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I've been knitting for about a month now, but for the record, I really, really did not want to knit. First of all it's so, you know, cool now. Not that I personally know anyone who knits besides my mom, my aunt, and my grandmother, but I get Bust magazine. I've heard about the trendy yarn cafés opening up in the cities, and, yes, I've seen all the swanky little yarn shops popping up here and there.

Secondly, I tried knitting once, and it did not go well. And last year, even after I found my childhood stash of large needles (10, 10.5, 13, and 15), dutifully stored by my mother "just in case," I knew I would never need them. Still, I couldn't bring myself to throw them out.

Besides, I was needle-felting at the time. Now there was something not everyone was into. It involved dangerous-looking little tools for poking fibers together, required no patterns, and allowed lots of room for whimsy and/or error.

But alas, there was knitting in my future.

City Mouse Turns Country Mouse

It's my mother-in-law's fault I had llamas on my mind in the first place. And it's the llamas' fault I began to knit.

Here's how it happened, starting with the llamas. Well, beginning a little before the llamas.

My NYC born-and-raised spouse and I had just moved to Michigan (to a 20-acre farm, no less) from a fourth-floor walk-up in Hoboken, NJ. My in-laws were visiting from Queens for the first time and we took them to visit a small wool mill.

Our tour guide, brimming with enthusiasm, ushered us through two floors of bustling activity, and we watched wooly locks wash, drip, dry, card, spin, and spool. On the top floor of the little mill, a cadre of women stitched fluffy batting into colorful quilts and comforters. I was mesmerized.

So was my mother-in-law, who, I should mention, is an inveterate crafter. Not only did I marry into a crafty family, I come from one myself. One grandmother quilts, paints, and crochets; my other grandmother was a brilliant knitter and seamstress who made most of my clothes when I was growing up.

My mother also sews and knits, but her one attempt to teach me, when I was in my early teens, resulted in a shabby (yet definitely not chic) sleeveless sweater patched together from two big, saggy squares. Instead of yarn, I'd chosen some sort of gauzy cotton strips that were the color (and nearly the texture) of ace bandages. The end result, clumsily knitted on size 15 needles and full of unintentional holes, looked like something from Pat Benatar's "Love is a Battlefield" video. Not in a good way.

Though I liked my ace bandage sweater, and wore it until it completely disintegrated from poor craftsmanship, it had taken me endless months to knit, and I didn't have that kind of patience. I racked knitting up on that list of "Things I've Tried Once and Am Not Good At," along with bowling and tying flies. (Admittedly, I now enjoy the occasional bowl, and the latter is something I might try again someday.)

I recalled this story at the fiber mill when our guide asked if was a knitter. "Oh, no, I'm not, but someday, I'd love to have some sheep. My aunt and uncle have a big flock of sheep, and my aunt spins, and knits from her own fiber."

I paused, lost in the lanolin smell of the mill and my shepherdess fantasy. "But I can't knit. I tried it once, and just don't have the patience for it."

By this point our guide had led us into the mill's small gift shop at the tour's end. It was replete with handspun yarns, knitted items, quilted comforters, and felted bags and hats. I'd never seen needle felting done before.

"Oh, it's so easy!" our enthusiastic guide-cum-salesperson assured me, showing me the keenly sharp needles tipped with tiny barbs that interlock fibers into felt. "Anyone can do it."

Here is the crucial point at which I might have missed fiber-artisthood altogether: the point at which my mother-in-law bought me a small felting kit. Although I had no inkling of it at the time, it was one of those truly life-altering moments. And here I stumbled not only into a future with fiber, but with llamas. And I was soon to cross the threshold to knitting.

On Llamas

As we were leaving the mill, the guide handed me a slim magazine for the Michigan Fiber Festival. "It's coming up in August. They have fiber animals, workshops, lots of exhibitors -- it's fantastic."

Now, not only do I come from a family of crafters (and one full of carpenters and cabinet-makers and handymen as well) but I've always been an artist in search of a medium. In high school I tried drama, dance, and creative writing. In college it was sculpture, graphic design, textiles, architecture, photography -- just one or two courses in each, until the head of the art department told me I had "no focus." With senior year looming, I half-heartedly invented my own major, somehow explaining to the faculty (and myself) that the smattering of courses I had taken constituted a "coherent body of study."

After graduation I worked in art museums and art galleries -- becoming what Julia Cameron calls a "shadow artist" in The Artist's Way -- in other words, someone who works with and for artists, but not allowing herself to be an artist. I was even in a band for a while. But nothing felt quite right; nothing seemed quite like me.

I had been dreaming of sheep, but when I went to the Fiber Festival, it was the llamas I fell in love with. Conveniently, the Fiberfest was soon followed by East Lansing's annual Lamafest. And soon after, we visited a nearby farm and came home with two handsome young llamas.

Llannie is a bittersweet chocolate color, and Graty is an appaloosa, whose fleece spins up into a beautiful heathery color. But what I didn't know about llamas is that they are extremely intelligent, watchful animals, with enormous, soulful eyes. Much like cats, they cooperate if and when they feel like it. But they do enjoy being walked around the farm on leads, like big shaggy dogs.

Everyone's first question is, "Do they spit?"

Well, yes, they do, but ours spit but only at each other. Actually, Llannie spits at Graty, and I've never seen Graty spit. Neither of them have ever spit at us (although you can get caught in the crossfire, if you're not careful).

They spend most of the day grazing their pasture, and in the evening they kush down on their knees, just like camels. They need to be sheared once a year, and then you have all of this gorgeous fleece!

Unlike sheep's wool, llama fiber has virtually no lanolin or grease, so it doesn't need to be washed before use. (People with wool allergies generally find llama and alpaca fiber hypoallergenic.) It is a hollow fiber, and that's why it is so unbelievably warm (and light!). In fact, due to its hollow core, llama fiber is technically considered hair, not wool at all. Because of its limited elasticity (hence, little "memory"), llama is often blended with sheep's wool for felting or spinning.

Like alpaca, llama fiber is in the luxury/specialty fiber class. It is measured in microns, a system that passes fibers through a laser cell to determine their diameter. A micron is 1/25,400 of an inch, or 1/1,000 of a millimeter. The average human hair can measure from anywhere from 60 to 100 microns. Alpaca fiber is a mere 22 to 28 microns in diameter; similarly, llama averages 25 to 30 microns.

(For further comparison, mohair measures 25-45 microns, merino wool 12-20 microns, cashmere 15-19 microns and angora rabbit 10-12 microns.)

Alpaca is a popular luxury fiber, but don't discount llama as a beautiful fleece to work with. Llamas come in 22 natural colors, and their fiber is strong, extremely soft, and offers an excellent weight-to-warmth ratio. And as you can see, it can be just as soft as alpaca.

From Shadow Artist to Fiber Artist, or Yes, I Can Knit

So the llamas joined our family, and I began needle-felting. My first project was a pair of mittens (I used my hands as the pattern), then a pair of slippers, then two purses, then a basket. More slippers, more baskets.

But inevitably, when I told people I was working with fiber, they asked if I spin or knit.

And I'd launch into the story about my Pat Benatar sweater.

"Oh," the knitters would gently reassure me, "I bet if you tried knitting again it would come back to you."

(I see now that knitting is a program of attraction, not promotion.)

In my defense, I'd explain how much I love having llamas, how I'd finally found my medium in fiber, how much I enjoy needle-felting. "It's the perfect medium," I'd tell anyone who would listen. "I love soft furry things, I love animals, and you can do anything with it!" (And this without yet being able to spin or knit.)

This fall, my 87-year-old grandmother decided that she wanted to learn to spin, and my mother and I agreed to take a few spinning lessons with her. (How cool, a three-generational spinning class, we thought.)

So I began learning to spin.

And then, there it was: I had yarn.

My spinning instructor, kind and very wise soul that she is, insisted that we each make something with the first skein of yarn we spun.

She expected me to actually make something with my lumpy, patchy, puffy skein of what I'll very politely call "novelty" yarn. But hey, I spun that skein of lavender yarn my very own self, and I was insanely proud of it.

Well, I decided I was going to knit a scarf.

Me, knit?

Well, I had to! I couldn't let that fantastic skein of spun-by-my-own-hands yarn go to waste, could I?

And so my patient mother showed me how to knit again, just as she had twenty years ago.

The needles felt oddly familiar in my fingers. My brain didn't quite remember, but my fingers did.

Cast on? Doesn't that go like this? Oh! Oh yeah, this goes like this...the yarn does this...and suddenly, I was knitting.

Now I can't spin fast enough to have sufficient yarn to knit with. I admit I'm sticking to relatively simple projects (yes, I'm still easily frustrated, and not terribly patient) -- but then again, I've only been knitting for a month. But in a month I've knitted a scarf (yes, from my crazy lavender yarn!) and five hats -- all from my self-spun yarn.

And proudly, I can cross knitting off the list of "Things I've Tried Once and Am Not Good At."


Michigan Fiber Festival:


Information on the micron system and comparative micron diameters:

(from the New South Wales Department of Education and Training/Curriculum Planning Framework and Programming Support Site, "Stage 5: Agricultural Technology, Measuring Wool Fibre Diameter")

Basic information on llama fiber garnered from: "Storey's Guide to Raising Llamas," by Gale Birutta (North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing, 1997), esp. pp. 246-9,


Note: There were minor discrepancies between the two micron charts I consulted, but neither gave sample sizes for each breed or described their data collection (i.e. fiber from hind quarters would vary from finer belly hairs). Given that these charts both gave ranges, I averaged them together.

An interesting point for spinners and knitters is that any fiber measuring over 30 microns is considered to have "prickle" factor, or the scratchy quality associated with coarser fibers. (See


Shannah Clarke has a lot to learn about knitting.

She is a city girl now living on a farm in Perry, MI, that she shares with her city-born spouse, two city-born cats, two llamas, eleven chickens, and sometimes her parents.

Her favorite sweater is a gold cable-trim tunic that her mother knit in the 1960s. (And yes, Mom still has the pattern.) She blogs here.