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Educational Fiber Articles: Evaluating Fiber (2003)  Fiber Density Article (2012) 

Alpaca Fleece Educational Article

Evaluating Alpaca Fiber

How to Evaluate Alpaca Fiber

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

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)

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 experiences.

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. 

About Us   Colorado Alpacas for Sale   Herdsires    Avatar's Page   Avatar's Offpspring   
News from the Delphi Oracle
   Contact Us/Map
Educational Fiber Articles: Evaluating Fiber (2003)  Fiber Density Article (2012)