Alpacas have been bred in South America for thousands of years. Vicuñas were first domesticated and bred into alpacas by the ancient tribes of the Andean highlands of Peru, Argentina, Chile and Bolivia. Two thousand-year-old Paracas textiles are thought to include alpaca fibre.
Recently, interest in alpaca fibre clothing has surged, perhaps partly because alpaca farming has a reasonably low impact on the environment.
Alpacas are from the camelid family. They look similar to llamas but are smaller in size.
There are 2 breeds of Alpacas:
Huacaya pronounced wuh-kai-ya which produce a dense, soft, crimpy sheep-like fibre. Their fleece is denser than the Suri alpaca. It is soft and very easy to spin. Huacaya spins into a naturally elastic yarn well-suited for knitting.
Suri with silky pencil-like locks, resembling dreadlocks but without matted fibers. Locks can be long and curly or straight fibres that are silky, very fine and very soft. Suri Alpaca fibre is ideal for making soft loftier yarns for knitting. It can also be used for felting. Suri has far less crimp and thus is a better fit for woven goods.
Alpaca fibre is similar in structure to sheep wool fibre. Its softness comes from the small diameter of the fibre, similar to merino wool. Its glossiness is due to low height of the individual fibre scales compared to sheep wool. Alpaca fibres have a higher tensile strength than wool fibres. Alpaca is three times warmer than wool. It is naturally water-repellent and difficult to ignite. Good quality alpaca fibre is approximately 18 to 25 micrometres in diameter.
Finer fleeces, ones with a smaller diameter, are preferred, so are more expensive. As an alpaca gets older, the diameter of the fibre gets thicker, between 1µm and 5µm per year. This is sometimes caused by overfeeding; as excess nutrients are converted to thicker fibre rather than to fat.
Alpacas come in 22 natural colors, with more than 300 shades from a true-blue black through browns-black, browns, fawns, white, silver-greys, and rose-greys.
Alpacas should be shorn annually with an expected fleece length between 75 mm and 120 mm. Fleece weights vary, with the top stud males reaching annual shear weights up to 7 kg total fleece of which 3 kg is good quality fibre.
The parts are the saddle, neck, legs, belly and apron. The saddle is the best part of the fleece; the neck is often similar but shorter; the belly, legs and apron are usually stronger (thicker) and may include coarse guard hair. High quality alpaca fleece is fine, crimpy and soft with little guard hair.
Pick out any bits of fleece that seem straighter, coarser (and sometimes a bit lighter in coloured fleece) as these may be the edge of the ‘saddle’ guard hair. If the fleece was well skirted, most of this should have been removed.
Alpaca does not have a body oil so there is no need to wash alpaca before spinning although it may be dusty. It can be spun from the lock or after being opened with a flicker.
The silky nature of alpaca can make it seem ‘slippery’ compared to other fibres. That is, it may seem as though it doesn’t adhere to itself as much as sheep wool. When preparing alpaca fleece for spinning, a drum carder will help to draw the fibres out and together. This makes it easier when you are pulling out the fibre as you spin as it won’t separate as easily.
When spinning with alpaca the main difference is that you should not draw out a length as long as you would with sheep wool. Just draw out a shorter amount initially and wait for the twist to hold it together before drawing out more. Initially some people spin the alpaca fibre slightly tighter than sheep wool until they get used to the feel of it. If the fibre draws in too quickly with insufficient twist and keeps separating, loosen the brake knob a little or hold the fibre for a little longer.
Adding 20-50% wool to alpaca gives the yarn more elasticity. Spinning a single of alpaca and one of wool then plying the two together makes a nice woollen yarn. Wool can also be added to alpaca using hand carders or a drum carder.
Blending 10-30% mohair will make a lofty yarn and give it a fuzzy look. Silk lightly carded into the alpaca will add sparkle to your yarn. Angora rabbit wool with alpaca makes an absolute luxury yarn which is extremely soft and very warm.
Alpaca fibres have small smooth scales, like human hair, and thus it is hard to grip its neighbour, which can make the felting process longer, compared to a cross-bred sheep wool. Use lots of soap and hot and cold water. Alpaca does felt nicely by itself, very fast, like merino.100% alpaca felted hats come out lovely and soft and still hold their shape. Many people blend a mix of alpaca and wool for felting.
Rolling Hills Alpacas
wikipedia: Alpaca fibre
Alpaca fibre, shearing and clip preparation (SA)
Alpaca Fibre and Fine Yarns