Information about luxurious, versatile, natural and hypoallergenic, alpaca fibre that offer many advantages.
Quick Fibre Facts
An alpaca (Vicugna pacos) is a domesticated species of South American camelid. It resembles a small llama in appearance. Alpacas are kept in herds that graze on the level heights of the Andes of southern Peru, northern Bolivia, Ecuador, and northern Chile at an altitude of 3,500 m (11,500 ft) to 5,000 m (16,000 ft) above sea level, throughout the year.
Alpacas are considerably smaller than llamas, and unlike llamas, they were not bred to be beasts of burden, but were bred specifically for their fibre. Alpaca fibre is used for making knitted and woven items, similar to wool. These items include blankets, sweaters, hats, gloves, scarves, a wide variety of textiles and ponchos in South America. As well as sweaters, socks, coats and bedding in other parts of the world.
Alpaca is eco-friendly
Alpacas are considered some of the “greenest” animals around. Their adaptations for living in harsh environments like the Andes give them a light eco-footprint: soft pads in place of hooves leave terrain undamaged, and their efficient eating habits result in greatly reduced water and acreage needs relative to other grazing animals.
Alpaca is also sustainable because an alpaca can produce fleece throughout its life without being harmed. When late spring arrives in the Andes (late fall here in the Northern Hemisphere) and the weather warms up, alpaca ranchers shear their animals for their annual “clip.” While alpacas don’t usually enjoy the shearing process itself, they are noticeably more comfortable after their annual “haircut.”
Because alpaca is naturally free of lanolin and other oils found in sheep’s wool, no harsh chemicals are needed to process alpaca fiber, making alpaca ranching 100% natural and safe for the environment.
Fleece lovers looking to reduce their environmental impact look to alpaca because with proper care, it’s virtually indestructible and can be worn for years, reducing the demand for new products. Alpaca garments dating back over 2000 years in Peru are still in good condition — just think of how many trends and fashion crazes that new alpaca sweater will see you through!
Fibre colour & texture
The fibre comes in more than 22 natural colours as classified in Peru, 12 as classified in Australia and 16 as classified in the United States. Alpaca are native to the high Andes Mountains of South America. Domesticated for centuries by the Inca of Peru, their precious fleece was worn only by royalty. Alpaca produce over twenty natural shades of a fibre that is soft like cashmere and stronger than wool. This unique hollow core fibre is extremely light yet retains the ability to warm its wearer against even the harshest winter chills.
Imagine a fibre that is incredibly soft on the skin and luscious to touch. The fibre is extremely strong, yet lightweight. It contains no lanolin and is hypoallergenic. Finally, this miracle fibre would come in a wide range of natural colours but also accept dyes to provide the option of natural or dyed garments. This rare luxury fibre is now available to you in modern styles reflecting the most current fashion trends in a variety of sizes and options!
Under a microscope, the individual fibre from an alpaca begins to give away some of its secrets. One can see that an individual alpaca fibre consists of outer “scales” lying against the shaft. Three factors will affect the feel, or “hand” of the yarn made from this material. The diameter, measured in microns (1/25,000 of an inch) is the major determinant.
However, alpaca fibre often feels softer than sheep’s wool that is several microns finer in diameter due to the scale height and scale frequency. The scale height of alpaca fibre is about .04 microns compared to .08 microns for wool. The scale frequency of mohair is 6 – 8 per 100 micron length of fibre and of alpaca is greater than 9 per 100 micron length of fibre. In other words, the individual shaft of an alpaca fibre is measurably smoother than that of other natural fibres.
A cross section of an alpaca fibre will reveal microscopic air pockets. These pockets of air add to the insulating qualities as well as the light weight of a garment made from alpaca.
The Huacaya alpaca fleece demonstrates the qualities of crimp and crinkle. This natural wave in the alpaca’s fibre creates a yarn that retains it shape over time. Suri alpaca fleece is known for its lustre. It is commonly used in high end woven goods, as this showcases the beautiful way it interacts with light.
The first formation of fibre that you can notice on the Huacaya is called the “staple”. You evaluate the individual staples by carefully parting the fibre with your hands and examining the staple structure. The Huacaya staple has a waviness to it which is called crimp. Staple length is one of the measures taken when fibre is analysed. Certain staple lengths are better than others for specific processing needs. Combing out the fibre to make it look better or cleaner, destroys the fibre structure (in both Huacaya and Suri) that judges are looking for.
On a Suri you should find dreadlock-looking locks. These Suri locks are ideally very tight and distinct in appearance, however Suri fibre also comes in locks that are not so distinct. A Suri can have a clockwise or counter-clockwise twist to its locks but the Suri locks and fibres have no waviness, or crimp. As with the Huacaya, the Suri fibre is best evaluated by parting the fibre with both hands and looking at its structure closer to the skin. This way you also get a good impression of how dense the fibre is.
Inspecting individual fibres
Huacaya fibre has a waviness to the individual fibres as well as to the staple. We refer to the staple waviness as “crimp”. This waviness helps to hold the fibres together during processing and makes it easier to form into yarn. Suri fibre is similar to mohair in many respects and Suri is prized for its lustre and drape. Lack of crimp and presence of lustre are distinguishing characteristics of Suri fibre when compared to Huacaya fibre. Suri fibre may be combined with a fine sheep’s wool, such as merino, to provide some crimp.
Sending Your Fibre to the Lab
Laboratory tests are performed on a sample of the alpaca’s fibre, usually a 2″ X 2″ sample cut from the prime area (blanket area) of the alpaca. The mean diameter of the sample fibre (Âµ)Â is reported, in microns, as well as the standard deviation (sd) in the sample, the coefficient of variation (cv) and the percentage of fibre greater than 30 microns.
Keep in mind that the smaller these four numbers are, the better the fibre. The mean/average diameter tells you that the average diameter of all of the fibres in the sample is x microns. Â The standard deviation tells you the individual fibre deviations from the mean. Â The coefficient of variation is the standard deviation as a percent of the average diameter and is a measure of uniformity. The superfine and fine classifications are the only fibre suitable for the best worsted fabrics sought by the fashion industry:
Classification of Microns
Fine: 20 – 24.9
Medium: 25 – 29.9
(human hair is between 40-80, and sometimes greater than 100 microns)
Since the first shearing of the animal produces the finest fleece it will ever produce, it is a good idea to know at what age a sample was taken, when evaluating an alpaca. If the only sample taken is of the baby or “tui” fleece, then it may not mean much, because they are almost always low. It is the samples taken after one year, and then subsequent years that tell the real story.
If an alpaca keeps a low micron count through the years, that alpacas fibre genes are considered very good. All alpaca micron counts will increase with age. Nutrition and hormones also plays a strong role in the micron count. If an animal changes from a skimpy forage diet to a strong nutritional diet, with grain, thick lush pasture or high protein hay, it will be reflected in the micron count. The sudden change may “blow out” the fibre a bit, until the animal becomes acclimated to the diet. Some say a skinny alpaca has better, finer fibre.
Having a fine fibre with a low micron count, is not the end all. The weight of the fleece is also important. The more fibre you have the better. A heavy, consistent fleece, say you get 8lbs of fleece, is more important than a fleece with just a low micron count that you only have 4lbs of. The ideal of course is to have both!
From Fibre on the animal to a cosy sweater or blanket, how does it happen?
The first step is shearing day. In spring when it really begins to stay warm, the alpacas are shorn. The fleece is skirted and divided into firsts, seconds & thirds. In many cases the coarser leg & neck fibres are thrown out, but we find they are very useful for rug making. The fine fibre is then processed either by hand or a mill.
If done by hand, the fleece will be cleaned, usually just by picking out any vegetable matter that was not picked out before shearing. The fibre will then be carded, either with paddle carders or a drum carder. The carder is somewhat like a really prickly stiff brush that combs the lumps and bumps out of the fibre. It creates a fluffier fibre preparation without perfect alignment, best for soft, fuzzy yarns.
Once the fibre is carded into a batt (for felting) or roving (for yarn) it can be spun. Spinning twists the roving into a tight long, strong yarn, if hand spun you can easily make lumpy yarns that have allot of variation in width. An easier technique for those of us whom are just beginning, just pretend you wanted it that way… Of course the yarn is then made into a finished product via weaving, knitting, felting or crocheting.