Shearing serves many purposes. Shearing makes breeding easier for the male and female. Crias (baby alpacas) appreciate the effort, which allows them to more easily find mom’s milk. The medulated (hollow core) fiber of alpaca helps to keep warm in winter and cool in summer. Just imagine, however, wearing a five pound alpaca coat in mid-summer. Heat stress can be an issue; and in order to avoid it, our Animal Care staff make sure they spend the hottest part of the year with as little as a one inch layer of fiber.
We shear our alpacas biannually (every year). This allows them to grow enough fiber back to keep them warm by the winter. On average we shear anywhere from 10 to 20 pounds of fiber from a single alpaca, depending on the age, density and length of time since the last shearing.
The prime fleece, on the back of the alpaca, is called the blanket. This is the finest fiber. If used in a garment, it will be used in a location which will most likely touch the skin. Leg, neck and belly fiber is coarser and is often used for other items such as blankets.
Alpaca Fiber & Uses
Alpacas were treasured by the Incas. In fact, their fiber was once reserved for royalty. It is a luxury fiber that is known for its fineness and “hand”. It feels wonderfully soft and warm. Alpaca fiber comes in many natural colors from pure white to fawn, brown, gray, and pure black with various shades in between.
Alpaca can be blended with other fiber, and it can also be dyed any color you can imagine. Alpaca fiber has good thermal properties. This is the result of two characteristics. First, alpaca fiber is hollow, which helps with insulation. Second, the fiber crimp gives a bulkiness in the yarn. This bulkiness prevents the fibers from packing too closely together. Consequently air is trapped in the garment, providing further insulation.
How do people use this exotic fiber of the alpaca? After shearing, alpaca farms sort it and then send it to a fiber processing mill where the fiber is cleaned, carded and made into roving and/or yarn. Sometimes, these farms also spin some of the fiber themselves and knit it into sweaters, or felt it into hats. Alpaca fiber can also be purchased as raw fleece, or as roving or yarn. For further information contact Alpaca Fiber Cooperative of North America.
How many ounces of fiber will one alpaca produce?
An adult alpaca might produce 50 to 90 oz. of first-quality fiber as well as 50 to 100 oz. of second and third quality fiber. Some alpacas already achieve, or exceed, these levels.
Who buys the fiber?
Alpaca fiber is sold several ways. Hand-spinners and fiber artists buy raw fleece. Knitters often purchase alpaca yarn. Fiber Cooperative Mills collect alpaca fiber and process it on behalf of the producer.
What is an ounce of fiber worth?
This varies. In its raw state, an ounce of alpaca fiber varies from $2 to $5. Each stage of the process (cleaning, carding, spinning, knitting, finishing, etc) adds more value to the fiber. As a finished garment, it can sell for $10 per ounce. Hand knit goods are more desirable and have sold for $1,000, in some cases.
To shear an alpaca, you must first understand the tools, in this case power shears, combs and cutters. This will help to ensure the safety of your alpacas and yourself.
Power shears have three basic parts – the hand piece, the comb and the cutters. Commercial sheep shears, having a powerful electric motor attached to the ceiling (see photo at left), are not recommended for alpaca shearing. Due to their size, alpacas are not easy to manipulate, and a stationary motor attached to the hand piece by a down shaft requires that you bring the alpaca to the shears.
Portable electric shears have the motor inside the handle of the hand piece. There are a number of models available, but it is important that you purchase a heavy duty, commercial model. To base your purchase on cost alone is false economy. Alpaca fleece is relatively dense, and alpacas are large. Inferior shears will wear out quickly. Expect to pay $250-500 for a good set of electric shears.
The comb attaches to the nose of the hand piece by two screws, which allows you to adjust its position. The flat, ground side faces up, away from the alpaca. The purpose of the comb is to enter and separate the fiber on the alpaca, while providing the surface against which the cutters cut. Combs come in a variety of configurations – 9 tooth, 13 tooth, goat combs, sheep combs, etc. Each offers its own pros and cons. Combs generally cost $15-35 each. One comb will shear 2 or 3 clean alpacas before it dulls.
More teeth on a comb generally mean a cut closer to the skin. At first, this may seem contrary to logic, but visualizing how the shears work will make it clear. As the cutter moves across the surface of the comb it comes in contact with the fleece. The fleece is pulled up into the mechanism before it is actually cut. (Anyone who has ever used an electric razor has experienced this “pulling,” especially if the razor had dull blades.) Fewer teeth on a comb mean that more of the fleece is further away from the cutting edges of the comb and cutters, thus leaving more fiber on the alpaca. The number of teeth have little influence on the safety of the comb. (We will discuss injury from shears later.)
Goat combs are made with their teeth lying parallel to each other, and have a convex, or prow shaped, profile. They tend to separate the fleece as they enter it, much like a boat moving through water. They can lend themselves to second cuts because they do not do a good job of gathering the fleece at their edges. They are, however, easier to maneuver around angular body areas (knees, hips, etc). Shearing with goat combs takes longer because the shearer must be sure to overlap each stroke (blow) in order to remove the entire fleece.
Sheep combs have teeth that are flayed away from each other and have a concave profile. They are made in both left and right hand models. A sheep comb gathers the fleece as it moves through it, and is therefore significantly more efficient. However, they can be difficult to use on angular body areas, or in areas where there is a lot of loose skin.
Cutters generally have 4 points, triangular protrusions, and attach to the hand piece by way of four “fingers” that press them firmly against the comb. Cutters are the first thing to dull, and you will probably want about 3 cutters for every comb. Changing cutters is quick, and it ensures a sharp tool. Remember, dull tools are dangerous tools. Cutters cost $10-15. You will usually need to change cutters after every alpaca.
The ground surface of combs and cutters appears flat. Actually, they are ground with a slightly concave face. This is so that the tension applied to them by the hand piece forces them into perfect alignment. If they were flat, the tension of the hand piece would force the center down and the edges would tend to separate. This is why it is important to have combs and cutters ground by a professional that has the proper equipment. (Sharpening equipment runs $500-1200.) Keep your equipment sharp for the safety and comfort of your animals and yourself.