Alpaca Fleece and Fibre
The popularity of alpaca fibre is on the rise. Combining softness, warmth and strength, alpaca fibre has all the benefits of wool without the itch. Available in natural colours but easily dyed, there are many elements that alpaca fibre can be used for. Depending on your alpaca breed, the fleece will have different characteristics.
Huacaya fleece should have a uniform fibre with a consistent colour, length, strength and crimping. It is consistently bright and fine, with little guard hair. Suri alpacas provide a fleece of greater lustre, yet share many of the same ideal properties, including integrity of colour, consistent length, strength, and a lack of guard hair. Healthy alpacas should produce a consistent yield across their bodies.
Many of these fleece characteristics are determined by genetics. The fibre types, fineness, colour, length, guard hair, crimp, brightness and yield are all genetically determined; however, nutrition and health also play a large role in the fineness, length, strength and yield of the fleece.
Some important key terms:
Mid Side Sample : A sample of wool (a small hand full) taken from the mid point on the side of an alpaca usually at the time of shearing.
Histogram : A method of graphing the distribution of individual fibres in a fleece sample. When comparing histograms, visual impressions may be distorted if the scale frequency differs.
Micron : 1 micron = 1 millionth of a metre.
Mean Fibre Diameter : In a fibre test, a sample of wool is laser scanned to find the mean or average fibre diameter of the measured sample. The fleece is more valuable if the average fibre diameter measured in microns is lower.
Standard Deviation : A measure of how much the fibre diameter varies within the tested sample. This is also measured in micron.
Coefficient of Variation : Calculated by dividing the standard deviation by the average fibre diameter and then multiplying by 100. It measures the range of fibre diameter variation relative to the average fibre diameter.
Coarse Edge Micron : Indicates the number of microns greater than the average in the area of the coarsest 5% of fibres tested. Better quality and more uniform fibre distribution is indicated by a lower percentage of coarse edge fibre.
Comfort Factor : The percentage of fibres less than 30 micron.
Crimp : The waviness of a fibre. It can be measured and expressed as the number of complete waves per unit length. Although not always a reliable indicator, finer fibre often has more crimps per unit length.
Staple : A well defined pencil like bundle of fibres that are aligned.
Density : A reference to how much wool an alpaca is carrying and a term that is often used in the show ring. Although there are many indicators of density, they can be misleading due to variations in micron. Skin follicle testing and weighing shorn fleece are reliable methods of determining an alpaca’s fleece density.
There are several steps involved to take shorn alpaca fibre in it’s raw form to transform it into the finished product of purchasable and useable alpaca fleece. There are a number of businesses around Australia that also buy and process alpaca fleece.
Alpaca fibre needs to be sorted to meet the needs of it processors (classed). The main properties processor asses on are fibre diameter (micron), length and colour.
All natural fibres need to be scoured (washed). This removes dirt and grease from the fleeces. Alpaca fibre has a low grease content and will yield around 90% of it’s initial fleece weight after scouring.
Once alpaca fleece is scoured, the individual fibres need to be aligned; this is known as carding. This process will also remove some of the unwanted vegetable matter.
The fibres go through a finishing alignment called gilling before being combed into a product known as ‘top’. This top has the appearance of a loose rope without the twist.
Tops are fed into spinning machines to make yarn for knitting or weaving. This is the last process in the chain before the fabric is manufactured.
An advantage of alpaca fibre is that the lighter colours are easily dyed to suit contemporary fashion. The natural colours of alpaca are manufactured directly into end products.