Alpaca: Gold of the Andes

Over the past several years I have spent countless hours studying alpaca fiber and the alpaca industry here in the USA. What has happened since the introduction of alpacas in the US fills several books, but what can be gleaned about the fiber changes is more dramatic.

Alpacas have two coat types, huacaya and suri. Most alpaca fiber available is huacaya, the alpacas have finely crimped fleeces that stand off from the body of the animal. Suri on the other hand is longer, lacks crimp, and has more luster. Not as much luster as mohair, but brighter than huacaya. Most spinners find huacaya easier to work with, but suri properly prepared is worth the effort. There is an excellent tutorial about spinning alpaca fiber on The Alpacas Blogger. The only thing I would do differently than her is to wash the fiber after skirting it.

The first alpacas imported into the US in the 1980’s were of what is called primitive type by Mike Safley. These alpacas had many llama characteristics. Primitive alpacas are strongly double coated, not have much fiber on the legs and a disorganized crimp.

On the other end of the spectrum are the Accoyo type or “ideal” alpacas. Don Julio Barreda (1919-2006) practiced a well known principle of livestock breeding called line breeding and essentially developed an alpaca different enough that it could be called a separate breed. Fine even crimp, low micron count, lack of guard hairs and a dense coat are all characteristics of these animals that should peak the interest of handspinners. But due to the needs of the mills that buy his fiber most of his stock is white or light colored.

As you can imagine, most alpacas in the USA fall somewhere between the two extremes. Also alpacas like to roll in the dirt, a lot. You might be tempted to spin the alpaca fleece without washing it, but most likely you will end up trapping the dirt in the yarn making it harder to wash out. Most processing mills will insist on washing alpaca first before processing. All it needs is a gentle bath with mild detergent.

Alpaca fiber should be categorized in either two or three categories. Blanket, also called prime, comes from the back and sides of the animal. Seconds comes from the neck and upper legs. And thirds will come from the lower legs and belly of the animal. Sometimes seconds and thirds will be combined into one lot. These are no reflection on the fineness between animals, only on that particular animal.

Right now prices for alpaca fiber are all over the place. Prices range from several dollars an ounce to as little as $10 a pound for seconds. I encourage all spinners to first learn about alpaca fiber before putting their money down. I personally look for well developed crimp in a huacaya as well as a blocky lock structure. Cria (or baby) fleeces will have more of tip on them, but still should have a blocky structure near the cut end.

With suri fleeces I look for fine, wavy locks, but not too tightly pencilled. While pencilling in a fleece can be a sign of a finer fleece, they also tend to be harder to process with combs or drum carder. Also the current show standard allows for a suri alpaca to be shown with 2 years of growth so check the locks carefully for cotting (felting).

White, beige, and light fawn fleeces of good quality are easier to find. Rose grey and black, especially suri is more difficult. Genetically, darker colors are recessive to lighter colors.

When buying commercial roving you generally find several grades. In order of fineness they are called alpaca, superfine alpaca, baby alpaca, and royal alpaca. And they are priced accordingly. Similar to merino roving out there, the alpaca available out there seems to have little crimp.

The alpaca community in the United States has an active show community. If you can, go take a look at the animals in person and allow these magical creatures to steal your heart. But beware the temptation of taking one home. And if you consider owning alpacas other than for a hobby please do your research first and remember they are livestock.

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