Kay Patterson Sharpnack began shearing her herd of over 250 llamas in 1991, shortly after completion of her new ranch, Hinterland, in Sisters, Oregon. In Kay's opinion "shearing is part of good herd health management." It makes both the breeding and birthing processes cleaner and reduces the chances of a baby dying from hair balls (caused by ingestion of fiber while searching for milk). Shearing also allows for quick and easy assessment of conformation and condition as well as reducing heat stress with its many associated problems. . . And then there is that lovely fiber!
The first shipment of Hinterland fiber went to Miocene mills in Canada in 1994. Most of this was spun into 2 ply yarn, with a small percentage returned as unspun roving. Hinterland’s 1995 shear was processed into two ply yarn using Rocky Mountain Exotic Fibre in Innisfail, Alberta, Canada. Beginning the following year to the present the fiber has been washed, carded and spun into yarn, single and double ply, by Taos Valley Wool Mill, in Taos, New Mexico.
Hinterland produced about 400 pounds of fiber each year, however, most mills will process lesser amounts, with a 20 pound minimum being the standard. There are also many individuals who clean and card smaller quantities into batts and roving, as well as handspin quantities into yarn.
Ken Jones, a professional shearer from New Zealand, and Allan Godsiff, a Sisters “Kiwi” transplant, spent several days at Hinterland each year in April and May shearing. Both used electric shears, beginning at the topline continuing down to customize each cut. This has proven to be an efficient way to shear large numbers of llamas with minimal stress. The llamas are not cleaned or brushed prior to shearing, but rubber mats placed on the ground in holding pens allow for catching and bagging of the fleece with a minimum of dirt and debris. The Hinterland crew halters, holds, bags and tags the fleeces, with time of 10-15 minutes spent on each llama. All animals over 6 months of age are shorn, with the "Hinterland skirt and collar cut" being the most popular style. Some animals get individual cuts, including the "vicuna cut", racing stripes, "wings", long collars, et cetera. The show animals are given particular attention and are shorn by Hinterland’s own Judie Moser.
Fleeces were skirted by hand as each animal was shorn and the acceptable fiber collected and placed in loosely tied plastic bags (no twist ties!), one bag per llama. Once the herd has been shorn, the mountain of bagged fleeces are again sorted according to wool quality and color. Some colors were combined for blending at the mill, creating soft champagne beige’s, greys and roses while others are processed by color from white and silver through red to black.
First shear fleeces from Hinterland's weanling/yearlings, identified by name, were kept separate with some select fleeces being set aside to sell to handspinners. These were stored in open bags, marked by name and year. Requests often come each year for the same animal's fleece, wool quality remaining superior year after year. The remainder of the first shear was sorted by color for separate processing.
After the second sort, the fiber was weighed, inventoried, boxed and shipped by UPS for processing. In the past a small percentage of fleece was processed and returned as roving for handspinners and hobbyists. For the last few years the entire shear, minus select yearling fleeces, has been spun into single and 2 ply sport weight yarns and put up into 50g balls or 4 oz skeins.
Finished yarns and fleeces were displayed in Hinterland's Wool Room. Visitors stepping in to sign the guest book were greeted by baskets piled high with yarns along the left wall, while select fleeces in a wide array of colors sat in Indonesian baskets along the floor. Photographs of Hinterland's foundation sires hung on the walls, along with "fashion photos" of the designer cuts created by Kay and crew each season. Hinterland tee-shirts, articles on fiber, magazines, books and brochures, as well as information on the use and care of Hinterland fibers were available. Hinterland was a working ranch and was open to the public 7:30 am to 5:00 pm six days a week. Visitors were enthralled by the llamas, and a visit to the wool room often leads to discussions of spinning or weaving, and the purchase of yarn for "grandmother" to knit a sweater. Hinterland also shipped fiber throughout the United States and gave quantity discounts to professional fiber artists and retail stores.
Kay did not breed specifically for fiber, but for the whole package. The goal was to produce llamas with excellent conformation, character, color, and lovely fiber. This is the challenge of breeding. It is also part of what makes llamas wonderful and fun.