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Tips to Classify and Cultivate Your Alpaca Fiber
The most luxurious natural fiber available is Alpaca Fiber. It is superior to angora and even cashmere because it is as soft, if not softer than cashmere, yet will not pill and has better thermal properties. Alpaca hair is virtually hypoallergenic, as it does not contain lanolin like wool – lanolin is greasy and traps dust, mites and other microscopic allergens. The lack of lanolin also means that no chemicals or special washings are needed to prepare alpaca wool for processing. Due to this purity, even the most sensitive skin is not irritated by alpaca products.
Classification by color or fineness
Color is the easiest thing to learn about grading your fur, however there are areas where a color can seem to hover between definitions. To begin with, there are 22 colors that are recognized internationally. At this time, most animals are white or fawn. Gray and black are the most sought after colors, therefore the easiest to sell. White is also very easy to market because alpaca fiber dyes very easily, so white is often used when dyeing fleece.
A roan color is a solid base color such as brown or black with white tips or white hairs that grow as the base color. Almost all backgrounds will have noise in their coloring. Gray is a very popular color and can range from a very dark gray to an almost white looking animal. Most grays will have small darker spots on them.
Another way to grade your fleece is to grade it by fineness. Fineness is the diameter of individual hairs and is measured in microns. For comparison, a human hair is between 40-90 microns.
Alpaca fiber with a mass of 18 microns or less is classified as Royal. Historically, this type of thread was reserved exclusively for the Inca kingdom.
Fiber with a mass of 18 to 20 microns is classified as Baby or Superfine. This can be found mostly in yearling alpacas, their first cut.
A classification of Fine is given to alpaca fiber between 20 and 25 microns, and Medium to fibers between 25 and 30 microns. Both of these types are easy to spin into yarn and are very soft. However above 30 microns, we then enter the Strong category. Obviously not as good as Fine or Medium, but still great for gloves, rugs and other broken finished products.
The next classification is Mixed Pieces which are over 30 microns and are used for slices and decorative art products.
You don’t have to groom your alpacas; Brushing, pulling and even petting your alpacas too much can stretch the hair fibers. This affects the loft of the wool, loft meaning here the ability of the hair to return to “normal” after being stretched or squeezed, it can sometimes refer to fur, but this is less accurate. Because the scales in an alpaca hair all lie in the same direction, they don’t bounce back as tightly as wool—making it more prone to stretching out of shape—by not bouncing back.
If you have enough space for pasture, a great strategy is to put your alpacas on pasture with fresh grass 3 weeks before shearing. This will allow any hay, twigs or other items that may be stuck in the fleece to come out naturally and you will have clean clippings ready for processing.
If you live in a humid climate, make sure your sheared wool is dry before bagging to keep it mold free and smelling fresh for your customers. A creative solution to this was shared by Deb Wright of Wright Choice Alpacas – on this until it is dry and ready to bag. You should also make sure to keep the moths away from your fleece until you have time to sort it and prepare it for shipping or pickup. You can put a dryer sheet with each bag to keep the bugs away.
A long-term strategy for growing quality fleece would be a breeding program, or purchasing animals bred for high quality fleece from a good breeding farm. Breed tracking, long-term and detailed record keeping, and honesty will help a breeder develop lines that are proven to provide quality fur.
If a breeder realizes that the offspring of a particular alpaca are not producing quality animals, they should be retired from the breeding stock, culled if they are male. It will take years to make these determinations, which is why detailed record keeping and honesty in recording will pay off in the long run.
Animals that are not suitable for breeding can still be used for wool production for the rest of their lives, an owner will still be able to make money from them. However, if a breeding program is aimed at a certain wool quality, these animals should not be breeders. Even medium and strong wool carries the wonderful properties of alpaca fiber, and there are many mills and artisans who will be happy to buy this alpaca fiber.
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