Alpaca fibre is one of the most luxurious fibres in the world. It comes in 22 officially recognised colours from white through fawn, brown, grey and black and every shade in between.
Its most remarkable quality is its softness – alpaca fibre is inherently soft. This is due to the fact it has less scales on each individual fibre, compared to sheep's wool which has many, and more prominent scales on each individual fibre. (Suri alpaca have less scales than huacaya alpaca so their fibre is even softer.) Even at its coarsest, alpaca is inherently softer than sheep's wool and often a certain percentage of alpaca fibre is added to sheep's wool during the woollen process to enhance the handle or feel.
The lack of scales and smoothness of the fibre also gives alpaca a natural brightness as the smoother surface reflects the light better. Suri alpaca (because it has less scales) reflects the light like a mirror and is renowned for its deep lustre, as well as its luxuriously smooth handle.
Alpaca is a dry fibre and does not contain lanolin which means it does not need to be scoured prior to spinning. It can be spun into yarn straight from the fleece and is often washed at the hank (a coiled bundle or yarn) stage of processing.
At its finest alpaca fibre gets as low as 14-15 microns (the mean of the fibre diameters or average diameter) which is very fine indeed, in fact it is often described as a hard wearing cashmere and is used like cashmere to produce high quality, luxury garments in both the woollen process for knitwear and weaving and in the worsted process for fine suiting and materials.
The fibre from the huacaya alpaca (those that look like teddy bears) is more suited to the woollen process and the fibre from the suri (fleece hangs in dreadlocks) alpaca is a lot like silk and more akin to the worsted process. At its finest, women's lingerie can be made from suri fibre.
However, even on a global scale, alpaca fibre is still very much a niche market. There are roughly three million kg of alpaca fibre produced in South America every year and this still only represents .04% of all the fibres processed in any given year. The average alpaca produces around 2.4kg of alpaca fibre per annum, with some having the potential to produce around 4-6kg per annum.
In the show ring, the alpaca is judged 40% on conformation and 60% on fleece quality, showing that it really is all about the fibre.
If you wish to learn how to skirt fibre and how it is processed in a local alpaca fibre mill, why not come on one of our Full on Fleece Workshops.