The Shearing Process
Shearing of alpaca is done once every year or two, depending on the health of the animals, quality of the fleece, and the intended purpose of the fibre. Sheep are shorn every two or three years. Shearing usually takes place in January through April. This allows the animals to re-grow their coats during the warmer months in time to protect them during the cold season.
In many rural Andean villages, before shearing begins, an offering is made to the gods and the Pachamama (Mother Earth).
Offerings consist of a mix of elements, such as huayruro (a red and black seed from the jungle), kichiwa, various herbs, dried blossoms, and even dried llama fetuses. Led by one of the elders, the men make kintus (a bundle of three coca leaves) and blow on them, asking the blessings of the gods. Later, they fill conch shells with wine and throw the wine toward the alpaca. The shearing is carried out by hand, using scissor-like shears. It can take up to three people to shear an alpaca, two holding the legs and one doing the shearing. Restraining the legs is key to controlling the animals. The animals are not harmed in the process, but the intelligent alpaca does not like to be shorn and thus does everything in its power to escape. The sheep, which are smaller and less intelligent, are easier to restrain and shear. Once the wool is removed, the soiled or 'nappy' wool is separated and used for purposes other than spinning and weaving. In one of our interviews we were told of an Easter-time shearing of alpaca - a festive occasion called "Llama-Chuy". The Criollo sheep is a fairly low producer of wool, with a typical shearing amounting to between 800 grams and 1 kilogram (1.8 - 2.2 pounds). One year's growth from the alpaca can weigh from 2.25 to 4.5 kilograms (5-10 pounds).
Spinning Fiber into Yarn
Spinning is the process of turning the raw wool and fibers, shorn from animals, into strong, consistent useful threads. Quechua weavers use a drop spindle (pushka), which is similar to a wooden top with an elongated axis. The pushka varies in size with the diameter of thread being spun. The act of spinning is known as puskhay. Multiple threads are combined to form stronger ones. Single strands of thread are removed from the pushkas, combined into balls and skeins, and then spun together.
Spinning is done while walking along the road, chatting with friends, or watching over one's children or sheep.
The process of combining threads is called plying or k'antiy. A larger version of the pushka is used to do k'antiy, creating double (2 ply) or triple (3 ply) strands of yarn into thinner, stronger, and more consistent yarn for weaving. They can go to 4 ply or higher, but this is less common. Alpaca fiber can be spun into much finer threads than sheep's wool.
It's rare to see an Andean woman or young girl without her hands busy spinning. It is a predominately feminine activity in indigenous culture, and often so commonplace as to be performed almost unconsciously. It is also common, in weaving communities, for boys to learn how to spin from a young age. Men will often know how to spin, even if they don't learn to weave. Spinning is done while walking along the road, chatting with friends, or watching over one's children or sheep. It's a skill that people begin training in as children, and it takes years of practice to spin proficiently. Thus, spinning is a refined art in and of itself; one whose difficulty is often overlooked. Spinning is a vital part of the weaving process, as the yarn must be fine, yet strong and even to be useful in weaving high-quality textiles.
Peru has more than one kind of naturally-occurring detergent plant, which are traditionally used to wash shorn wool and fiber. In the Sacred Valley, Sacha Paraqay is a root that is grated into the wash water and mixed to create a foamy lather. Similarly, Illmanke is a green plant that is pounded with a rock or ground with a mortar and pestle; the resulting material is then mixed with water for the wash. Both plants produce a surprisingly effective white foamy wash water, which will clean dirty wool with just a few minutes of vigorous hand-washing. Once the wool is clean, it is hung to dry. Sheep's wool is washed before it is spun, but alpaca fiber is spun before it is washed, as the washing process separates the fibers in the soapy water, and makes the fiber even more "slippery" and thus difficult to spin.