Section 4.2: Separating Fact from Fiction

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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Separating Fact from Fiction

As we hopefully explained in sections 1-3, alpaca fiber is unique, green and deserves a place in North America’s textile economy. It is rare (for now), exotic, deemed a specialty or exotic fiber, and can stand against the best—silk, cashmere, mohair and even against synthetic fibers—in the manufacture and sales of luxurious and robust fabrics.

As of Jan 2018 AOA is reporting there are 13,000+ registered alpaca in Canada and 190,000+ in the USA (source). While some of the total 200,000+ registered may no longer be living, there are many unregistered alpaca in North America. Estimates place our total alpaca population between 225,000 and 250,000. With an average of 5 pounds of fleece per alpaca, North America is currently producing a million to a million and a quarter pounds annually and growing (1,000,000-1,250,000)[1][2]and throwing at least a third into the garbage.

There is sufficient fiber available for both the commercial and cottage industries to flourish and provide a good source of revenue to alpaca owners. To bring our industry forward and to bring profit to the alpaca owner, we MUST get this fleece out of the barns and sheds and into the hands of the public in a form they will pay for.

We, as livestock breeders of alpacas, must work as partners and not competitors to facilitate a vertical integration between fiber sellers and fiber buyers and beyond to meaningful outlets for alpaca fiber. Currently, there are numerous individual fiber initiatives underway, some very successful, but we are as autonomous islands of self-interest within the world’s largest market economy. We need to harness the economies of scale as well as help build a consistent approach to alpaca fiber as revenue. We need to present a unified front for our yearly national clip and get our stored fiber out of barns and garages and into the North American markets.

There are numerous business models to support and enhance fiber for profit. We must envelop all of them into a working model with various and different points of entry.

Sections 1-3 cover the current and potential value and characteristics of alpaca fiber. This section will address where we are and where we need to go to make a profit on our yearly harvests.

FACT: Alpaca is a natural, eco-friendly product. It is grown organically and therefore contributes positively to the growing 'green' conscientious market. The absence of grease avoids a heavy, chemical-laden scouring process and the variety of natural colors minimizes the need for dyeing. North America has specialized in breeding for color. Alpaca, unlike cotton, does not require pesticides or herbicides to ensure a good crop. Unlike manmade products, such as nylon, alpaca is not a petroleum-based product. The only byproduct of alpaca is its ‘poop’ which we call "Green Bean$" due to their value as natural fertilizer which is slow-release and high in nitrogen.

FACT: The absence of lanolin or grease in alpaca fiber is desirable for those who are sensitive to sheep's wool or allergic to lanolin, and they might be able to comfortably wear garments made of alpaca fiber rather than using polluting chemicals to remove lanolin. Alpaca benefits both the sensitive individual and our environment.

FACT: Alpaca comes in 16 to 22 natural colors (depending on which study you use), a feat no other fleece-bearing animal has attained. Rather than adding dyes and ruining the “natural” designation of the fiber, we need to capitalize on using our colors. Although much of the retail market currently wants white to be able to dye into many colors, this is our specialty and we need to capitalize on what we do best.

FACT: Alpacais easily dyed and retains its natural luster. Alpaca feels smooth and silky to the touch. The scale-like cells (cuticle), which make up the outer cells of the fiber, protrude half as much as that of the sheep's wool resulting in a smoother, slicker feel. Alpaca is fine, soft and warmer than sheep's wool. The fineness of the fiber is measured in microns (1 micron =1/1000 of a millimeter). Lower micron results in finer fleece resulting in higher monetary value, but only if it is supplied in quantity. Alpaca is strong and resilient, making it an ideal fiber for industrial processing. It is naturally water repellent. Alpaca does not easily tear or pill and is cleaned without trouble. Alpaca has good thermal capabilities and is an ideal product for the North-American climate. 

FACT: Alpacais an elite fiber. It is extremely versatile and is desired by clothing manufacturers around the world. Stains, heavy vegetation, guard hair and very coarse fiber (lower leg, belly) add to the make up of fleeces. Skirting away stains, most of the vegetation and other debris deliver a cleaner fleece for more cost effective processing. Separating the differing sections of fleece according to their attributes avoids spoiling the better parts, which carry forward to the end product.

What we do know as a fledging North American alpaca fiber industry is that much marketing hype as to the benefits of alpaca fiber as the ‘Golden Fleece’ and the “Fiber of the Gods’ has an air of the ‘tall tale’ about it. 

FICTION: Alpaca fiber is seven times warmer and stronger than wool. While alpaca may be somewhat warmer than wool, warmth depends on quality of fiber, the textile application and the skill used in producing the end product. What we do know is that compared to like fibers (i.e. wool, mohair, cashmere, etc) alpaca fibers are incredibly strong. They have a much higher breaking point (tensile strength) than like fibers. Also, most natural animal fibers are protein based and made up of numerous overlapping scales, or cuticles. The height of alpaca cuticles is on an average half the height of wool cuticles and it also has fewer cuticles per inch. So when making a product, strong translates into durable and low scale height and fewer scales translates into soft. Alpaca fibers, given their strength, can also be spun into lightweight garments since it takes fewer fibers to maintain strength. Imagine knitting a beautiful garment, which requires more than 100 hours of skillful art and patience to produce. Why use a low-quality fiber that will ruin your work in a short period of time when you can use a fiber that among a lot of other wonderful qualities will last a lifetime and possibly be an heirloom you can pass on to generations to come?

Desirable and notable characteristics for alpaca fiber are:

  • Fineness
  • Absence of Guard Hair
  • Quantity
  • Uniformity in fineness and length
  • Color
  • Tensile Strength
  • Staple length
  • Cleanliness
  • Crimp/Brightness

Sorting fleece sections according to fineness, length color and degree of guard hair achieves uniformity in fineness and staple length, desirable absence of guard hair and consistency in color, which brings maximum financial benefit. Meeting these criteria should be the goal of the producer. Deviations in micron and in length can cause major spinning problems for the processor. Excessive short fibers and second cuts create noils, which will decrease the quality and quantity of the yarn. Guard hair is a major source of the “prickle factor”, tends to shed and does not dye well.

Processors should receive clean, uniform lines of fiber (fineness, length) with good tensile strength in as large batches as possible for cost effective processing into quality yarn.

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