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Pet llamas provide weaver material

They don't gnaw up the fence or tear up the grass; they make great pets - but watch out for the spit

Posted: Monday, October 11, 2004

ANCHORAGE - Giorgio Armani sulked under a tree in Suzanne Alexander's South Anchorage yard. It was raining, and his hair was matted. He didn't look his best, and he darned well knew it.

He lowered his head and stared unhappily at the fence. Then Alexander marched into the shed carrying a Frisbee filled with munchies, and Giorgio pushed his way past Kodiak and City Slicker, lowered his soggy head and dug right in.

Llamas are the perfect pets, said Alexander. They're gentle and smart and better watch animals than dogs. They don't tear up the grass or gnaw the fence, and they're considerate enough to leave their droppings in tidy little piles.

Oh yeah, and they make one heck of a nice sweater.

The only drawback, Alexander said, sighing, is their tendency to spit. They do it as both a warning and a sign of aggression, and if you hear a growl, you'd better move away fast before you "get gunky."

Armani bared his teeth into a horsey grin of agreement, and Alexander laughed.

While llamas don't look like much when they're wet, Alexander believes their wool is better than a sheep's. It has less lanolin, for one thing, and is lighter in weight and has almost no odor.

Every two years, she shears the three males she keeps in her large indoor-outdoor pen. She keeps big puffs of hair in labeled sacks in her garage: City Slicker, 2003; Giorgio 2003. The wool is soft and feels like a very thick cotton ball.

Next to the bagged piles is a small wooden box that looks like something from Benjamin Franklin's day. Alexander calls this a triple picker. It has spikes aimed at varying angles and is used to smooth all the llama hair in the same direction. It also has a swinging arm that sways above it with even more spikes. Think of the pit and the pendulum, and you pretty much have the idea.

After using the triple picker, Alexander transfers the all-going-in-one-direction wool to the drum carder. This is less ominous. There are no spikes, for one thing. A small wooden handle is turned as the wool is fed inside. What happens is that the llama fibers connect ("they have tiny scales inside of them") into one long strand called a bat. This is easily rolled into a spin egg, and presto, you're ready to hit the spinning wheel.

It might sound complicated, but it's not. Alexander, who calls herself a "workshop junkie," has been spinning and weaving for just over five years. In that time, she's managed to acquire a table loom, a floor loom, a tapestry loom, a Navajo rug loom and a large, gleaming floor loom that takes up half of a downstairs room.

"I'm still looking for my passion," she said somewhat embarrassedly. "Once you start, you just can't stop. It's like an illness."

She got hooked after her children gave her weaving and spinning lessons for her birthday one year. It took off from there, she said, and now she likes to spin while watching football on television. She enjoys the rhythm and the way time fades to a separate sphere.

After a while, things become clearer, more distinct. "You have a problem and you start to weave, and all of a sudden you stand up and think, 'Ah, that's what I'll do about that.' "

For the first time this year, Alexander entered a piece in the Alaska State Fair, a mixed-warp sweater with a smooth silk lining. She was quick to point out all the flaws, which she laughing called "design elements."

On the wall of her fabric room is a woven tapestry representing the score of Pachelbel's Canon - that's a piece of music, not a firearm.

Alexander used different shades for each note, darker spaces for when the pianist's left hand is playing the melody, lighter areas for the right hand. The piece is striking, with purples and yellows and blues and maroons blending to a soothing harmony. "It's woven so you could actually play it," Alexander said.

Alexander patted a bat of wool and stared off at her loom, dreaming, no doubt, of Peruvian sweaters and musical tapestries and the almost magical process of turning something you feed into something you wear.



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