Alpaca Fleece Educational Article
How to Evaluate
By Linda Bat, Delphi Alpacas (Article written in 2002 by Linda Bat, published in Alpacas Magazine in 2003. Please see our recent articles for more up to date information on assessing density, and more.)
This article is intended to provide an overview of fleece
terminology for new alpaca breeders, in order to help them in selecting
alpacas for their herds.
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
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)
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.
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 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 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 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
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
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.
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
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.
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)
About the Author:
At Delphi Alpacas, we have been raising alpacas in Colorado
since 1993. We specialize in helping new owners select the right
alpacas for their goals and for their budgets. With over 10 years
in the Veterinary Technology field as well, we have a lot to offer
new breeders that are learning about alpacas, and are happy to share
Our goals include producing unusual colored fleeces that will approach
that perfect score of 100. We have carefully selected each of our
alpacas based on the qualities they offer that will help us to eventually
reach all of our goals.
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from the Delphi Oracle Contact Us/Map
Educational Fiber Articles: Evaluating
Fiber (2003) Fiber Density Article (2012)