Alpacas: A Good Source of Fiber

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For most people living in the US, Memorial Day means a holiday from work, barbecuing in the backyard, the beginning of summer. For me, it means one thing in particular: alpacas.

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Just look at these adorable little fuzzy things! They’re impossible to resist. They’re like anime characters with their giant eyes and funny hair.

Anyway, every Memorial Day for the past few years, I’ve taken the opportunity to go help some friends with their annual alpaca shearing. To me, it really is irresistable: cute animals (not just alpacas, but llamas, horses, cats, and lots of dogs), great people, and incredible vistas of the Utah mountains. What could be better?

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Now, shearing day is just the beginning of the process of making beautiful alpaca textiles. The fleeces have to be collected and stored for later processing; eventually they become beautifully soft yarn. Alpaca is both softer and warmer than merino wool, and has a silkier, denser quality; certain kinds of alpacas, called suris, have even silkier and longer fleeces. Blended with wool, alpaca fiber is excellent for sweaters, hats, mittens—anything that needs warmth or softness. On its own, or blended with silk, alpaca can make lace with a beautiful halo and drape. There’s not much you can’t do with it!

Shearing day can be a lot of work. There are a lot of alpacas to get through (20+ most years, plus four llamas) and the process is fairly involved. Each alpaca is hobbled—they’re shy creatures and don’t much appreciate being handled, so this is the safest way to get everything done, and the alpacas aren’t hurt at all, although they are very annoyed. The blanket fleece comes off first—this is prime fiber from the shoulders, sides, and back. It tends to be the longest and the finest, although often covered in hay if the ‘paca is a roller! Usually my job is to collect the blanket fleece as it comes off the animal.

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We pull the fleece off and bring it to the “skirting table”, where we pick off the very short pieces that sometimes get left behind as part of the shearing process, and any obviously unusuable fiber. This is, in my opinion, the best part—I get to handle the whole fleece, which is always incredibly soft, as alpaca tends to be, and has interesting color variations throughout. That fleece above could practically be considered “pink” with the white and red-fawn colors.

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Once the blanket fleece comes off, the rest of the “wool” follows. Some of it is considered second-quality fiber, from the legs and neck; the rest gets tossed, as it’s not worth the effort to process it or work with it. While the shearing is going on, the alpaca gets their nails trimmed, their teeth checked, and they get a whole going-over to check for any health problems or signs of impending crias (the technical term for a baby alpaca. That little brown-and-white one at the top is one of last year’s crias.)

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Unlike the last few years, this year we had rain and threats of more rain. Ultimately it meant we only got through the “girls” yesterday instead of all of the alpacas plus all four of the llamas. You can see the llamas above smirking that they don’t have to get shorn yet! (Llamas are a bit more work to shear, mainly because they’re much bigger than alpacas and tend to put up a proportional amount of fuss.)

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In the end we got 14 alpacas sheared, including the two crias from last year. Don’t they look happy to be naked? Well, I expect they’d be a bit happier if the weather would stay clear, but either way they’re now ready to be cool for the summer.

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Alpacas and horses? It’s not exactly “sheep and horses” but really, how could I resist?

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Woolgathering

It’s time to add some sheep to this “sheep and horses” business. Today I have some awesome handspun yarn to share with you.

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This was a very preciousssss fiber to me until I finally convinced myself to spin it. The colors are absolutely my favorite, and the softness and luster can’t be beat.

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This is the unspun fiber. Absolutely luscious, no? It’s a merino wool / yak / silk blend from the lovely Woolgatherings. It’s a really lovely blend to spin. Merino is the breed of sheep with the finest, softest wool—this is why anything labeled “merino” will cost more than generic “wool”. It’s very soft, of course, and adds a nice degree of bounce to the yarn, since the other fibers have no elasticity/recovery. The yak undercoat, for those who’ve never petted the fiber before, is incredibly soft and adds a lot of warmth. Silk, of course, is always lovely, and adds drape and luster to the finished yarn.

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I spun this using a long-draw drafting method (a fast draw that allows much more air into the yarn than other methods.) Long draw tends to make the yarn fuzzier than a smoothed-down worsted draw, but after plying, the fuzz is pretty minimal on this. I separated the fiber into halves and spun them in the same color order, offset by a bit, so I could have some degree of color unity but also get a nice heather from where the colors in the plies mix. It’s a 2-ply with a fair degree of twist in the plying round. (In spinning, you usually spin each ply with one direction of twist, then ply them together using the opposite direction of twist, so the yarn ends up balanced and not over-energized. I usually like to have a bit more plying than spinning twist, as I find it improves the strength and the overall quality of the yarn.)

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Here you can see the plying twist at work. When the skeins are hung at liberty, they will turn and coil in whatever direction has the strongest twist. “Age” of the twist matters as well; if the singles have sat for a while, their twist will go more dormant. You can see this with the second, green skein—those singles sat for ages before I plied them, and then I added a ton of plying twist.

Ultimately I got about 735 yards from 4 ounces, which is pretty good yardage. I’m planning on incorporating this into a woven wrap somewhere down the line, but it’ll be a while because I still have other things to spin to include—735 is a lot, but not enough for the project I have in mind. And spinning yarn strong enough to weave with can be tricky! But don’t worry, this yarn will be back sometime, and in yet another different form.

Lastly, some of you might be curious about what I use to spin. This is a photo of my current spinning wheel, Leia. She’s a Little Gem model from the excellent spinning wheel makers, Majacraft of New Zealand. Leia is actually a travel wheel, meaning I can fold her up into a padded bag that’s very easy to take places, even on the plane! (Do not try this on a very full flight. Trust me.) I like my wheels to go very fast, and while the Gem isn’t the fastest model of wheel out there, she gets the job done, and she’s very easy to take to knit night.

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I know that spinning is unfamiliar to many people, so if there’s any questions I can answer about any aspect of the craft, I’d love to hear them! Everyone else—until next time!