Alpaca

 

Alpaca fleece is the natural fibre harvested from an alpaca. It is light or heavy in weight, depending on how it is spun. It is a soft, durable, luxurious and silky natural fibre. While similar to sheep’s wool, it is warmer, not prickly, and has no lanolin, which makes it hypoallergenic. Alpaca is naturally water-repellent and difficult to ignite. Huacaya, an alpaca that grows soft spongy fibre, has natural crimp, thus making a naturally elastic yarn well-suited for knitting. Suri has far less crimp and thus is a better fit for woven goods. The designer Armani has used Suri alpaca to fashion men's and women's suits. Alpaca fleece is made into Alpacavarious products, from very simple and inexpensive garments made by the aboriginal communities to sophisticated, industrially made and expensive products such as suits. In the United States, groups of smaller alpaca breeders have banded together to create "fibre co-ops," to make the manufacture of alpaca fibre products less expensive.

The preparing, carding, spinning, weaving and finishing process of alpaca is very similar to the process used for wool.

There are two types of alpaca: Huacaya which produce a dense, soft, crimpy sheep-like fibre, and the Suri with silky pencil-like locks, resembling dreadlocks but without matted fibres. Suris, prized for their longer and silkier fibres, are estimated to make up 19-20% of the North American alpaca population. Since its import into the United States, the number of Suri alpacas has grown substantially and become more colour diverse. The Suri is thought to be rarer, most likely because the breed was reserved for royalty during Incan times. Suris are often said to be less cold hardy than Huacaya, but both breeds are successfully raised in more extreme climates than those in which they were developed in South America.

History

Alpacas have been bred in South America for thousands of years. Vicuñas were first domesticated and bred into alpacas by the ancient tribes of the Andean highlands of Peru, Argentina, Chile and Bolivia. Two thousand-year-old Paracas textiles are thought to include alpaca fibre. In recent years, alpacas have also been exported to other countries. In countries such as the USA, Australia and New Zealand, breeders shear their animals annually, weigh the fleeces and test them for fineness. With the resulting knowledge, they are able to breed heavier-fleeced animals with finer fibre. Fleece weights vary, with the top stud males reaching annual shear weights up to 7 kg total fleece and 3 kg good quality fleece. The discrepancy in weight is because an alpaca has guard hair, which is often removed before spinning.

History of fibre industry

The Amerindians of Peru used this fibre in the manufacture of many styles of fabrics for thousands of years before its introduction into Europe as a commercial product. The alpaca was a crucial component of ancient life in the Andes, as it provided not only warm clothing, but also meat. Many rituals and myths involved the alpaca, perhaps most notably the myth regarding the method of killing the animal: An alpaca was restrained by one or more people, and a specially trained person plunged his bare hand into the chest cavity of the animal, ripping out its heart. Today, this ritual is viewed by most as barbaric, but there are still some tribes in the Andes which practice it.

The first European importations of alpaca fibre were into Spain. Spain transferred that fibre to Germany and France. Apparently, alpaca yarn was spun in England for the first time about the year 1808, but the fibre was condemned as an unworkable material. In 1830, Benjamin Outram, of Greetland, near Halifax, appears to have reattempted spinning it, and again it was condemned. These two attempts failed due to the style of fabric into which the yarn was woven — a type of camlet. With the introduction of cotton warps into Bradford trade about 1836, the true qualities of alpaca could be assessed as it was developed into fabric. It is not known where the cotton warp and mohair or alpaca weft plain-cloth came from, but it was this simple and ingenious structure which enabled Titus Salt, then a young Bradford manufacturer, to use alpaca successfully. Bradford is still the great spinning and manufacturing centre for alpaca. Large quantities of yarns and cloths are exported annually to the European continent and the US, although the quantities vary with the fashions in vogue. The typical "alpaca fabric" is a very characteristic "dress fabric."

Due to the successful manufacture of various alpaca cloths by Sir Titus Salt and other Bradford manufacturers, a great demand for alpaca wool arose, which could not be met by the native product. Apparently, the number of alpacas available never increased appreciably. Unsuccessful attempts were made to acclimatize alpaca in England, on the European continent and in Australia, and even to cross English huacaya breeds of sheep with alpaca. There is a cross between alpaca and llama — a true hybrid in every sense — producing a material placed upon the Liverpool market under the name "Huarizo". Crosses between the alpaca and vicuña have not proved satisfactory, as the crosses that have produced offspring have a very short fleece, more characteristic of the vicuña. Current attempts to cross these two breeds are underway at farms in the US. Alpacas are now being bred in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, UK, and numerous other places.

In recent years, interest in alpaca fibre clothing has surged, perhaps partly because alpaca ranching has a reasonably low impact on the environment. Individual U.S. farms are producing finished alpaca products like hats, mitts, scarves, socks, insoles, foot warmers, sweaters, jackets, as well as almost any other product. Outdoor sports enthusiasts recognize its lighter weight and better warmth provides them more comfort in colder weather, so outfitters such as R.E.I. and others are beginning to stock more alpaca products. Using an alpaca and wool blend such as merino is common to the alpaca fibre industry to improve processing and the qualities of the final product.

In December 2006, the General Assembly of the United Nations proclaimed 2009 to be the International Year of Natural Fibres, so as to raise the profile of alpaca and other natural fibres.

Fibre structure

Alpaca fibre is similar in structure to sheep wool fibre. Its softness comes from the small diameter of the fibre, similar to merino wool. Its glossiness is due to low height of the individual fibre scales compared to sheep wool. Alpaca fibres have a higher tensile strength than wool fibres. In processing, slivers lack fibre cohesion and single alpaca roving’s lack strength. Blend these together and the durability is increased several times over. More twisting is necessary, especially in Suri, and this can reduce a yarn's softness.

The alpaca has a very fine and light fleece. It does not retain water, is thermal even when wet and can resist solar radiation effectively. These characteristics guarantee the animals a permanent and appropriate coat to protect against extreme changes of temperature. This fibre offers the same protection to humans.

Medullation

Medullated fibres are fibres with a central core, which may be continuous, interrupted, or fragmented. Here, the cortical cells that make up the walls of the fibre, are wrapped around a medulla, or core, that is made up of another type of cell called medullary cells. Later, these cells may contract or disappear, forming air pockets which assist insulation.

Medullation can be an objectionable trait. Medullated fibres can take less dye, standing out in the finished garment, and are weaker. The proportion of medullated fibres is higher in the coarser, unwanted guard hairs: there is less or no medullation in the finer, lower micro meter fibres. These undesirable fibres are easy to see and give a garment a hairy appearance. Quality alpaca products should be free from these medullated fibres.

Quality

Good quality alpaca fibre is approximately 18 to 25 micro meters in diameter. Whilst breeders report fibre can sell for US$2 to 4 per ounce, the world wholesale price for processed, spun alpaca “tops” is only between about $10 to $24/kg according to quality, i.e. about $0.28 to $0.68 per oz. Finer fleeces, ones with a smaller diameter, are preferred, so are more expensive. As an alpaca gets older, the diameter of the fibres gets thicker, between 1 µm and 5 µm per year. This is sometimes caused by overfeeding; as excess nutrients are converted to thicker fibre rather than to fat.

As with all fleece-producing animals, quality varies from animal to animal, and some alpacas produce fibre which is less than ideal. Fibre and conformation are the two most important factors in determining an alpaca's value.

Alpacas come in 22 natural colours, with more than 300 shades from a true-blue black through browns-black, browns, fawns, white, silver-greys, and rose-greys. However, white is predominant, because of selective breeding: the white fibre can be dyed in the largest ranges of colours. In South America, the preference is for white, as they generally have better fleece than the darker-coloured animals. The demand for darker fibre sprung up in the United States and elsewhere, though, to reintroduce the colours, but the quality of the darker fibre has decreased slightly. Breeders have been diligently working on breeding dark animals with exceptional fibre, and much progress has been made over the last few years.

Dyeing

Before dying, the alpaca fibre must go through other stages:

Selection of wool, according to colour, size and quality of fibre

 "Escarminado", removal of grass, dirt, thorns, and other impurities

Washing, to remove all the dirt and grease

Spinning

Once the fibre is clean, it is possible to begin the process of dyeing.

Natural dyeing: recipe used by Andean artisans: To dye 1 kg of alpaca wool with cochinilla natural dye,

Boil 5 litres of water in an aluminium can with 100 g of cochinilla for an hour.

Sift and put the fibre in the water.

Boil again for an hour and add 50 lemons cut in halves.

Then take out the wool and hang for drying.

Note: For dyeing with another natural dye native plants, add 2 kg of the products to the water and boil.

Uses

Alpaca fibre is used for many purposes, including making clothing such as hats, mitts, scarves, gloves, and jumpers. It can also be used for re-rooting dolls' hair, for example in Blythe dolls. Many breeders are coming up with new ways to use the fibre from their alpacas, from crafting, to wall hangings, to clothing.

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