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The value of alpacas is based on their ability to produce luxury fiber. This versitile fiber has kept the people of the Andean highlands warm for thousands of years. Prized in Europe for centuries, more recently the fashion houses of Japan have discovered this 'new' fiber. As Americans learn about alpaca, the market for alpaca fiber, and the animals that produces it, continues to grow.
Known as alpaca wool, or simply 'alpaca', like all natural fibers, varies in quality. The best grades - known as Royal and Baby alpaca - rival cashmere for softness and silk for it's smooth 'hand' and subtle sheen, with a drape that has attracted the attention of fashion designers worldwide.
Produced in a wide range of natural shades from off-white through fawn and brown to jet black, commercial producers prefer white. Handspinners and craftsmen enjoy both the natural colors and white, as it comes from the alpaca, or dyed in endless hues using either commercial or natural dyes. *See the alpaca color fiber chart in the photo below.*
Alpaca is lighter than wool, and warmer for the weight. It is also naturally water resistant. Alpaca fiber is stronger than wool of the same micron, or thickness, making the medium grades excellent for outerwear that is as durable as it is beautiful. Coarser grades make naturally stain resistant upholstery and carpets. Alpaca drapes are naturally flame-resistant and provide superior thermal qualities, saving energy. Alpaca sofa throws and blankets keep us cozy during New England winters. Well made garments and other items of alpaca will last for years with minimal care.
Featured are the garments by Kuna. Also shown is the ancestor of the alpaca, the fawn colored vicuna, is seen in the snow and also in a traditional 'chaccu', or roundup. The vicuna are shorn once every two years in these events, then released unharmed.
The fleece of an alpaca is priced by grade and weight. (In the US, law restricts use of the word 'wool' to sheeps' wool.) A smooth feel and lustrous appearance are characteristic of the best grades of alpaca, but the most important factor is fineness. Uniformity of the fibers within the fleece and freedom from coarse, straight 'guard hair' is also key to the comfort of garments made from a natural fiber, and the price it will bring.
NOTE: The presence of coarse guard hairs in any of the 'noble fibers' (protein based fibers produced by animals) will create an itching or 'prickly' sensation. Freedom from these coarse fibers is as important as the overall fineness of the fiber when selecting fiber that is to be worn against the skin. This is one of the top priorities in the selection and breeding of alpacas at Inti.
Alpaca goes through many stages from the animal to the finished product. In the US, alpacas are shorn annually, to ensure the quality of the fiber and to prevent heat stress to the animal. The raw fleece from each alpaca is then 'skirted' to remove the hairy portions around the edges, excess vegetable matter, and any stained or soiled areas. The best quality end products are obtained when the fleeces are sorted for grade, pooling together fiber of similar fineness and length.
After sorting, the fiber is 'scoured' or washed to remove dirt and the light coating of suint which is produced by the skin to protect the fiber and the alpaca from the elements. The suint and other oils in alpaca fiber are much easier to remove than the heavy lanolin found in sheep wool, making the scouring process quicker, less expensive, and easier on the environment.
Commercially milled fiber is sent through a variety of machines that mimics the same basic process that humans have used for thousands of years to produce the yarns from which garments and other fabrics are made. Basically, the fibers are fluffed into a more uniform mass, aligned, and spun. Alpaca fiber can be spun into a very fine, almost thread-weight fiber or a chunky yarn suitable for bulky sweaters. When the fibers are more highly aligned before spinning, a smoother 'worsted' style is produced, which is generally used in weaving. Less highly aligned fibers yield 'woolen' style yarns used in knitting, either by machine or by hand.
A wide range of quality is currently seen among alpacas, ranging from 'hair of the angels' to fiber best suited for producing rugs. Each grade of fiber has applications, but the Grade 1 ('Royal') or Grade 2 ('Baby') is the most valuable - and the most rare. Be sure the fiber - or the alpacas - you are buying meets your needs. Contact us with any questions you may have. Our 'Farm Store' page lists several retailers of high quality alpaca garments.
The value of alpacas is based on their ability to produce luxury fiber.
Skilled sorters grade fiber by eye and hand, but laboratory testing can provide accurate measurements. The resulting data can confirm the quality of the fiber, for buyers of fiber and alpacas alike.
*See below for an example of a laboratory test report on alpaca fiber.
The silky feel and subtle sheen add to the appeal, but the most important factor in the valuation of alapca fiber - and the alapcas that produce it - is fineness. Measured in microns and shown as the Fiber Diameter (FD), or Average Fiber Diameter (AFD), the price received for alpaca fiber on the international market is based primarily on fineness.
Coarser grades of fiber can be put to good use in outerwear or socks. The coarsest grades, or otherwise fine fleeces that contain guard hair, are best used in rugs. As the alpaca market matures, keep in mind that the price for coarser fiber drops steeply with each increase of just a few microns. Coarser fiber weighs significanlty more than fine fiber, but the increase in weight is more than offset by the reduction in price. Alpacas with impressively high yeilds or 'cutting weights' rarely produce the most desireable Grade 1 or Grade 2 fleeces!
The Standard Deviation, (SD), and the Coefficient of Variation (CV), are measurements of the uniformity of the fibers within the fleece. Uniform fleeces feel softer, and can be spun into finer yarns, allowing the creation of lighter and more comfortable garments.
Along with fineness, freedom from coarse guard hair is the key to fabrics - whether knit or woven - that feel wonderful when worn against the skin. The presence of guard hair is indicated in histograms as the percentage of fiber over 30 microns, or %>30. Studies have shown that any type of fiber over 30 microns will create a 'prickle' sensation. Shown in reverse on some histograms as the "comfort factor", the CF is the percentage of fibers under 30 microns.
Like all fiber bearing animals, the fleece of an alpaca will become coarser as the animal matures and ages. Though rare, a few special alpacas maintain fine fiber as they age. Alpacas that produce fine fiber throughout their lives retain their value.
Allow us to assist you in creating Alpacas of Lasting Quality and Value.