Llama and Guanaco fibre and its value for the hand-spinner
Brief overview of camelid fibre structure
All camelid fibre is termed a speciality fibre and is classed in the fashion industry as luxury. High-class fashion designers are using camelid because of its beautiful drape, natural lustre and fineness of texture.
Camelid fibre is a hair. Its microscopic structure is that of hair and the word wool has been reserved for the fibre of sheep. The majority of camelid fibres are medullated which means they are hollow shafted. This hollow might be completely empty or might be filled with a honeycomb like structure; running in fragmented or continuous medullation. This feature is important in giving it its unique qualities to make it particularly lightweight in relation to its volume or bulk. It also makes it a natural insulator, so that the fleece does not have to be thick to be warm. Warmth and cosiness of camelid garments are attributed to these microscopic air pockets in the fibres. This thermal capacity makes it seven times warmer than sheep wool.
Camelids grow a variety of fibres some having wool structures, some hair structures and some sharing both. The very fine fibres are very much like wool and do not have so much medullation. It has no lanolin and so is not greasy to touch.
The number of cuticle cells or scales on individual fibres is considerably reduced compared to sheep’s wool and this might explain why wool-allergic people do not have the same reaction with camelid. The fewer scales also make the fibre feel softer.
It is interesting to note, that an animal on a high plane of nutrition will grow coarser fibre. So although your animals’ fibre will largely be governed by its genes, what you feed your animal will also have a bearing on its fleece qualities.
LLAMA and GUANACO fibre
Generally, alpaca fibre is superior to llama. Alpacas are bred for their valuable fleece and, therefore, selective breeding for their fibre is most important. They produce uniform, superfine fibre with a high quality of crimp and crinkle suitable for commercial fabric production and for the luxury fashion industry.
The fact that llama fibre is considered to be inferior to alpaca is largely due to the fact that it is very difficult to process because of its diversity in fibre thickness and length ranging from the super fine undercoat to the very thick, coarse, guard hair. Llama is not ideal for commercial processing because of the de-hairing process needed to sort the very fine fibres from the less fine. Having said that, in Bolivia machinery has been developed that can successfully separate the finest fibres; producing super-fine fibre that is superior to alpaca.
So that is the main reason for llama hair not being commercially viable but as a spinning commodity for the hand-spinner, it can be wonderful and certainly luxurious. You can exploit the finer, softer fibre if the guard hairs and thicker fibres are picked out by hand before spinning. Once guard hairs have been removed from llama fibre, the end product is generally the same as alpaca.
There are three subspecies of llama: tapada, lanuda and ccara.
Today, because of crossbreeding, these are not readily distinguishable but some characteristics can still be seen. The tapada and lanuda have much woollier coats, whereas, the ccara is very shorthaired.
Historically, deliberate selective breeding produced llamas with fleeces that averaged only 22.4 microns with a uniform, fine fleece that exhibited a reduction in the difference in the micron count between undercoat fibres and guard hairs, much like the fibre of alpacas. Uncontrolled breeding and crossing of the pre-Hispanic llama breeds has resulted in the current increased hairiness in many llama fleeces. There are, however, llamas today who do still exhibit the valued characteristics that are centuries old but there are not enough of these types of llama to be commercially viable.
Some breeders have animals, which they call suri –llamas. These animals are crossbreeds of llama and suri alpaca. The fibre is similar in quality to suri alpaca and is, therefore, considered to be special.
Llamas come in a variety of colours. There are more natural colours than any other animal. They can be white, cream, fawn, brown, red, charcoal grey, rose grey, red black, true black etc.
They can be one solid colour or a mixture of two or more colours either combining to produce an infinite array of shades or having two or more separate colours. Colour genetics is not fully understood and one cannot breed for a specific colour. Two dark animals might produce a white baby or a grey parent and white parent might produce a tri-colour baby.
Guanacos’ overall colour is cinnamon brown with a darker, sometimes grey face and a white chest and belly. The inner sides of the legs are also white.
Llamas and guanacos can be sheared or brushed to yield their fibre
Llamas and guanacos have a two-coated fleece comprising of outer guard hair and a fine undercoat. The undercoat is very fine, whilst the guard hair, the outer-coat is much coarser. Guard hair allows moisture and debris to be shed from the animal, whilst the undercoat provides warmth and insulation.
The undercoat sheds from time to time and can be brushed from the animal. In this way, the soft, downy fibre is collected, whilst the guard hairs mostly remain on the animal.
The blanket area of the fleece is the best fibre and they have little or no hair on their bellies, unlike alpacas. The neck hair is often much shorter and is good for felting.
Unlike alpacas, llamas do not have to be shorn but if it is, an average of 3-7lbs can be yielded. It is usually necessary to de-hair the fleece after it has been shorn and this is rather laborious since, currently there are few machines that can deal with the long fibres and so it has to be done by hand. It will also depend on the animal, as to how much guard hair it has, particularly if it is an older animal.
The guanaco has a rough outer coat containing guard hairs beneath which lies an extremely soft, silky undercoat. The undercoat accounts for 80% of the fleece and once de-haired, the resultant spun fibre is of luxury quality, superior to that of alpaca and second only in quality to pure vicuna fibre. Sheared fleece weight for a guanaco is 3-5lbs. Like the llama, they too can be brushed.
Positive attributes of llama and guanaco:
• There are many natural colours (llamas not guanacos). Blending can produce an infinite array of colour.
• It is easily dyed and will maintain its natural lustre
• It has more thermal capacity than almost any other animal fibre. Microscopic air pockets make garments that are lightweight with high insulation values. It is also naturally water repellent.
• It is easy to clean and process because it contains no greasy lanolin. The lack of lanolin also produces a high yield after processing (up to 95%). It does not shrink during washing or processing and has a lesser tendency to felt when washed.
The lack of lanolin means that it can be worn by people who cannot wear wool.
• It is extremely durable and has been shown to be three times as hard wearing as sheep wool.
• It has a high lustre, giving garments a high visual appeal.
• It is soft, supple and smooth to the touch. The cellular structure of the fibre produces a soft hand, unmatched by most other speciality fibres.
It usually creates less prickle or itch than wool due to the manner of scale placement along the shaft of each fibre.
• It is unusually strong and resilient and does not diminish in strength as it becomes finer, which makes it ideal for industrial processing as well as hand spinning.
Maggie Warner’s amazing hand-knitted garments.
• There is little elasticity and therefore, garments are prone to lose their shape
• Moths love it
• Sunlight harms it. The shades of colour can fade.
This is just a brief introduction to the world of llama and guanaco fibre and its uses. For more information contact the British llama Society’s fibre champion Fiona Davis – e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
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