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 Fiber 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.
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 err on the side of weather still being cool, rather than too warm.
Shearing day is a time of alpaca breeders 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’s 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, still used by the Peruvian people today. In fact, trained alpaca graders can consistently sort raw fiber into ranges of only 3 microns at the rate of 150-200 pounds a day. 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.
Sorting and Grading
After shearing, the first step in sorting the fiber is by color.
The second sorting process would be to determine the length and uniformity of each fleece. Shorter fleeces, 1 .5 to 3.75 inches, should go into one pile, and fleeces over 3.75 inches go into another. It is critical to match the lengths of the individual fleeces and put them together, in order to produce a uniform yarn. Putting together longer and shorter length fleeces into a single batch results in loss of fiber at the time of carding/combing, thus reducing the amount of the final product, sometimes by 40%. Yarns produced this way are uneven, with lumpy and unspun spots in the yarn.
The next step takes lots of practice and that is grading the fiber for its quality. Even just sorting the fleeces by length is going to dramatically improve whatever end product you will make. The following is a chart of the different grades of alpaca fiber:
Grade 1 Ultra Fine (Royal baby) < 20 microns
Grade 2 Superfine (Baby) 20-22.9 microns
Grade 3 Fine 23-25.9 microns
Grade 4 Medium 26-28.9 microns
Grade 5 Intermediate ( Adult) 29-32 microns
Grade 6 Robust 32.1-35 microns
You may never be able to sort your fiber to this level of sophistication, but if you can sort your fiber into even just three grades, you will be quite pleased with the difference in your finished products.
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. This Fiber Processing Flow Chart explains the order and steps 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.
Are you an alpaca breeder looking for a mill to have your fiber processed? Take a look at this list of U.S. Fiber Mills.
Fiber length determines the methods for processing. One method is called Woolen and the other is Worsted.
Requirements Woolen Processing:
Short fibers that are 1.5″ to 3.75″
For huacaya, 6-8 crimps per inch will produce better loft
Yarn processed by the Woolen method works well for knitted garments, from lightweight to bulky, and some woven items. The yarn is soft and lofty, but may pill over time due to the random arrangement of fibers in the carding process.
Requirements for Worsted Processing:
Long fibers 3.75″- 6″
For huacaya, 3-6 crimps per inch
Yarn processed by the Worsted method works well for woven fabrics, such as suiting material, knitted shawls and lace work. The yarn is strong and smooth with high tensile strength for durability in wear, due to the fibers being aligned in one direction.
Sorting and grading may seem like a daunting task when you face all those bags of fiber that have been piling up, but you will be very pleased with your outcome and so will your customers. So, just to review:
Sort fleeces by color
Sort fleeces by length of staple
Sort fleeces by grade (at least in two piles- grades 1-4 and then everything else)
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.
Fiber cooperatives are available by which fiber contributions give you access to the purchase of alpaca yarn and finished products at a lessor price. Fiber exchange programs are another option.
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.
With Apologies to Paul Simon: There Must Be Fifty Ways to Sell Your Fiber!, an article written by Deb Hill might help you answer this question.