Friday, November 13, 2009

On the Pursuit of Llama Perfection

(Note: this is going to be a very fibery and yarny blog post. My apologies to those not so inclined.)

Greetings from a moderately warm, deliciously sunny Mangarara Station in Hawkes Bay on the North Island! It's been a week since I left Nelson for the beautiful wiles of the Southeastern coast of the North Island, and I'm slowly settling in to life here at Mangarara. I'll talk more about this place when I leave, but suffice it to say that there are sheep everywhere, the farm is amazing, and my bathtub looks out onto this view:

But we'll get back to that in a couple weeks. I want to tell you about my llama fiber adventure in Nelson! The basic gist of my work while at Betty's house was de-hairing llama fiber. Now, when I heard about this for the first time, I was a little skeptical. Most llama fiber I had come in contact with was pretty short, coarse, and interspersed with tons of wiry and irremovable guard hairs. So I couldn't exactly imagine why Betty wanted to take the trouble, until I saw:
Guh. 'Scuse me while I wipe the drool off the keyboard.
Betty has about seven or eight llamas and a couple alpacas, the fleece of which she primarily uses for felted garments and accessories. The first grade of this fleece, however, she saves, has blended with the highest quality silk and wool, then gives it to an 85-year-old spinner named Beth (who I want to be when I grow up), who spins it and passes it along to a couple really amazing knitters named Helen and Linda, who knit unbelievably beautiful sweaters out of it. These garments sell for about $400 NZ, which seems like a lot until you think about the time involved in just cleaning the fiber! Let me demonstrate:

Here's what the fleece looks like after it comes off the animal. This is from a llama named Pablo, and is the main fleece I worked on while at Betty's.
Typically, one of the reasons I don't like llama is the staple length, which is maybe around 2 or 2 1/2 inches. Betty counters this by shearing every two years, letting the staple length grow to about five or six inches with the highest grade locks. Here's what a lock looks like when separated from the rest of the blanket (with my very dirty and tan hand for scale):
See the trailing bits off to the right? Those are the tips of the guard hairs. The first step is to grab a hold of those and and haul them out:
You're left with the down fiber, and also all the guard hairs that didn't come out in the first pull:
The next step is to flick-card the butts and tips of the lock to get the VM and any dirt out, as well as second cuts, short fibers, and as many guard hairs as you can.
Looks miles different, right? Well, there are still probably about sixty guard hairs in that little clump. So all of that was just preamble to the next bit, where I slowly fan out all the fiber, and individually pluck out as many remaining guard hairs as I can. Depending on where the lock came from on the animal and therefore how many guard hairs it had in that spot, this bit can take anywhere from five minutes to twenty.
During the first day or two, you can imagine that this was absolute agony. The minutes ticked by so slowly I swore that the clock must be wrong, or going backwards, or was possessed by something hideous and evil that was sucking hours of my life away and not giving them back. (I found out about halfway through the week that the clock was wrong, which made me feel better.)
But after a couple days, I got obsessed. "Good enough" totally wasn't. I was going to make damn sure that there wasn't a single guard hair in there. I kept telling myself "one more lock, just one more, just one more". Thank god Betty got me obsessed with an Australian reality tv cooking show, so I had a reason I had to quit every evening! But the strictures Betty puts on her animals and her fiber processing really do create such an amazing product (seriously, comparable in softness and lightness to qiviut, but waaaay longer staple) that it was hard not to get emotionally invested.
The funniest bit was weighing the first grade of fiber at the end of my time there--I had been working about six hours a day for about eight days total, working mostly with the first grade fiber (although, to be fair, also adding to the second and the third grade piles occasionally too--shorter, coarser fiber, less nitpicky about guard hairs). Betty had said that she was able, usually, when she was being finicky, to get about 100 grams (less than 4 ounces) done in 3 hours. Now, we had been extra, extra, extra finicky with Pablo, since the final product was hopefully going in a country-wide exhibition in April. So we worked very hard to get a perfect fiber in the finest grade, and I was confident that we'd done at least 300 grams. After all, all those hours! The final weight?
81 grams.
A little more than 2 ounces.
Granted, yes, the shopping bag of fiber was completely stuffed full and llama fiber is very light and the other two grades weighed about 400 grams total, but it took a couple hours to come to grips. Betty was very happy, though, and we'd made it through most of the fleece, so that's what counts!
Plus, here's what my hands looked like at the end of the day (and I'd washed my hands three times already that day):
I'm headed back to stay with Betty in February, to do some more work with her fiber and also go hang out at a felting workshop mid-February. She's also taking me around to a couple great sheep places, where they think a lot about breeding and genetics to create the perfect fleece. I'm also looking forward to the opportunity to meet and goggle at one of her close fiber friend, Nola Fournier, who co-wrote In Sheep's Clothing, one of my favorite fiber books in the whole world. I might have squealed just a little when I found out she lived in the area!

One of my other actions while still in the Nelson area was knitting my remaining sock yarn in a trade for yet another painting!

The Colinette Jitterbug I brought got knitted up with helical stripes and my typical sock pattern into:
I dropped these off the day before I left to travel north. It was close!

So that's what I've been up to since the last post. My camera is being a bit of a diva, but hopefully I'll be able to take some more pictures of here at Mangarara Station (give it a quick Google; they've got a website that talks about their mission and some of the really neat partnerships they've got going). Right now, Atticus the cat has left me my third kind present of a half-eaten rabbit (he's so thoughtful), so I'd better go take care of that.
Thanks to everyone for their kind comments on my posts so far; I've not yet figured out how to reply to comments individually (anyone know how to do that on blogspot?), but it really means a lot to know that you're all out there and sharing this adventure with me!