Alpaca fiber is soft, luxurious and has a range of natural colors and good strength. Alpaca fiber is a specialty fiber and comes in a variety of different colors. It is five times warmer and more durable than sheep wool fiber. It is also lightweight and contains no oils or lanolin. Fibers contain microscopic air pockets giving it lightness high thermal capacity.
Alpacas are fiber producing animals. Alpaca fiber is one of the finest animal fibers in the world. It is comparable to mohair, cashmere and other rare fibers. The fiber is very soft, light and warm without the prickle of sheep’s wool. The fibers are semi-hollow; giving Alpaca fiber added insulating value.
Alpacas have one of the finest hands of any natural fleece. Alpacas have shorn annually in the spring and produce on average 4 lbs of fiber. The fiber sells retail in the U.S. Cottage Industry between $2.00 & $3.00 per ounce. The first fleece or baby fleece is the finest, softest fleece the animal will produce and the most highly prized and expensive.
It is sought after for its softness, warmth without weight, the range of natural color and good strength. There are two types of alpacas: Huacaya and Suri. Huacaya produces crimped, dense fleeces, while Suri produces non-crimped, slippy, straight fleeces. Suri fiber is longer, more lustrous and silky than Huacaya fibre. It is believed that alpaca fibre is softer and lighter than wool fibre. Fibre from Huacaya is typically blended with Merino wool or other fibres for use in overcoats and high fashion knitwear, as well as socks, hats, gloves or floor covering, quilts
filling, etc. Suri fibre is used extensively in brushed coating.
Alpacas lack the natural body oils produced by most animals. For processing, these oils are often washed out with chemicals or harsh soaps. This washing process and the natural oils can make it unbearable for some people to wear traditional sheep’s wool. Alpacas have a single coat which lacks guard hairs. Guard hairs are coarser than the soft undercoat which they are designed to protect. Alpaca fiber is very soft and can be worn next to the skin without irritation.
Typically fiber quality is judged on fineness, length, fiber type, medullation, and tensile strength. Breeding, nutrition, and management can influence all these characteristics. Alpaca fleece grows approximately five to 10 inches each year and can weigh anywhere from one to eight pounds from a mature animal.
The Suri alpaca fiber has unique fiber characteristics growing parallel to the body and hang in long, non-crimped pencil locks, making them look as if they have dreadlocks. Suri fiber is lustrous, soft, and has been compared to cashmere. It is durable and warm, far more so than sheep wool.
The Huacaya alpaca fiber is dense, crimped and wooly in appearance. This gives them a soft, huggable,teddy-bear-likee look and makes them overwhelmingly popular in the industry. While not as rare as the Suri fiber, they still produce a highly-prized fleece.
Alpaca’s board range of natural colors eliminates the need to dye. These colors come in different shades of white, fawn, brown, grey, black and many in-between colors. These attributes make Alpaca fiber a highly sought after product.
In the breeding market, some colors are rarer than others. For generations, the South American culture has been drawn to bright colors which are not found in livestock naturally. This requires dyeing, thus a white fleece producing animal has been the standard. Today in the U.S. Alpacas of a rare color bring higher prices.
There are many outlets for Alpaca Fiber. The highest price is brought in the Hand-spinners market. Some of the U.S. Alpaca fiber is sent through the North American Alpaca Fiber Co-op to South American for processing and sent back to the U.S. in yarn and finished goods.
There are several small regional co-ops being created to deal with the growing amount of North American Fiber. They are beginning to produce some fine Alpaca products from fiber grown in the U.S. and products produced here in the U.S. There are some small processors in the U.S. working with Alpaca fiber and the number grows annually.
The U.S., Italy, and Japan are the largest consumers of Alpaca fiber. Italy has long used the fiber in its fine clothing which it sells to the upper class. Tipper Gore wore an alpaca suit to the 1997 inauguration. In 1999 the associated press of Australia published an internet post stating that the economic crisis in Asia has not hurt the alpaca fiber market in Japan.
- Super Fine Cria – Is from the Prime area of an Alpaca under one year old. Normally used in very fine and soft shawls and knitting yarn. Very soft with medium staple length (2-4 inches).
- Prime (sometimes called blanket) – Comes from the area of an Alpaca where a horse blanket would fit. Typically the finest fleece from an adult alpaca. Soft with long staple length. Typically used in blankets, afghans, and sweaters. (3-7 inches).
- Seconds – Similar or slightly coarser to prime with shorter staple length. Used to produce Socks, Gloves Hats, and Scarves (2-5 inches).
- Thirds – Coarsest of all alpaca fiber with varying staple length. Used to make braided rugs, baskets and show leads ( 1 inch or longer).