“What do you DO with alpacas?”
Called the “Fiber of the Gods” in the South American countries where the alpaca originated, we are blessed to be able to enjoy luxurious garments made of alpaca…even if we are mere mortals!
Alpaca is famous for its incredible fineness (which translates to softness), its warmth (many times warmer than sheep wool) and its hypoallergenic qualities (no lanolin and small fiber cores equals low-prickle factor!). Alpacas are also available in over 22 natural colors! With so many natural shades of color, there’s no need for the harsh dyes and chemicals so offensive to human skin. The colors of alpaca range from the brightest white to the deepest black, making alpaca one of the most beautiful and environmentally friendly fibers on earth.
Many Americans are allergic to sheep wool. The itch that many experience when wearing sheep wool is largely due to the high degree of guard hair in that fiber. The guard hairs stick out from the fabric and itch or prick the wearer. It is this prickliness that irritates so many people. Another significant reason why most sheep wool products irritate is that of the harsh chemicals used to clean the lanolin out of the fiber of sheep wool.
Fiber size is measured in microns and the lower the micron count, the softer and smoother the fiber. Anything under 21 microns will be much softer and comforting to the skin than anything over 30 will be. You may not be bothered by a higher micron count that would drive your spouse absolutely mad. This means that if you are an alpaca breeder, a good rule of thumb for your breeding program would be… the finer the fiber, the better the fiber. Fineness is “number one.” Density seems to be the present “number two” focus for most breeders of Alpacas in the USA. The length of the fiber is also important, as fiber between four and six inches long is easier to work with at the mills. Regardless of fiber style or length, fineness is of utmost importance.
While alpaca fiber can be sold raw, “as is” and practically right off the animal’s back, it will bring greater income to the alpaca farmer if more value is added prior to sale. Many alpaca owners skirt, clean, card and spin their own yarn; or use commercial mini-mills to process it. Next, some alpaca farmers knit or weave fine finished products for sale direct from the farm. Many buyers pay a premium for hand crafted clothing items.
The average adult alpaca may produce 50 to 90 ounces of first-quality, “prime” fiber, as well as 50 to 100 oz. of “second” and “third” quality fiber. The first quality – prime – fleece is generally used for garments that are worm next to the skin. Seconds and thirds are great for gloves, hats, handbags, slippers, and even rugs. The huacaya alpaca fiber (fluffy and possessing nice “loft”) is much more common worldwide than suri; and the suri alpaca fiber (long, twisting locks that resemble “dreadlocks”) is much more rare. Suri fiber requires its own set of unique steps in the shearing and processing department.
Alpaca fiber is sold to a wide variety of end-users. Hand-spinners and fiber artists buy raw fleece, roving (cleaned and combed, or “carded,” ready-to-spin or felt fiber), and finished yarn. Knitters often purchase various weights and plies of alpaca yarn. Fiber Cooperatives and mini-mills found all across America collect alpaca fiber and process it on behalf of the alpaca producer/farmer.
In its raw state, an ounce of alpaca varies from $2.00-$5.00. Each stage of the process (cleaning, carding, spinning, knitting, finishing, etc) adds more value to the fiber. As a finished garment, it can sell for as much as $10.00 per oz. Hand knit goods are more desirable and have been known to sell for as much as $1000. Don’t we all wish we could knit items worth $1000?
Alpaca is in a burgeoning “growth stage” as an industry, so you might not see alpaca in every store, but we are working on it. Alpaca is so versatile, warm and wonderful, we alpaca people are banking on the fact that once you try alpaca, you will never want to go back to anything else.