What to Look for in an Alpaca
An alpaca’s highest value to date is in the animal itself. What distinguishes one animal from the next is its conformation and fiber. Competitive shows are held throughout the United States and animals are judged according to these characteristics. An animal’s fleece can also be judged independently. Keep in mind that winners in the show ring and in competitions can command higher prices on the sales floor. Show categories are divided by sex, color, age, shorn or not and Produce of Dam. Suri and Huacaya are judged independently. Thus, potential buyers need to understand fiber and conformation as very important features. Alpacas can also be seen at fairs, auctions, fiber-fests and on-the-farm activities throughout North America.
Conformation is the term used to describe the correctness in the body of the alpaca. Alpacas should have straight legs when viewed from the front and they should not be too close together. Many alpacas have front legs that turn out very slightly in the ankle and toe area. This is not a huge fault but it will not win you a ribbon in the ring. Legs that are very close together indicate a narrow chest area and that is more serious than a slight turnout. Back legs need to be far enough apart to indicate a wide pelvic area as well. Like cows and horses, alpacas can be cow hocked, sickle hocked, bowlegged etc. It’s important to educate yourself in the proper look of front and back legs and this will come with experience. Look at the alpacas that win in the show ring, especially in the shorn halter classes. There you can view an animal where no fiber obscures the lines of the alpaca’s body.There should be a similar length to the legs, back and neck of an ideal alpaca. If the legs are short but the neck is long you get a dumpy look. If the neck is short and the back is too long you get an alpaca that looks like a bus. The proportions of the animal are important. Equally important is the density of the bones. The legs and shoulders should not look skinny. Good bone density means less arthritis and other problems later in life.
Alpacas do not have top teeth, only a hard upper palate. Ideally, the bottom teeth should meet the upper palate evenly, not protrude outward from under the palate (undershot) nor be far back on the palate (“parrot mouth”.) Many alpacas that had a perfect bite at 1 or 2 years old will not have a perfect bite at age 4 or 5. The alpaca’s bite changes as they age. Don’t assume that an alpaca has a perfect bite just because it looks good when you see the alpaca. It may have been floated or filed down by the owner. This trimming is necessary to help the alpaca forage its food.
This is not an exhaustive list of alpaca conformation issues. The best way to understand conformation and fleece characteristics is to attend alpaca shows and auctions and see which alpacas are winning. There are also several books that can broaden your knowledge. Do your homework!!
So, you ask:
- Who processes the fiber? America vs. Peru?
- What constitutes good fiber?
- When do I shear? Who shears?
- Where can I sell my fiber?
- How is fiber judged and by who? Breeder? Show Judge? Commercial Processor?
Alpaca fiber has many outstanding benefits.
- Alpaca fiber contains no natural oils such as the lanolin contained in sheep’s wools. This means that alpaca is naturally hypoallergenic. You can place alpaca on a newborn baby with no reaction, other than a happy baby!
- Alpacas come in 22 natural distinct colors. They range from white to gray, fawn to brown, mahogany to black.
- The fiber is strong and resilient. The strength does not diminish as the fiber becomes finer.
- Due to the microscopic air pockets, alpaca fiber creates some of the most lightweight garments with high insulating factors.
- Alpaca is soft, smooth and supple. The soft hand is unmatched by other fibers.
- Alpaca has a rich natural luster, which gives the garment wonderful eye appeal.
- Alpaca can be made into woolen or worsted materials suitable for high end products.
- Alpaca clothing does not pill, stain easily or create static. Hand washing is usually the preferred method of cleaning.
- Alpaca is less expensive to process than sheep wool due to the lack of lanolin or grease. It also does not need to be de-haired.
- Alpaca fleece yields a higher return after processing than sheep’s wool.
Who Processes the Fiber?
Growing Market for Alpaca Fiber
The conception and realization of alpacas as profitable fiber-producing livestock in the United States, has motivated a continual increase in demand. In the past, the alpaca fiber business was reserved to a “cottage industry” level. As the number of dedicated breeders has risen, the scope of alpaca fiber marketing outlets has rapidly expanded. American alpaca breeders have established a national fiber cooperative called The Alpaca Fiber Cooperative of North America (AFCNA). This organization works to increase the quality and quantity of fiber on the market while utilizing “value added” processing to greatly increase revenue to breeders. Alpaca farms have what most other livestock breeders do not…. an expanding and lucrative commercial market for their product.
The mini mill concept has grown tremendously over the last few years. Now, alpaca breeders can choose to send their fleece to private mills and turn raw fiber into beautiful spun yarns. Some firms will also knit the fiber into unique “one of a kind” sweaters. Textile artists love the luxury of alpaca. Artistic reflections of alpaca are being showcased all over America. Spinning guilds are established in major cities with new branches starting everywhere!
Not surprisingly, women and men are taking up the hobby of knitting once again! Knitting cafes are sprouting up all over the United States! Younger, savvy men and women have gravitated to the art. Nationwide more than 38 million people knit or crochet and the number is growing! Cafes offer instructional books, skeins of yarn in every imaginable color and texture, plus showcases of scones, sandwiches and deserts. Gourmet coffees keep the momentum going! A difficult stitch or a complex pattern can be unraveled by one of the many patrons. Look for these cafes in New York, Los Angeles and Denver to mention just a few. Even Urban Outfitters, the popular retail establishment, now stocks knitting books!
What constitutes good fiber?
All alpaca fleeces are different and it is every breeder’s challenge to improve each generation of alpaca. Density, brightness, crimp, staple length, weight and color are all of primary importance. It is possible to get high density of fiber with good crimp and sheen desirous of many. Many of the fleeces that have these qualities historically have been white. However, American breeders have been successful in attaining those same qualities with color. White fleece genetics have dominated the Peruvian markets for decades. Their success with white made it possible to dye the finished yarns to suit the customer. Now, with the desire for natural products, Americans have attained the same qualities in their colored animals.
Along with the above-mentioned issues, the alpaca breeder must always consider the issue of guard hair or medullated fiber. Alpacas should have so little guard hair in their prime or blanket area that it is not noticeable when looking at the alpaca. Some older alpacas will begin to have noticeable guard hair as they reach the age of 5 or 6. Male alpacas that have noticeable guard hair in their prime or blanket area when they are only 2 or 3 years old should not be used for breeding. Females who have excess guard hair in the blanket at the age of 2 or 3 are usually bred but only to higher quality males. The goal of the alpaca breeder is to breed up in proven genetics.
Many alpaca breeders will go on about “coverage” or the amount of fleece an alpaca has on its head, face, blanket and legs. Show Judges look for the following characteristics: fineness and handle, density, crimp, and brightness or luster. The commercial processor will look for the same but also uniformity, fleece weight and cleanliness. Breeders breed for fineness, fleece weight, density and staple length. So you can see that each entity has its own priorities.
- Micron Count or Average Fiber Diameter is merely the mean average diameter measurement of each fiber in the sample. One micron equals one thousandth of a millimeter or 1/25 of 400ths of an inch. Tiny, yes! Human hair is 40-80 microns. Alpaca fiber that is 17 microns is really, really fine indeed. Even at a micron count of 23, the alpaca fiber is very, very fine. Once the micron count goes over 30, the average human can detect a prickle effect of the fiber.
- Standard Deviation. This is average amount of deviation between each individual fiber’s diameter and the Average Fiber Diameter. The desirable Bell curve should be tall and narrow. That is, all the individual fibers will be close in diameter to the Average Fiber Diameter.
- Coefficient of Variation. This is simply the Standard Deviation divided the Average Fiber Diameter and multiplied by 100. It is reported as a percentage.
- Comfort Factor or Fibers greater than 30 microns. This is a read out of the data reported as a percentage of the whole. This shows what % of coarse fibers are in the sample.
When do I shear? Who Shears?
Shearing is done at different times throughout the United States. Remember, Huacayas are shorn yearly while Suris are shorn every two years. Generally, it is done in early Spring. Since Spring occurs at different times in different areas the dates can range from March to June. You want to relieve the alpaca of its heavy fleece before the temperature rises. “Naked” alpacas are truly a sight to behold. I think we have even witnessed them smiling the day after shearing! Many individuals have learned the art of shearing. Classes are available through Alpaca Owners and Breeders Organization (AOBA) conventions held yearly. Or, a trained shearer can be scheduled to come to your farm and perform the necessary shearing.
Selling Your Fiber!
So, now you have bags and bags of this luxury commodity. Now what? Before selling fiber at any stage consider the prospect of showing the fleece paramount. There really isn’t much trouble to prepare the fleece for a show. Winnings in this arena help qualify your breeding stock. Don’t overlook this path of success. With $$$ signs in your mind consider the following options for spreading alpaca afar!
- Fashion Designers and Interior Designers look for the unusual element.
- Doll Makers love to work with alpaca (clothing or natural hair)
- Hat Makers will jump at the chance to use alpaca felting.
- Retail Yarn shops
- Rug Hookers
- Fishermen love to use the fiber for tying flies and creating unique lures.
- Join a co-operative to pool your fleece with others.
- Find local spinning guilds and offer your raw fleece for sale. Don’t overprice since spinners buy fiber because it is reasonable. Remember, you are also marketing your farm and animals to those that spin.
- Ask your local spinners to spin for you. That fine cria fleece will become a treasure in a finished form!
- Turn your fleece into rovings. Roving does command a higher price for spinners and it displays attractively at your farm.
- Batting the fiber is another option. Contact your local quilt stores.
- Turn you fleece into finished products … sweaters, scarves, hats, mittens, socks etc. Alpaca clothing is a treasured gift to behold. Or, create inventory stock for your own farm store. These heirlooms are waiting to be created by those alpacas grazing in the pasture!
- Second cuts can be blended with other fibers at the mill. Explore the possibilities.
- Create the softest garden path in the neighborhood! End cuts have no real use so spread them in your garden. Natural felting will occur and it keeps down the weeds!
How is Fiber Judged and by who?
Breeders will look for and breed to the most exceptional fleeced alpaca that their money will buy. Breeders want the same qualifying characteristics that Fleece Judges are looking for. Some fleece characteristics are more heritable than others. As the level of alpaca rises in the United States, breeders are committed to breed for the best. Many phenomenal male alpacas have been able to pass on the genetic lines and throw offspring that consistently win in the show ring! Needless to say, the demand for breeding to these males is high and value of these males is even higher. The current record for the highest selling proven male was $500,000! Do you think you can breed for one too!
Fleece Show Judges are looking for the following:
- Fineness and handle
- Uniformity in micron, staple length and color
- Style as defined by character (crimp) and staple type or density
- Lack of medulation (guard hair) and impurities
A perfect score is 100.
As you can see, there is quite an array of fiber distinctions!
Fleeces are entered into shows by:
- Breed type (huacaya or suri)
Commercial processors sort alpaca fiber into seven basic grades according to micron count. Micron count is a unit of measurement used to describe the diameter of a fiber. Every grade of alpaca has a special use. The finest is baby alpaca. Baby alpaca ranges from a micron count of 20 to 22.9. Superfine alpaca ranges from 23 to 26.9. These measurements are by Peruvian standards. Australia and Canada have their own classifications. Experienced sorters in Peru sort and grade alpaca fiber by hand.
OH, The Fashion!
“You’ve come a long way baby!” Yes indeed! Forget those bulky coarse heavy sweaters from years ago! Alpaca fashion has been on the Paris and Milan runways for decades, but it has finally made its way to American soil! Alpaca has graced Pope John Paul II, King and Queen of Spain, Bill and Hillary Clinton, several Latin American Presidents, and diplomats and ambassadors from all over the world. Famous designer, Beatriz Canedo Patino, has captured alpaca essence and defined a couture look with a contemporary flair. Her designs will make you gasp. Take a look at what alpaca can do for you!