Authored by: Linda Bat, Delphi
This article is
intended to provide an overview of fleece terminology for new
alpaca breeders, in order to help them in selecting alpacas for
There are no
perfect alpacas. There is great room for improvement in
all of our herds, and we can watch it happen before our eyes in
our very own pastures, when we make good breeding choices.
Once you learn to judge alpaca conformation and fleece, you'll
see that not even blue ribbon winners are perfect.
Learning to evaluate fleece will help you to make the best
breeding choices for your alpacas.
Fleece is the primary end product of the alpaca. These
animals are not just another exotic pet fad - they are producers
of some of the most wonderful fiber available on the planet.
American alpaca shows currently judge alpacas based 50% upon
their fiber, and 50% upon their conformation (bone structure,
movement, balance - etc.). Other countries, such as Peru,
place a higher emphasis on the fleece when judging alpacas.
Fiber characteristics and qualities vary tremendously among
alpacas. First we can divide alpacas into two breeds,
huacaya and suri. Huacaya fleece is usually crimpy, and
grows out perpendicularly from the alpaca's body, giving
huacayas that “poofy” look. Suri fleece has a long and
silky look, hanging straight down from where it grows on the
alpaca's body. Suri and huacaya fleeces each have
desirable characteristics making them highly sought after for
different uses in the textile industry.
We can divide fleece characteristics into quantitative and
Density refers to the # of hair follicles per area of skin.
This is the most important quantitative fleece characteristic.
Density can be judged in several ways. By parting the
fleece and determining how much skin can be seen at the roots,
you can get a visual idea of how tightly packed the fiber
follicles are on the skin. A very dense fleece will show a
very thin line of skin when parted. The resistance the
fleece offers when parting it also reflects density.
Pressing down on the alpacas back and feeling for resistance is
another method - a very dense fleece will make it more difficult
to feel the alpaca's back bone. Simply grabbing the side of the
alpaca and feeling how much fleece fills your hand can also help
judge the density of that alpaca's fleece. These methods
can be misleading, however, as coarse fibers will tend to
“fill up your hand” more than fine fibers, and coarse fibers
also offer more resistance than finer fibers. Thus a fine
fibered alpaca might, in comparison, feel less dense, while the
actual number of fibers per area of skin (true density) is not
the issue. I suggest evaluating the fineness of the fleece
separately, and taking that assessment into consideration when
determining fleece density.
This alpaca exhibits a very thin line of skin as the fiber is
separated, indicating a dense fleece. This fleece also
offered a good deal of resistance when parted.
Regrowth or Staple Length
Regrowth or Staple Length refers to the actual length of fiber
produced in a given amount of time. This is also a very
important quality, as length and density are the primary factors
impacting the total fleece weight of an alpaca. The fiber
industry pays for fleece by weight, and the total weight of a
fleece shorn from an individual alpaca can vary from as little
as two pounds to more than twelve pounds. Judging regrowth
relies on accurate shearing dates being provided. It is
expected that most alpacas will produce less fiber as they age,
and this occurs most notably in producing (reproductive)
to the parts of the alpacas body that are covered with fiber.
The alpaca fleece is divided into the blanket (the prime fiber),
and the neck, belly, and legs, which are generally much higher
in medullated fiber and therefore more coarse. If the
neck, belly and legs have little medullation, and have good
coverage with usable fiber, this would add to the total
fleece weight that the alpaca produces. The blanket fiber
is, however, the fiber that the market is willing to pay premium
prices for, and as such should be of primary importance when
selecting breeding stock.
Fineness is a
very important characteristic of a good quality fleece.
The finer the fleece, the softer the feel, and the higher the
price that will be paid for that fleece. Fineness can be
measured in microns, which allows new breeders to have concrete
figures by which to assess an alpaca’s fleece. This can
be very helpful, as well as sometimes very misleading.
The figure which indicates the fineness of the fleece is the
average fiber diameter - or the AFD figure found on a histogram
report. Histograms are fiber analysis reports provided by
the Yocom-McColl Testing Laboratory. The lower the AFD
number, the finer the fiber. Many things can affect the
AFD of a fleece. Age is one factor. The AFD is thought to
often increase an average of 2 points a year until an alpaca
reaches 4 to 5 years of age. Diet can significantly affect
the AFD, as well as hormonal influences such as pregnancy or
testosterone in breeding males. Males are thought to have
coarser fiber in general. Gelded males tend to remain
finer fibered than breeding males. The location on the
body that the fiber was taken from can also impact the AFD
results significantly. As a rule, fiber samples should be
taken from the middle of the side of the alpaca.
If you rely too heavily on the micron figure provided when
selecting your alpacas, you may be disappointed to later find
that the micron count you based your purchase upon was
artificially decreased by malnourishment, immaturity, or poor
sampling technique. If you can obtain legitimate micron
counts on the parents of your selection at adult shearings, this
can help to estimate the probability of change you can expect
with the offspring, but its just an indicator - offspring can
vary greatly from their parents.
Histograms are most valuable for learning to assess fiber by
touch, and for monitoring the fleece quality in your own herd
from year to year. One method I recommend for learning to
judge fleece by hand, is to compare the samples you send out for
testing with samples of fleeces you already have histograms
from. Make your guesses as to what you think the results
will be on the new samples. Then analyze those results to
learn what factors can influence the subjective feel of a
fleece. You might discover that a very tightly crimped
fleece may actually feel coarser than it really is, in
comparison to a loose fine fleece. Or you might let the
tight crimp influence you into believing that the fleece must be
fine, only to realize that in that case it was actually quite
coarse. Eventually you’ll be able to assess fleece
fineness quite accurately, as well as learning to identify which
fleeces are more uniform (see Handle).
Luster is the
shine produced when light is reflected back off of the fiber.
Suri fiber is thought to have more luster, because of the
microscopic fiber structure. While luster (or brightness)
is desirable in huacaya fleeces, it is of primary importance
when selecting for suri fleece.
photo below for example.)
Crimp refers to the waves or ripples in a group of fibers.
Crimpier fiber is thought to have a tendency to be finer and
denser, though there are many exceptions. It also tends to
be easier to spin, providing more loft to the fiber. Some
breeders feel that in and of itself, crimp is not a necessary
component of huacaya fleece relevant to its end product use.
There is even some mention that crimp may detract from the
handle of a fleece. However, the association of consistent
crimp with finer, denser, and more uniform fleeces has resulted
in crimp remaining an important quality when judging fleeces.
If the crimp style is consistent throughout the blanket, this
indicates that the blanket is uniform.
From left to right these 3 samples have 4.5 crimps/inch; 6
crimps/inch; and 8 crimps/inch. Though higher crimps per
inch may often indicate finer fiber, in this case the AFD's of
these samples are 21; 26 and 28, respectively, (the exact
opposite of what one might expect).
Crimp can be described as having a high or low frequency (crimps
per inch) or as having high or low amplitude, which is best
described as the height of each wave of crimp. The style
of crimp tends to be less important than the uniformity of the
crimp throughout the fleece. However, some breeders prefer
a high frequency crimp, as this used to be used as an indicator
of a fine fleece. While that tendency may exist, there are
many exceptions to that rule. Crimp is considered a fault
Lock Structure refers to the tendency for a fleece to separate
into cylindrical groups. In huacayas, lock formation is
less evident than with suris. It is usually more
pronounced in denser more uniform fleeces.
In suris, lock style refers to the twist or wave the fleece
exhibits. Small, uniform ringlets or waves with twist
starting very close to the skin is currently judged as the most
desirable style. Larger waves with the lock definition
less well defined, or starting further from the skin, is less
desirable. The locks of a suri should ideally be uniform
in size and style throughout the entire suri fleece. This
indicates uniformity in a suri fleece, much as consistent crimp
style indicates uniformity in a huacaya.
Hair or Medullated Fibers
Guard Hair or Medullated Fibers are the coarser, straighter (and
therefore longer) hairs found especially on the neck, belly and
legs. Alpacas in general have little guard hair on their
blankets, but this varies with individuals, and we should breed
for decreasing amounts of guard hair in our herds. On a
histogram, the % of fibers > 30 microns in diameter is
thought to be related to the amount of guard hair present in the
blanket, but this is not always reliable. The % > 30
figure is also referred to as an indicator of the prickle factor
of a fleece, as fibers greater than 30 microns in diameter tend
to make a garment feel prickly.
An example of guard hair. Note the long dark guard hairs
extending from the top of this lock of fiber. This alpaca
has a significant amount of guard hair present for a blanket
Picture Right: An example of luster and locks. This
section of huacaya fleece exhibits a tendency to form locks of
fiber. It also shows nice luster at the clean base of the
Hand (or Handle)
Hand is the
subjective feel of a fleece - often thought to be associated
with the uniformity of the diameter of each fiber in the
fleece, combined with its fineness, or AFD.
Lustrous suri fiber also tends to have a slicker feel and handle
due to the microscopic structure of the fibers, which
also influences handle.
Uniformity can be assessed on the histogram reports with the
Standard Deviation and Coefficient of Variation figures.
The standard deviation (or SD) figure represents the range of
individual fiber diameters, or the degree of deviation of all of
the individual fibers from the average. For example, if
the AFD is 25 microns, the SD will be low if most of the fibers
in that sample are close to 25 microns in diameter. If, on
the other hand, the fibers in a sample (with the same average
diameter of 25 microns) broadly ranged from 15 to 35 microns,
the SD will be higher. The more uniform the fleece, the
lower the SD figure will be, and the softer the handle of the
The Coefficient of Variation (CV) is the SD divided by the AFD X
100 and reported as a percentage. This is simply a figure
used to compare the uniformity of fleeces with varying AFD’s.
To get an overview of color in American alpacas, you need to
consider a bit of history. Peru didn’t allow the
exportation of alpacas until 1991. Chilean alpacas were
the first alpacas to be imported into the U.S. They were
of all colors, including grays, blacks, browns, fawns, pintos,
whites, and more.
The first Peruvian alpacas arrived in the U.S. in 1993.
They were primarily white, with a few fawns, as many Peruvians
had been selectively breeding alpacas for the white color
preferred by the larger fiber mills. Many of the Peruvians
imported were selected from cooperatives that had also practiced
superior selective breeding for fleece quality. As a
result, Peruvian alpacas are often generalized as having
improved fleece, when compared to the earlier Chilean imports.
However, not all alpacas imported from Peru are from these
select cooperatives; the borders between Chile, Peru, and
Bolivia are apparently not hard for alpacas to cross; and there
are many examples of superior alpaca fleeces found among what we
think of as Chilean and Bolivian alpacas here in the U.S.
In the last few importations (before the Alpaca Registry
closed), darker colored Peruvian alpacas were imported,
reflecting the American demand for color. These alpacas
also may or may not have been the result of the improved
selective breeding practices that Americans often associate with
Peruvian alpacas. To focus only on a certain country of
origin, in my opinion, colors one’s expectations, and
unnecessarily limits the alpacas available for selection.
In the United States, hand spinners often prefer working with
natural alpaca colors such as gray, fawn and maroon. The
larger textile companies have shown a preference for white,
though they have also paid premium prices for black. As a
new breeder, the variety of colors that alpacas offer gives you
another opportunity to establish your niche in the alpaca
AOBA FLEECE JUDGING
Currently, AOBA fleece judges base their decisions on the
following score cards:
These score cards might help you prioritize some of the
characteristics we’ve gone over. For instance - while
fineness and handle are important, the fleece weight, which
reflects density and length, is given an equal maximum score.
Few if any alpacas today could achieve the maximum score of 100
in a well judged fleece show. Your personal breeding
program may elect to emphasize some of these characteristics
more than others. You may want to be known as the alpaca
farm with the crimpiest alpacas, or the densest! Each farm
has diverse goals for their herds, helping to secure their niche
in the alpaca market.
Numerous conversations with Judges and experienced
Mike Safley’s Alpacas: Synthesis of a miracle
Yocom McColl’s explanation of Histograms
(no actual quotes were included)
About the Author:
At Delphi Alpacas, we have been raising alpacas
in Colorado since 1993. We specialize in helping new
owners select the right alpacas for their goals and for their
budgets. With over 10 years in the Veterinary Technology
field as well, we have a lot to offer new breeders that are
learning about alpacas, and are happy to share our experiences.
Our goals include producing
unusual colored fleeces that will approach that perfect score of
100. We have carefully selected each of our alpacas based
on the qualities they offer that will help us to eventually
reach all of our goals.
See our web
site on AlpacaNation and also visit our web site www.delphialpacas.com
to learn more about us.
Linda Bat/Delphi Alpacas 2002