Alpaca Fiber from the Textile Point of View
Article by Mike Safley,
Once alpaca fleece is in the bag, what is it worth? The textile
manufacturer could not care less whether the fleece available for sale
came from a prize winning stud or the herd's ugly duckling. Understanding
what qualities the buyer desires most is the key to getting maximum value
from alpaca fiber production.
All natural fiber falls into one of two categories, carpet or apparel.
Carpet is coarse, apparel is fine. Apparel fiber is more scarce than
carpet fiber and sells for considerably more money per unit of measurement
on the international market.
The textile market is dominated by sheep wool. All other animal fiber,
including alpaca, is known as “specialty fiber.” The results of processing
trials conducted by fiber experts Bray, Long, and Van Bergen rated mean
fiber diameter as the most important quality of sheep wool immediately
affecting its value for manufacturing purposes. Their studies rated the
relative value given to various fiber properties as follows:
|Fineness (mean fiber diameter)
||Only important when present or absent to an abnormal
|* Color was not considered in these studies
According to Van Bergen and Lang, the reason fineness impacts price is
due to its effect on a yarn's “spinning limit,” which means that, at any
given count of yarn, the finer the fiber, the greater 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.
Soft garments which can be worn next to the skin are most expensive.
Cashmere, with its soft, seductive feel, sells for high dollars in
exclusive shops. Why is cashmere always soft and wool often itchy? Fiber
Over 30% of American consumers surveyed claimed to be allergic to wool.
These same people can wear cashmere or alpaca with no adverse reaction.
The International Wool Secretariat and CSIRO, the Australian research
organization, with its wool technology and animal production divisions,
were extremely concerned by the perception that wool commonly caused
Extensive research has identified the cause of the allergic reactions
in consumers who wore wool. The research began by administering common
tests for allergic reactions. This involved grinding wool to a fine
consistency, suspending it in liquid, spreading it on the allergic
consumers and pricking the skin with a needle. The result was that
consumers, originally thought to be allergic to wool, didn't react.
What was finally found to be the cause of this so-called allergic
reaction to wool? Fiber diameter. The prickle factor was guilty; the
coarser the fiber, the more severe the “allergic” reaction.
Researchers found that coarse hairs extending from the yarn or fabric
prick the skin and stimulate the pain receptors, thereby causing redness,
irritation, and itching. Once fiber diameter was identified as the
culprit, studies were done to decide at what mean diameter prickle
Fiber that averages 21 microns or less tends to be soft to the touch.
Fiber with a “coarse edge” over 30 microns almost always itches. Yarns
that contain more than 5% fiber over 30 microns create garments that only
fleas could love.
Consumers, who previously claimed to be allergic to wool, experience no
negative reactions as long as the average micron count of the garment they
are wearing does not exceed 21. Further research has conclusively proven
that any fabric which is made of any fiber (man-made acrylic, hair from
cashmere goats, etc.) averaging more than 21 microns causes pain on the
skin and a so-called allergic reaction (see the attached diagram).
Alpaca is no exception. Coarse alpaca itches. Fine alpaca feels smooth
and silky next to the skin. That's why fiber diameter is by far and away
the most dominate value affecting fiber prices.
Bruce McGregor is a senior scientist with the Victorian Department of
Agriculture in Australia, specializing in improving the production and
quality of specialty animal fibers. He wrote an extensive article for
Alpacas Australia (issue 13, 1995) entitled Alpaca Fleece
Development and Methods of Assessing Fibre Quality. His article
ranked, in order of importance, the qualities of alpaca fleece that
processors have valued over many years, as follows:
- Fiber diameter
- Fiber length
- Fiber color
- Freedom from contamination
- Degree of medulation
McGregor does not include tensile strength as a quality affecting
value. The strength of alpaca fiber is so superior to other natural
fibers, such as wool, that it is not considered an issue in pricing.
Alpaca fiber's staple length is important. Length commands a premium in
the market. This is because length increases the manufacturers' ability to
spin finer and stronger yarns for weaving. But McGregor still concludes
that “Markets usually discriminate against length to a lesser degree than
The best way to increase uniformity is to reduce the average micron
count. A finer fleece has less standard deviation. This is just another
reason why micron count is the primary determinate of a fiber sale
Another reason for fiber diameter to be the dominate value is that the
fiber diameter distribution (FDD) can not be accurately measured on large
sale lots. There is too much variability from one fleece to the next.
Furthermore, textile manufacturers almost always combine fiber from
several lots to make tops. They purposely mix fiber with various micron
counts, strength, and length to create a top that meets a certain
specification. Finally, the cost of measuring standard deviation in large
lots is prohibitive.
There is considerable research which establishes the fact that a more
uniform fleece is more “spinnable.” A fleece with a co-efficient of
variation that is 5% less than a fleece of comparable micron will spin a
yarn that performs as if the fleece is one micron finer.
The most dramatic evidence of the influence of micron count on price
was the million dollar bale sale which occurred at the annual Australian
wool sale. Each kilogram in this one bale of sheep fleece sold for $10,030
Australian. The entire bale made up of 100 kilos of fine merino sheep wool
sold to a Japanese textile manufacturer for $1,030,000. The fleece, the
finest sheep wool ever tested, averaged 13.8 microns.
Alpaca Breeding for Maximum Value
Any business needs a plan. It really doesn't matter whether you are
manufacturing cars, growing corn, or raising alpacas. See How to Buy, Breed, and Succeed in the Alpaca
Business. You need a plan. A sound plan begins with an inventory of
your product's strengths and weaknesses. If you believe that the ultimate
goal of the alpaca business is to produce fiber as opposed to pets, please
Alpaca fiber is known as a specialty fiber. In fact, every fiber, other
than sheep wool, is known as a specialty fiber. Wool is grown world wide
in huge quantities – 432,000 tons in 1994 alone (source: Wool
International). Specialty fiber production totals about 142,000 tons per
year. Of this, approximately 4,000 tons is alpaca. Scarcity or rarity is
one way alpaca fiber competes.
R.C. Couchman, a well known Australian fiber expert, authored an
extensive series of articles for Llama Life about alpaca fiber. He
made the following point many times over, “Fineness is what specialty
fiber is all about.” Alpacas shouldn't compete with sheep, which produce
large volumes of coarse fiber, when they have an excellent potential to
produce fine, soft fiber and receive a significant price premium upon
The business plan at Northwest Alpacas is based on breeding alpacas
which produce fine fiber in high volumes. This strategy should enable us
to compete effectively at several levels: 1) the textile market, which
pays a significant premium for fine fiber; 2) with sheep wool, the bulk of
which is coarse; 3) the South American alpaca fiber producers who sell
their fiber based on volume, not fineness; and 4) with other ranches
selling bloodstock that produces alpacas having coarse hair and lower