Section 2.72: Fineness

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.

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Fineness

Fineness is paramount in the realm of textiles that are meant to be worn close to the skin. Frequently, the softer the fabric, the more expensive the garment, particularly when made of natural fiber. Consequently, cashmere, which is known for its soft feel, sells for top dollar. Wool, by contrast, is more affordable, but also more likely to be scratchy or itchy. Why? Fineness. While density is a production goal for most breeders, as it translates to more weight and often more profit, uniform fineness will result in fewer coarse fibers and improve handle or softness. Density is important to breeders, whereas only soft handle matters to customers. Breeders, therefore, must be concerned with both. 

Alpaca fiber has an edge when it comes to softness. The height, number, and angle of fiber scales enable alpaca fibers to bend with less friction than many other fibers and result in a smoother, softer fabric. Also, a commercial processor can pack more fine fibers into a strand of yarn than they can coarser fibers. The resulting yarn will be stronger – the sum of the individual parts. Fineness impacts a yarn's “spinning limit,” which means that, at any given count of yarn, the finer the fiber, the greater the number of fibers in a cross section. This, in turn, leads to a more uniform yarn diameter, greater yarn strength, and greater softness of handle. Alpaca fabrics can be manufactured to be very lightweight, yet strong, fine, warm, durable, and moisture wicking.

Manufacturers do test fibers for fineness prior to purchasing fleece. Japanese buyers are testing wool straight off the sheep’s back, using the OFDA 2000 testing method, before buying it in the shearing shed. In Australia, 99% of all wool is tested by bale core samples before it is offered for sale and most manufacturers worldwide currently rely on core testing of bales prior to purchase. These commercial processors value fineness and uniformity as primary prerequisites for purchase, because the customer values the finished softness that results from these traits. Alpaca breeders, therefore, must consider fineness and uniformity to be key factors when making breeding decisions that will ultimately result in the production of fleece that will maximize profit.

Note: All alpaca fiber, of any fiber diameter, has an appropriate end-use and resulting market value. However, in general, the finest, most consistent fleece will command the highest prices in the marketplace.

A good breeding goal for maximum profit potential would be to produce most of our alpaca fiber below 26 microns. Alpaca, due to its scale structure, tends to feel approximately 5 microns finer than it actually tests, when compared to other fibers of the same micron. Where alpaca scales average 0.4 microns high, average sheep scales average 0.8 microns and have sharper edges. This gives alpaca an instant advantage in the softness category. A great deal of sheep wool is produced in the mid-20 micron range. Alpaca in that same range will have an advantage in terms of softness. In addition, the world does not produce much natural fiber that is finer than 20 microns and the fiber which is produced in that range commands a premium at sale. That is a niche on which many alpaca breeders will want to focus!

Most of us are familiar with the dreaded term "blowout," which is an expression loosely used to describe alpaca fiber that coarsens dramatically from one year to the next. This may happen for a variety of reasons, including natural growth of a cria to adulthood, environmental and nutrition factors, and, probably most of all, simple genetics. As a cria grows to maturity, follicles spread apart in the skin. Picture putting dots on a deflated balloon, then blowing it up. The dots will drift farther and farther apart as the balloon grows in size. Similarly, the follicles on a growing alpaca will spread farther apart, providing greater opportunity for fiber to thicken. On average, crias born with 15 micron fiber will have fiber in the 21-23 micron range by 3 years of age, and it may get as high as 30 microns. On average, alpacas are thought to increase in AFD by 2 microns each year, until the animal is four to five years old. The reasons for this common progression may be complex, but genetics clearly play a key role.

A principal breeding goal must be to identify and utilize both males and females that have evidenced their ability to hold fineness over time, hopefully without sacrificing density. Those are the genetics we should all seek to add to our herds. Fiber statistics should be maintained on an annual basis for all breeding animals, at least through the first five years, in order to enable breeders to identify these valuable genetics. Skin biopsies can also be valuable, when performed on animals in the 18 to 24 month age range, to determine the number of follicles per square millimeter and the ratio of secondary to primary fibers (S/P Ratio), among other things. Biopsy results can be excellent predictors of fineness, density, and uniformity.

Note: It is recommended that skin biopsies be delayed until at least 18 to 24 months of age. Obviously a cria’s biopsy result is likely to indicate greater follicular density than in a fully grown animal. It’s a good idea to verify the age of the alpaca at the time the skin was biopsied when evaluating the result.

Factors to consider when breeding for fineness:

  • Breeding for fineness alone, without attention to density, may tend to yield lighter and, possibly, less profitable fleeces.
  • On the other hand, sometimes less is more and a finer fleece of lower weight can be more valuable that a coarser fleece of heavy weight.
  • A finer fleece usually has a lower SD and may tend to be more uniform. Thinner fibers, if uniform throughout the fleece, offer less resistance to the hand, spin more consistently, and result in softer finished products. Micron count and uniformity, therefore, are the primary determinants for the selling price of fiber
  • Focusing breeding goals on density first, followed by fineness, tends to produce better results than the reverse. Remember, from the discussion of density above, that breeding for density and fast growing fiber, often also increases fineness and uniformity.
  • Geldings are typically finer than breeding males, which is thought to be the result of lower levels of testosterone. Males tend to stop coarsening once gelded. Geldings are excellent fiber herd candidates and will probably make up the greater portion of elite fiber production herds. This should answer the question, "What do we do with our males?" Treasure them! In general, females also tend to be finer than breeding males.
  • Fineness can be related to nutritional and/or environmental stress. A stressed alpaca, whether physically or emotionally, will divert much of its energy to protecting its immune system. Frequently, the result is diminished fiber thickness. Sick or otherwise compromised alpacas can exhibit very fine, but "tender" or weakened fleece. This is one reason why halter and fleece judges test the strength of fiber, as fibers that break easily are worthless to processors.
  • In many alpacas, excess protein increases fiber thickness and excessive weight or fat can result in shorter staple lengths. This situation may cause unsuspecting breeders, who assess density by hand alone, to believe that density is improving as an alpaca ages, when, in fact, the alpaca may simply be overfed, its fiber is coarsening as a result. Not all alpacas are equally predisposed to coarsen when on a high plain of nutrition, however, and genetics are another factor that impacts the extent to which coarsening occurs.

Fineness Designations

Uniformly fine fleeces result in soft end products and it is those fleeces that command premium sale prices. There are several systems used for designating fiber fineness according to "grade." Although the nomenclature is slightly different, each is based on similarly defined, although not identical, micron ranges.

Many of the U.S. fiber cooperatives use a system similar to the South American system. The grades are labeled descriptively, rather than numerically.

  • Royal Baby (<20)
  • Baby (20-22.9)
  • Superfine (23-26.9)
  • Adult (27-31.9)
  • Strong (>32)

Another descriptive approach identifies similar, although not identical, micron ranges.

  • Ultra fine (< 20)
  • Super fine (20-22.9)
  • Fine (23-25.9)
  • Medium (26-28.9)
  • Intermediate (29-31.9)
  • Coarse (>32) (also called "Robust.")

A more practical approach for purposes of "Alpaca Fiber Farming" is a production grading system that combines both descriptors and numerical identifiers.

  • Grade 1, Ultra fine (<20 ) (best for fabrics used next to the skin)
  • Grade 2, Superfine (20-22.9) (good for gently used items like shawls, baby items)
  • Grade 3, Fine (23-25.9) (the most versatile grade; fits many categories)
  • Grade 4, Medium (26-28.9) (suited for socks, throws, outerwear, felting applications)
  • Grade 5, Intermediate (29-31.9) (good for batts, duvets, outerwear, felting applications)
  • Grade 6, Robust (>0) (appropriate for batts, insulation, rugs)

Note that markets exist for alpaca fiber from under 20 microns to 35-plus microns. The best way to maximize return on investment will be discussed in Section 4, which will focus on the "nuts and bolts" of turning alpaca fiber into profit.

Fineness summary

 No single fiber attribute is the "be-all and end-all" that will ensure profitability from the production of alpaca fiber. Fleece attributes must be balanced, both to protect the alpaca from the environment in order to help maintain health and to provide producers with the most profitable fleeces for the marketplace. Fineness not only varies between animals, it can also vary from one region of the country to another, based on different environmental conditions (hot vs. cold, humid vs. dry). Fineness is further affected by an alpaca’s age, health, nutrition, and, probably most significantly, by its genetics. An 8-year-old dam, pregnant with her fifth cria, that maintains a uniform AFD of 25 microns, may not place well in the show ring, but she has great value in a breeding program due to her lingering uniform fineness. She is precisely the sort of breeding animal on which we should focus if we wish to create a sustainable and profitable alpaca fiber industry.

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