An informational brochure
from the International Llama Association
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
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,
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 Ilamas and their relatives, romantically nicknamed
"Camels of the Clouds," are native to the Andean
mountains and include Ilamas, alpacas,
guanacos, and vicunas. As early as 1628 a Spanish chronicler wrote
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,
long guard hairs for ropes, and burning the
(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
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 Ilama herd
management are ranked among the top in
the annals of world animal husbandry. Their immense Ilama 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,
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 Ilamas 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 supplements.
The fiber of llamas and alpacas varies greatly from individual to
individual. (Though we refer to it as wool, what grows on
Ilamas and alpacas is technically a hair
because of its cellular composition.) Magnified cutaways show that
it is a somewhat tubular
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 Ilama 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
Human hair 100.0
Australiam Merino 122.8
Lincoln wool 96.4
South Down wool 62.6
The Inca civilization could likely not have thrived at its high,
harsh altitude without the warm fleece of these native animals.
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, Ilama
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 Ilama 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
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
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
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
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)
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
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.
Alpaca (Suri) 10-15
Musk Ox (Qiviut) 11-13
Angora Rabbit 13
Yak Down 15-19
Alpaca (Huacaya) 27.7
Llama (Tapada) 20-30
Llama (Ccara) 30-40
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
leave at least 1-2" of wool on the animal to prevent sunburn. (or
apply sunscreen spf 30 waterproof)
The type of restraint used will depend on the animal’s
Although 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. ...
Llamas with a
heavy coat of guard hair must be de-haired in processing, or 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.
Clipping 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
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.
This method is time
consuming but yields a much softer, finer, yam than methods which also
collect the guard hair.
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
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
This is done by
teasing small amounts of wool with fingers so dirt and vegetation falls
out. It takes time, but
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.
Hand Carding Carding is done
to open fiber, remove debris and second cuts, and arrange fibers so they
are easily drafted, or
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.
Machine Carding Passing 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
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.
Some 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
distributed throughout.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
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
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
explore the possibilities, led by whatever tickles your fancy and
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
Cahlander, A. with S. Baizerman. 1985.
Double Woven Treasures of Old Peru. Dos Tejedoras Press, St. Paul,
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
Ferrari Hermanos. Buenos Aires Press.
"Llama Wool" ILA Educational Brochure
Author: Beula Williams Reprint
Reviewer: Linda McNamara
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 longer-coated Ilamas.
For more information or to order additional copies contact:
International Llama Association, P.O.Box 1891, Kalispell, MT 59903
Updated February 1999
© 1993 International Llama Association. This publication may be
reprinted if done so in complete form and credit is given.
for Purchase or consultation on llama fiber be sure to contact us.
Llamas with Style!