RICHARDTON, N.D. - The sisters at Richardton's Sacred Heart Monastery have been excited to meet the newest member of their llama herd, but they haven't been in total agreement about the name.
The llama, which was born Aug. 31 and weighed 20 pounds, was registered as Augusta, but the nickname Sweet Pea is catching on.
Whatever the name ends up being, the llama is a welcome addition to the herd of nine animals.
The herd has become an important source of funding for the sisters. They use the wool to spin into yarn and sell the llamas as guard animals to sheep herders.
With their heavy coats of wool, the llamas are well-suited for North Dakota's climate, though the monastery also provides shelter.
It was only natural for Sister Paula Larson to accept responsibility for the herd's care.
"Being from a farm and ranch myself, I always was attracted to animals," she said.
She also directs the Sacred Heart Benedictine Foundation and business-related matters for the monastery.
While llamas graze on grass during the summer, Larson supplements their diets with pellets, vitamins and minerals. She provides fresh water and hay and cleans the barns and corrals.
"We maintain a very clean living environment," she said.
She said the herd started with the donation of a pair of llamas in 1993.
"Basically, the couple told us they were women-friendly livestock," she said.
Are they women-friendly?
"Absolutely," Larson said. "And they are curious, gentle and smart, very smart. They are quick learners."
Larson said llamas are very compatible with the earth. They have padded feet, and they leave their manure in one pile, which can be spread as a natural organic fertilizer.
"It's time-released," she said.
"What has surprised me the most was one of the myths you hear that they spit all the time. That's not true at all - that's pure myth," she said. "I think spitting is a protective mechanism. If they don't feel threatened, they don't use that."
Larson said llamas will spit among each other.
Llamas are members of the camel family and live for about 25 years, Larson said. They originated in North America about 40 million years ago and have been domesticated for about 5,000 years.
Larson said llama wool doesn't contain lanolin.
"People with allergies can usually wear llama or alpaca, which is from the same family, but much smaller," Larson said.
The neutered males are sold as guard animals to sheep herders.
"Usually it's the males, but we have sold a female," she said. "They protect with their feet, they protect with their lives. They become very possessive," she said.
The sisters also have sold the llamas as pets and pack animals. Some people have purchased the llamas to spin the wool themselves.
The herd's colors vary - black, white, caramel, fawn, and browns and whites mixed together.
"You need a white one if you want to dye the fiber," Larson said.
She clips several pounds of wool from each animal in the spring.
"We go to a fiber festival in Minnesota, usually in May. The judges are looking for how the fiber holds together, the condition of the wool itself, how long the length is," she said. "We don't usually use the guard hair unless it's for felting."
Once the wool is clipped, it becomes the responsibility of Sister Patti Koehler.
"Right now I'm spinning black," Larson said. "Sister Patti tells me what to do, and I do it. I find it (spinning) very creative. I'm surprised that when you hold your fingers a certain way, the fiber just goes into the spinning wheel."
She described the spinning as a soft whirl.
"That's what I would say. There's a rhythm to it," she said.
Koehler, a native of Wolf Point, Mont., transferred to Sacred Heart from another community in Missouri. She was attracted to the rural setting and its sisters.
"And it has a very strong prayer life," she said.
The sisters introduced Koehler to fiber arts when she arrived. She currently serves as vocations director and assists with the foundation. When there's time, she works with the wool.
She helps with the clipping and processes the wool that remains at the monastery. The other wool is sent away to be cleaned because of time restraints.
The process requires multiple hands-on steps. After clipping, the vegetable matter is removed by hand and the wool is washed. It's put through a picker, which further removes matter and loosens the fibers.
It's then run through a carder, where all the fibers are run into one direction and the colors can be mixed.
In the dyeing process, Koehler has used fiber dyes, wool dyes, even Kool-Aid and Easter egg dyes.
"We sent a lot of it out to be cleaned and put into rovings," she said.
Rovings are the long strips of wool, rolled into a ball that are used for the next step - spinning.
Koehler said the thickness and texture varies with the spinner. Sometimes two strands are twisted together. Koehler likes to mix strands of alpaca or synthetic eyelash or glitz into the yarn.
"Finally, we ball it. We use a niddy-naddy that helps us wrap it into a skein, and we're able to count the yardage," she said.
After being handled so many times, the yarn is washed again and hung to dry to set the twist.
Koehler uses some of the wool for felting.
"Felting is where I take the wool and weigh out a layer in one direction and another layer in another direction," she said. "I do approximately three to five layers, depending on how thick I want it. I use hot, soapy water and basically press it together with my hands. I use felt to make purses, for instance, or scarves," she said.
She likes the dyeing because it's creative, but her favorite part of the process is to sit at the spinning wheel.
"It's very meditative, very calming. It's where I do my morning prayer before I go to chapel," she said.
Koehler estimates it takes about six hours from the start of a basket of raw wool to a finished product. If dyeing is involved, it takes longer.
"Depending on who's spinning, it might take up to eight or nine hours," she said.
The Sacred Heart Monastery has a gift shop where finished scarves, purses and other items are available for sale. The sisters just received a shipment of yarn in a creamy color and in brown. The yarn is from their llamas and a donation of alpaca wool, as well.
"It's ready to go for any knitters or crocheters," she said.