Sunday, January 4, 2015

All About Alpaca

All About Alpaca

Bella from Granny's Alpacas
Alpaca was the first fiber that I ever got my hands on as a spinner. I remember being amazed at how one breed could have such a wide variety of fiber, and how most of it was not scratchy the way I have come to know most commercially bought woolen garments to be.

Eco-Friendly Fluffy Friends!

I love Alpacas for many reasons. Having majored in Environmental Science in college, being eco-friendly is very important to me, and alpacas have that down pat. Their little feet are padded which means that they don't tear up the earth when they graze. Their droppings act as a very good natural fertilizer with a low pH and very little odor, and they keep their droppings in specific areas of the pasture, making clean up easy. They don't eat a lot due to their physiology, and they also don't drink an excessive amount of water due to their camelid ancestry. And of course, they grow wonderfully warm fiber that is a renewable resource.  They don't have to be harmed in order to harvest their fiber (by shearing it off), and on top of it all, they are very social and friendly animals. Even competitive breeders can treat their alpacas like pets and spoil them. 

Cleaning Their Fleece:

Alpacas don't have lanolin (the greasy stuff) that sheep have. Instead, their fleeces are very easy to clean and require no fancy soaps to make them pristine. A few good soaks in water is usually all that is needed to get the dust and dirt out of an alpaca fleece. Because alpaca fiber is so fine, it can often have a lot of super small VM (vegetable matter -- like hay) stuck in it, which can make the picking part a little bit labor intensive. 

A fleece tumbler
Fleece Tumbler
Thankfully, because of the lack of lanolin in the fibers, you can actually tumble the fleece and get most of the VM out quite easily (it won't be stuck to the grease since there isn't any). They make special fleece tumblers for that, or you can make your own out of an old dryer or cement mixer.  A tumbler basically involves having a cage/barrel to hold the fleece with holes in it so the VM can fall out, then putting ends on it and finding a way to turn it. You can add little spikes in them to pick the fiber apart as it tumbles and a blower to blow dirt and other debris out.  

A tumbler is an absolute must-have if you have a herd of alpacas and don't want to spend hours and hours picking through their fiber! When we first started Blue Barn Fiber, I picked through 200 pounds of alpaca  blankets by hand and removed the VM the hard way. I learned very quickly that sometimes expensive investments are worth the money -- but when you don't have a lot of money to spend, you can definitely get things done the old fashioned way. 

Fiber Grades

Rivendell Meadows Alpacas & Angoras

It is important to note that not all alpaca fiber is created equally! Alpaca fiber is semi hollow, which means that it is an amazing insulator. It is significantly warmer than wool, and it is also very light weight due to the structure of the fibers. Unlike wool and cotton, alpaca has natural hydrophobic properties, meaning that it wicks the water out instead of absorbing it. Alpaca also does not have the microscopic barbs that wool has, which often causes that prickly sensation. For that reason, alpaca fiber that is 21 microns (for example) will likely feel much softer and smoother than wool that is also 21 microns.  

Alpaca comes in 6 different grades, grade 1 being the most luxurious and softest, grade 6 being on the coarser side.
  • Grade 1  Ultra Fine, or Royal Baby alpaca. It is less than 20 microns, and feels like butter in your hands! Equivalent to cashmere.
  • Grade 2  Superfine / Baby: falls within 21 and 22.9 microns. Still absolutely heavenly soft and can be worn on your naked skin.
  • Grade 3  Fine: 23-25.9 microns. Soft, versatile, suitable for a wide variety of projects and garments.
  • Grade 4  Medium: 26-28.9 microns. Good for blankets, socks, non-sensitive areas of the skin.
  • Grade 5  Intermediate: 29-32 microns. Less soft, more for outerwear, quilts, that sort of thing.
  • Grade 6  Adult Grade: 32-35+ microns.Strong, not soft. Best for rugs and things that need a lot of durability. 

Suri Vs. Huacaya

 There are two types of Alpacas, and both have very unique characteristics.

An oversimplification would be to state that one breed is long haired and the other short
haired. But it's not quite as simple as that.

Suri Alpacas are the least common of the two breeds, and have long, lustrous hair that
falls flat and moves freely. They have distinct separate sections of locks (which are referred
Double D Alpaca Ranch - Illuminatus, Suri Alpaca
to as penciling), and they can be either straight, wavy, or curly. As a general rule of thumb, the more lustrous the fleece, the better quality it will likely be. Due to the silky nature of their fleece, Suri can feel very slippery and almost greasy, even though it does not contain lanolin. It can be very time consuming to prepare and spin properly, as each set of locks must be flicked open to produce an even yarn. It typically falls between 17 and 28 microns. 

Pure Bred Suri Alpacas should not ever have any crimp in the
staple, meaning that you would want to use it for a garment
that would drape well, but not for something that would require
memory (at least not without blending it).

Spun correctly, Suri alpaca is absolutely amazing. It has the softness of cashmere with the luster of silk. It is an extraordinary fiber from beautiful animals, but it is not a fiber meant for beginners.

Alpacas of the North Country
Huacaya Alpacas are more common but just as extraordinary as Suris.  Before being sheared, they tend to have a teddy-bear appearance that makes them quite huggable ! A good Hyacaya fleece should be uniform, very dense, and grow perpendicular to the skin, creating that characteristic fluffy appearance that Suris lack. 

Their hair grows in little bundles that we refer to as "staples" which further contribute to their dense appearance. These staples tend to have a good amount of crimp -- some more than others. This gives Huacaya Alpaca fiber more memory than Suri, though most alpaca will still drape to some extent.
Huacaya Crimp, courtesy of Great Northern Ranch
There are 22 different shades of natural alpaca fiber, and the vast differences between breeds and grades of fleece means  that Alpaca could potentially be used for just about any project you can think of. It is one of my very favorite types of fiber to work with due to its universal nature, and the fact that these animals are so cute  is just a bonus.



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