Alpaca fleece is quite different from sheep’s wool. In fact, one would never call alpaca fleece wool. The construction of the alpaca fiber is very different from wool. Alpaca fleece has two kinds of fiber, primary and secondary fiber. The fiber industry is looking for secondary fiber, as it is the finer of the two. As breeders, we are trying to raise animals that produce mostly secondary fiber. Fiber diameter is not the only factor in the fiber character that is different from sheep’s wool. The scale construction on the outer layer of the fiber can make the fiber feel softer. In sheep’s wool, the scales stick out from the hair. The Alpaca’s scale is much smoother and lays flatter and closer to the hair thus increasing the comfort factor. The secondary alpaca fiber has air pockets in the center of the hair with large spacing between the cells giving added insulation. The alpaca’s Primary fibers are hollow, are much longer in length, and have a fiber diameter of over 30 microns.
Alpaca fiber is three times warmer than wool and seven times stronger and is one of the strongest natural fibers, if not the strongest. Alpaca fiber can be as soft as Cashmere, and has a smoother outer cuticle that can make the fiber feel smoother. This has to do with the scale structure on the fiber shaft. The longer the distance between scales the smoother and brighter the fiber. Also there are barbs were the scales join one another along the shaft which do not stick out as far as other fibers, laying closer to the shaft. This gives excellent handle (feel) to the fiber.
There are twenty-two recognized colors and two hundred different shades of alpaca fiber. It is water resistance because of an alkaline substance on the out side of the fiber called suint. The staple length of the fiber is from three to six inches in one year of growth. Alpacas need a feed designed for fiber growth. The protein level must be between 10-12 percent protein as protein levels can affect the thickness of the fiber diameter.
There are two types of alpacas, the Huacaya and the Suri. The difference between their fiber is primarily the staple length and luster. The majority of alpaca fiber produced is Huacaya as the Suri is almost extinct in South America. Huacaya fiber is warmer than Suri thus the lower survival rate of Suri’s in the high Andes Mountains of South America. North America has a larger Suri population than South America.
When looking for a well-fleeced alpaca with good density and fiber growth, one would first look for uniformity in the fleece with the absence of guard hairs. Most alpacas will have some guard hairs on their chests, legs and under bellies. We are looking to breed out as much guard hair as possible and the blanket should have no guard hairs. Run your hands over the animal feeling for softness with a nice feel to the fiber, called “handle”. In a healthy animal, the fiber should be lustrous with a plush sheen along with a richness of color. Crimp is another good indicator of uniformity, fineness and elasticity. Darker colored alpacas do not have the density and crimp as lighter colored and are judged at a easier standard. Some farms may have fiber analysis done use as guide to the fiber characteristics. Fiber diameters and medulations can change with the age of the animal, hormones, the seasons, feeding programs, the type of feed and mineral imbalances in pastures. Fiber histograms should only used as a guide to the animal’s ability to produce fine fiber. Eighty percent of fiber characteristics are genetic.
I have learned these things through reading, attending seminars and listening to experienced alpaca farmers. Alpaca farming is a brand new exciting industry, and even the experts are learning new things every day. Please use what I have written as guide. I strongly encourage you to do further investigations by visiting a farm, reading, attending seminars and using the Internet. Feel free to contact me as I love talking about alpacas and showing them off.