Technically, the term “wool” refers to the fiber from sheep. The hair grown by alpacas is called fiber. One of the benefits of raising alpacas is the crop of fiber our alpacas produce each year, and all the many uses for what is considered one of the finest and most luxurious natural fibers in the world. Cashmere can be compared to the softness of alpaca fiber. Alpaca is warmer, stronger, lighter, hypoallergenic, and more resilient than wool. It is not scratchy and many people that cannot wear sheep’s wool can wear alpaca. Even a lacy shawl or sweater or pair of gloves made of very fine alpaca yarn will keep you warm, because of alpaca’s inherent insulating factor. Alpaca is durable and long-lasting, does not easily pill, tear, stain, or create static. It does not contain lanolin and can be spun right off the animal.
Alpaca fiber is recognized by the worldwide fiber market in 22 natural colors, from ivory to black, with all the grays and browns in between, making alpacas the most colorful animals on the earth! The natural colors of alpaca can also be blended producing yet other colors. Lighter shades of fiber take dyes beautifully. Alpaca fiber is in demand and very desirable because of its many wonderful qualities.
An adult alpaca produces 5 to 10 pounds of fiber per year. It sells from $2-$6 per ounce for raw fiber to $10 or more per ounce in a finished garment. Fiber artists and hand-spinners buy raw fleeces. Knitters, crocheters, and weavers that appreciate the quality of natural fibers purchase alpaca yarn. Fiber cooperatives collect alpaca fiber and process it on behalf of the producer. Some commercial users are now buying the fiber. Alpaca fiber can be used for anything that sheep’s wool can be, and then some.
Click here to shop for alpaca fiber in our online store!
The two distinct breeds of alpacas: Huacaya (wah-KI’-ya) and Suri (“surrey”) both have fleeces that are soft and luxurious. Huacayas have full, puffy fleeces whose crimp or crinkle is found throughout their fleeces. Suri alpacas have silky, lustrous, penciled fiber that grows in “dreadlocks” hanging down their side, giving the suri alpaca a completely different look. Both types of fiber are deemed luxury fibers in the textile industry because of qualities that are so unique.
With the Spring, comes shearing season in the world of alpacas. Shearing our alpacas is an annual event and is crucial to keep them from overheating in warm weather. Not only do garments made from alpaca fiber keep us amazingly warm, it keeps the alpacas warm as well. This is desirable in cold weather but becomes a great concern when the temperatures rise. We shear in mid to late April, preferring to error on the side of weather still being cool, rather than too warm.
Shearing day is a time of pulling together and helping each other. Over the years, our children and now our grandchildren stay home from school to help on shearing day. It is a busy day and depending on the size of the herd, requires many hands. We feel this is as educational of a day as a day in the classroom, for many reasons. Getting organized and preparing for shearing day is the key to a day that runs smoothly.
The preferred method of shearing is to lay the alpacas on their side and restrain their legs with a tether at each end. One side is shorn and then the alpaca is turned over and shorn on the other side. Experienced shearers are also handling experts and know how to move the alpaca where they need them with the least amount of stress. While they are restrained, they get their teeth and toenails trimmed if necessary, tails and topknots trimmed, kind of like a day at the spa! Some people give necessary injections at this time as well.
If you were to lay a blanket across an alpaca’s back, this portion of fiber is called the “blanket” and is considered to be the prime fiber. The alpaca blanket is shorn first, then bagged per individual animal and tagged with the name, date of birth, and shearing date. Seconds are considered to be the neck, shoulder, and rump fiber. This is sheared next and it is bagged per color. The lower leg fiber is much shorter and usually mush dirtier. It is called thirds and is bagged together regardless of color. We strive to make use of all the fiber our alpacas produce. This third grade fiber is used as stuffing for craft projects, garden mulch, and bird nesting material.
There are many factors that effect fiber quality and growth. Breeding decisions, nutrition, environment, and stress level all play a part in producing quality, marketable alpaca fiber. At shearing time, we have the opportunity to evaluate our success. Breeders serious about producing quality fiber need a solid understanding of the fiber itself, from breeding to feeding to how to process the harvested fleece.
All fiber can be used, but attention should be given to putting each grade of fiber to the best end use. No single animal produces fiber that is consistently uniform in color, staple length, or fineness. Accurate sorting and grading of the raw fiber is critical for producing quality end products. There is technology available for measuring the microns of fibers, but the experienced hand and eye has been a tried and true method for thousands of years. The feel of the fiber tells you what the end use should be.
Employing a certified sorter, or learning to sort and grade fiber yourself, is a great help in developing optimum fiber products. The sorter will place your fiber into grades of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6.
After shearing and the initial sorting and skirting, there are many steps involved in processing fiber including washing, picking, dehairing, carding, drafting, spinning, steaming, winding, and skeining. The Fiber Processing Flow Chart shows the order of how fiber is processed. Learning how to do this yourself can be time consuming, but rewarding. Mills can process alpaca fiber on a larger scale, more efficiently, but it can be costly. Those that understand the many steps involved from shearing the alpaca to producing a finished product have a great appreciation for the value of that product, even more so if it is handmade.
WHAT TO DO WITH ALPACA FIBER?
The answer to this question depends on how involved you want to get. The worst thing you can do with your fiber is nothing. The easiest thing is to sell the raw fiber to a commercial user that buys alpaca fiber. There are a number of online venues where alpaca fiber is sold. Farmers markets and fiber festivals are another outlet for selling fiber.
Processing fiber into value added product will give you a better return, whether you do it yourself or send it to a fiber mill that processes alpaca fiber. Value is added to the fiber by having it processed into finished alpaca products including batts, roving, felt, finished yarns, socks, shoe insoles, alpaca fiber filled mattress pads, pillows, comforters, or finished garments, outwear, and accessories. Preparation prior to processing is necessary to produce a quality end-product.
Learning to spin fiber into yarn can be very enjoyable for crafty folk, as well as other fiber arts such as knitting, crocheting, felting, and weaving. Being one of those crafty folk myself, the possibilities seem endless. Enjoy my Gallery of Handmade Items (coming soon)!
What Are You Doing With Your Alpaca Fleece? is an article written by Diane Beauchner and Anne Spreng that might help you answer this question.