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Stash Appreciation–Spinning with Alpaca Fiber

Spinning Alpaca

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.

Handspun Alpaca--one ply is solid blue and the other is hand dyed blues and golds. This really makes the golds pop!
Handspun Alpaca–one ply is solid blue and the other is hand dyed blues and golds. This really makes the golds pop!

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.

Raw Cria Fleece--you can see the dusty line in the middle of the staple. This can be spun without washing first.
Raw Cria Fleece–you can see the dusty line in the middle of the staple. This can be spun without washing first.

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.

isla alpaca1

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.

Natural cinnamon brown alpaca fleece plied with a hand dyed brown and purple roving.
Natural cinnamon brown alpaca fleece plied with a hand dyed brown and purple roving.

*Medulated fibers are ones that are a little more coarse. They tend to not take dye well and can feel prickly.



photo of handspun

 

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Stash Appreciation–Alpaca Part 1

Just one look in those eyes with their long, long lashes and everyone falls in love with an alpaca. Of course that is right before they spit on you. I have been smitten as well. I do not personally own any alpacas. They have been offered to me, and I have just always said no. Why? I love the fiber. I love the animals. Because it is just the two of us, I didn’t want to add another species that would require a different knowledge base and time schedule to care for.

cute alpacas sternfels-family-photography_alpacas

Alpaca descended from Vicunas that were domesticated by the Inca in ancient Peru. The largest flocks and alpaca fiber mills continue to be in Peru. In the early 80’s, some Americans started to bring alpaca into the states. They became a rage and the value of the animals went sky high, some even attaining the price in the tens of thousands for a single animal. Not all alpaca owners had the knowledge base to work with the fiber in the states. So much of it is being sent back to Peru for processing. In the last few years, some alpaca owners have started their own fiber mills to make yarn from alpaca here in the states.

Vicuna in the Andes
Vicuna in the Andes

There are 2 different types of alpaca. The Huacaya (wa-ki-ah) which is the most numerous has a fine crimpy fiber that is 4-6 inches long. The fiber can be extremely fine or not. It can be highly crimped or not. The crimp is not the same as the crimp of wool. It doesn’t provide memory or the ability to “spring back” into shape. The crimp of alpaca probably does contribute to the overall feeling of softness. The other alpaca type is the Suri, which grows really long straight, silky fiber. It looks a little bit like Cousin It. But there isn’t yet a lot of yarn or spinning fiber yet available commercially made from the Suri, it is a boutique item. The fiber is reallly too long to be put through a mill. So it needs to be cut into shorter bits, like silk does.

alpaca fleece

Huacaya fiber is very strong. It can be very fine as well (18-26 microns). It is a hollow fiber. This hollowness gives it the property of being lightweight but very insulating. The fiber pulls heat from you giving the impression that it is cool when you touch it.  Although it is cool to the touch, alpaca is many times warmer than wool. Like wool, it is water loving and will absorb water and wick it away from your body. There are several grades of alpaca. The saddle area is the prime fleece of an animal. The leg and neck fleece is considered 2nd or 3rds, because it has more diverse staple length and crimp. The fleeces do not have luster, they have a more matte finish.  The fleece comes in 22 different colors from bright white to cinnamon brown and deep, dark black and many different patterns, such as belted and spotted. There is no lanolin on this animal. They do like to take dust baths, though. So you need to wash out the dirt from your fleeces. The fiber itself is very smooth with a low number of scales. It does not felt readily, but will felt with extra agitation.

With all these properties, spinners of alpaca can counteract the lack of elasticity by spinning it in a worsted way. That will give your resulting fabric more structure and less stretching out of shape.  You may want to spin it in a woolen manner. That yarn will be extra insulating and soft.  The resulting fabric will show less stitch definition. Pick a stitch that has more structure if you don’t want your knitting to stretch.

Flying Goat Farm carries superfine alpaca roving to spin or felt. The fiber is an average of 26 microns and will make next-to-the-skin soft yarn.  Each 4ounce portion is $15 plus applicable taxes and shipping.  Click here to see some of our colorways.

oldrosecorr

Tune in next week to learn about alpaca yarn and how to use it.  Do you have alpaca questions? Leave a comment or contact me goatherd@flyinggoatfarm.com and I’ll answer it next week.