ALPACA FIBER

 

Fiber Properties Make It "The Gold Standard"

 

People ask a lot of questions about alpaca fiber. Alpaca fiber is considered a luxury fiber due to its properties of being very fine and lightweight while being exceptionally warm. It is also relatively rare on the world market due in part to the small number of alpacas producing fiber globally. However, the number of productive animals is on the rise as alpacas are being bred and raised in more countries each year.

Alpaca is known for its great warmth (reported to be 5x warmer than sheep wool), the fineness and length of staple, with a year of growth commonly being about 5-6 inches (12-15 cm). It also has excellent crimp, with individual fibers usually showing crinkle (like a chemically treated "permanent wave" in human hair).

 

THE RARE SPECIALTY FIBER

 

Scarcity or rarity is the primary determinant in defining a specialty fiber. Wool is not considered a specialty fiber do to its abundance. Alpaca fleece is valuable because it combines so many positive, commercial attributes into one fiber. There are no negative characteristics to be found in the alpaca's fleece. It is found naturally in 22 distinct colors, which can also be blended to produce an infinite array of natural colors.

The fiber from alpaca is unusually strong and resilient. The strength of the fiber does not diminish as it becomes finer, thus making it ideal for industrial processing. Raised at high altitudes in freezing cold, the alpaca has developed more thermal capacity in its fiber than almost any other animal. The fiber contains microscopic air pockets which create lightweight garments with high insulation values. Alpaca is soft, supple and smooth to the touch. The cellular structure of the fiber produces a soft handle unmatched by most other specialty fibers.

Alpaca fleece produces a high yield of clean fiber after processing: 87 to 95 percent for alpaca versus 43 to 76 percent for sheep's wool. Alpaca is easier and less expensive to process than sheep's wool due to its lack of grease or lanolin, and it does not have to be de-haired like cashmere or camel. Alpaca fiber can be scoured or cleaned without using costly chemicals. Scouring is the actual washing of dirt and foreign matter from the alpaca fleece. It is usually done in a lukewarm, neutral solution, followed by clear-water rinses.

Alpacas produce a fine fiber with an absence of guard hair in their prime fleece. Their fiber has a natural, rich luster which gives garments made from 100% alpaca high visual appeal. It is easily dyed any color and always retains its natural luster. Fabric made from alpaca can range from bulky tweeds to fine gabardine. Those who own alpacas sweaters will find they practically last forever. This fiber does not easily tear, pill, stain or create static and it is easily cleaned.

Alpaca produces beautiful yarns, either handspun or machine made. The long staple length makes it ideal for processing as either woolen or worsted yarns. Manufacturers also like to blend alpaca with cashmere, mohair, silk, cotton and wool. These blends make into exquisite luxury garments.

Awareness of the unique quality of alpaca fiber is increasing with the worldwide recognition gained from promotional efforts of breeders in the U.S., Canada and Australia. With selective breeding techniques, better animal husbandry and nutritional care, fiber fineness will improve and fleece weight per animal will increase. The terms luxury and alpaca are becoming synonymous. The treasure, which the Incas harvested from the back of the mystical alpaca, will soon be enjoyed by discerning consumers everywhere.

Many Natural Colors And Terrific To Dye

 

Alpacas come in a terrific array of colors which have been categorized into 22 distinct color groups, from white and light fawn through many shades of silver and rose gray to dark brown, maroon and black. Alpaca fiber in lighter color categories also takes dye well, leading to many bright true colors and diverse hues.

Alpacas do not need routine grooming. In fact, most breeders leave the fiber alone until it is time to shear to minimize the disturbance of lock formation. Before shearing a bit of special attention will pay off in the quality of your clip. The first step is to keep alpacas on clean, dry pastures for at least two weeks before shearing day, if this is possible.

 

"Dry" Cleaning

 

Starting with a dry alpaca, hand-pick the largest pieces of vegetable matter out of the coat. Tie your animal securely and gently blow the animal's coat before shearing with a powerful livestock-type of blower.

Start low on the animal first and work from the skin out toward fiber tips. You may find that a jiggling side-to-side motion of your wrist will get out more vegetable matter and dust without causing the fiber to tangle. Blow lightly - concentrate on the prime fleece of the blanket. The fiber from the legs, neck, head, tail and belly is not prime and can be used for small projects and felting. Some owners even throw it out! That prime blanket is where you want to focus the best of your cleaning effort.

 

Shearing Day

 

Have a clean shearing shed! Alpacas should be sheared on a wooden floor. If this is not possible, a canvas tarp will contain the fiber but remember to cover each area where fiber will be handled. Spotlessly clean rubber stall mats this year over concrete work also, This makes it easy to handle the animals without any slipping and the mats allow you to sweep up well after each animal is sheared. Gravel, dirt, grass, puddles and debris are NOT for the shearing platform.

Have extra helpers to delegated to bag the prime blanket separate from fiber from other parts of the body, labeling each with date and animal's name and registration number. Take a fleece sample from the mid-side of the alpaca, 2 inches by 2 inches shorn from the skin. Send it off for evaluation after placing it in a small plastic bag with your ranch name and address, the gender, age, DOB and registration number of each alpaca (one sample per bag).

Weigh each fleece and note the weight of the blanket, neck fiber and remainder for each animal. Keep this data in your records to compare from year to year. This is invaluable information to give to the new owner if you sell the animal.

The alpaca registry of your country can guide you to fiber processing resources.

Batts are fiber which has been picked (a machine which opens the fiber staple to prepare it for carding), then carded (the process of disentangling fiber staples to produce a uniform thickness) and prepared in a large sheet. A roving is prepared alpaca which has been carded, drawn and drafted slightly, adding a slight amount of twist. Yarn is the product of spinning into specific ply, such as two-ply yarn.

Skirting is the process of removing the belly, thigh, neck, and leg hair as well as removing any stained portions of fiber after shearing.

 

Washing Alpaca Fiber

 

Alpacas Magazine (USA), Summer 1995 printed a good article on this. The main things to get alpaca fleece clean are 1) very hot water (120 - 140 degrees f), 2) adequate amount of detergent and 3) no agitation. This can be done in a washing machine (in bags so as not to ruin both fleece and washer), using only the soak and spin dry cycles - no agitation process. Another choice is to wash fiber in a bath tub or other large container, using some container to lift the fiber out while allowing the fleece to "open up" to get clean. Any liquid detergent which does not contain bleach or conditioner is recommended.

Alpaca has no natural lanolin so cleaning requires a more gentle process than sheep's wool which is scoured to remove lanolin.

 

How To Store Sheared Fiber

 

Moths love alpaca fiber so this is the biggest threat. Store alpaca products and raw fiber carefully. It should be completely dry and clean when it is put away. Placing clean fiber in pillow cases in a cedar lined "hope chest" or cabinet is my favorite cache. If this is not possible, create your own boxes from the currently popular plastic storage boxes which are airtight and inexpensive. Be sure fiber and alpaca clothing articles are fully dry before storage. You can make your own sachet using dried lavender, tobacco or cedar to deter moths. It is NOT recommended to use moth balls.

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