Alpaca fleece is the natural fiber harvested from an alpaca. It is light or heavy in weight, depending on how it is spun. It is a soft, durable, luxurious  and silky natural fiber. While similar to sheep’s wool, it is warmer, not prickly, and has no lanolin, which makes it hypoallergenic. Alpaca is naturally water-repellent and difficult to ignite. Huacaya, an alpaca that grows soft spongy fiber, has natural crimp, thus making a naturally elastic yarn well-suited for knitting. Suri has no crimp and thus is a better fit for woven goods. The designer Armani has used Suri alpaca to fashion men's and women's suits. Alpaca fleece is made into various products, from very simple and inexpensive garments made by the indigenous communities to sophisticated, industrially made and expensive products such as suits. In the United States, groups of smaller alpaca breeders have banded together to create "fiber co-ops," to make the manufacture of alpaca fiber products less expensive.
There are two types of alpaca: Huacaya (which produce a dense, soft, crimpy sheep-like fiber), and the Suri (with silky pencil-like locks, resembling dreadlocks but without matted fibers). Suris, prized for their longer and silkier fibers, are estimated to make up 19–20% of the North American alpaca population. Since its import into the United States, the number of Suri alpacas has grown substantially and become more color diverse. The Suri is thought to be rarer, most likely because the breed was reserved for royalty during Incan times. Suris are often said to be less cold hardy than Huacaya, but both breeds are successfully raised in more extreme climates. They were developed in South America.
Alpacas have been bred in South America for thousands of years. Vicuñas were first domesticated and bred into alpacas by the ancient tribes of the Andean highlands of Peru, Argentina, Chile and Bolivia. Two-thousand-year-old Paracas textiles are thought to include alpaca fiber. Also known as "The Fiber of the Gods", Alpaca was used to make clothing for royalty. In recent years, alpacas have also been exported to other countries. In countries such as the USA, Australia and New Zealand, breeders shear their animals annually, weigh the fleeces and test them for fineness. With the resulting knowledge, they are able to breed heavier-fleeced animals with finer fiber. Fleece weights vary, with the top stud males reaching annual shear weights up to 7 kg total fleece and 3 kg good quality fleece. The discrepancy in weight is because an alpaca has guard hair, which is often removed before spinning.
History of fiber industry
The Amerindians of Peru used this fiber in the manufacture of many styles of fabrics for thousands of years before its introduction into Europe as a commercial product. The alpaca was a crucial component of ancient life in the Andes, as it provided not only warm clothing, but also meat.
Incan culture involved the alpaca, as well as llamas and guanacos, in ritual sacrifice. Methods of killing the beasts varied based on the god receiving the sacrifice, the festival during which it took place, and even the color of the animal's fur. One method involved slitting open the animal's left side and reaching inside the chest cavity to remove the heart.
The first European importations of alpaca fiber were into Spain. Spain transferred that fiber to Germany and France. Apparently, alpaca yarn was spun in England for the first time about the year 1808, but the fiber was condemned as an unworkable material. In 1830, Benjamin Outram, of Greetland, near Halifax, appears to have reattempted spinning it, and again it was condemned. These two attempts failed due to the style of fabric into which the yarn was woven—a type of camlet. With the introduction of cotton warps into Bradford trade about 1836, the true qualities of alpaca could be assessed as it was developed into fabric. It is not known where the cotton warp and mohair or alpaca weft plain-cloth came from, but it was this simple and ingenious structure which enabled Titus Salt, then a young Bradford manufacturer, to use alpaca successfully. Bradford is still the great spinning and manufacturing center for alpaca. Large quantities of yarns and cloths are exported annually to the European continent and the US, although the quantities vary with the fashions in vogue. The typical "alpaca fabric" is a very characteristic "dress fabric."
Due to the successful manufacture of various alpaca cloths by Sir Titus Salt and other Bradford manufacturers, a great demand for alpaca wool arose, which could not be met by the native product. Apparently, the number of alpacas available never increased appreciably. Unsuccessful attempts were made to acclimatize alpaca in England, on the European continent and in Australia, and even to cross English breeds of sheep with alpaca. There is a cross between alpaca and llama—a true hybrid in every sense—producing a material placed upon the Liverpool market under the name "Huarizo". Crosses between the alpaca and vicuña have not proved satisfactory, as the crosses that have produced offspring have a very short fleece, more characteristic of the vicuña. Current attempts to cross these two breeds are underway at farms in the US. Alpacas are now being bred in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, UK, Germany and numerous other places.
In recent years, interest in alpaca fiber clothing has surged, perhaps partly because alpaca ranching has a reasonably low impact on the environment. Individual U.S. farms are producing finished alpaca products like hats, mitts, scarves, socks, insoles, footwarmers, sweaters, jackets, as well as almost any other product. Outdoor sports enthusiasts recognize its lighter weight and better warmth provides them more comfort in colder weather. Using an alpaca and wool blend such as merino is common to the alpaca fiber industry to improve processing and the qualities of the final product.
Alpaca fiber is similar in structure to sheep wool fiber. Its softness comes from having a different smoother scale surface than sheep wool. American breeders have enhanced the softness by selecting for finer fiber diameter fiber, similar to merino wool. Fiber diameter is a highly inherited trait in both alpaca and sheep. The difference in the individual fiber scales compared to sheep wool also creates the glossy shine which is prized in alpaca. Alpaca fibers have a higher tensile strength than wool fibers. In processing, slivers lack fiber cohesion and single alpaca rovings lack strength. Blend these together and the durability is increased several times over. More twisting is necessary, especially in Suri, and this can reduce a yarn's softness.
The alpaca has a very fine and light fleece. It does not retain water, is a thermal insulator even when wet and can resist solar radiation effectively. These characteristics guarantee the animals a permanent and appropriate coat to protect against extreme changes of temperature. This fiber offers the same protection to humans.
Medullated fibers are fibers with a central core, which may be continuous, interrupted, or fragmented. Here, the cortical cells that make up the walls of the fiber, are wrapped around a medulla, or core, that is made up of another type of cell (called medullary cells). Later, these cells may contract or disappear, forming air pockets which assist insulation.
Medullation can be an objectionable trait. Medullated fibers can take less dye, standing out in the finished garment, and are weaker. The proportion of medullated fibers is higher in the coarser, unwanted guard hairs: there is less or no medullation in the finer, lower micrometer fibers. These undesirable fibers are easy to see and give a garment a hairy appearance. Quality alpaca products should be free from these medullated fibers.
Good quality alpaca fiber is approximately 18 to 25 micrometers in diameter. While breeders report fiber can sell for US$2 to 4 per ounce, the world wholesale price for processed, spun alpaca “tops” is only between about $10 to $24/kg (according to quality), i.e. about $0.28 to $0.68 per oz. Finer fleeces, ones with a smaller diameter, are preferred, and thus are more expensive. As an alpaca gets older, the diameter of the fibers gets thicker, between 1 µm and 5 µm per year. This is sometimes caused by overfeeding; as excess nutrients are converted to (thicker) fiber rather than to fat.
Elite alpaca breeders in the United States are attempting to breed animals with fleece that does not degrade in quality as the animals age. They are looking for lingering fineness (fiber diameters remaining under 20 micrometers) for aging animals. It is believed this lingering fineness is heritable and thus can be improved more and more over time.
As with all fleece-producing animals, quality varies from animal to animal, and some alpacas produce fiber which is less than ideal. Fiber and conformation are the two most important factors in determining an alpaca's value.
Alpacas come in 22 natural colors, with more than 300 shades from a true-blue black through browns-black, browns, fawns, white, silver-greys, and rose-greys. However, white is predominant, because of selective breeding: the white fiber can be dyed in the largest ranges of colors. In South America, the preference is for white, as they generally have better fleece than the darker-colored animals. The demand for darker fiber have sprung up in the United States and elsewhere, though, to reintroduce the colors, but the quality of the darker fiber has decreased slightly. Breeders have been diligently working on breeding dark animals with exceptional fiber, and much progress has been made over the last few years.
Before dyeing, the alpaca fiber must go through other stages:
- Selection of wool, according to color, size and quality of fiber
- "Escarminado", removal of grass, dirt, thorns, and other impurities
- Washing, to remove all the dirt and grease
Once the fiber is clean, it is possible to begin the process of dyeing.
To dye 1 kg of alpaca wool with cochinilla (natural dye),
- Boil 5 liters of water in an aluminum can with 100 g of cochinilla for an hour.
- Sift and put the fiber in the water.
- Boil again for an hour and add 50 lemons cut in halves.
- Then take out the wool and hang for drying.
Note: For dyeing with another natural dye (native plants), add 2 kg of the products to the water and boil.
Alpaca fiber is used for many purposes, including making clothing such as bedding, hats, mitts, scarves, gloves, and jumpers. Rugs and toys can also be made from alpaca fiber. Sweaters are most common.
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