Alpacas, tell me more!
Last month I paid a visit to Sandra on her small holding near Praze-and-Beeble, just up the road from me in Helston. Sandra runs https://www.alpacasofcornwall.co.uk/ and has a small herd of pedigree alpacas. I contacted her and asked if I could find out more about these beautiful animals and the luxury fibre they produce.
Five fascinating facts….
There are no wild alpacas – the alpaca is the domesticated version of the vicuña.
Alpacas come in 22 colours, from a deep blue-black through browns and tans to white.
There are two kinds of alpaca, the Huacaya and the Suri. Suri have very long-fibred fleeces and Huacaya have a shorter crimped fleece.
Alpacas don’t have teeth in the top-front of their mouths, which is why they sometimes look a bit comical!
Alpacas make a gentle humming noise when they are happy.
What about Alpaca fibre?
Alpaca fur incredibly soft and does not retain water. In fact, it’s the second strongest animal fibre after mohair. It is not wool, it’s hair and has a different microscopic construction to wool from sheep for example. The scales on the fibres attract the light giving alpaca a lovely sheen like silk. Alpaca fibre in yarn has no ‘memory’ meaning it drapes rather than bending and holding stitch shapes. This can be used to great effect in shawls and lacy garments but its less suitable for garments like jumpers because it will drape and grow, loosing it’s shape. Alpaca fibre is warmer than wool, isn’t prickly and has no lanolin which makes it hypoallergenic.
Whilst I was with Sandra, I learnt how to prepare a raw fleece ready to be spun into yarn. First I laid out the fleece on a large mesh table and worked out which end was which. This is important because the grade of fibre measured in microns will vary slightly in different parts of the fleece. (A micron is 1/25,000 of an inch) The micron count of fleeces increases slightly as the animal gets older too and varies between 14-26 microns.
The most obvious bits of straw, grass, mud, poo etc can be picked out by hand, and any smaller entangled bits can be gentle combed out whilst holding the bulk of the fleece to prevent larger bits pulling away. It’s important to pay attention to the ‘Crow’s nest’ at the base of the neck between the shoulders because this often has a lot of bits and the hair can be courser too.
The fleece is then skirted. The skirt is the term for the edges where the hair is coarser with guard hairs. These are gently pulled off, or combed off. The fleece is turned over and any shorter clipped clumps of hair are removed.
The fleece is bundled, right side inwards, ready for spinning. Alpaca doesn’t really need washing as it has no lanolin unless its really dirty. Washing a fleece can be a tricky task and you might end up with a felted clump!
Due to it’s drapey nature, alpaca is often blended with wool to give the finished yarn some ‘structure’. Often the wool is another luxury fibre like merino which can have a similar low micron count. Using a yarn blended with alpaca is a real pleasure; the yarn is silky and soft and will be warm to wear. I love merino and alpaca for special projects, either undyed or naturally dyed.
If you’d like to know more about our merino and alpaca yarns or any of the other luxury yarns we stock, please feel free to contact me.
Lastly, a very big thank you to Sandra of Alpacas of Cornwall for a really interesting day, and the beautiful yarns I just couldn’t resist!