Alpaca fibre is one of the world’s most luxurious fibres. It grows in 22 officially recognised colours and every shade in between and of course can be blended or plyed (twisted) during processing to produce further variations. Alpaca fibre is harvested once a year at shearing.
Good quality alpaca has inherent qualities – it is soft to the touch (known as handle), should be bright (lustrous for suri) and should not feel dry, rather well nourished. Alpaca fibre has fewer and lower scales on each individual fibre compared to sheep’s wool adding to the good handle & softness. Suri fibre has fewer and a lower scale profile compare to huacaya fibre. A staple length of 3+inches is most suited to commercial processing and up to approximately 9” locks of suri.
For some applications it is necessary to blend sheeps wool with alpaca, however more 100% pure alpaca products are emerging to the market place.
Alpaca has been a ‘must have’ product since Sir Titus Salt (1803-1876) introduced it into the UK market place in around 1836. Having discovered some unwanted bales of fibre at a Liverpool mill, Titus purchased the fibre and spent 18 months perfecting his method of producing alpaca material, later presenting a coat to Prince Albert for Victoria. Alpaca coats, gowns and materials became a very desirable, though very expensive, luxury fashion commodity during Queen Victoria’s reign; in fact alpaca garments were so prized and so hard wearing that they were often bequeathed in the wills of the deceased to the next generation.
Titus became the largest employer in Bradford, West Riding of Yorkshire, where in 1851 he built built the model industrial village of Saltaire as a result of his success.
Properties of alpaca
Alpaca fibre has a minute amount of lanolin compared to sheep’s wool. The advantage of this is that alpaca can be scoured (washed) at very low temperatures in a mill. Hand spinners & other crafters can use the fibre ‘in the green’ ie raw and wash once completed. Sheep’s wool is washed using chemical which dissolve the vegetation however said chemicals dry out the fibre leaving a dull and less soft handle to the fibre because the cuticles are affected by the chemicals. Cuticles on huacaya fibre protrude approximately 0.4µ, suri less and sheep’s approximately 0.8µ. (1µ =1000,000th of 1 metre)
Alpaca fibre can be as fine as 14-15µ (µ =micron=) however a single animals fleece can vary over the entirety and hence the need for good skirting. Best quality alpaca is a luxury product with a luxury price point. There is a use for nearly all alpaca fibre so think carefully about the uses for your annual harvest. Even if you have no desire to use the fibre yourself, it will have a use and value to someone.
Huacaya and suri fibre can be interchanged for some projects though suri is denser and with more drape & often used for weaving & cloth making.
Internationally alpaca is very much a niche market though more recently seen in blends on the high street. There are estimated to be approximately three million alpacas worldwide with 94% living in South America. The worldwide population is made up of 93 % huacaya & 7 % suri alpacas. There are about 45,000 (registered & unregistered) alpacas in the UK with both USA & Australia having 350,000 each. The quantity of fibre an alpaca produces varies between species and each animal, with the breeding goal to produce fine, dense fibre with uniformity and good staple length & longevity of consistency. Average yield per alpaca per year is 1kg+ skirted weight of fine fibre with good uniformity in huacaya and double the quantity for suri.
Alpaca has the following properties:
Many UK breeders have their own alpaca fibre processed within the UK and sell the artisan products direct to the public. Google ‘British alpaca fibre’ and you will discover a myriad of stunning creations and discover the enterprising nature of the UK alpaca community. BAS members are making and selling all types of alpaca products ranging from insoles for shoes and wellingtons with coarser fibre to babywear and exclusive luxury fashion items at the other extreme. There is a use for all grades of alpaca fibre.
Knitters (hands machine and industrial) revere quality alpaca yarns. South Americans use a lot of heavy bright dyes on the yarns which suits the garments and products that they want to make for their home market; however here in Europe the vast range of natural colour is the attraction. The natural, subtle yet extensive colour palette offered by alpaca fibre is one of its main attributes. In its natural undyed state, it also comes with significant environmental and ethical properties making it very attractive to the “green” maker and market.
The BAS FIBRE COMMITTEE aims to provide a focus through which the membership can advance their initiatives towards the creation of a viable commercial market for alpaca fibre and products in the UK.