Know Your Fiber: Llama
Posted on December 01 2017
Along with their South American cousins, alpacas, vicuñas, and guanacos, llamas are members of the camelid family which also includes the camels found in Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. The camelid family originated in North America around 45-50 million years ago, and although North American camelids did very well on our continent for 40-50 million years, they went extinct around 10,000 years ago. However, North American camelids crossed the Panamanian land bridge at some point around 3-4 million years ago, and have flourished on that continent up to the present day. Those animals became the South American camelids we are familiar with today.
Llamas were domesticated from guanacos around 6000-7000 years ago, by pre-Columbian people living in or near the Andes Mountains of South America. By the beginning of the Incan empire, around the year 1200, llamas were already well established throughout the Andes Mountains and the lowlands to the west as pack, meat, sacrifice and fiber animals. The use of llamas was pivotal to the economies of pre-Columbian trade in and around the Andes, as llamas had been carefully bred and selected for traits that would make strong and sturdy pack animals. Llama caravans that travelled through the region were responsible for the very broad trade base and economic successes of the Incan Empire.
By the time of the Incans, llamas were so important that not just anybody could set out to raise llamas. There was caste of llama breeders who were responsible for this critical task, and quipu records from these breeders that are believed to record flock sizes and colors have been found in the archeological record. Some herds were individually owned, but many herds were communal. Alpaca fiber was reserved for the higher castes of Incan society, but llamas provided the fiber for the rest of society. Used for clothing, blankets, rope, quipu, nets and more, the fiber that llamas provided was as important to Andean cultures as the pack services they provided. Llamas were also used as guard animals, being particularly aggressive towards canids such as native dogs and foxes. It is probably no coincidence that the Incan god Urcuchillay, protector of animals, was depicted as a multicolored llama.
With the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, the llama population declined. As part of the colonization of that part of South America, the tasks that had been performed by llamas were instead replaced with fiber from imported sheep and labor from donkeys. There is some evidence that there may have even been some wholesale slaughter of llama herds to make way for European fiber and pack animal species. The careful breeding practices and many of the Incan breeding records were lost, and soon llamas could only easily be found in the upper, remote areas of the Andes that had limited contact with the new European colonists.
While alpacas were rediscovered by the rest of the world around the mid-1800s, it took a bit longer for llamas to stage their global comeback. Although a few individual llamas were exhibited in North American zoos during the late 1800s as a curiosity, it wasn’t until around 1900 that the first herds of llamas came to the northern continent. William Randolph Hearst, was among those in the United States who brought a llama herd to the United States along with some other exotic animals. However, until the 1970s, most llamas in the United States were kept in private collections or in zoos. Starting in the 1970s, North American farmers began to raise llamas as pets, fiber animals, and pack animals for backpacking tours.
Today, there are over 100,000 llamas being raised in North America. However, with over 7 million llamas being raised in South America (70% of those are in Peru alone), much of the llama fiber found in yarns comes from Peru and other South American countries. Llamas are sheared about every two years, and produce about 6-8 pounds of fiber per animal. The guard hairs are removed from this fiber before it is spun or blended with other fibers. Like many of the warmest fibers, llama fiber has a hollow core, which provides superior insulating qualities. Llamas bred for their fiber have fiber diameters of 20-30 microns, which is comparable to some varieties of wool. Baby llamas have even finer and softer fibers, coming close to alpaca in texture and width.
If you are looking to try out some yarns blends with warm and snuggly llama fiber, stop by the shop or check out our stock online!