The daily, 50-degree temperature swings during winter in the Iraqi desert are brutal on troops, and nuns and monks at the Holy Rosary Abbey are donating labor and resources to knit llama wool helmet liners for the soldiers' comfort. Their effort is part of Operation Helmet Liner - a nationwide drive to knit hypoallergenic liners from soft wool and donate them to soldiers serving in harsh climates. Members of the Galesburg group, which raises the llamas and harvests the fleece, say it is a natural step for them.
The daily, 50-degree temperature swings during winter in the Iraqi desert are brutal on troops, and nuns and monks at the Holy Rosary Abbey are donating labor and resources to knit llama wool helmet liners for the soldiers' comfort.
Their effort is part of Operation Helmet Liner - a nationwide drive to knit hypoallergenic liners from soft wool and donate them to soldiers serving in harsh climates. Members of the Galesburg group, which raises the llamas and harvests the fleece, say it is a natural step for them.
"Our order was founded on the premise of the complete life. Our lives our well balanced, and we have a daily schedule of prayer, work, study, meals, recreation and socialization," leader Abbot Ryan St. Anne said.
Raising llamas is part of the work portion, and it generates income for the abbey's expenses. Llama wool is a near perfect fleece for helmet liners that wicks moisture, captures heat and is lightweight.
"It is a very large network of knitters. It's not just llama people, but we are providing llama wool to those who will agree to knit and donate liners. There is a specified pattern that must be used to satisfy military safety requirements, and it is available online," St. Anne said. "It doesn't have to be made with llama wool, but it has to be 100 percent soft wool.
"We pray for our country and our soldiers every day. None of them chose to go there. They were sent to defend us. The helmet liners project is a way to serve them."
Linda Swinford, who began and oversees Operation Helmet Liner, said the organization has shipped "78,000 pieces, all at no charge to our armed forces. I have no idea how many hundreds of seamstresses, crocheters and knitters all across the U.S. have been involved since we began.
"In addition, groups have formed throughout the country adopting our patterns and supporting our armed forces on their own, which is wonderful," she said.
The monks got into llama farming as an investment, according to St. Anne. The finished, undyed wool sells for $8 to $15 an ounce. Organic farmers seek llama manure for fertilizer, and it sells for about $25 per bag.
"Llama beans, as we call it, have no gases or ammonia. It is a natural fertilizer that doesn't have a bad odor," St. Anne said. "We have always been a divine providence community. We never sold anything and lived off of the generosity of benefactors, but they have been hit hard. Raising miniature llamas was a way we could become self-supportive in an extremely friendly environment and not be offensive to anyone."
Galesburg city officials say the abbey and the llama farm on the edge of town operate within all city codes.
The abbey has 12 llamas, and the first fleece will be harvested in the spring. The nuns and monks at the abbey are learning to spin the fleece into yarn and there are plans to buy a weaving loom next year.
Rather than a large barn, the abbey elected to construct smaller buildings and several paddocks to provide shelter and pasture for the animals. They put up a privacy fence to be non-offensive to neighbors, but their next door neighbor on the east side of their eight acres asked them to use chain link on their side, so they can watch the gentle animals. The only noise they make is a quiet hum. St. Anne said the neighbor's dog is louder than all 12 of their llamas combined.
"We have our first cria. Llama babies are called cria. Her name is Juanita, and she is 5 months old. She is our meeter and greeter. She wants to see everyone and have her neck rubbed," St. Anne said, "Cria can sell for anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000."
The abbey's residents get the llamas and training from Gayle Dumas, a breeder who owns 50 miniature llamas on a farm near Richmond, Va.
"The total population is very small. There are only 650 registered miniature llamas," she said. "They have all the charm, personality and intelligence of full-sized llamas, but they also have the ease of handling and size of alpacas. They are herd animals, and they need the companionship of their own kind to thrive."
They compete at miniature llama shows around the country and have done well. At a show in Kentucky earlier this year, St. Anne said they showed five llamas and got three grand champion awards and one reserve champion award.
"The more grand champion awards we get, the more that tells the llama world of our quality," he said. "The ultimate is for one to get a triple crown of three grand championships. Josephina has two and must get one more before she ages out of her class next summer."
They have plans to compete next year in shows in Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and Virginia.
At the llama shows they put out packets with instructions and llama wool and invite knitters to join in Operation Helmet Liner.
St. Anne said the llamas are very inspirational.
"It was an investment, but we had no idea what they were going to do for us. They are very social animals. You can be in the most stress-filled corporate environment, and walk into a llama paddock and within 15 minutes, you won't know what stress is," he said. "They have a wonderful way to put your mind at ease."
Gary Tomlin can be reached at (309) 686-3041 or email@example.com.