Alpaca Fleece and Fibre
Alpaca fibre is classified as “wool” because of its chemical composition (keratin) and shares many common properties with sheep wool. Yet on closer analysis it has many characteristics which make it quite different – very little lanolin, a generally faster growth rate which results in a smoother outside cell structure which causes less prickling at comparable microns (i.e. a higher comfort factor), better overall lustre and the ability to withstand a higher level of abrasion that improves the longevity of its end products.
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 is often described as “sheep wool-like” because of its crimping bundles and the way the fleece sits out from the animal’s body inn an integrated yet organised mass. Huacaya fibre crimp characteristics are variable and dictate the end use of the fibre – eg very deep crimp waves in fine or medium micron fibre make ideal yarn for knitted products whilst flatter crimps with longer intervals in fine micron fibre is better suited to woven garment fabric manufacture.
Huacaya alpacas 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 : the measurement of the diameter of the cross section of a fibre. 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
Length: measured length from skin tip of fibre / staple / bundle
Guard hair: the primary (coarser) and often longer fibres within the fleece
Secondary fibres: the finer and shorter fibres within a fleece
Lustre: the brightness of the fleece, apparent as pearliness, sheen or shine
Handle: apparent when feeling the fleece as “slipperiness” ” silkiness” or ” soapiness”
Lock architecture: refers to lock formation with the fleece – lock type, evenness or distribution, separation (the fleece should swing independently when the animal is in motion)
Compactness: describes the heaviness or weight in suri fleece and is a guide to fleece density.
Alpacas need to be shorn annually. This is usually done in spring or early summer so that the alpacas have grown enough fleece back before the weather cools again and so they have their fleece removed before the weather gets too hot.
- ensure that your alpacas are kept n a clean paddock before shearing
- if fleeces contain loose vegetable mater,m remove as much as possible. Some types of vegetable fault cannot be removed by hand (i.e. burrs and barley grass should be left as is)
- During the shearing of each alpaca, collect and bag all lower legs, bellies and aprons as soon as they are shorn. This is to prevent contamination of neck and saddle fibre
- Place each neck in a bag as it is shorn
- properly skirt fleeces before placing them in a bag
- to skirt, lay fleece s out on the skirting table with the cut side down and quickly remove any coarse, hairy fibre from the edges of the saddle. These skirtings can be placed in the same bag as the belly, chest and legs or in a separate bag
- fold the fleece edge to edge (down the back line) with the cut side up
- roll up the folded fleece length ways and place in a clear plastic bag
- bag each fleece separately. Place lower leg, belly and apron bag, and neck bag in with the appropriate fleece
- correctly label each bag with the grower name
- Avoid storing fleeces for prolonged periods to reduce the risk of pest infestation or contamination
Objective traits such as fibre diameter, variation of fibre diameter, incidence of coarse fibre (comfort factor) and staple length provide clear expectations on processing / spinning performance and eventual yarn / fabric quality. These traits therefore play a significant factor in determining the value of fleeces.
Monitoring objective fibre traits using fibre measurement, therefore makes a lot of sense. It allows alpaca producers the opportunity to select alpacas that are likely to produce the most valuable fleeces. Further it also provides an insight into the genetic potential of breeding stock to produce progeny capable of growing valuable fleece.
If you are interested in learning about how to manage your alpaca fleeces from shearing, skirting, storing and processing please contact your regional president. With enough interest, the region will run a Shearing, Skirting and Fleece Preparation Workshop.
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.
Guaranteed Australian Alpaca
The AAA licenses the use of a “Guaranteed Australian Alpaca” logo for products that contain alpaca from Australia, are completely made in Australia (i.e. fleece, hide or meat has not left Australia) and are in a form which is considered a “commercial” product (i.e. not bales of fleece)