yield better wool if properly cared for. Stress of several kinds can produce a break or thin, weak area in the fibers at the growth point. This results in brittle, weak wool. Severe stress can produce such a significant break that the animal goes into an unnatural shed. Possible causes of such stress are weaning, illness, dietary change, relocation, pregnancy and lactation.
Although faster growth is usually desired, excessively fast-growing wool has a greater potential for breaks -- the finely balanced factors needed for fast growth are easily upset. If you own llamas whose fiber has a very long one-year growth, take special care to change management and feeding practices only immediately before or after shearing whenever possible. This is another reason to shear early in the spring when the grass begins to grow well -- the temporary nutritional surge will coincide with shearing.
Another concern is weathering. Weathering is the loss of wool or wool quality at the tips due to strong sunlight and rain, at their worst when in alternation. Weathered wool is weak, will take on less dye, and felts quickly. Protective sheets can be an effective tool to combat weathering, but must be changed to larger sizes as the fleece grows. In wet climates and during wet seasons, untended sheets can actually cause additional problems such as mold, fungus, and rot.
Write the animal's name and year of harvest on the bag(s) so you can easily match fiber type and color later.
Llama fiber, like wool and other animal fibers, should be stored dry, away from light and bugs. Vegetable matter and dirt attracts insects -- another reason to strive for clean fleeces.
Storage in sealed plastic is not recommended by some, who say that residual moisture will cause molding. However, others find that storage in plastic is both acceptable and the only way to beat the moths. These differences are most likely climate-specific. In a moderately dry to very dry climate, clean and dry fiber keeps acceptably in plastic for up to a year, and the fiber does not become brittle as fast.
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