Section 2.4: “Guard Hair”

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"Guard Hair"

Alpaca breeders tend to throw the term "guard hair" around quite a bit and think of it as "the enemy." But, to the alpaca in its natural environment, guard hair is critical to survival. "Guard hair" is defined as fiber with a core that is more than 60% hollow or medullated. Guard hairs are straight, mostly hollow, and stiff; they protect the grazing alpaca by helping to deflect damaging grasses, twigs, leaves, and reeds. The guard hair helps part the way through vegetation by covering the alpaca's chest and underside, thereby diverting material from under the belly, armpits, and between the legs, both front and back, while protecting the soft insulating secondary fibers (down).

Trying to breed out guard hair completely could result in more vulnerable alpacas. While all guard hairs are primary fibers, not all primary fibers are guard hair. This is an important distinction. The alpaca’s blanket area, where the best fiber in terms of fineness and uniformity is generally located, is made up of both primary fibers and secondary fibers. While the primary fibers in the blanket are usually thicker than the secondaries, they generally are not thick enough to be classified as guard hair, particularly in relatively young alpacas. At least that is what most breeders would hope to produce. The alpaca needs less protection from the elements on its back, thus the secondary fibers require less support from very thick primaries, like guard hair. The somewhat, and perhaps only slightly, thicker primary fibers in the blanket area are sufficiently protective. Some blankets, however, contain primary fibers that are very thick, straight, and undesirable to both breeders and manufacturers, as they cause "prickle," contribute to "pilling," and take dye differently than secondaries, creating significant issues of quality control.

Coarse fibers and guard hair can be removed from fleeces through the "dehairing" process. Dehairing machines are specifically designed to accomplish this. Fleeces that have relatively few thick fibers may not require dehairing, as any thick primary fibers may disappear during the combing or carding processes. Coarser fibers are heavier, tending to drop to the floor of the mill as a fleece is combed or carded. In fleeces with numerous thick fibers, dehairing can be used to enhance the quality of the finished product, but that extra step will not only increase processing cost, it will also result in a substantial loss in finished weight and, therefore, profit. Dehairing is not perfect, it can only remove a percentage of the coarser and/or longer primaries. In addition, dehairing has a tendency to not only remove primaries, but to pull out some secondaries as well, reducing total yield. The level of waste as a result of dehairing can sometimes exceed 60%. Clearly, it is far better to try to breed coarse blanket fibers out up front! 

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