Llamas are members of the Camelidae Family with one branch being the Camels themselves and the other branch including llamas and their cousins the guanacos and second cousins -- alpacas and vicunas.
Native to the South American Andes of Peru, Bolivia, Argentima and Chile, llamas are one of
the oldest domesticated animals.
The "modern" llama was introduced into North America in the late 1800s.
See the family resemblance......
Llama fiber is a mono-filament structure without the scales or plates of sheep wool or human hair and the light weight insulating properties of angora rabbit or polar bear fiber.
Llamas have no lanolin in their coats and minimal dander and odor when healthy.
Our fiber is gently processed to retain the natural feel and not become "prickly" like some wools.
For the scientifically inclined, llama fiber usually ranges between 20 and 40 microns in thickness.
Human hair is in the 50 micron range.
The llama fleece can be single coated or double coated.
The double coat having both a downy under coat of very fine filaments and a protective layer of heavier "guard hair."
Llamas are usually shorn once a year, in the spring time, which allows for plenty of regrowth before the next winter weather.
The llamas whose fiber is used by the co-op generally grow 3 or more inches of fiber in twelve months. Below are the steps from shearing of the llama, to gathering the fiber and sorting by color and quality, having the yarn spun and then made into socks or blankets.
The Llama Fiber Cooperative of North America is a member owned agricultural cooperaive whose specialty is the fabrication and marketing of high quality llama fiber products.
Our goal is to create an outlet for llama owners' llama fiber. The member farms are from around the United States and Canada.
The fiber from our products comes exclusively from our members' farms. By purchasing directly from the producer, you are assured of the highest quality products available.
Our charter is to collect and sort the fiber, then send it on to various mills for processing blankets, rugs and socks to name a few.
The high quality finished product will then be marketed not only off this website, but sold in specialty shops that cater to high end fiber products, as well as numerous fiber events throughout the year.
The one-time membership fee helps offset costs associated with the initial processing. The proceeds from the sale of these products then roll forward toward the following year's fiber processing cost. Profits are then be paid back to the co-op members based on their fiber contribution.
I started working on an outlet for llama fiber in 2003. Having owned llamas for ten years, my wife Lee and I came to realize there had to be another reason for raising these wonderful animals and a use for the beautiful and abundant fiber they produce.
Being a little bit naive, I started out looking for mills and outlets that could process their fiber, only to realize, not only was there no existing processing for llama fiber but no framework for marketing and distributing of finished products. In my search, I found more than enough individuals and small fiber pools doing yarn and roving but nothing in the way of finished goods. I knew that a llama fiber coop could not support itself, dependent solely on spinners and knitters. As important as they are to the health of the fiber industry, they could never be enough to build the industry that I had envisioned.
With this information, I started hunting for processors who had the expertise and interest in working with llama fiber. To my surprise, I soon discovered they were few and far between. Matter of fact, very far between. I started contacting every medium and large fiber mill who made finished goods. My first responses were, not interested, could not work with llama fiber, we had too much or too little fiber, this could never work, and it had already been tried. First of all, these were not acceptable answers and I sure was not giving up that easy.
After months of e-mails going back and forth, I stumbled upon a midsize mill in Canada that could produce blankets and socks. Lee and I decided to check them out by sending our own fiber up for processing. I didn't want to use them in a group production run until I had tried them out myself. They were not the fastest by any means, but they produced a quality blanket and socks. Besides they were the only ones interested. This was Custom Woolen Mills of Carstairs, Alberta. We sent them 50lbs of raw fiber and got back 6 blankets. You can imagine with that small amount of fiber, we did not receive back much variety in color or style. But it was a start, and with these in hand, I started promoting the idea within our local llama group, the Willamette Valley Llama Association in Oregon.
The interest started quite slow, but after two years, and many letters in our newsletter and talking to members, we got together after one of our quarterly meetings. I presented our blankets and what information I had been able to put together and a small group of visionaries decided to meet on a Saturday at one of our farms to see if there would be enough interest in forming a Llama Fiber Coop. I think there were 15 people there that day and we went about setting up a committee to look into the official formation of a structured group. Out of this was formed, the Pacific Northwest Llama Fiber Cooperative with the directive to organize members, gather fiber, and produce finished products to promote and market llama fiber. This was another example of me being naive. This was in the fall of 2004. I figured we would have this up and running by the next Spring. Was I wrong. Luckily, one of the people who volunteered to help me get the coop started was Ken Erion. Ken had some background in the formation of a business so that was my awakening into how long and what it was going to take to do this in a professional manner.
That next year we started forming the coop as a legal business and a registered Cooperative with the State of Oregon. This took longer than I thought. As Ken was working on the legal issues, I continued to search out producers and outlets for our finished goods. Earlier that year I started getting contacts from other mills in Canada and two or three here in the US. Some of our most promising contacts had been Quail Run Mill in Spokane, WA, Taos Valley Mills in New Mexico, and Exotic Fibers of Canada in addition to Custom Woolen Mills.
Fiber started coming in from members and by June of 2006, the coop had collected over 3000 lbs of fiber and of which we have graded and sorted 1200 lbs. As a loose-knit board, we decided to send fiber for production to 3 mills. Quail Run, as they were making the very finest blankets, Custom Woolen Mills for blankets and socks and Taos Valley for yarn to be woven into other finished goods. At first, we received blankets and socks back from the mills. We can now put together a committee to study our options for marketing products. The plan is to have a complete sell-through of our first production run and then move forward with a larger production and a wider variety of products to offer. As we had grown in size and presence, in 2007 I was contacted by one of the very largest and best-known mills in the U.S., Pendleton Woolen Mills. We met with the Bishop Brothers, who are the two Vice Presidents that now run most Pendleton operations. They expressed interest in working with us and producing blankets and other items on a large scale for us. We began by putting together a couple hundred pounds of fiber for them to do an initial production run.
Pendleton had never attempted to run Camelid Fiber, but if this was successful, the coop would then need to produce fiber in the quantity of around 1000 lbs of two different colors. The first year Pendleton produced 100 blankets for us. This small production run sold out in a little over 2 months. In 2008, we made a very large financial decision and had over 500 blankets produced. When this came together it moved the co-op into another playing field. So as you can see, a fivefold increase. We now are producing a full production run of Hand Woven Rugs from Texas. These are produced in many sizes, 2x3, 2x7, 3x5 and 4x6 We followed this up with a large order of beautiful knitted socks in two styles.
As you can see the groundwork has been set. The interest has really been growing with new members joining all the time. In 2009, we had over 50 members from Oregon, Washington, Montana, and Utah. By the end of 2011, we had over 80 members throughout the United States with membership open to any llama farm in North America. But it is also evident that for us to get to that next level we will need quite a few more members and a lot more fiber. New products will be created, new markets will open up but we will need a huge effort and support from the entire llama community. For this to reach the heights we know it can and should reach, we need each and every one of you to see the vision that 15 people did on that Saturday in 2004.
So as you can see, I hope I have sparked your interest and created something you can get behind and support. Let's show the rest of the fiber industries that Llama Fiber is every bit as good, if not superior, to anything that is produced from any other fiber animal out there. We need your help! Its time has come, so please join us in this venture. I may not know every path it will take us, but I can guarantee you one thing, we will always lead and never follow.
Larry McCool, Founding Member and Past-President
Pacific NW Llama Fiber Cooperative. LLC now
Llama Fiber Cooperative of North America