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Handle is purely subjective; it is evaluated by feeling the fiber with "the hand," hence the term "handle." The term "handle" is used primarily by breeders, whereas consumers use the term "softness." Fiber handle can be described in many ways, including silky, velvety, buttery, luxurious, and exquisitely soft, among others. Handle is highly related to the uniformity in a fleece or end product.
A soft handling fleece is usually comprised of very uniform fibers, which have a low CV. However, fineness together with uniformity will produce the softest handling fleeces of all. Many people feel that flat Suri and low frequency crimp in Huacaya tend to be softer handling than high frequency crimp fleeces. It may be that more "bumps" (high frequency crimp) create more points of contact with fiber scales, making those fleeces seem less soft.
Note: Some believe, scale structure may also be a factor. The height of alpaca scales average about 0.4 microns. Those of sheep average 0.8 high, or twice as high. Alpaca fibers average 9 scales per 100 mm. Sheep measure only 4 scales per 100 mm. According to Weidong Yu, “The measured data showed that the equivalent bending modulus of the alpaca fiber is higher than that of wool fiber, and even the rigidity is 10 times as high as wool, but its friction coefficient is lower than that of wool, which means that the soft handle of alpaca fabrics is mainly due to the smooth surface and low friction coefficient of alpaca fibers in contrast to that of wool fiber."
Handle can be affected by both nutrition and environmental factors. Certain trace element deficiencies can impact handle; for example, a copper deficiency is thought to impart a harsh feel to fleece. Inadequate nutrition, in general, can result in dry, lack-luster fleeces, that lose their softness, whereas a well-nourished fleece will tend to be more "buttery" and soft. Similarly, stress or adverse environmental conditions can negatively impact handle.
Although thick primary fibers and guard hair will adversely affect handle, a relatively coarse alpaca may still feel soft if its fleece is highly uniform. It may be that an alpaca with an AFD of 23 microns, high luster, and very uniform fleece will feel as soft to the hand as an animal with a 15-micron Vicuña type fleece. Clearly it is a combination of many factors that influence handle; however, the most significant factor is the interplay of fineness and uniformity.