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.
South 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 small camels.
Today 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.
The Incas 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, Ilamas 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 Inca I lama herd management are
ranked among the top in the annals of world animal husbandry. Their
immense I 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
Inca herd management programs were abandoned.
In recent years steps have been taken to
improve wool quality and production in South America through the
establishment of private and government breeding ranches.
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
The fiber 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 medullated, or hollow, core, structurally different
from the solid or corticated fiber of sheep and most other wool-bearing
animals. The degree of medullation decreases with fiber diameter, with the
finest Llama and alpaca fiber having an interrupted medullation, 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.
A study by F.H. Bowman shows the following
relative strengths of fibers:
- Human hair 100.0
- Australian Merino 122.8
- Lincoln wool 96.4
- Mohair 136.2
- South Down wool 62.6
- Alpaca 358.5
The Inca civilization could likely not have
thrived at its high, harsh altitude without the warm fleece of these
While the exquisitely soft wool of the
vicuna was reserved exclusively for Inca nobility, shorn Ilama 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.
Today, 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
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.
With 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 alpaca.
A fiber 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.
The 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.
Animal Fiber Diameter (in microns)
- Vicuna 6-10
- Alpaca (Suri) 10-15
- Musk Ox (Qiviut) 11-13
- Angora Rabbit 13
- Cashmere 15-19
- Yak Down 15-19
- Guanaco 16-18
- Merino 12-20
- Chinchilla 21
- Mohair 25-45
- Alpaca (Huacaya) 27.7
- Llama (Tapada) 20-30
- Llama (Ccara) 30-40
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.
Harvesting 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.
After this 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
The type of restraint used will depend on
the animal’s temperament.
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 yarn will be quite itchy as the coarse hair
ends poke out rather than blending in.
Llama 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 back.
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.
One method 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 down.
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 Ilama, 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.
Before the 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
hair in these areas should be discarded.
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 yarn. Some like to hand pick the wool before carding.
is done to open fiber, remove debris and second 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 yarn that
is easy to work with.
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.
mills process llama wool, 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
Some mills 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 cling in the rollers. Prices for commercial
processing vary depending on mill and quantity.
The 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.
Hand Spinning & Uses
Prepared llama wool is a spinner’s
delight - clean, odorless, greaseless, and light. The finished yarn
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.
Your 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 twist.
After spinning, you are limited in the
creation of a finished piece only by your imagination. The natural colors
work will together, can be plied 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 Ilama wool also makes a superb quilt batt.
At the present time in North America this
wonderful fiber supports a number of cottage industries. However, until
our Ilama 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
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 PP.
McIntyre. L. 1973. Lost Empire of the
Incas. National Geographic 144 (6): 729-786.
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. Baizerman. 1985.
Double Woven Treasures of Old Peru. Dos Tejedoras Press, St. Paul, MN. 198
Simmons, P. 1977. Spinning and Weaving with
Wool. Pacific Search Press. 221 pp.
Link, Pablo. 1949. Alpaca, Llama, Vicuna,
Guanaco article from All American Wool Production. English translation by
Ferrari Hermanos. Buenos Aires Press. 45 pp.
"Llama Wool" ILA Educational
Author: Beula Williams Reprint Reviewer:
Cover Design: Patricia Waters
Beula Williams has been actively involved
in raising Ilamas 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 Ilama 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 Ilama wool. In 1986 the Williams’
moved to Valley Ford, CA and find the mild coastal climate ideal for their