Alpaca Fleece Quality
Here is an article that I wrote at the request of the Virginia Alpaca Breeders Association for their newsletter. Warning! This article is not politically correct as far as the prevailing view in the alpaca show industry.
"Got Fleece Buyers?"
Kate Perez wearing her hand spun alpaca vest
Most of the articles that I write about fleece are aimed at educating new breeders. There are times, however, when I feel that it is the more established breeders who should be having serious discussions about their fleeces and what they plan to do with them. If I had one main complaint to make about our alpaca industry it would be that we all keep selling "luxury fiber producing" animals but don't seem to have enough interest in what to do with that luxury fiber.
By now most of us have received our Winter, 2006 copy of Alpacas magazine and we have seen all the photos of beautiful alpaca clothing inside. How many of us wondered how much of that clothing came from fleeces produced here in the U.S.? I loved seeing the beautiful designs as much as anyone but I couldn't help noticing that the majority of the producers featured in the magazine are importing their products from Peru. I have no problem with imported clothing but I do want to know, will there ever be an issue of Alpacas Magazine featuring garments made using alpaca fleeces grown in the U.S.? While our breed organization and magazine works to increase demand for the Peruvian product, where is their interest in creating demand for the product that we are growing here in the U.S.?
I know that not everyone wants to be a hand spinner, knitter, felter or weaver but shouldn't we at least be using our own product? Sure, it's cheaper to buy a sweater from Peru than to pay someone to make you a sweater from one of your own animals but shouldn't we know just a little bit about what kind of product we, ourselves, are producing? Shouldn't we know HOW it is used and processed and how it compares to the products of other producers? I can't imagine buying dairy breeding cows from someone who has never tasted their milk and doesn't even sell it to anyone else to use. This person has no way to know if his product is useable much less of good quality, yet, many alpaca breeders never use their own fleeces much less wear them in the form of a garment.
Many of us like to go into the show ring and have a judge tell us whether our animal’s fleeces are great, need improvement, etc. but the show ring is just one indication of the quality of the fleece and only useful when the judge is truly knowledgeable. Most AOBA judges are not hand spinners or other types of fiber artists. They judge on a very narrow set of criteria and they are not immune to the subtle pressure of fads and politics. One of these fads is the current emphasis by some judges on "coverage." Is anyone using the fleece on the faces or lower legs of their alpacas? Doesn't this "coverage" make it hard for some alpacas to see and certainly makes shearing more difficult. Most sheep breeders consider "wool blindness" a grave problem that should be bred OUT of their stock. In our industry we are seeing animals rewarded in the show ring for this same trait.
No, I don't hate AOBA or its judges. They have a useful place in our business. However, I think that we, producers, should weigh show ring considerations against more practical considerations in order to produce the fleeces that are most desirable to our buyers. But, in order to let the marketplace decide what fleece qualities are desirable, first we need to establish a marketplace for the U.S.-grown product.
For this endeavor, we need actual knowledge of the processing of fleece and creating of useful garments from fleece. I don't pretend to know everything about fleece but here are some things that I have learned:
Super fine often equals super dirty.
I see many alpaca breeders trying for lower and lower micron counts in their breeding program but I know from experience that super fine fleeces are VERY difficult to get clean and prone to partial felting or cotting. If a 20 micron fleece feels plenty soft to almost all fleece buyers, and it's easier to clean and process, why breed for a micron count of 17 or 14?
Crimp versus Color
To many hand spinners, crimp is crimp and they don't care if it is super well-defined or a little fuzzier and disorganized as long as it's fairly uniform. In the latests version of his famious, "The Alpaca Book", Eric Hoffman has presented new scientifically gathered data to show that many of the fleeces labeled "disorganized" by judges are turning out to have higher curvature (or crimp) than the type the judges prefer. A new light bouncing histogram technique shows some of these fleeces actually have crimp that is too high frequency to be measured by the human eye. This interested me because I had an alpaca whose fleece spun up to be so bouncy and a sweater I knitted from this seemingly disorganized fleece turned out to be the best fitting alpaca sweater I own. It didn't look as crimpy as it "acted." One more reason to judge our "product" by using it.
In the show ring or fleece show, there is a lot of emphasis on producing fleeces with very well-defined crimp and a lot of meaningless arguments about whether it is preferable to have low amplitude crimp or high amplitude crimp. Some judges even claim that low amplitude crimp is a sign of fineness. Color would be a much more compelling factor to most buyers. And, there are many buyers who don't even want crimp because they are planning to spin a worsted* type yarn and use it for a drapey garment instead of a woolen-type one. That buyer would find crimp to be a non-desirable trait. Here's a thought: We don't all have to try to breed the exact same fleece as one another. If you have an alpaca with super fineness, great length and gorgeous color but the fleece is flat, sell that fleece to someone who wants to make a worsted garment.
Brightness in a Huacaya fleece is not as thrilling as you think.
While judges love "brightness" and there is even a special championship ribbon in most fleece shows for best brightness in the Huacaya fleeces, most fleece buyers don't care about it at all. I have never heard any buyer or hand spinner bring up the topic of brightness when talking about Huacaya alpaca fleece. I do think luster, brightness, sheen, or whatever name you want to use, matters if we are talking about Suri fleeces, mohair fleeces and silk caps, to name a few examples, but that is because all of those should be spun worsted rather than woolen and worsted yarns are supposed to be shiny. The above mentioned types of fiber are also valued for their ability to take dye well so as to create bright colors. There is a practical reason why these types of fiber should be bright but does that mean that every fleece should be bright? Maybe we need a fleece show ribbon for most appealing color because unusual, natural colors are very appealing to buyers.
Length matters a lot in fleece processing.
Length is not treated as very important in the show ring or fleece show as long as the fleece meets the minimum length required for the show, but it is super important to buyers. Short fleeces (less than 3 inches) are too challenging for many inexperienced spinners but long fleeces (5 inches or longer) can be just as hard to spin. Buyers should be asked about their experience and comfort level in this matter and the proper advice should be given. Short fleeces require the spinner to hold their hands closer together while spinning. Longer fleeces are very desirable to experienced spinners because less ends per inch means less "prickle factor" in the finished yarn. But, spinners who find long fleeces difficult to work with can be advised to try the "spinning from the fold" method to get better control. This method is discussed in many spinning books and videos but basically, it means that the spinner folds the lock over their index finger and spins the lock from the middle instead of the end.
I have gone to farmer's markets and seen that most of the food producers are full of advice on how to use their products. Many of them give out recipes and/or instructions on proper refrigeration and storage of their produce. There is no reason that fleece sellers could not give out a piece of paper offering their buyers tips on processing, spinning, washing and using their fleeces.
Above are just 4 examples of fleece qualities that may be desirable in the show but not the sale or vice versa. There are many more. I think that it is time for all of us to start thinking about what type of fleece buyers we want to attract and what fleece qualities those buyers truly want. I believe in the quality and uniqueness of my alpacas' fleeces. I spin, knit and wear garments from my own animals and I want to get their fleeces out there for others to use and enjoy as well. I'll take an ecstatically happy fleece buyer over a show ribbon any day. I have had the privilege of learning quite a bit from the expertise of some of my own fleece buyers. When these very knowledgeable customers come back to me year after year to buy their fleeces, that's the proof that I am producing winners.
*Worsted yarns are made from fleeces that are combed rather than carded and then spun in such a way as to squeeze air out and make a shiny, compressed yarn with little fuzziness. A wool suit would be made from a worsted yarn while a cabled, crew neck sweater would usually be made from a woolen yarn.