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How important is Fiber Quality in Alpacas?

How Important is Fiber Quality in Alpacas?

Author: Ted Chepolis


Ted Chepolis and his wife, Elaine, of Pine Lake Alpacas have been breeding alpacas since 1984. Ted was the Alpaca Editor for Fiberfest Magazine and has written numerous articles regarding alpacas and alpaca shearing. Ted and Elaine are pioneers and leaders in the art of alpaca shearing and fiber preparation. In 1996, they produced the first commercially successful VHS shearing tape, "Step by Step Shearing: for Alpacas and Llamas" and recently completed the 2-disc DVD program, "The Complete Alpaca Shearing Guide: to Better Fleeces and Show Success," now marketed internationally.

We invite you to visit their website to discover more about "The Complete Alpaca Shearing Guide"
http://www.alpacacom.com/dvd/html
. Ted & Elaine will donate $5 of each purchase to benefit alpaca research.

Introduction


This past summer, I had the opportunity to attend a fiber preparation seminar conducted by Cameron Holt, an Australian fiber consultant and registered woolclasser. The seminar had three principal objectives: Educate alpaca owners in current research findings regarding alpaca fiber. Provide an opportunity for attendees to gain hands-on experience in wool grading. Encourage development of industry-wide objectives and standards. I jumped at the chance to learn from a recognized expert in the field of fiber assessment and preparation. It was both refreshing and thought provoking to gain an outsiders (that is outside North America) perspective on north American alpaca practices. Camerons comments - based on years of study and observation - made me realize that, while weve made impressive strides in promoting alpacas, we still have a great deal of work to do in developing alpacas into a viable industry.

Reconstructing the History of Fiber Awareness


Imagine yourself at an alpaca sale, observing potential buyers as they inspect the animals. Youll notice that certain techniques for evaluating the fleece - such as gently spreading the fleece open on the side of the alpaca and peering into this mysterious space - are used by practically everyone. Other interested parties employ more exotic means, such as pulling a few strands of fiber, holding them up to the light with both hands and studying the sample. A few will tentatively stroke the fleece or simply observe the alpacas from a distance.Now focus on the activity of the sellers. They will almost always make some comment about the fleece (typically, its fineness, crimp or length), and possibly point out other desirable traits. You might also be given some information about the alpacas sire and dam, especially if theyre considered notable in some way (for example, having received recognition at an alpaca show).This isnt anything new, right? Wherever alpacas, or any other fiber animals for that matter, are offered for sale we observe these same dynamics. Potential buyers of fiber-bearing stock want to assure themselves that the fleece quality is acceptable. Sellers participate in this process (some more enthusiastically than others) by offering information that will "enlighten" the buyer.Just so long as you look good . . . Unfortunately, fiber evaluation is a deceptively complicated procedure. If youre like most breeders, you have observed how others (especially the designated experts) evaluate alpacas. Before long you, too, begin inspecting fleeces with a "knowing" eye and holding small bits of fiber up to the light. We have succeeded in talking the talk without really knowing what it is were trying to accomplish. Collectively, we have perfected the art of using universal terms of the trade. Crimp, fineness and density have been used with abandon to describe an amazing array of fleece characteristics. No matter, as long as we appear to know what were doing we can maintain our self-styled sense of credibility.Theres been some changes made . . .The practice of "winging it" in our fiber promotion efforts has - almost overnight - lost its credibility. Fiber quality is no longer an art form - a subjective extension of the successful marketer. It has entered the realm of science and measurement, placing our alpacas beneath the critical light of objective assessment. Animals once prized for their (presumed) overall quality have been pushed aside by a new breed of alpaca; these are alpacas capable of consistently producing fine, uniform fleeces. Some of them have been around our farms for years, only to have been recently rediscovered ("You know, now that I think of it, Chilean Mambo may not look like much but he sure throws crias with great fleeces."). Others have recently been imported from South America, the product of a more deliberate selection process and holding out the hope of elevating herd quality.At the same time, there has been an infusion of fiber information into the alpaca community. Recognized experts from all over the globe are beginning to analyze alpaca fiber and document their findings. Alpacas have attained an elevated level of respect, and breeders and buyers alike appear to be taking notice. Success is tied more closely with quality, rather than hype. This indicates were finally on our way to doing things right.

Seminar Highlights


The mere presence of Camerons Fiber Preparation Seminar reinforces this migration toward fiber awareness. The small group attending the course (graciously hosted by Ken and Julie Safley of Hillsboro, Oregon) were uniformly eager to soak up as much information as possible; questions and requests for clarification abounded - signs of a perfectly timed and well received workshop. It would be impossible to convey all the information presented at Camerons seminar. Nevertheless, various concepts and observations were presented that are worth noting:A Case for Industry-Wide ObjectivesCameron Holt believes in carefully conceived industry goals. He emphasized the need to have these goals built around a concensus-derived response to fundamental questions. Approached at a high level, they drive all other actions and decisions made by participants in the industry: 
"Whats the basic purpose of our industry?" 
"What are our long term objectives?" 
"What are the tools and actions required to help us achieve these goals?" 
"How do we know when we have been successful?" Cameron suggested the effort expended in answering these questions will go a long way toward standardization in the alpaca industry. Without them, the strategy of the month approach may evolve into the dabacle of the decade. I believe we are heeding this advice in the alpaca industry. Consider the successful implementation of a blood-typed alpaca registry. This is perhaps the single most important event in our young history. Recent efforts to establish standards for future alpaca importations seek to stabilize growth. And most recently, the proliferation of discussion regarding micron measurement of alpaca fiber appears to be a constructive dialogue that will benefit the industry as a whole (Its interesting to point out that Cameron views micron testing as merely an aid to alpaca selection. But without first establishing industry-wide objectives and standards, micron results provide an incomplete picture).Components of Alpaca Fiber EvaluationIf youve ever tried to differentiate two fleeces side by side, you begin to appreciate the difficulty of defining fiber quality. Cameron provided some insight into this mystery by discussing numerous techniques, characteristics and terms normally associated with fiber assessment. Heres just a few that are of particular relevance to understanding the practice of fiber evaluation:Crimp and Crinkle

Crimp is related to the fibers as they appear in an intact lock. Its measured in waviness per unit of length. The prevailing theory is the greater the crimp, the finer the fleece. Cameron pointed out this isnt always the case, however. Many Peruvian alpacas have recently been examined that have little or no crimp, but very fine fleeces.

Crinkle is the form individual fibers take when the lock is separated. Crinkle is responsible for the elasticity in fleeces. For example, if you gently squeeze a fleece, the amount of "springiness" or resistance you encounter is a result of crinkle. High crimp fleeces have a corresponding high level of crinkle, producing elasticity in the spun yarn. 

Cameron used an amusing (and characteristically Aussie) slang phrase when referring to crinkle. Several times he questioned the group about the amount of springiness we felt in a fleece by asking, "Whats the Dolly?" or "Whats the Arnold?" Seems like the influence of celebrities has no end! 

SP Ratio 

This is the ratio of secondary to primary fibers and determines the density of a fleece. The skin of fiber producing animals is an elaborately constructed network of hair follicles. In general, a primary follicle will be surrounded by a multitude of secondary producing follicles. Fine fibered sheep have an SP ratio of 40 or 50 to 1 (that is, 40 or 50 secondary fibers for every primary fiber). Alpaca SP ratios vary considerably from one animal to another. This may be due in part to the wide variation in the South American camelid genetic pool. 

A high SP ratio is a desirable trait, providing it contributes to defined breeding objectives. There are alpacas that exhibit good density but have coarse (or in Camerons words, strong) fiber. The reverse is also true; some alpacas with loose fleeces will have fine fiber. If our goal as an industry is to select for fine fiber, combining high SP ratios and fineness makes sense. 

Micron Testing

Micron testing is a scientific technique that objectively analyzes the overall quality of a fleece. There are various ways to prepare and evaluate fiber samples, from very labor intensive, microscopic analysis to a high-tech laser scanning method.

Micron testing has been used for years in the textile industry. Its routinely called upon to accurately classify raw fiber prior to processing. More recently, the results of micron analysis have been used as a breeder promotional tool. 

The popular thinking goes something like, "The finer the fleece, the more valuable the animal." As a result, sampling techniques for micron analysis and the ensuing test results may be prone to manipulation or, at least, misrepresentation. 

Cameron posed an interesting question to seminar participants; if we havent established industry objectives (or at the least, individual breeding goals), how do we know whether or not micron results are favorable? North American alpaca breeders have never been reluctant to discuss controversial issues. I suspect the dialoque which is already beginning on this subject will widen.

Blowout Factor

All fibered animals become more coarse as they age, but in varying degrees. Cameron referred to the tendency for fiber to "thicken" over time as the blowout factor. He stated that alpacas can blow out 5 to 10 microns or more over time. This is an important aspect to consider when evaluating micron test results (that is, how old was the alpaca when the fiber sample was taken?).
Breeding animals genetically disposed to retain fineness into adult life are more likely to produce offspring with the same tendency. Conversely, alpacas with a high blowout factor may pass this trait onto their crias. While there are no current standards for measuring blowout, it can be applied as an informal herd management tool.
Color and Fiber Quality

According to Cameron, color and fiber quality are not statistically related. "There are fine whites and there are strong [coarse] whites," Cameron stated. The beauty of this observation is that we need not be restricted to a specific color if our goal is fineness.
Fiber Sampling Techniques

Fleece sampling in preparation for micron testing is a relatively new topic for North American alpaca breeders. Cameron noted that a multitude of variables come into play when assessing fleece quality, with micron analysis being just one of them. 

There are three basic techniques to obtain a fiber sample for micron analysis. To ensure reliable results, the sample should be a minimum of two square inches with the fibers snipped just at skin level:

Mid-site sample

A section of fleece is obtained from a single site on the side of the alpaca. If the fleece is shorn, the sample is collected from a location which approximates the animals side.

Three site sample

Samples are taken from three sites on the side of the alpaca. Samples from a shorn fleece are collected from three random locations. This technique offers little statistical improvement over the mid-site technique.

Grid technique

This technique is used with shorn fleeces and is the most accurate. A grid is placed over the entire fleece and small samples are obtained from each opening.

Conclusions


Regardless of how the alpaca industry evolves, fiber will continue to be a significant issue. Thankfully, we seem to have preserved the alpacas primary function; to produce high quality fiber. The questions will arise in determining the most desirable characteristics of that fiber, and then identifying its ultimate purpose.