Two knitters were going on a road trip…

One turns to the other and says

“Alpaca the yarn!”

Last week, we learned about the ins and outs of harvesting sheep’s wool and making it into yarn.  This week, we’re going to take a look at another wool-producing animal, the alpaca.

A South American camelid, the alpaca is likely the product of cross-breeding between the vicuna and a type of wild llama.  While llamas make excellent pack animals, the alpaca is smaller and has been domesticated for the past 6,000 years primarily because of its fleece.

These leggy, long-lashed lovelies are raised for their soft, luxurious fleece, known for its warmth, density, and soft feel.  Alpaca wool, especially the finer, possibly hypo-allergenic grades known as “Baby Alpaca,” has a strong following from knitters, crocheters, and fashion designers, with the premium prices that come with high demand.  There are actually two types of alpaca: the Huacaya and the Suri.  The Huacaya has a springy, tightly wavy coat, while the Suri, a rarer type, has a fleece that hangs in straight, twisted locks.

Huacaya alpaca voguing

Suri alpacas looking super chill.

During the reign of the Inca Empire, both Huacaya and Suri alpacas were being bred for deluxe fleeces to make garments for the Incan nobles.  Then these total nutjobs called conquistadores showed up.  In addition to pillaging, enslaving, and introducing smallpox to the Incan population, the Spanish also laid waste to the selective alpaca breeding programs, slaughtering the herds for food and replacing the alpacas with sheep and cattle.

Thanks, Pizarro.

The alpacas survived, but the breeding was reduced to concerns of quantity, in attempts to maximize food and fiber.  Fast forward a few centuries, and by the 1950s, South American breeders had a new interest in reviving the sophisticated breeding that produced premium fleeces.

Since then, the alpaca has spread throughout the world with the growing interest in its potential.  Australia and the United States have built up thriving alpaca herds, and alpacas have shipped out to places as diverse as New Zealand, Japan, South Africa, Spain, Italy, France, and others.  These countries have a long history of agricultural breeding in their own rights, and have done much to improve the alpaca’s fleece production in terms of quality.

So what’s it like to actually raise alpacas and use their fleece?  Once a year, farmers shear their alpacas to keep them cool in the summer, and each shearing yields between five and ten pounds of fleece per animal.  Because alpacas have a strong herd instinct, it’s best to have more than one (twist my arm, geez…)  The fleece, frequently likened to cashmere, is stronger, lighter, warmer, and more resilient than most sheep wool, and contains no lanolin.  That means it comes off the animal almost ready for spinning; alpaca wool doesn’t require the extent of cleaning we discussed last week.

When it’s all squeaky clean, alpaca fleece’s true colors shine through, ranging from white to black in 16 official hues including beige, brown, grey, and shades of fawn.  The lighter colored fleece can be dyed, and alpaca fleece can be combined with other quality fibers like merino wool, cashmere, silk, and angora.

Life’s not all silky coats and peaceful crocheting with these animals.  About ten years ago, the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association launched a marketing campaign to encourage North American alpaca breeding to produce superior fleece.  Their ads showed alpacas as excellent investment opportunities, even for those with no farming experience.

A decade – and one brutal recession – later, and alpaca prices have plunged, with herds being sold, killed, or forcibly removed due to neglect.  The price drop is the latest livestock bubble burst, after drops in prices for exotic animals like emus, Berkshire hogs, ostriches, and llamas.

While the economics of the situation can mean tragedy for some alpacas, it also means the time is right to invest in an alpaca farm, provided it’s something you do responsibly, with proper expectations, and a commitment to raising your alpacas right.

And if you do decided to farm some alpacas, be sure to pay us a visit, and don’t forget to ‘paca the yarn!



Yarn from Sheep to Knits

I would like to begin with a story. The story of Shrek the sheep. This wooly feller fled shearing for six years, until he finally came forward to have his glorious coat shorn. The reason why Shrek grew such a fleece in the first place goes back to the Neolithic age, when humans started wearing animal pelts for clothing. They began breeding herds of wool-bearing animals, especially sheep, whose wool was recognized as the most practical. By the 12th century, a wool trade had developed, with the English raising the sheep and the Flemish processing the raw material. Today, wool is sourced and processed all over the world, and the annual global output is estimated at 5.5 billion pounds of wool.

Wool is considered a “protein fiber,” and sheep aren’t the only animals that produce it. Camels, goats, and rabbits also technically produce keratin fibers that can be called wool, but more on that at a later date. Today we’re focusing on the world of sheep’s wool.

Sheep are sheared once a year, typically in the spring, just before sheep have their lambs, so that the shorn ewes will be more likely to seek shelter in rough weather, thus protecting their newborn lambs. Experienced shearers can collect wool from 200 sheep a day. Most sheep are still sheared by hand, although a robot has been developed to do the job as well. Kids these days.

The shorn wool coat, or fleece, is also called “grease wool” because of the oil and lanolin in the wool. It also contains sand, dirt, vegetable matter, manure, and dried sweat, or suint. As much as 50% of the fleece’s total weight might come from all this non-wool nonsense. The wool from the legs and belly of the sheep can actually be too full of maure to use, so these tag ends are removed in a process called skirting.

Then, the fleece is scoured with water, soap, and soda ash, and rolled to squeeze out excess water. Next, the wool is often treated with oil to make it more manageable, and sent to be carded. This process passes the fibers through metal teeth to straighten them. Carded wool meant for worsted yarn goes through the processes of gilling and combing to remove short fibers and line up longer fibers parallel to each other. Sleeker slivers are thinned through a process called drawing. The short fibers separated from the long wool during combing are known as noils, and are reused in other products.

Carded wool that is used for woolen yarn goes straight to spinning, where a thread is formed by spinning the fibers together. Yarn is made up of twisted strands of fiber, which are twisted together in the opposite direction to form thicker yarn – hence single-ply yarn. Spinning for woolen yarn happens on a mule spinning machine, while worsted yarns are spun on a variety of spinning machines. Next, the yarn gets wrapped around bobbins, cones, or commercial drums, and from there, it gets dyed and made into what your little heart desires!


Meet Your Maker

We all love yarn.  Let’s face it.  

But how often do we actually think about where it came from?  And I don’t mean Knitty City or The Yarn Co., I mean the actual process of making yarn.  Some GYI! members have dyed their own yarn, even spun it themselves.  Personally, everything I know about the making of yarn comes from this awesome book that introduced me to the world of fiber arts – I still have it if anyone wants to borrow.  So in this series, I’m going to be doing a little research into the origins of yarn, from the sheep to the shop.  Check back for the first post, all about the farming of the fiber.