GREENFIELD — There was just something about the llamas.
As a keeper and educator at the Indianapolis Zoo, Fortville resident Eran McCarty was always attracted to the funny-looking creatures with long ears and big teeth.
So it wasn’t surprising when she started a farm and began raising llamas and alpacas after she and her family moved from Irvington to rural Fortville more than a decade ago.
When she began using the llamas’ fleece to make yarn, her husband, Scott, offered to buy her a sweater — but she had discovered a hobby she loved.
Now, nearly 15 years later, her home is filled with spinning wheels, looms and piles of yarn. She spends hours at her spinning wheel, carefully feeding fleece fibers into the machine to create strands of yarn, later used to craft mittens, shawls and hats for loved ones.
But the artistry is portable. With a spindle — a handheld tool used to twist fleece into yarn — she’s even spun as she traveled across Europe.
The process starts in a quaint wooden barn just behind McCarty’s home. It’s full of llamas — most of which she’s raised — a few alpacas and several other farm animals.
Each spring, her llamas get a bath. Just like a car wash, she breaks out a hose and shampoo and gives them a good cleaning. After nearly a year spent living in the barn, they’re typically quite dirty, and hay tends to get caught in their fleece.
About a week later — after the fleece has had time to normalize — she breaks out the shears.
Then she puts the llamas in a metal contraption that helps to keep the animal still.
The shears don’t hurt the llamas; in fact, a little trim is much appreciated. It helps keep them cool during hot and humid Indiana summers, McCarty said.
“They enjoy their spa day,” she said.
Each llama’s belly is shaved from its hips to its front legs — the spot where the prime fleece grows.
Shearing her llamas, a chore that needs to be done before summer, is what led to her learning to handcraft yarn.
“I had all this fuzz,” she said, adding that one llama can yield from 1.5 to 8 pounds of fleece. “I had to learn to do something with it.”
The fleece is soft, short and lightweight and is a bit crimped.
She sends the fleece to a fiber mill, where it’s cleaned and turned into roving — a long, narrow bundle of fleece. She could do herself by hand, she said, but it’s time-consuming.
“I’d be here forever doing it,” she said. “It’s worth the money to have someone else do it.”
Once the fleece is sent back to her, it’s ready to be spun into yarn.
Spinners can use a spinning wheel or a spindle to create bobbins of yarn; the first is typically faster.
All she’s doing is twisting the fibers — which stick together naturally — McCarty said.
The spindle or spinning wheel does all the work; her hands just pinch, glide and pull the roving and feed it into the spindle or wheel.
Plying the yarn once it’s spun makes it stronger and more balanced, she said.
To ply the yarn, the spinner takes two or more strands and twists them together in the direction opposite to the way it was spun.
Once the yarn is spun, it can be woven or knitted to make items such as blankets, hats and mittens.
Susan Markle, a close friend, helped McCarty perfect her craft. The two share a love of llamas and met during a llama show more than 10 years ago.
Markle opened The Trading Post for Fiber Arts in Pendleton several years ago and has taught others the art of spinning and weaving.
For her, the craft is relaxing and at times therapeutic. Markle said she learned to knit at a young age, so spinning and weaving came naturally. She wanted to own llamas and learn to spin so she could make items and tell the recipients how they were made.
“It’s very relaxing, and it gives you something to do so you’re not completely wasting your time, watching TV,” she said with a laugh.
Now she’s surrounded herself with a community of spinners, including McCarty, who all enjoy the same art.
McCarty said she doesn’t weave or knit much to sell the products, but they do make nice gifts.
What she really loves, however, is the yarn. She said it’s a finished product, meaning it doesn’t have to be made into anything. In her home, some yarn just sits in baskets, waiting for someone to reach out and touch the soft fibers.
Her llamas tend to have really fine fleece, she said, making the craft of spinning it into yarn easier.
But it’s not a skill most folks master overnight. It takes practice.
“All of a sudden you get that ‘aha!’ moment,” she said. “Your fingers feel it — that’s how much pressure, that’s when to let go — and once you get that, it’s not hard at all.”
This week, the Daily Reporter goes behind the scenes to explore how products from Hancock County are created, start to finish. Whether the item is crafted in the comfort of a person’s home or put together in a local shop, we’ll show you how it’s made.