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Has your sweater ever looked up to you and asked, "Mommy, where did I come from?" And, oh dear, you don't actually know!

To develop a well-informed answer, I took a little trip to last weekend's Sheep and Wool Festival in Rhinebeck, New York.  Assembled were a whole lot of fiber-producing animals, accompanied by yarn-producing humans happy to answer a few questions for me.

Like, what's the difference between an alpaca and a llama? Kathleen LaValley of WynCrest Farms explained the major difference is that llamas are bigger than alpacas. Another distinction, llamas are used as beasts of burden, while alpacas are raised solely for their fiber.

Llamas are a proud bunch, tall and elegant. Here's a beauty having a snack.

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My favorite animal of the whole festival was this cranky alpaca named Masked Crusader. He hailed from a farm in Columbia County, New York named Alpacatrax. The people there told me that it's an effective practice to mix a few alpacas or llamas into a sheep herd to keep the coyotes away. One look at Masked Crusader and I get it...

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There are at least two sub-breeds of alpacas, Huacayas and Suris. Huacayas have dense, fluffy fiber, like a teddy bear. The rarer Suri alpaca has long, silky locks that hang down like an Afghan dog.

scott.jpgScott from Creekside Acres' in Pleasant Valley, New York was telling me all about it. Here he is with a Suri to the left and a Huacaya to the right.

I'm beginning to understand why so many New Yorkers harbor country-living fantasies that involve owning pet goats. Turns out, they are awfully appealing. I saw a bit of the "Colored Angora Goat Breeder National Show". (Angora goats actually produce mohair, not angora. Confusing, I know...)

This goat's owner helped it to shake off some pre-show jitters.

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Look how proudly this goat awaits the judge's perusal. I think she's done this before...

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The judge combed through each competitor several times, digging deep into the thick, curly hairs, examining everywhere from the hind quarters to the ears.

The first place winner was eventually chosen for the uniformity of his coat. It was the only goat whose fleece could all be "sorted into one pile", according to the judge. All the other goats' fleeces would have to be separated into at least two piles of varying degrees of quality.

Cashmere also comes from a goat, appropriately named a cashmere goat. I had always heard that cashmere comes from the chin hair of goats that only live high in the Himalayas or off on the Mongolian plains or I don't know, far away. Not so. In talking to the people from Tannery Farm in Danville, Vermont, I learned that cashmere goats are adaptable to all kinds of terrain and weather. And that cashmere comes from all over the goat, as long as it's the outer layer of the coat, not the black underlayer.

Look how soft this goat's little brown hairs look.

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What about the incredible angora rabbit! What a crazy creature! Here is Mike from E+M Tack Shop in West Carthage, New York holding an English Angora Buck.bunny.jpg

This rabbit's hair is too fine to shear. Instead, it gets gently combed or clipped. It's as soft as it looks.

Finally, my trip to Rhinebeck wouldn't have been complete without communing with a couple of sheep. This one was getting a beauty treatment in preparation for judging. sheep.jpg

Sadly, her only name was the numbers on her ear tag. Her owners agreed to rename her Fusilli, in honor of her curlicue coat. I hope the name sticks. I'll have to check back next year...

bookofyarn.jpgIf you really want to delve into this subject, Purl just received this new book by Clara Parkes of Knitter's Review. Inside is lots of information about different fibers for knitting, where they come from, how they're spun, and what to knit with them. Loads of great patterns too!

--Whitney