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Alpacas at Alpine Ranch

Jason Hughes
near Hwy 86 & Hwy 13
Elizabeth, CO 80107
email: alpineranch at yahoo dot com

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Best Natural Fiber

2015-16 Alpaca Fleece Blankets

2015-16 Alpaca Fleece Blankets

I think Alpaca fleece is the best natural fiber and it is the reason I have been raising quality Alpacas since 2004. Here are eight reasons as to why Alpaca fiber pretty much beats every other alternative out there. As they say, when seeking out investment opportunities in new or emerging markets, always look for something that is a step above its competition at making people’s lives better. These are the specific areas where Alpaca fiber bests its competition.

Natural Colors – Alpaca fiber comes in 22 natural colors. This is significant because most other fine natural fibers such as cashmere, angora and the finest sheep wools only come in 3 or 4 natural colors while others such as yak down, mohair and silk only come in one color. This means these fibers must be artificially dyed, usually in a chemical process that not only is harmful to the environment, the process strips and damages the fiber, thus weakening it and resulting in a less durable garment that must be replaced more frequently.

Insulation Qualities – The insulation properties of Alpaca fiber are unmatched. The secret is there are actually microscopic air pockets within the shaft of the individual Alpaca fiber strands. This dramatically increases the warming power of the fibers when worn and provides significant benefit to both the consumer and producer. The consumer is rewarded with the same insulating power in a significantly less bulky garment, perfect for outdoor sport and recreation. The producer is rewarded by the ability to make a larger number of finished garments from a smaller amount of raw fiber. For example, because Alpaca fleece is such a better insulator, a larger gross number of winter hats with the exact same heat retention abilities can be made from 10 pounds of Alpaca fiber, than say, from the same 10 pounds of sheep’s wool.

When the average North American consumer is asked what they think is the best insulator for serious winter weather (artic-like conditions), Canadian goose down is most often at the top of the list, and for good reason. If you have ever seen an actual “bit” of down, it looks like a central hub with a dozen or so fine, slightly feathered strands coming off of it in every direction. This is how down creates its “loft” and thus the superior insulation barrier between the cold outside air and the body heat below. But what if by accident, out on a winter hike you happen to fall through the ice and into the frigid water. As the water permeates your down layer, the weight of the water easily overtakes the delicate feathered strands of the down, crushing the loft and destroying your protective insulation barrier. If you had been wearing Alpaca, you would be far better off. Because of the microscopic air pockets within the Alpaca fibers, the insulation barrier is maintained, thus a winter garment made from Alpaca does not lose its insulation properties, even when wet.

Staple Length – Individual cashmere fibers are 1 to 1.25 inches in length where Alpaca fibers are commonly 3.5 inches with some producing 4 to 5 inches. A longer staple translates to a more durable yarn that resists unraveling and piling, a more durable yarn results in garments whose useable life is measured in years or even decades, not seasons.

Hypoallergenic – Even though properly scoured sheep wool is considered hypo-allergenic by some, there are sensitive types that still maintain an allergy to wool. It is not the wool itself that people are allergic to, but the dusts and pollens that are attracted to and accumulated by the amounts of lanolin still left amongst the woolen fibers. Finer fleeced sheep have higher lanolin contents; glands in the skin of the sheep secrete lanolin that coats and protects the fleece from damage.

Alpaca fiber has a higher natural tensile strength that protects the fiber from damage so Alpacas produce very little lanolin. Even a light scouring of the raw fiber will result in a very clean hypoallergenic end product, free of the natural grease that attracts the dusts and pollens that commonly cause allergies.

Production Quantity and Humane Collection - Properly bred and managed, an adult Alpaca will produce 5 to 10 pounds of usable sub-20 micron fiber each year over a reasonable production career. On the other hand an adult cashmere goat, very similar to the adult Alpaca in size, body weight and forage required, will only produce 4 to 6 ounces of prime cashmere per year. That means you need a year’s production from 3 or 4 goats to make to make one cashmere sweater whereas one Alpaca can provide enough fiber each year to produce as many as 8 or 9 sweaters, equivalent in quality and size.

We shear each Alpaca every year, usually in May. For the younger ones, this can be a scary process as they are unexperienced and unsure of what is happening. Some of the older Alpacas however, welcome it. By mid-May, we have often had a number of days in the 80-degree range and the Alpacas are ready to get out of their winter coats and into their summer shorts. A good shearing team can complete the process in 5 to 6 minutes per Alpaca.

While like the Alpaca, sheep and cashmere goats are usually shorn each year, not all fiber (or feather) bearing animals are so lucky. Angora rabbits, for instance, are much too small to be shorn. The humane method of collection is to wait until the rabbit’s natural molting period and then carefully comb the released fibers from the rabbit’s coat. However, video footage from China (CBSnews dot com, 11/20/2013, Angora Rabbit Investigation in China) where over 90% of the world’s Angora comes from, shows rabbits screaming as their fur is ripped out by handfuls until it is bald. Canadian geese, of course, cannot live without their down so they are disposed of, most often for just their livers (foie gras) and down.

Alpaca vs. Man-Made Fibers - Cheap man-made microfibers such as polyester and acrylic are polluting our oceans. These fabrics shed fibers as they are laundered, the fibers are washed into the sewage system, not captured by water treatment plants and ultimately end up in the ocean where they are consumed or inhaled by fish. “One in four fish sampled, sold for human consumption, has micro-plastic in it.” – UC Davis professor Susan Williams, Ph.D. Natural fiber such as Alpaca is made up primarily of the structural protein Keratin and will either biodegrade or be simply digested by fish as any other protein, thus causing no adverse effects to our ocean environments.

Alpaca vs. King Cotton - Fairly uniform, cotton fibers measure between 12 and 20 microns in width and 7/8 to 1 1/4 inches (2.2 to 3.3 cm) in length. Current estimates for world cotton production are about 110 million bales annually (one bale is 17 cubic feet and weighs 500 pounds). In 2012, the United States was the third largest producer with 17.31 million bales. The area of the United States known as the South Plains is the largest contiguous cotton-growing region in the world. Because cotton contains gossypol, a toxin that makes it inedible, the cotton industry relies heavily on chemicals such as herbicides, fertilizers and insecticides. Cotton covers 2.5% of the world's cultivated land yet uses 16% of the world's agricultural chemicals, more than any other single major crop. The largest recurring hypoxic (or “dead”) zone is off the coast of Louisiana, as the Mississippi river (drainage area for 41% of the continental United States, including the South Plains) carries 1.7 million tons of nitrogen and phosphorous runoff into the Gulf of Mexico annually. In 2002 the “dead zone” was measured at more than 8,400 square miles, or roughly the size of New Jersey. (See Wikipedia articles: “Cotton”, “Cotton Production in the United States”, “Organic Cotton” and “Dead Zone (ecology)”.)

Fineness - When in the business of producing natural fibers for apparels, fineness is one of the most important factors and the market will pay handsomely for it. At a wool auction in June of 2008, the record setting bale of merino wool sold for $247,480. The news clip I read did not specify how much the bale weighed but most likely it was 198 pounds, thus averaging a little under $1250 per pound. The core sample tested at 11.6 microns.

The market will pay a premium for these natural fibers because they are so soft. Garments such as scarves, shalls and sweaters as well as PJs, nightgowns and long underwear made from these fibers can be worn directly next to the skin without itching. In the fiber business, soft garments translates to fine fibers. Depending on other properties of the natural fiber, a garment made with fibers of Average Fiber Diameter (or AFD) of less than 18 to 20 microns will be made up of fibers so small, they cannot itch you, they are too small to be detected by human skin.

Having been in the Alpaca business since 2004, here is a list of the best Alpaca fiber micron tests I have ever seen:

Lowest Average Fiber Diameter (AFD) micron count I have ever seen:
10.8 mic / 2.8 sd / 25.5 cv / 0.3 % +30
Snowmass Loro Piana ARI 32606492, first fleece, sample taken 7 days short of 9 months old

Lowest standard deviation I have ever seen:
14.4 mic / 2.5 sd / 17.4 cv / 0.3 % +30
Snowmass Matrix, sold for $675,000 in 2010, first fleece, DOB 10/18/03, maybe 7 to 8 months old
A low standard deviation speaks to a “tight” fleece, or a higher number of the diameters of the individual fibers tend to be very close to the average. In this example, Matrix would have many more fibers measuring in the say, 12 to 16 micron range than in the 8 to 20 micron range. (The average of 12 and 16 is 14 and the average of 8 and 20 is also 14.)

Lowest coefficient of variation I have ever seen:
22.2 mic / 3.4 sd / 15.3 cv / 1.4 % +30
Mickey’s Davina, ARI 837045, one of my early foundation females, SIXTH fleece, bred and nursing
Coefficient of variation is the variation around the mean, expressed as a percentage. Many breeders believe that an Alpaca with a low cv is more likely to maintain fine fiber as it ages.

Lowest percentage of fibers above 30 I have ever seen:
14.0 mic / 2.8 sd / 19.8 cv / 0.0 % +30
Snowmass Tawny Port, one of my early herdsires, first fleece, 9.5 months old
Medullated fibers are the coarse, thick bristles that constitute the second coat of guard hair often found on a llama. Alpacas should be selected against this trait. The percent of fiber over thirty microns is quantified on most histograms and is a guide to the amount of medullated fiber in a given fleece. (pg 257, Alpacas: Synthesis of a Miracle, Michael Safley)

FINEST fleece I have ever made:
15.6 mic / 3.6 sd / 22.8 cv / 0.6 % +30
Miss Lelu Fuzzybritches, dark brown, daughter of our Color Champion Charlie, first fleece, 8.5 months old

BEST fleece I have ever made:
16.2 mic / 3.2 sd / 19.5 cv / 0.6 % +30
Shelby of ALPINERANCH, second fleece, 18 months old

BEST COMBO numbers I have ever seen:
16.2 mic / 2.5 sd / 15.4 cv / 0.4 % +30
I found these test numbers in an auction booklet ad for a young female from Pacific Crest America, first fleece

Please View Our Additional Alpine Ranch blog posts:

***NEW!*** Superfine Natural Fibers (posted 8/19/17)
The Making of a Cornerstone Foundation Female, A 12 Year Journey (posted 8/14/16)
Vote With Your $ (posted 3/9/16)
CRISPR Genome Editing (posted 1/6/17)

Alpacas at Alpine Ranch is home to 75+ huacayas. Breeding quality Alpacas since 2004, we specialize in Foundation Females, Starter Packages and Stud Services for sale. 37 miles from Denver, 47 miles from Colorado Springs, due east of Castle Rock off Hwy 86, located in Elizabeth, Colorado.