The Mittens

The phone call came as I was leaving my son’s house after a day of babysitting my grandchildren.
My favorite llama, named Sarah Ferguson for her friendly, willing personality, had been found lying outside the barn door with a broken leg.
Fergie, as we called her, was our first llama, purchased twelve years ago, along with a gelded male named Artie, to help calm a herd of hyper-reactive female alpacas by serving as their guards.
Fergie and Artie protected the females by working in amazing tandem. When a predator—a coyote, stray dog, or other animal—deigned to wander into the pasture, one would gather the females and their babies, called cria, into the barn as the other chased the intruders to the fences, attempting to literally stomp the life from them. The slower intruders never made it to the safety of the fence and freedom—the faster ones who did, knew not to return.
Over time, Artie became the aggressor, the advance guard and storm trooper who took on any animal not a recognized part of the herd—especially when there were young llamas and alpacas. Raccoons, possums—even, in one unfortunate confrontation, a mama skunk and her line of babies trekking across the back pasture—felt Artie’s two-toed front feet on their backs as Fergie stood in the doorway of the girl’s side of the barn, head up, eyes following Artie as he kept them all safe.
I’d used her to carry camping gear on hikes in western Ohio. At llama shows, I took Fergie through the performance course, through showmanship classes and halter classes. I have a photo of her with a 4H kid, who’d dressed the ever patient llama as a pirate, complete with three-corner hat, a modified jacket around her front legs and an eye patch.
As Fergie aged, arthritis set in and the animal every first year 4H kid took to the fair was retired.
We gave her NSAIDS for her pain, but it became more and more clear that at one point, we’d need to make the decision to put her down.
Now, as I stood in my son’s living room, I realized the decision would probably be made sooner than I thought.
Her right front leg was broken, the bone sticking through above the knee. Back home, my husband Greg had friends to help load her into the livestock trailer. Our vet heavily sedated her to keep her pain at minimum. At last thought, Greg pulled the comforter off our bed and wrapped it around Fergie to keep her warm on the way.
An hour later, I was waiting at the OSU veterinary hospital when Greg arrived. The truck was still backing into the vet hospital’s receiving bay as I opened the trailer and jumped in.
“Oh, Fergie,” I bawled. Despite the sedation, she tried to raise her head.
I haven’t been in farming long. We got into the business of raising alpacas in 1999 and added llamas soon after that. Preceding those animals that, my daughter raised the annual 4H steer and a herd of milk and meat goats, which paid for her first year of college.
What I did learn was what most farmers knew all too well: If you’re going to have livestock, at some point, you’re going to have dead stock. When it became came apparent the leg couldn’t be repaired, we made the decision to put her down. We donated her body to the hospital for veterinary students to study.
That weekend, I had a book signing in Indianapolis. When I returned Sunday night, and Fergie wasn’t waiting for me at the fence, I sat in my car and sobbed in a most unfarmerly way.
Time went on. New llama babies were born. The next spring, we sheared everyone when I got a call from the mill where I sent my llama and alpaca fiber to be spun into yarn.
“We found some red and gray llama fiber. We think it belongs to you.”
When I arrived at the mill two hours later, it wasn’t hard to determine whose fiber that was. It was Fergie’s, two huge trash bags filled with her fiber which had been processed into rovings.
There are several steps in taking in animal wall or fiber from the animal’s back to yarn.
The first involves skirting, where the fiber is handpicked to remove vegetation, mud, or even feces that may have gotten stuck in the animal’s fiber. The second step is to wash it. This can be a delicate process—if you don’t do it correctly you could end up with a wad of felt that can’t be used for anything. The third step is the picking: fibers are run through a picker which removes smaller pieces of vegetation and starts the process of getting the fibers lined up in one direction.
The third step, carding, is where Fergie’s fiber processing stopped. A carder takes fiber, which is been run through a picker and continues the process of lining up the fibers. Fiber that comes through a carder comes out in one of two forms: a long continuous roving, if done by an industrial carder or, a small, cigar-sized bundle called a rolag, If done by hand.
Apparently, the machinery had broken down at some point between the carder and the spinner. While I had picked up the finished yarn, the mill had forgotten to give me Fergie’s rovings.
So here I was with a large, wonderful gift from beyond the grave. When I got home, I opened the bags, pulled out an armful of rovings—probably 10 pounds in all—and cried. They still carried her particular llama scent.
Even better, I now had the opportunity to have something from Fergie that would last forever. Over the next year, I hand-spun thousands of yards of Fergie’s rovings into yarn as I tried to decide what to make. A sweater? A pair of mittens? A hat? After spinning, I had enough for a sweater, but still could not decide on the pattern. A raglan sweater? A cardigan? Knit side to side or with circular needles to minimize final sewing? I started several sweaters and then, unhappy with either the fit or the pattern, I ripped the stitches out only to start again.
Last November, I took my four-year-old grandson Louie camping. It was to be the last campout of the year. And while I planned for what could be indoor activities in the RV, I also packed a small project for myself. I packed what was left of Fergie’s rovings and my drop spindle.
During our camp out, we hiked through the woods, threw rocks into the lake from the beach, and rode bicycles down the lane. As always, the best part was sitting around the fire and roasting marshmallows. While Grandpa and Louie roasted marshmallows, I took out my drop spindle and began to spin. Louie was soon fascinated.
“Show me, show me! Please, grandma!”
And so, I did. As he spun the spindle, I drafted the fiber and twisted it; Louie watched as it went from fuzzy and thick to thin, tight and fine. He turned the spindle, I spun the yarn and we both wound the finished product on the shaft. He was so fascinated that the next morning, he wanted to do it again. So, we did.
By the time we dropped him off at his parents the next day, we had managed a ball of yarn about the size of a tennis ball. It not nearly enough for a sweater, but Louie wanted something out of the yarn he had made.
Coming home, I pondered what to make of this precious yarn. I still had not completed the sweater I promised myself, and I still had a little more roving to spend. In a week, I had completely spun up what was left of Fergie’s roving’s—enough for a pair of mittens for Louie.
When I handed those mittens to Louie, his eyes got big.
“Remember our camping trip? Remember spinning the fiber? These mittens are from your yarn that you made.”
I know Louie will outgrow those mittens at some point, If he hasn’t already. I do hear from his mother he wears them whenever possible, even indoors. I tell him stories about Fergie and what she was like. I show him photos of the day, when he was two, Louie led Fergie around the paddock and she kept her nose close to him as they walked.
I am still working on the sweater. Maybe someday I’ll finish it, but right now I’m hoarding what is left of her yarn and still trying to decide on a pattern.
One thing those stray bags of roving have done is connect two generations to the earth and its processes of life, death, and renewal through one beloved llama. I know in that way, Fergie the llama will live forever.