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Located in the mountains of Ashland, Oregon  
Mulberry Alpacas Saturday, 19 July, 2008  

Fleece - Fiber to Fashion

Alpacas are first and foremost fiber producing animals. They've been domesticated for thousands of years specifically because of their gorgeous fiber. As in the past, the future value of the breed will continue to be determined by their fiber producing capabilities. So whether you're interested in show animals, breeding stock, studs, or pets, all alpaca owners should understand alpaca fiber, its production value, its uses, and processing options. To read more in-depth articles about the fiber industry please visit our article library.


 

Ideal alpaca Fiber

Alpaca is classed as a luxury fiber (like cashmere, mohair, and angora) because of its fineness and relative scarcity. 90% of the world alpaca population is in Peru, so in North America, which has perhaps 2% of the world's alpaca population, alpaca fiber is especially scarce. This presents both an opportunity and a challenge for North American alpaca owners and breeders.

Ideal alpaca Fleece

Alpaca fleece commands high prices when sold directly to handspinners (2004 prices varied from $2.50 to $5.00 an ounce--compared to sheep's wool, which sells retail for $6 to $10 per pound). But because there's not enough fleece produced in the US to interest most commercial processors, many alpaca breeders must make their own arrangements for processing the fiber. Fortunately, several fiber co-ops have been started by alpaca breeders and many small processing mills will work with specialty fibers like alpaca.

 


There are many factors which influence the characteristic of alpaca fiber, as follows:

* Color--alpaca is classed by ARI into 22 color categories, though in reality the specific colors of the animals have over 200 distinct shades (see The Kaliedscope and Fiber Evaluation by Hoffman). The color classes make it possible to group fleece colors for processing

* Fineness--a measure of the diameter of each of the hair follicles, generally measured in microns

* Staple length--the length of fiber an animal produces between shearings

* Density--the number of hair follicles per square inch

* Uniformity--the even distribution of all the characteristics that are valued in a fleece

* Crimp/crinkle--the waviness present in huacaya fiber. In sheep's wool, the more uniform the crimp, the finer the fleece was thought to be. In alpacas this isn't necessarily true (suris exhibit almost no crimp), but it continues to be valued by North American alpaca breeders and gives huacaya alpacas their characteristic look

* Fleece weight--the full weight of the blanket fleece and seconds
Other more subjective factors are also considered in breeding programs, like luster in huacayas or sheen/shine in suris, uniformity of color, and handle.


No breeding program can select for all of these traits at once, and some of these traits counteract each other to some extent (for example, a fine fleece will weigh less than a courser fleece of equal density). Most breeders have selected one or several of these traits to focus on in their breeding programs. Different traits are more or less valuable depending on the intended end use--commercial processing, hand spinning, felting, quilting, for show, etc.

When evaluating fleece on an animal, know which factors you're looking for and judge the animal with your criteria in mind. It's typical to split the fleece in at least 3 areas (the center side, the front shoulder and the back rump) to judge the uniformity of the animal's fleece characteristics across the entire blanket.