A Beginner's Guide to Picking Out a Huacaya Alpaca Fleece
I'm frequently asked what to look for when buying an alpaca fleece to spin. It can be overwhelming to go to a show or festival and see bag after bag of beautiful fleece and not know which one to choose.
So lets get down to the nitty gritty and learn some basic terms fiber producers will throw out there. Just like anything (baseball, soccer, painting, music), there is a lingo to learn. Once you know the terms and understand what they mean, you can know the questions to ask.
First, look for a blanket fleece, also known as a prime fleece. This refers to the part of an alpaca’s coat that extends from the bottom of the neck at the withers along to the tail and down the flanks to the belly and rear legs. A typical blanket fleece weighs about 3 to 4 pounds.
Seconds are the fiber from the legs and neck and are much coarser, and usually shorter. This isn't a bad thing, but the price for this fiber should be much lower than a prime blanket fleece.
You should also know that there are two fiber types of alpaca: Huacaya and Suri. The majority of the fleece you'll find is Huacaya, which is why we'll focus on that type here.
However both fleece types are soft and luxurious. Huacaya fiber is described as full and puffy, while Suri fleece is shiny and hangs in penciled curls described as dreadlocks and looks more hair-like. (In the picture below, the standing alpacas are Huacaya and the sitting alpaca is a Suri.)
Not all fiber is created equal. When looking at a fleece, reach in and feel it. How does it feel to the hand? Is it soft or coarse? Dense or is there a lightness to it? Does it have a shine to it?
Typically, fleece buyers look for the softest fleece they can find. If you're going to be wearing the garment you make close to the skin, softness matters. But if it's going to be made into outerwear, softness isn't as big of an issue. Again, expect to pay less for a coarser fiber.
The official measurement of softness is in microns. The lower the number, the finer the fiber. A micron is equal to one thousandth of a millimeter. For alpacas, the average micron count can range from 15-45 microns. A micron count of 25 or less is what most spinners look for.
Some fleece are considered baby alpaca. It's important to know that baby alpaca fleece does not necessarily come from a baby alpaca (called a cria). Baby alpaca refers to a micron count of 23 or less and is very, very fine, soft fiber. You'll pay top dollar for this type of fleece.
Next, look at the crimp of the fiber.
Crimp is the wave, or bend, in the fiber. The more crimp, the more elasticity and drape the final yarn will have.
Pick up a small section of the fiber. Grab an end in each hand, hold it close to your ear, and give it a gentle tug. You should hear it ping and not tear. If you hear tearing, move on to another fleece.
Take a close look at the tips. Light weathering on the tips is normal. You should be able to pull the tips apart easily with your fingers. If you can't, but still are in love with the fleece, you always have the option of cutting the weathered tips off, but that is a lot of extra work. Know how much time you want to put into your fleece.
The same goes for Vegetable Matter, commonly known as VM. Hay, wood chips, twigs and yes, poop get stuck in alpaca fleece. Some VM is normal and will wash out. Excessive VM will make the fleece hard to skirt and hard to card and leave you with a scratchy yarn.
Look through the fleece for second cuts. Second cuts are small, short pieces of fiber that occur when the shearer backs up with the clippers and leaves small neps and pills. Most second cuts can be picked out when you are skirting your fleece, but the fewer there are, the better.
And finally, look for uniformity in length and softness of the fleece. Fiber should not vary by more than 1-1/2 to 2 inches in length otherwise it will not spin properly.
So with a few of these terms under your belt, you are now ready to go out and buy your first raw alpaca fleece. There is something to be said for picking out your own fleece, washing it, spinning it yourself and maybe even dyeing it. It turns you into a yarn designer and gives you total control over the final product.
And that is kinda cool.
(Note: all pictures in this post are from That'll Do Farm in Grafton, Ohio. We proudly source our alpaca fiber from this small, family run farm.)