Section 1.3: Breeding Goals for Fiber Farmers

Alpaca are renowned for producing the world’s most sustainable luxury fiber. Alpaca Fiber can be eco-friendly, softer than cashmere, and warm as polar bear fleece.

Experience the Alpaca Lifestyle while producing luxury products - through Alpaca Fiber Farming
This online resource will teach you how.

Breeding Goals for Fiber Farmers

If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.

Picture a luxurious in-ground swimming pool surrounded by a lush landscape. The grass is green, the trees, bushes, and flower gardens well cultivated. The sun is shining, the wind is calm, and it is the perfect day for a swim. Now, picture this enticing scene with one thing missing – there is no water in the pool. The pool has a definite form, but no function. Potential, yes; but, no real function. We have our form - our beautiful Suri and Huacaya, but what is their function?

Question: What should an alpaca livestock breeder breed for?

Answer: Uniform fiber for profit.

Question: What is quality alpaca fiber?

Answer: It depends.

 Question: What sort of return on investment can I expect from breeding alpacas for fiber? Answer: It depends.

Alpaca breeders need to understand the following three major benefits of alpaca in North America with regard to the textile industry:

  1. Alpaca fiber feels about 5 microns softer than sheep’s wool of the same micron count. In textile terminology, the term “soft” relates to “handle.” Handle consists of four separate attributes: skin comfort (no itching), stiffness, smoothness, and softness.
  2. A demand for fine, luxurious, eco-friendly, carbon-neutral, and naturally lustrous alpaca fiber exists
  3. Alpaca fiber is very strong (1.5x that wool, per Yocum McColl)

Note: To promote rare is a short-term situation. Alpaca fiber won’t always be rare, so build a marketing plan on a short-term concept is short-sighted.

Note: Many of us may say, “Have you ever met anyone who didn’t like alpaca?” However, this can be a dangerous assumption. There are many substandard alpaca products on the market. A better statement might be, “When presented at its best, everybody loves alpaca.”

Breeding Goals to Achieve Profitable Fiber Production

The goals of this material are two-fold:

First, we must understand and evaluate the pros, cons, and ultimate value of producing Alpaca Fiber Farming.

Second, we must set common goals and strategies to ensure we selectively breed for realistic, potential market demands. 

Breeding a national alpaca herd for profitable fiber production, in order to satisfy commercially viable and lucrative textile markets, will require fiber that averages 25 microns or below, with animals maintaining this average until at least 7 years of age. We will expand and refine this fiber-breeding goal as we move forward and deeper into our subject.

Note: Drawing a line at 25 microns is assuming a raw fiber market as the only option. This mandate would eliminate socks and duvets from products, with duvets being profitable for farms. The greatest profit from our niche market industry is to control as much of the value chain as possible – from shearing through product sales.

Note: All grades, colors, and micron counts of alpaca fiber have potential value within the scope of both the apparel and alternative use designations (e.g., rugs, duvets, animal coats) and, as a result, breeding for ultrafine luxurious fiber may or may not produce a greater return on investment for any particular breeder due to individualized overhead costs. Alpacas on ”fiber farms,” where the animals are bred on pasture with minimal labor and support costs, may return greater profits with higher micron fleeces that are more appropriately used for various non-apparel end products, as well as some styles of socks. It depends upon your niche business model. So, don’t throw away higher micron fiber!!

Alpaca Fiber End Product Strategies

Some significant studies, based on experiential evidence, as well as in-depth and long-term laboratory-based studies with sheep, suggest that breeding for follicular density and fast-growing fiber will produce the best results for maximizing profitable fiber production. The reasoning is that a dense fleece will tilt the odds in our favor by producing fleece of superior fineness, length and uniformity. 

Note: Alpacas clearly are not sheep. As we research and learn more about alpacas, we will be able to note the differences between sheep and alpacas. But for now, wool can be a useful comparison tool for us.

  1. Breeding for fleece uniformity often rewards the breeder with a low average fiber diameter – a consistent fineness. But, this is not a given and uniformity itself carries its own benefit, even though it may not always translate to increased consistency and fineness.
  2. Fineness in fiber allows processors to pack more fibers into a strand of yarn, offering increased strength, durability, improved uniformity, and a soft-to–thetouch handle. This fineness allows for a finer yarn and finer weave, which can in turn be used for finer more delicate products. Note: This would depend on the processing method. Worsted processed yarns lose handle because they are tightly twisted and this creates drape at the expense of handle.
  3. Processors may choose to create yarn with fewer fibers per strand of yarn – yielding a lightweight but still strong garment.
  4. Fast-growing fibers tend to create fewer, smoother, and longer scales (fiber building blocks), leading to a natural luster unique to alpacas. Note: More testing is needed here, some of which is currently going on at Gaston Textile College. There are short stapled Huacaya that rival Suri in luster. 
  5. Uniform fiber length contributes to a soft, silky feel. It also gives processors a consistent raw product to work with to produce garments of predictable quality.

Note: A lack of or poorly defined crimp makes the weaving process more difficult.

Question: How do we measure uniformity, fineness, fiber growth rate, fiber length, and brightness/luster?

Answer: Objectively, with scientific measurements, and subjectively, with experienced key sensory perceptions. Objective measurements, such as histograms and follicle skin biopsies, will yield valuable metrics. Subjective considerations include preference for crimp style and lock structure, running one’s hand along a fleece, and testing the strength of fibers for weakness (rotten, stress breaks). Evaluating alpaca fiber is both an art and a science. 

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