The term “wool” is technically reserved for the fiber from sheep. Camelid hair is called fiber.
Alpacas are part of the Camelid family which consists of the Bactrian and Dromedary Camel, llama, alpaca, guanaco, and vicuna.
There are two different types of alpacas, the huacaya and the suri. The suri alpaca is covered in long, pencil-fine silky lustrous locks that hang straight down from the body like dread locks.
We raise the huacaya alpacas on our farm. The huacaya has crimped, curly fleece that grows straight out from the body, with a brightness or sheen. The fiber has a defined fine crimp throughout the blanket area with an annual fleece growth of about 6 inches.
Our alpacas are shorn yearly in early April. One alpaca can produce from 1 – 8 pounds of premium fiber. The best fiber comes from the blanket section of the animal and is referred to as the blanket cut. During shearing the fiber is separated into three parts. The blanket is bagged per animal and is tagged with the animal’s name, date of birth, and shearing date. The neck, shoulder, and rump fiber is bagged per color and is labeled as second grade fiber. The lower leg fiber is bagged together regardless of color and is labeled third grade fiber. This third grade fiber is used as garden mulch.
Alpaca fiber comes in 22 recognized natural shades of color ranging from pale fawn to dark coffee brown, and from pure white through many shades of gray to pure black. Alpaca fiber is approximately eight times warmer than wool and has a high tensile strength. Because of its intrinsic insulating factor, even a very fine alpaca yarn woven or knit in lace structure will keep you warm. Alpaca is long-lasting; does not easily tear, pill, stain, or create static.
Alpaca fiber has no lanoline rendering it hypoallergenic and can be spun unwashed. However, it is generally recommended to wash all fibers before spinning. To wash alpaca fiber use warm water and a non-alkali soap.
Alpaca fiber seems to require more dye than wool to get the darkest colors because the high luster of the fiber reflects light off of the fiber causing the colors to appear paler. On the other hand, the natural colors of the fleece can enhance dyed colors, making them seem deeper and richer.
What should you look for when buying raw alpaca fiber?
Ask to take the fiber out of the bag. The blanket may be one whole piece or it can be in two pieces. Our blankets are in two pieces because we shear one side of the animal and we flip the animal over and shear the other side.
Ask if the fiber has been skirted. Skirted fiber should be free of vegetable matter, dirt, and short clips. Short clips occur when the shearer has gone over the same area of fiber twice with the shears resulting in short stubbly fiber cuts. These short clips will create a bump and/or weak spot in your hand spun yarn.
Put your hands on the fiber and feel its softness. Grab a lock of fiber, hold it with both hands and pull to make sure it doesn’t break. If you snap the fiber close to your ear it should make a twang sound.