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Getting Started

Information on the first steps to starting your Alpaca Herd

Alpaca Fleece, The Luxurious, Rare Specialty Fiber

Preparing the fiber for the Fiber Mill

What's Going on in the Show Ring?

AOBA Microchip Identification Requirement

Evaluating Alpaca Fiber


Alpaca Fleece, The Luxurious, Rare Specialty Fiber

Scarcity or rarity is the the primary determinant in defining a specialty fiber. Wool is not considered a specialty fiber due to its abundance. Alpaca fleece is valuable because it combines so many positive, commercial attributes into one fiber. There are no negative characteristics to be found in the alpaca's fleece. It is found naturally in 22 distinct colors, which can also be blended to produce an infinite array of natural colors.

The fiber from alpaca is unusually strong and resilient. The strength of the fiber does not diminish as it becomes finer, thus making it ideal for industrial processing. Raised at high altitudes in freezing cold, the alpaca has developed more thermal capacity in its fiber than almost any other animal. The fiber contains microscopic air pockets which create lightweight garments with high insulation values. Alpaca is soft, supple and smooth to the touch. The cellular structure of the fiber produces a soft handle unmatched by most other specialty fibers.

Alpaca fleece produces a high yield of clean fiber after processing: 87 to 95 percent for alpaca versus 43 to 76 percent for sheep's wool. Alpaca is easier and less expensive to process than sheep's wool due to its lack of grease or lanolin, and it does not have to be de-haired like cashmere or camel. Alpaca fiber can be scoured or cleaned without using costly chemicals. Scouring is the actual washing of dirt and foreign matter from the alpaca fleece. It is usually done in a lukewarm, neutral solution, followed by clear-water rinses.

Alpacas produce a fine fiber with an absence of guard hair in their prime fleece. Their fiber has a natural, rich luster which gives garments made from 100% alpaca high visual appeal. It is easily dyed any color and always retains its natural luster. Fabric made from alpaca can range from bulky tweeds to fine gabardine. Those who own alpacas sweaters will find they practically last forever. This fiber does not easily tear, pill, stain or create static and it is easily cleaned.

Alpaca produces beautiful yarns, either handspun or machine made. The long staple length makes it ideal for processing as either woolen or worsted yarns. Manufacturers also like to blend alpaca with cashmere, mohair, silk, cotton and wool. These blends make into exquisite luxury garments.

Awareness
of the unique quality of alpaca fiber is increasing with the worldwide recognition gained from promotional efforts of breeders in the U.S., Canada and Australia. With selective breeding techniques, better animal husbandry and nutritional care, fiber fineness will improve and fleece weight per animal will increase. The terms luxury and alpaca are becoming synonymous. The treasure, which the Incas harvested from the back of the mystical alpaca, will soon be enjoyed by discerning consumers everywhere.



Preparing the fiber for the Fiber Mill

I'm often asked by customers to evaluate their fiber. This is usually after the customer has incurred the expense of shipping it to me. You can save yourself time and money by learning to evaluate your fiber before sending it to be processed. It's terrible to wait with anticipation for your fiber to come back from the processor only to find that it's really not what you expected. Here are a few things to look for:

1. How clean is the fiber? The cleanest fibers come from coated animals, but you don't have to coat an animal to have a clean fleece. How the animals are fed and the condition of their surroundings make a big difference. Feeders that don't allow the animal to get hay all over themselves or feeding on the ground works well. Keeping the surroundings clean, using bedding that easily shakes out (I hate wood shavings) and shearing prior to lambing is good. Also shearing on a mat instead of the barn floor is best. Look for burrs, thorns, and the like. A few is one thing, but many is not good and very time consuming to pick out. The amount and type of contamination that will come out during processing depends a lot on the type of fiber. The more crimpy, fine fibers such as Merino, Rambouillet, Corriedale, and others, tend to hold onto the VM and dirt. Fibers such as Romney, Shetland, Cotswold, and Lincoln for instance, will release much of it during processing. Sand will wash out much easier than black dirt or what I call manure dirt. It looks like dirt, but is really manure that has dried and the animals lay on it. Most often this comes out, but some little specks may remain in the crimpy fibers. Skirt out any really contaminated areas, like the back of the neck or down the back. If these areas have a lot of VM in them, it will just be spread throughout the rest of the fleece during processing.

2. How strong is the fiber? Check the fiber for breaks. A break in the fiber will occur when the animal is stressed or sick. There are many kinds of stress, extreme heat, extreme cold, shipping, lambing and weaning, just to name a few, and a lot depends on how a particular animal handles these situations. You can check for breaks by holding a staple between the thumb and forefinger of each hand and giving it a tug. Hold it up to your ear while you're tugging. If you hear it crackle instead of ping, the fiber is weak. How usable that fiber is going to be and how it's going to process, depends again on the type of fiber and where the break occurs. The crimpier fibers will have the tendency to nep, but if the staple is long and break occurred in the middle of the staple, it may not, especially if processed on a carder with a fine cloth. Combing is another option. If the break is at the tip or the cut end of the staple, leaving short 1/4 to 1/2 inch fibers, nepping is very probable. If the fiber is short to begin with and has a break, you might reconsider buying or using that fiber for yarn, as your resulting yarn may not be very strong and will tend to pill in your finished item. That fiber may be a good candidate for felting, depending on what the felt was going to be used for. On the other hand, the wavier, less crimpy fibers tend to shed a lot of those short fibers during the carding process and they will be left on the floor under the carding machine. Those that are left in the roving or batt, are usually easily picked out or fall out during spinning. Again though, if the staple is short to begin with, it may not make a good yarn candidate.

3. If the fiber is already off of the animal, how is it stored? Many a beautiful fleece has been ruined by being stored improperly. The raw fiber needs to have air. If stored in plastic bag, make sure it has plenty of holes in it. Old pillowcases work well. I've seen grain sacks used often, just be sure there's no grain left in the bottom. Don't store a damp fleece. In hot, humid weather, damp fleeces can mold and mildew even if the bag is open at the top. Make sure before storing fiber that all tags (manure and real heavy black grease) have been removed. I've successfully processed many fleeces that were years old because they were stored properly.



What's Going on in the Show Ring?

Understanding Alpaca Halter & Performance Shows

By Mary Reed, ALSA President and Novice Alpaca Halter Judge

ALSA - The Alpaca & Llama Show Association sanctions shows, certifies Judges, guides show managers and educates exhibitors. The Alpaca show format has been jointly developed since 1990 by The Alpaca Owners & Breeders Association (AOBA) and ALSA.

HALTER CLASSES - The purpose for conducting halter classes is to compare animals, judging them against soundness, conformation and fiber criteria so as to determine those who are best suited for breeding purposes. Alpacas are shown in Full Fleece and Shorn halter classes.

Judging System - The system of judging used for alpaca halter shows is a relative system as differentiated from judging to a specific breed standard.

Judging Criteria - Alpacas in Full Fleece halter classes with 3" or more fiber on their neck, blanket and legs are evaluated 50% on their conformation and 50% on the quality of their fleece. Alpacas in Shorn halter classes with less than 3" of fiber on their neck, blanket and legs are evaluated 100% on their conformation. The judging criteria is based on a list of positive and negative traits for alpacas including: type, quality, conformation, movement, soundness, fiber quality and disposition. Using these traits as the basis, the Judge compares the alpacas to each other and places them according to this comparison.

Class Divisions - There are two breeds of alpacas, the Huacaya and the Suri, differentiated by their coat type. Huacaya alpacas have a fluffy appearance with hair that grows perpendicular to the skin and often has a wavy characteristic known as crimp. Suri alpacas have a lustrous silky appearance with hair that hangs parallel to the skin in pencil lock curls that resemble dread locks. Alpacas in full fleece classes are divided by breed. Shorn alpacas are combined by breed as only conformation can be evaluated.

Age Divisions - Alpacas are divided by age into three (3) age groups: Juvenile - 6 months to 12 months of age; Yearling - 13 months to 24 months of age; and Adult - 25 months of age and older.

Color Divisions - Alpacas are found in more natural colors than any other livestock. The show format recognizes 22 distinct colors and 2 color patterns, the pinto and "fancy" or multi-colored. Alpacas are divided into four major color groups: white/light, fawn, dark and multi-colored. If four or more alpacas in an age group have the same color designation, they can be divided into one of the 22 distinct colors. At an alpaca show you can truly enjoy the alpaca’s wide range of beautiful natural colors.

Gender - Lastly alpacas may be divided by sex into male and female classes if four or more animals in a distinct color are shown. Geldings are shown separately and all colors can be combined in a halter class.

Presentation - The alpaca will be picked clean so not to disturb the integrity of its fleece and shown to the Judge in a halter and lead line. The exhibitor will be conservatively and neatly dressed, often in show attire (dark pants or skirt and light shirt) so to show off the animal, not the handler.

Ring Procedure - The alpacas will be called into the show ring oldest to youngest in age or vice versa. The Ring Steward (the person in the ring assisting the Judge) will ask the handlers to walk their alpacas around the perimeter of the ring while the Judge stands in the middle of the ring to view the class as a whole. The Judge considers each alpaca’s soundness, conformation and movement as they walk around the ring. Then they will be lined up head to tail or at a profile view so that the Judge can compare the balance and proportion of each alpaca. The Ring Steward will then line the alpacas up side by side down the middle of the ring, for individual examination of bite and fiber by the Judge.

Bite - The Judge will inspect the bite of each animal looking for soundness and proper jaw alignment. The Judge will closely examine the head, eyes and ears for type.

Fleece Evaluation - The Judge will part the fleece in three areas to evaluate the fineness and handle (softness to touch), density, uniformity of staple length, color, character, average fiber diameter and density, architecture (presence of crimp and/or crinkle in Huacaya and lock formation in Suri), luster of fleece and condition (natural cleanliness, weathered, matted and tipped ends). Fifty percent (50%) of the evaluation in a full fleece halter class is the quality of the fiber of the alpaca.

Body Score and Top Line - The Judge run his/her hand down the top line of the alpaca to feel the overall condition of the animal and levelness of its spine.

PRODUCE CLASSES - Get of Sire - These classes demonstrate the quality and consistency of breeding programs. Three offspring sired by the same male (Herd sire) are evaluated as a group or "get" to determine the overall quality and consistency of quality passed on by that male.

SHOWMANSHIP - A showmanship class is a demonstration of the handler’s ability to show his animal to its best advantage at halter. Judging is based on the exhibitor’s basic skills in fitting, grooming, following directions and style of presenting the animal to the Judge for evaluation. The animal’s conformation is not considered.

PERFORMANCE CLASSES - Performance classes are designed to present or simulate conditions and obstacles that would be encountered in certain situations, such as a trail hike or visit to a nursing home.

Obstacle class - These classes demonstrate the intelligence, versatility and willingness of a well-trained alpaca to follow the directions and command of its handler. The Open course will offer 10 obstacles including those that are mandatory: a bridge or ramp, jumps, flexibility and maneuvering, change of pace and backing.

Alpaca Agility Sweepstakes Class - The purpose of this class is to demonstrate the well-trained alpaca’s ability and willingness to complete the activities involved with public relations events and agility. There is a prescribed list of activities to be included in an Agility course. The Open Agility course will have 10 activities: demonstrate willingness to wear a sweepstakes blanket, backing, go over a bridge, ramp or stairs, change of pace, maneuver around objects, go through gate, load in a vehicle, tolerate petting by strangers, demonstrate willingness for handler to show teeth or pick up a foot, meet strange animal or object and tolerate loud noises.



AOBA Microchip Identification Requirement

Effective July 5, 2005, Alpacas at AOBA Certified Shows occurring are required to be identified with a microchip.

This means every alpaca that is transported to an AOBA Certified show for any reason (i.e. show entrants, companions, auction alpacas, alpacas being transported and using the show venue as a stop off point, etc) must be identified with a microchip. It is the responsibility of the owner of every alpaca entering the venue of an AOBA certified show to corroborate the identity of each alpaca.

This requirement begins on July 5, 2005. The identification of each alpaca is accomplished by microchip. The recommended microchip insertion point is the base of the left ear at the poll (coronal aspect). A brand of microchip is not specified.

When you microchip your alpaca, you may affix the microchip number label (usually supplied with the microchips) onto the alpaca’s ARI Registration Certificate. If you do not have the label you can carefully and legibly hand write in ink the microchip number in the appropriate area on the ARI Registration Certificate for that alpaca. Make sure you fax a copy of the ARI Registration Certificate to ARI so they can update their records. You are not required to obtain a new ARI Registration Certificate specific to adding the microchip number for show entry.

The microchip number must also be used with each alpaca examined by a Veterinarian and affixed onto the Certificate of Veterinary Inspection (Health Papers) and transportation documents. Health Papers, dated within 30 days of the last date of the show, are required for all alpacas entering the venue of an AOBA Certified show.



Evaluating Alpaca Fiber

There are no perfect alpacas. There is great room for improvement in all of our herds, and we can watch it happen before our eyes in our very own pastures, when we make good breeding choices. Once you learn to judge alpaca conformation and fleece, you'll see that not even blue ribbon winners are perfect. Learning to evaluate fleece will help you to make the best breeding choices for your alpacas.

Fleece is the primary end product of the alpaca. These animals are not just another exotic pet fad - they are producers of some of the most wonderful fiber available on the planet. American alpaca shows currently judge alpacas based 50% upon their fiber, and 50% upon their conformation (bone structure, movement, balance - etc.). Other countries, such as Peru, place a higher emphasis on the fleece when judging alpacas.

Fiber characteristics and qualities vary tremendously among alpacas. First we can divide alpacas into two breeds, huacaya and suri. Huacaya fleece is usually crimpy, and grows out perpendicularly from the alpaca's body, giving huacayas that “poofy” look. Suri fleece has a long and silky look, hanging straight down from where it grows on the alpaca's body. Suri and huacaya fleeces each have desirable characteristics making them highly sought after for different uses in the textile industry.

We can divide fleece characteristics into quantitative and qualitative categories: Quantitative and Qualitative

QUANTITATIVE


Density
Density refers to the # of hair follicles per area of skin. This is the most important quantitative fleece characteristic. Density can be judged in several ways. By parting the fleece and determining how much skin can be seen at the roots, you can get a visual idea of how tightly packed the fiber follicles are on the skin. A very dense fleece will show a very thin line of skin when parted. The resistance the fleece offers when parting it also reflects density. Pressing down on the alpacas back and feeling for resistance is another method - a very dense fleece will make it more difficult to feel the alpaca's back bone. Simply grabbing the side of the alpaca and feeling how much fleece fills your hand can also help judge the density of that alpaca's fleece. These methods can be misleading, however, as coarse fibers will tend to “fill up your hand” more than fine fibers, and coarse fibers also offer more resistance than finer fibers. Thus a fine fibered alpaca might, in comparison, feel less dense, while the actual number of fibers per area of skin (true density) is not the issue. I suggest evaluating the fineness of the fleece separately, and taking that assessment into consideration when determining fleece density.

Pictured above: This alpaca exhibits a very thin line of skin as the fiber is separated, indicating a dense fleece. This fleece also offered a good deal of resistance when parted.

Regrowth or Staple Length Regrowth or Staple Length refers to the actual length of fiber produced in a given amount of time. This is also a very important quality, as length and density are the primary factors impacting the total fleece weight of an alpaca. The fiber industry pays for fleece by weight, and the total weight of a fleece shorn from an individual alpaca can vary from as little as two pounds to more than twelve pounds. Judging regrowth relies on accurate shearing dates being provided. It is expected that most alpacas will produce less fiber as they age, and this occurs most notably in producing (reproductive) females.

Coverage Coverage refers to the parts of the alpacas body that are covered with fiber. The alpaca fleece is divided into the blanket (the prime fiber), and the neck, belly, and legs, which are generally much higher in medullated fiber and therefore more coarse. If the neck, belly and legs have little medullation, and have good coverage with usable fiber, this would add to the total fleece weight that the alpaca produces. The blanket fiber is, however, the fiber that the market is willing to pay premium prices for, and as such should be of primary importance when selecting breeding stock.

QUALITATIVE


Fineness
Fineness is a very important characteristic of a good quality fleece. The finer the fleece, the softer the feel, and the higher the price that will be paid for that fleece. Fineness can be measured in microns, which allows new breeders to have concrete figures by which to assess an alpaca’s fleece. This can be very helpful, as well as sometimes very misleading.

The figure which indicates the fineness of the fleece is the average fiber diameter - or the AFD figure found on a histogram report. Histograms are fiber analysis reports provided by the Yocom-McColl Testing Laboratory. The lower the AFD number, the finer the fiber. Many things can affect the AFD of a fleece. Age is one factor. The AFD is thought to often increase an average of 2 points a year until an alpaca reaches 4 to 5 years of age. Diet can significantly affect the AFD, as well as hormonal influences such as pregnancy or testosterone in breeding males. Males are thought to have coarser fiber in general. Gelded males tend to remain finer fibered than breeding males. The location on the body that the fiber was taken from can also impact the AFD results significantly. As a rule, fiber samples should be taken from the middle of the side of the alpaca.

If you rely too heavily on the micron figure provided when selecting your alpacas, you may be disappointed to later find that the micron count you based your purchase upon was artificially decreased by malnourishment, immaturity, or poor sampling technique. If you can obtain legitimate micron counts on the parents of your selection at adult shearings, this can help to estimate the probability of change you can expect with the offspring, but its just an indicator - offspring can vary greatly from their parents.

Histograms are most valuable for learning to assess fiber by touch, and for monitoring the fleece quality in your own herd from year to year. One method I recommend for learning to judge fleece by hand, is to compare the samples you send out for testing with samples of fleeces you already have histograms from. Make your guesses as to what you think the results will be on the new samples. Then analyze those results to learn what factors can influence the subjective feel of a fleece. You might discover that a very tightly crimped fleece may actually feel coarser than it really is, in comparison to a loose fine fleece. Or you might let the tight crimp influence you into believing that the fleece must be fine, only to realize that in that case it was actually quite coarse. Eventually you’ll be able to assess fleece fineness quite accurately, as well as learning to identify which fleeces are more uniform (see Handle).

Luster
Luster is the shine produced when light is reflected back off of the fiber. Suri fiber is thought to have more luster, because of the microscopic fiber structure. While luster (or brightness) is desirable in huacaya fleeces, it is of primary importance when selecting for suri fleece. (See 2nd photo below for example.)

Crimp
Crimp refers to the waves or ripples in a group of fibers. Crimpier fiber is thought to have a tendency to be finer and denser, though there are many exceptions. It also tends to be easier to spin, providing more loft to the fiber. Some breeders feel that in and of itself, crimp is not a necessary component of huacaya fleece relevant to its end product use. There is even some mention that crimp may detract from the handle of a fleece. However, the association of consistent crimp with finer, denser, and more uniform fleeces has resulted in crimp remaining an important quality when judging fleeces. If the crimp style is consistent throughout the blanket, this indicates that the blanket is uniform.

Pictured above: From left to right these 3 samples have 4.5 crimps/inch; 6 crimps/inch; and 8 crimps/inch. Though higher crimps per inch may often indicate finer fiber, in this case the AFD's of these samples are 21; 26 and 28, respectively, (the exact opposite of what one might expect).

Crimp can be described as having a high or low frequency (crimps per inch) or as having high or low amplitude, which is best described as the height of each wave of crimp. The style of crimp tends to be less important than the uniformity of the crimp throughout the fleece. However, some breeders prefer a high frequency crimp, as this used to be used as an indicator of a fine fleece. While that tendency may exist, there are many exceptions to that rule. Crimp is considered a fault in suris.

Lock Structure
Lock Structure refers to the tendency for a fleece to separate into cylindrical groups. In huacayas, lock formation is less evident than with suris. It is usually more pronounced in denser more uniform fleeces.

In suris, lock style refers to the twist or wave the fleece exhibits. Small, uniform ringlets or waves with twist starting very close to the skin is currently judged as the most desirable style. Larger waves with the lock definition less well defined, or starting further from the skin, is less desirable. The locks of a suri should ideally be uniform in size and style throughout the entire suri fleece. This indicates uniformity in a suri fleece, much as consistent crimp style indicates uniformity in a huacaya.

Guard Hair or Medullated Fibers
Guard Hair or Medullated Fibers are the coarser, straighter (and therefore longer) hairs found especially on the neck, belly and legs. Alpacas in general have little guard hair on their blankets, but this varies with individuals, and we should breed for decreasing amounts of guard hair in our herds. On a histogram, the % of fibers > 30 microns in diameter is thought to be related to the amount of guard hair present in the blanket, but this is not always reliable. The % > 30 figure is also referred to as an indicator of the prickle factor of a fleece, as fibers greater than 30 microns in diameter tend to make a garment feel prickly.

Pictured Left: An example of guard hair. Note the long dark guard hairs extending from the top of this lock of fiber. This alpaca has a significant amount of guard hair present for a blanket fiber sample.

Picture Right: An example of luster and locks. This section of huacaya fleece exhibits a tendency to form locks of fiber. It also shows nice luster at the clean base of the sample.

Hand (or Handle)
Hand is the subjective feel of a fleece - often thought to be associated with the uniformity of the diameter of each fiber in the fleece, combined with its fineness, or AFD. Lustrous suri fiber also tends to have a slicker feel and handle due to the microscopic structure of the fibers, which also influences handle.

Uniformity can be assessed on the histogram reports with the Standard Deviation and Coefficient of Variation figures.

The standard deviation (or SD) figure represents the range of individual fiber diameters, or the degree of deviation of all of the individual fibers from the average. For example, if the AFD is 25 microns, the SD will be low if most of the fibers in that sample are close to 25 microns in diameter. If, on the other hand, the fibers in a sample (with the same average diameter of 25 microns) broadly ranged from 15 to 35 microns, the SD will be higher. The more uniform the fleece, the lower the SD figure will be, and the softer the handle of the fleece.

The Coefficient of Variation (CV) is the SD divided by the AFD X 100 and reported as a percentage. This is simply a figure used to compare the uniformity of fleeces with varying AFD’s.

Color
To get an overview of color in American alpacas, you need to consider a bit of history. Peru didn’t allow the exportation of alpacas until 1991. Chilean alpacas were the first alpacas to be imported into the U.S. They were of all colors, including grays, blacks, browns, fawns, pintos, whites, and more.

The first Peruvian alpacas arrived in the U.S. in 1993. They were primarily white, with a few fawns, as many Peruvians had been selectively breeding alpacas for the white color preferred by the larger fiber mills. Many of the Peruvians imported were selected from cooperatives that had also practiced superior selective breeding for fleece quality. As a result, Peruvian alpacas are often generalized as having improved fleece, when compared to the earlier Chilean imports.

However, not all alpacas imported from Peru are from these select cooperatives; the borders between Chile, Peru, and Bolivia are apparently not hard for alpacas to cross; and there are many examples of superior alpaca fleeces found among what we think of as Chilean and Bolivian alpacas here in the U.S.

In the last few importations (before the Alpaca Registry closed), darker colored Peruvian alpacas were imported, reflecting the American demand for color. These alpacas also may or may not have been the result of the improved selective breeding practices that Americans often associate with Peruvian alpacas. To focus only on a certain country of origin, in my opinion, colors one’s expectations, and unnecessarily limits the alpacas available for selection.

In the United States, hand spinners often prefer working with natural alpaca colors such as gray, fawn and maroon. The larger textile companies have shown a preference for white, though they have also paid premium prices for black. As a new breeder, the variety of colors that alpacas offer gives you another opportunity to establish your niche in the alpaca market.

AOBA FLEECE JUDGING


Currently, AOBA fleece judges base their decisions on the following score cards:

These score cards might help you prioritize some of the characteristics we’ve gone over. For instance - while fineness and handle are important, the fleece weight, which reflects density and length, is given an equal maximum score.

Few if any alpacas today could achieve the maximum score of 100 in a well judged fleece show. Your personal breeding program may elect to emphasize some of these characteristics more than others. You may want to be known as the alpaca farm with the crimpiest alpacas, or the densest! Each farm has diverse goals for their herds, helping to secure their niche in the alpaca market.

References:

Numerous conversations with Judges and experienced breeders
Mike Safley’s Alpacas: Synthesis of a miracle
Yocom McColl’s explanation of Histograms
(no actual quotes were included)

Updated August 20, 2012