MAKING THE MOST OF YOUR LLAMA WOOL
Ahhh, spring has finally sprung! As you look out over your llama herd, grazing peacefully in the sun, you may be thinking it is about time to do a little shearing or brushing. But what to do with the wool? It could be spun into yarn for knitting or weaving, made into felt, or sent off to a mill to be custom-processed into rovings for locker-hooking or other craft projects. Fiber artists love clean, soft llama wool, as a general rule. Here are a few guidelines to help you make the best of your harvest.
Q: How can I tell which llamas have the nicest wool for spinning?
A: Nearly all llamas have wool which is useful for spinning. The color and soft texture is what gives it so much appeal. There are a few individuals with exceptionally short coats (under 2"), or excessive, coarse guard hair and very little "down" fiber, but these are unusual. Environmental conditions can also have a negative impact, causing felting, matting, or contamination of the wool due to burrs and weed seeds. If you part the wool in several places on your llama and look down into it, noticing that it is fairly clean, adequately long, and soft to touch, it is definitely worth saving for craft uses.
Q: What part of the llama does the best fiber come from?
A: The "saddle area" yields the best fiber, also the upper part of the shoulder and hind leg. There is a strip right down the middle of the backbone which is usually damaged by sun and rain, and any wool from the lower parts of the body is often too matted and full of vegetable matter to be useful. Some "wooly type" llamas have a long enough fiber on their neck to be used for spinning, but this can often have quite a different texture and look from the fiber located elsewhere on the body.
Q: How should the wool be harvested to its best advantage?
A: Shearing is the fastest and easiest method, though brushing can also be effective, especially if the animal is molting. Whichever technique you use, there are a few things you can do to ensure the best quality fiber is saved.
1) Before you begin brushing or clipping in earnest, take a little time to remove any straw or vegetable matter from the outside of the coat. A blower is useful if the animal has rolled recently - this can remove a good deal of loose stuff. Also, a metal curry comb or coarse, stiff wire brush will knock out a lot of this undesirable material and open up locks of wool which may have matted slightly at the tips.
2) Always have 2 containers to put wool in. Sorting is easiest to do as you collect the fiber. Use one for the "good stuff" and the other for "bad stuff." Discard all second cuts (those short pieces resulting from shearing over the same area twice), matts, fiber which looks to have 25% or more contamination with vegetable matter, stained areas, and guard hair; if it is easily removable. Keep all clean, beautiful fiber longer than 2".
3) When Shearing, I like to work from the back to the front of the llama, clipping a wide area and rolling it back as I work so that it can be removed in one large piece. I can then hold this piece and give it a good shaking - which causes lots of fine chaff to fall out - and quickly pull out the coarser guard hair before putting it in my container. Some llamas have such soft, fine guard hair it doesn't need to be removed but when possible it is best to take it out. Otherwise your sweater made from this wool may be suitable only for aspiring saints! Guard hair will not cause problems if the fiber is to be used for felt making or locker hooking, or weaving which will not be worn around your neck, etc. It does have a tendency to work its way out of handspun yarn in a garment and can be unpleasant.
4) Brushing is not a terribly productive method of collecting Llama wool, unless the animal happens to be molting. If you notice this occurring, first remove as much vegetable matter as you can with your hands or a blower. Next, part the wool and fold back, concentrating on a small section. I like to use a metal coarse-toothed dog comb for this, but a wire brush will also work. Brush out the loosened wool, drop it in the bag and go to the next section. Always check the handful you just removed to make sure it is of "handspinning quality." One advantage to this method is that guard hair pretty much stays with the llama and you are mainly collecting the soft undercoat. If you are brushing out your llamas for routine grooming purposes, it is worthwhile to check the fiber you pull out of your brush to see if it is worth saving. Over time, especially if you have a lot of llamas, you can collect quite a bit of fiber this way.
Q: Any special instructions for "wooly types," those llama's whose wool is, say, 7-14" long?
A: Before I answer, let me first explain that I am primarily a shepherd, concerned more with harvesting beautiful fiber from my animals than in them winning any beauty contests! If I were lucky enough to own such a llama, I would shear it on a regular basis. I have noticed, during my travels as a llama-wool judge, as well as assisting my neighbors with brushing and shearing, that the wooly types tend to have a finer grade of wool and less guard hair than their draft-type counterparts. I have also noticed that the owners may be reluctant to clip those beautiful long, flowing coats. This can create health or infertility problems due to the animal being too hot, as well as being a real trap for collecting weed seeds and debris. Furthermore, when less guard hair is present the coat may not shed rain very well, causing the fine undercoat to "felt" or clot at the tips, which makes it undesirable for handspinning. Also, since an animal's coat will only grow out to a certain length and then stop, the fiber will tend to dry out, fade, and weather over time. I think that shearing, say, every two years, would make for a healthier, happier llama with a beautiful, continuously growing coat as well as providing the owner with material for gorgeous sweaters and wall hangings. If you are still not convinced, these engaging creatures should probably be brushed much more often than packer-types and provided with plenty of shelter from sun and rain. It also helps to spray the weeds in your pasture to reduce burrs and seeds, and severely limit access to straw bedding. If you have a llama whose wool is already damaged and want to shear it and start over, the wool may be partially salvaged by clipping off the last 2" or so, leaving the prime fiber beneath for handspinning.
Q: What is the best way to store my fiber prior to shipping to a mill or selling to a handspinner?
A: Plastic garbage bags are not a good way to store wool, as they cannot "breathe" and will provide a nice environment for mold and mildew to grow. Plastic bags tied tightly at the top will often yield a foul smelling mess when reopened at a later date. White poly feed bags will tend to get plastic chaff in the wool which is difficult to remove. I prefer to use paper grocery bags, folded over and stapled at the top. Be sure to throw in a packet of herbal moth repellent or a few moth balls wrapped in a paper towel if the fiber is to be stored for any length of time. Unwashed llama wool is especially attractive to these little beasts.
I hope this information will be useful to your as the season progresses and you begin grooming your llamas. There are many handspinners and fiber artists out there who would be absolutely delighted to have your unique fiber to work with, or perhaps, you'd like to try your hand at a few projects yourself. The wonderful things that can be made from llama wool which has been carefully harvested makes it well worth the extra effort. Good luck!
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