Getting a Handle on Fleece
Article by Linda Bat
Published Alpacas Magazine 2003
This article is intended to provide an overview of fleece terminology for new alpaca breeders, to help 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.
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% or 60% upon their fiber, and 50% or 40% upon their conformation (bone structure, movement, balance - etc.).
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 two categories: Quantitative and Qualitative
Density refers to the # of hair follicles per area of skin. Density is judged in several ways. The resistance the fleece offers when parting it 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. You can also grab the side of the alpaca and feel how much fleece fills your hand, or weigh in your hand how heavy a long fleece feels.
These judging methods are potentially very misleading, however, as coarse fibers will “fill up your hand” much more than fine fibers, and coarse fibers also offer more resistance than finer fibers.
Thus a fine fibered alpaca, in comparison, feels 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 First, and taking that assessment into consideration when trying to determine fleece density. Some traits thought to be sometimes linked with good density are: a low frequency high amplitude crimp, high luster, and tight lock formation.
Lock formation also effects perception of density, as dense fine long locks don't provide the impression of volume that a "fluffier" style of fleece does.
Regrowth or Staple Length
Regrowth or Staple Length refers to the actual length of fiber produced in a given amount of time. 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 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 also 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, and others. 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. A malnourished alpaca may have a falsely decreased AFD, and hormonal influences such as pregnancy or testosterone in breeding males can also impact the AFD. Gelded males tend to remain finer fibered as they age, 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.
Histograms are most valuable for teaching you 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 may have influenced your subjective feel of a fleece.
Luster is the shine produced when light is reflected back off of the fiber. Suri fiber is thought to have more luster, on average, because of the microscopic fiber structure.
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. 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.
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 tends to be 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 Hairs are the coarser, straighter (and therefore longer) hairs that can be seen extending beyond the rest of the fleece - especially on the neck, belly and legs. Alpacas in general have little guard hair in their blankets, but this varies with individuals, and we should breed for decreasing amounts of guard hair, and finer 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 a reliable correlation. 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.
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, as well as its fineness, or AFD. High luster 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. 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. Some of the Peruvians imported were selected from cooperatives that had also practiced superior selective breeding for fleece quality. As a result, Peruvian alpacas have been 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 on a certain country of origin, tends to color one’s expectations, and unnecessarily limit 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, Alpaca Owner & Breeder Association fleece judges base their decisions on the following scoring system:
Fineness 15 / Handle 5 / Uniformity of micron 8 /
Uniformity of length 7 / Uniformity of color 5 /
Crimp 10 / Lock density 5 / Luster 10 /
Lack of guard hair 10 / Impurities 5 / Weight 20
Totalling 100 points.
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.
About the Author:
Delphi Alpacas, AKA Linda Bat & Rus Hinman, have been raising alpacas since 1993.
Our goals include producing unusual colored fleeces that will approach that perfect fleece score of 100. Extreme fineness and handle, in beautiful colored fleeces is our specialty. We continually select our alpacas, and their breedings, based on the qualities they offer that will help us to reach our goals.