Wild and woolly on Whidbey
Couple raises rare llama-like animals for fiber
By Kira Erickson • March 24, 2023 1:30 am
Tucked away down a dirt road and behind the tall trees of Clinton, one of the finest fibers in the world is collected from an animal that is a rare sight in the United States.
Lisa Mitchell and Greg Hudson are the keepers of a herd of guanacos, a camelid native to South America. Llamas, which resemble them, were bred from guanacos about 4,000 years ago.
Mitchell and Hudson moved to South Whidbey from suburban Sacramento, California in 2018 for a breath of fresh air, effectively escaping the wildfire smoke that was so harmful to Hudson, who has asthma.
“We called ourselves climate refugees,” Mitchell said. “That was the year that the fires were really, really bad.”
Along the way, the couple embraced a newfound rural lifestyle at Aliento Luxury Fiber Farm, which Mitchell chronicles in their podcast, “A Fiber Life.” The podcast is currently in its second season and new episodes are available.
The guanacos, though not originally part of the couple’s plan, have become a central part of their new lifestyle. A lifelong knitter, Mitchell thought it would be a good idea to raise animals with unique fibers that she could spin together. So she sent her husband to a sheep festival in California to pick out some animals.
“I called her on the phone and said, ‘I bought some guanacos.’ The moral of that story is, don’t send me to the supermarket unsupervised,” Hudson said with a laugh.
There are a limited number of guanacos within the U.S. due to restrictions on importing live animals. As a result, nearly all of the estimated 500 guanacos in this country are descendants of a herd brought here in the 20th century for zoological purposes.
The guanacos Hudson purchased came from a larger herd that had at one point been at a zoo, where the majority of guanacos in the U.S. can be found today.
“We are the only ones who raise them for their fiber and sell their fiber,” Mitchell said. “There’s no other place that you can get it in the United States.”
Though they may appear to be cute and cuddly, guanacos are wild animals that behave similarly to deer when startled by the slightest noise. They do not accept pets from humans but may be willing to sniff a hand. If they feel threatened in any way, they spit a pungent mixture.
“As sweet as they look, and gentle, they just have instincts to protect themselves,” Hudson said.
Learning about caring for the herd has been through complete trial and error, since there are so few resources available.
“We try to reach out to anybody that we find or hear of that has guanacos,” Mitchell said. “People have one or two because they’re good guard animals or they got one from an auction, but nobody on private land has a herd.”
The couple admits that they were somewhat naïve to the guanacos and their wildness. They didn’t know where to put the poop that kept piling up, or how to interact with the herd.
“When we got them, they were totally feral. If we walked in the barn, they’d be over there against that fence, as far away as they could possibly get from us,” Hudson explained, gesturing to a far corner of the pasture. “This is years of being around them and working with them.”
Mitchell herself used to be afraid of them – until she wasn’t. Now, they can halter just about every member of the herd and are even breeding chulengos, which is the name for baby guanacos.
The podcast explores many of these valuable life lessons, which Mitchell wanted to share with others in a storytelling format that includes sound effects, conversations and interviews with other people. Mitchell is a writer and previously published a book on how to be a creative therapist. She hopes “A Fiber Life” inspires people to be more resilient.
Once a year, the guanacos get sheared. Surprisingly, each animal only yields about a pound and a half of wool. In comparison, sheep can yield nine pounds of material. The guanaco fiber measures about 16 to 18 microns, meaning it is extremely fine.
Guanacos are double-coated, which means coarse guard hairs intermingle with the soft wool the animal is prized for. Mitchell said the guard hairs can either be removed by hand or sent off to a mill to do the work.
Guanacos aren’t the only animals the couple raises for fiber. A pygora goat – which is a mix between pygmy and angora goats – named Daisy and two satin angora rabbits, Henrietta and Jasper, also call the South Whidbey farm home. The fur of the rabbits is simply plucked, rather than sheared. It is also considered one of the finest fibers in the world.
A friend in Eugene, Oregon raises merino sheep for their wool, which is combined with guanaco fiber to create unbelievably soft yarn.
Mitchell compared raising the animals to create the perfect blend of fibers to figuring out the grapes to grow for a fine wine.
“When you put all those together and you spin it, it’s just like you can’t get any more luxe than that,” she said.
She combines the fibers using a spinning wheel, which she taught herself how to use. One of the first things she made was a skein of lace guanaco fiber, which she took to the Oregon Flock & Fiber Festival.
“The skein took grand champion for the whole competition,” Mitchell said. “And so I figured that was a sign we were on the right track.”
To add color to the yarn, she uses natural dyes made from such plants as marigold, chamomile and indigo.
“It’s nice when the yarn you’re spinning, you know the animal it came off of,” Hudson observed. “It’s a very different feeling, I think, than just going to the store and buying something.”
The couple sells fiber, yarn and garments, which have attracted customers from all over the country. Mitchell said guanaco fiber sells out right away, since it’s so rare.
Though they don’t plan to open their farm to visitors anytime soon – the guanacos do not deal well with so much attention – the couple does want to hold a workshop on spinning this fall. They are also considering a retreat dedicated to learning about guanacos.
To learn more about Aliento Luxury Fiber Farm, the animals, the podcast and the materials for sale, visit https://afiberlife.com.