Ever since I got my llamas and starting hanging out with a knitting crowd, there has been a question burning deep inside me. I think we can all agree that wool comes from sheep, but what do you call the hairy product that you get from llamas? My knitting buddies tell me to call it fiber, but I’ve also seen it referred to as fleece.
Do you know the difference? Turns out it can be quite confusing.
Actually when I went to write this article, I thought it would all become clear to me.
Storey’s Guide to Raising Llamas, by Gale Birutta, has the following definitions:
- Fiber: the unshorn haircoat on a llama’s or alpaca’s body
- Fleece: unwashed and shorn fiber from a llama or alpaca
- Wool: a generic term for fleece or fiber
Sounds easy and logical, right? Well, if you look online, it seems like fiber is thrown around to mean anything from the hair on the animal (more about hair later on) to the yarn that you buy. Hopefully, this will all be understood once you have read this!
When it comes to llamas, fiber refers to the haircoat that is still on the llama. You know, before it is shorn off. Traditional, classic llamas (those not bred for fine fiber) have a double coat of fiber. The first layer is called the guard hair while the other is the soft underwool. Guard hair is used to make rope and rugs. Underwool is the fiber you want for spinning, however it can be hard to separate it from guard hair. Have you even llama/alpaca sweaters from South America? They often have pieces of scratcjy wool that stick out of the garment. Those “hairs” are usually guard hairs that have been spun into the wool.
Llamas have been bred out for different purposes. Pack llamas were not bred specifically for fiber and are most similar to the classic llama. Wooly llamas were bred to eliminate the guard hair and produce finer wool. In contrast, silky llamas carry almost all guard hairs, which are very shiny. In today’s market, many North American llamas have been crossbred and carry a more alpaca-like fiber, containing little guard hair.
Llama fleece is the result of shearing or brushing out the fiber from the animal (not polar tec fleece!). Shearing removes the entire fleece (guard hair and underwool) from the animals and is typically done once a year. The fleece must then be separated prior to processing. Alternatively, fleece can be removed and collected by brushing the animal. This only removes the underwool.
Compared to sheep fiber, llama fleece is lighter and warmer and is not coated in oil. That means a warm llama sweater is less bulky than a similarly warm sheep wool sweater. Because llama fleece does not have oil, you can process it without washing it first, a plus compared to sheep fleece. However, this makes the fleece a bit trickier to spin.
Here is where some confusion sets in. Spinning fiber refers to any material that can be spun – for example, fleece, cotton or nylon. But fleece specifically refers to spinning material that comes from the coat of an animal. So fleece can be fiber as well.
Wool and hair
While Ms. Birutta suggests that wool is a generic term for all fleece and fiber, fiber purists would have a bone to pick with her.
Technically, sheep produce wool and llamas produce hair. The difference? The majority of llama fiber is hollow, which makes it lightweight and gives it insulating properties. In contrast, most sheep breeds grow fiber that is not hollow = wool. Additionally, sheep wool is coated in lanolin which makes the sheep practically water proof. There are those black sheep though that produce hair (and I’m not referring to color).
So there you have it. Fleece is fiber but not all fiber is fleece; sheep produce wool except when they produce hair.
Are you all sorted out?
Blogging my way from A to Z as part of the 2016 April A to Z Challenge! My theme for this year: Llama mama. F is for Fiber and Fleece.
Photo courtesy of Peter Markham.