Alpaca are native to the Andes, and they must stay warm to survive. Alpaca fibers are hollow, and offer good insulation against the cold. Alpaca fibers are five to seven times warmer than wool, and despite their insulating properties, alpaca fibers don’t weigh as much as wool, and produce lightweight, exceptionally warm garments.
Alpaca yarn is prized for its many unique characteristics. Although it is processed much like sheeps’ wool, alpaca is softer, warmer and stronger. Unlike other fibers, finer fibers are not weaker than more coarse ones, so fine fibers stand up to the rigors of industrial processing methods. Typically, the value of alpaca is determined by four characteristics: yield, color, fineness and length.
Most of the raw alpaca fibers can be converted into clean fiber. An average post-processing yield for clean alpaca fibers is anywhere between 85 and 95 percent. This compares favorably to wool, which produces an average post-processing yield of between 45 and 75 percent.
Alpaca fibers come naturally in 22 distinct colors. Fibers of different colors can be blended to make a vast array of colors, and alpaca yarn can also be dyed. In addition, alpaca fibers can be combined with other textiles to make fiber blends with different material characteristics. White alpaca is highly sought after by industrial processors, who will pay a premium for white fibers since they can be dyed any color.
Natural alpaca fibers have a luster that doesn’t diminish when the fiber is dyed, and dyed fibers hold their color well. Alpaca fiber cleans well without the use of special chemicals, does not tear and is not easily stained. Unlike wool, it does not pill, and it will not hold a static charge.
Alpaca fiber does not contain any lanolin, which makes the fiber much cleaner and easier to process. It also means that alpaca is hypoallergenic. Alpaca is also extremely soft. Unlike other animals like goats and sheep, alpaca have a single coat, instead of a coarse outer coat of “guard hairs” and a soft inner coat. The alpaca’s single coat means that there’s no such thing as an itchy alpaca sweater!
One of the most important characteristics of alpaca fiber is its fineness, which is measured in microns. The fineness of the fiber is determined by the animal’s genetic makeup, and the finer the fiber, the more sought after the animal is for both fiber and breeding.
Cashmere has a mean diameter of 20 microns or less. Many alpaca produce fiber that is less than 20 microns, and can be used to create garments that are as soft or softer than cashmere at a lower cost. The diameter of alpaca can be influenced not only by breeding, but also by environment and diet. Also, certain characteristics of alpaca can change over the course of an animal’s lifetime.
Length of the fiber is the last major characteristic that impacts the price of the fiber. The length of the fiber determines whether or not the fiber will be used in a worsted or woolen manufacturing process, and ultimately determines the products for which the fiber can be used.
Elyse Arnow owns and operates Alpacatrax Farms in Columbia County, New York. Alpacatrax Farms breeds and sells Alpacas, & Alpaca fiber. Please visit us at Alpacatrax
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