alpaca: the new cashmere

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A Brief Primer on Alpaca Fiber [resource here]

Alpaca fleece is valuable because it combines so many positive, commercial attributes into one fiber. There are no negative characteristics to be found in the Alpaca’s fleece. Mother Nature designed the ideal fiber for use by mankind and then placed it on the gentle Alpaca.

  • Alpaca is found naturally in 22 distinct colors. The fiber can also be blended to produce an infinite array of natural colors.
  • The fiber from Alpaca is unusually strong and resilient. The strength of the fiber does not diminish as it becomes finer, thus making it ideal for industrial processing.
  • Raised at high altitudes in freezing cold, the Alpaca has developed more thermal capacity in its fiber than almost any other animal. The fiber contains microscopic air pockets which create lightweight garments with high insulation values.
  • Alpaca is soft, supple and smooth to the touch. The cellular structure of the fiber produces a soft handle unmatched by most other specialty fibers.
  • Alpacas produce a fine fiber with an absence of guard hair in their prime fleece.
  • Alpaca has a natural, rich luster which gives garments made from 100% Alpaca high visual appeal.
  • Alpaca is easily dyed any color and always retains its natural luster.
  • Alpaca is compatible with either the woolen or worsted manufacturing systems. Fabric made from Alpaca can range from bulky tweeds to fine gabardine.
  • People who own Alpaca sweaters will find they practically last for ever. Alpaca does not easily tear, pill, stain or create static. It is easily cleaned.
  • Alpaca fleece produces a high yield of clean fiber after processing: 87 to 95 percent for Alpaca versus 43 to 76 percent for sheep’s wool.
  • Alpaca is easier and less expensive to process than sheep’s wool due to its lack of grease or lanolin, and Alpaca does not have to be de-haired like cashmere or camel.
  • Alpaca can be scoured or cleaned without using costly chemicals.

Alpaca Fiber Characteristics

The fiber structure of Alpaca is similar to wool. The outer scales, called cuticle, are hard, flat cells which do not fit together evenly. The tips, or edges, of these cells point away from the fiber shaft, giving the fiber a serrated edge. It is these serrations which cause the fibers to grip together during manufacturing and form a strong yarn.

To identify whether a fiber is wool, cashmere, mohair or Alpaca can be very difficult and somewhat subjective. Microscopic examination is necessary. Two elements distinguish fiber of the same micron count; scale height and scale frequency.

The softness of Alpaca over wool of the same micron is due to a scale height of 0.4 for Alpaca versus 0.8 for wool. The lower scale height creates a smoother handle with a less scratchy surface. Mohair, on the other hand, has a scale height similar to Alpaca but a frequency of 6 to 8 per 100 microns, versus a scale frequency of greater than 9 per 100 microns for Alpaca. The high frequency of scales along the fibers shaft also creates a softer feel.

Alpaca fiber also differs from wool due to the occasional presence of a medulla, or hollow center. Not all Alpaca fiber has a medulla, and some fiber has more pronounced medulla than others. The coarser fibers, such as guard hair, are primarily composed of medulla.

Fiber Style

The individual staples, or locks of fiber, make up an entire fleece. The fibers which make up the staples vary in style and quality from Alpaca to Alpaca and from one location on the Alpaca’s body to another. The quality and style of the staple also changes with the age of the animal.

The Factor Which Influence the Value of Alpaca Fiber Are Both Physical and Environmental

Physical Influences

Fineness: Fiber consumers generally pay more for finer fiber, whether they are handspinners or industrial processors. Fineness is a highly heritable genetic trait, and a rigorous selection process can greatly impact a herd’s overall fiber fineness.

Color: Industrial processors will normally pay a premium for white fibers, since this enables them to use subtle pastel dyes or create any particular color they choose. Handspinners will normally pay more for natural colored fleece which is unusual or true to the color of garment they desire to create.

Length: Staple length is an important processing consideration and determines which manufacturing process will be used, woolen or worsted.

Yield: This is very important in two respects: 1) fleece is sold by the pound or ounce (how much fiber an Alpaca yields determines, to a large extent, the fiber’s total value), and 2) since the clean fleece weight is the measure of usable fiber, the clean weight of shorn fleece versus its shorn weight is important.

Environmental Influences

Nutrition impacts the rate of fiber growth, and in some instances it also affects the fineness. It is thought or believed that fleece weight and quality is 50% in the breeding and 50% in the feeding.

Impurities in the fleece affect its value. Handspinners pay far more for clean fleece. Industrial processors estimate clean fleece yield and the cost of cleaning when they value fleece. Pasture management and pre-shearing grooming are the keys to clean fleece.

Fiber Fineness

Fineness is what specialty fibers are all about. Alpacas produce a fine fiber with soft handle and less “prickle factor” than most other animals. “Prickle” creates the itchy sensation one feels in a coarse garment, and is most often the result of coarse fiber being intermixed with fine fiber.

Cashmere, a fiber universally recognized for its soft handle, has been identified on 68 breeds of goats in 12 different countries. Cashmere is defined, not by the goat of origin, but by its degree of fineness. Cashmere fiber, as defined by The American Cashmere Growers Association, has “a mean diameter of 20 microns or less. The coefficient of variation around the mean shall not exceed 25% and there cannot be more than 3% of the fibers by weight over 30 microns.” As a result of this “textile definition,” cashmere is thought of as soft.

The key to soft garments with an absence of prickle is fine fiber uncontaminated by coarse fiber. The Alpaca is ideal for producing such a fiber, since it is essentially a one-coated animal. The cashmere goat, however, has two coats: one a coarse outercoat and the other a fine undercoat. Alpacas have been genetically selected over time for an absence of the coarse guard hair, or outer coat, found in most other animals’ fleece.

To avoid prickle, coarse hair of 30 microns or more must be maintained at 5% or less, by weight, in any garment or fabric. Alpaca, properly sorted and graded, easily meets this test. The products which result can be as soft as cashmere but less expensive to produce.

Fiber is tested for fineness pursuant to universally recognized tests. A test is typically administrated by a recognized laboratory with an expertise in testing fiber. The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) publishes a specification for testing Alpaca fiber. ASTM also publishes an international directory of testing laboratories which lists the existence of over 1,200 labs in the U.S. This information can be obtained by writing:

American Society for Testing and Materials 1916 Race Street Philadelphia, PA 19103 [Ask for Bulletin D2252; 85(91)]

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4 thoughts on “alpaca: the new cashmere

  1. Blended with shetland would be a perfect match. One of my closest friends has alpacas and she gives me fleeces once in awhile. I have blended it with my BFL and now I will be able to blend it with my shetland fleeces. It is some of the nicest alpaca in Ohio.

  2. Thank you for this excellent information. As a rule, I do not buy cashmere wool or garments. My understanding is that overgrazing, and the demand for cheap sweaters, is leading to desertification of the grazing land. I would be interested to know if the raising of alpaca is more environmentally sustainable than that of kashmir goats. I suspect it is.
    I crochet and I naturally-dye yarn, but I am sensitive to wool, which is frustrating. You have encouraged me to give alpaca a try.

    • I do not raise Alpacas, but, I would suggest you visit a ‘local’ farm to get first-hand info/experience. As with any farm animal/hobby, ‘we’ are entrusted with their care and safe handling in addition to responsible stewardship of the land! Therefore, know your source and purchase locally if possible! Best wishes!

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