How do I get alpaca fiber? Alpaca is available as a commercial top for spinning or you can go to your local alpaca farm and buy fleeces. Fleeces are sheared from the animals once a year. They are usually graded at the time of shearing into 3 to 7 grades. The prized fleece is called the “blanket”. This is the fleece that is on the body of the animal. In the best animals, this blanket fleece is even with very little medulated fiber. The seconds and even the thirds come from the neck, legs and bellies of the animal. This fleece has more medulated* fiber and it is also of more variable lengths. This fiber can be harder to spin, but it can be blended with wool to make a lovely, more elastic yarn. Be sure to ask the fiber farmer about their grading practices and know what you are getting. If you are buying at a festival fleece sale, you cannot usually lay out the fleeces to look at it. In that case, put your hand in a different parts of the fleece and feel. You can take a small pinch of the fleece to see what the staple length is. Do this sparingly, no one wants a fleece that is all torn apart. There is an etiquette to this at a fiber show. You can ask the fleece show volunteers to help you determine a good fleece if you are new to alpaca fleece buying.
How do you clean and prepare an alpaca fleece? Alpaca does not have any lanolin or grease in their fleeces. But the animals do like to give themselves dust baths. So there is dirt and dust in the fleeces, generally. You can wash the fiber before or after you make it into yarn. I would test a small amount of the fleece to find out the level of dirt. If it is very dirty, then wash it before you spin it. If it isn’t very dirty, then you can spin it first and then wash the yarn. Care must be taken to wash the fleece carefully so that you don’t felt or just knot up the fleece. Fill a basin with moderately hot water (180 degrees) with some mild detergent like Orvis paste or Synthropol. Leave undisturbed for about 45 minutes to an hour in a place that will keep the fiber relatively warm. Gently lift the fleece out of the water and dispose of the dirty water. Refill the basin with warm water for a rinse. Leave again for 30-45 minutes. Lift out. Look at the water, is it dirty? Feel the fleece does it feel soapy? If yes to one or both of these questions, then repeat the rinsing step until the fleece is clean and does not feel soapy. Depending on the amount of the fleece you are washing, you can spin out the water in a washing machine or a salad spinner. Leave to dry. When it is dry you can prepare the fleece for spinning. For Huacaya you can card the fiber into rolags or batts and then spin. For suri, you may need to flick the locks to open the fibers. Then you can card the fiber or you can comb the fiber to prepare it.
How do you design a yarn to take advantage of the best characteristics of alpaca while minimizing it’s foibles? As I wrote in a previous post here, alpaca fiber is very warm and insulating. This is because of the way that it is formed in the folicles. The medulla or inner portion of the fiber has small air sacs. Judith Mackenzie in her book, The Intentional Spinner, says these are a little like bubble wrap. The sacs hold in the warmth of the wearer. This hollowness contributes to its tendency to static electricity and clinginess of the fiber. Alpaca itself is also more slippery than wool is, so you will need to adjust your tension on you wheel to achieve a good twist and take-up. When spinning the fiber, you need to add more twist than when using wool to make the same yarn. But you also need to take care that the yarn is not overspun and therefore stiff and dense. Yarn made from Huacaya will bloom when you wash it and it will give you a halo effect. Most of the alpaca top or roving that you will find commercially are made from Huacaya, since it is more prevalent than Suri. Suri fiber has no crimp and no elasticity. It does have great sheen though and you can find fleeces from local alpaca farms to use for yarn. Suri is much more difficult to spin according to Deb Robson in her book The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook. Yarn spun from Suri may look even and balanced while you are spinning it. However when it hits water, any imperfections will become evident. This is because it tends to resist being adequately spun. When this yarn is knit or woven you will see the imperfections and you may see some curling. You will need to practice with this fiber to get the results that you want in your final fabric.
Flying Goat Farm Superfine Alpaca top is made in Peru from 100% Huacaya. It has a micron range of 24-26 microns . I hand dye the top to make colors that will inspire and thrill you. You can see some of them here.
*Medulated fibers are ones that are a little more coarse. They tend to not take dye well and can feel prickly.
photo of handspun