Not all alpaca yarn and products are created equal.
Yes that’s right. Some products will be identified as pure alpaca but you will find it scratchy and rough. Why is that, you say? Well it all has to do with the preparation and batching of the fibre. Let me explain…
Preparing alpaca is an art and a science. Having a good quality end product is the result of much learning and years of practice… like anything else that is worth mastering. All producers need a basic knowledge of good fibre preparation, but then can access the skills of a qualified grader/sorter to help in final preparations for the mill.
Why is proper fibre preparation essential to a quality end product?
Alpacas generally have a very good coverage of fibre on their whole body, however the fineness of the fibre is not equal on all parts of the body. The finest fibre is on the blanket—back and sides of the alpaca. Think of a saddle blanket extended. The upper legs become coarser and, over time, begin to show more guard hair. The chest area, called the apron, generally has quite a bit of guard hair, which again, increases and becomes coarser as the animal ages. The neck fibre is usually about the same fineness as the blanket, but much shorter and so cannot be processed with the blanket. The result is, that at shearing time, these areas must be separated immediately in order to avoid contamination of the best quality fibre...that is the blanket. For each animal, we separate the fleece into four bags: the blanket, the neck, the legs or seconds and the apron. Each are combined into one bag and labeled with the animal’s name.
The other issue important to deal with on shearing day is cleanliness. It is very important to send a “clean” fleece to the mill. One filled with vegetation, will still have vegetation when the yarn comes back. Too much vegetation will cause problems with the carding machines in processing and will likely be refused by the mill. We make every effort to clean the fleeces even before they are removed from the animals by blowing dust and dirt from their coats and removing the vegetation.
How do we prepare these bags for the mill?
Shearing day is a very busy day. We usually assemble a team of 6 to 8 helpers, so time is of the essence. The concentration is on “gettin’ ‘er done”, but in a way that facilitates the follow-up.
After shearing day, when we have more time, we come back to the bags to prepare the batches for processing. The word of the day is “UNIFORMITY”. The batches must contain “like” fineness, and same length fibre, as well as similar colour.
In Canada, we separate alpaca fibre according to 6 different grades, with Grade 1 being the finest fibre, usually the baby (or cria) and Grade 6 being the coarsest.
We take the bags and go through them making sure the skirting was well done on shearing day, and we haven’t missed any guard hair that should have been removed, then batching them according to grades and length. We then determine what would be the best end product for each batch and place the instructions into each bag for the processing mill. Most alpaca fibre can be used for something, but it is important to determine which fibre is best for which end product.
All of this information is also recorded on the computer for future reference.
What factors are important to quality alpaca products?
From the alpaca farmer’s perspective, good fibre preparation means;
· Separating the fibre according to fineness, length and colour (although colours can be combined);
· Making sure that fibre sent for processing is clean and consistent; the key word is uniformity;
· Selecting the best end product for the fibre—i.e. the finer grades are great for fine yarns being used close to sensitive skin areas but not great for socks which need to resist much wear and tear;
· Also selecting blends that combine the best characteristics of alpaca fibre with complementary traits of other fibres such as fine merino, silk, bamboo and others. These selections are also made keeping in mind the end product.
The alpaca farmer has lived up to his/her responsibility, now it is up to the processor!