by Terry Miller
On our farm in northern Vermont, we raise breeding quality huacaya alpacas. In addition to breeding, showing and selling alpacas, we offer shearing services and have a yarn shop at the farm. My husband, Ron is the shearer, but most other fiber tasks are my area of expertise.
Producing a quality alpaca fleece starts when we select an alpaca. We look for an alpaca with fleece that is fine, uniform and dense with a long staple and high frequency, high amplitude crimp. That’s our ideal. Each alpaca has flaws and through breeding, we try to improve upon those shortcomings.
To produce a fleece that’s suitable for show or for processing into roving or yarn, there’s actually very little we have to do on a day-to-day basis. Nutrition greatly affects fiber; fat alpacas tend to have coarser fiber. But being overweight causes other problems, too, so it’s something we try to avoid. We weigh and body score our alpacas regularly in an effort to maintain optimum body condition for reproduction and growth as well as fiber. Alpacas are not generally brushed or groomed. Their dense coats protects them from dirt and the elements. Opening it up by brushing will simply allow dirt to penetrate deeper into the fleece. “Groom your pastures, not your alpacas” is the phrase you will generally hear from alpaca owners. Alpacas love to roll. We try to keep our barns and pastures free from materials that might contaminate our alpacas’ fleece.
Alpacas must be shorn annually to avoid health problems caused by overheating and to harvest the fleece at its best. On our farm, we shear in late April/early May. We do our own shearing and my husband shears for many other farms. There’s quite a bit I do to prepare for shearing day that helps make the process run smoothly and helps us harvest the fiber in a more efficient and organized manner.
First, I gather my supplies. I need to have everything set up before we start; the shearer doesn’t like to stop because I ran out of bags or need to decide which alpaca to shear next. You’ll often hear that fleece should be skirted at the time of shearing. Sorry – that doesn’t work for me! I take much too long to skirt a fleece (yes, I’m too picky) and there’s not enough time while shearing. So my fleeces will be stored until I have time to skirt them at a later date. The supplies I need to have on hand are: one large piece of cardboard or foam core, one 48″ wide roll kraft paper, clear trash bags, magic markers and packing tape.
The next thing I do is set up the shearing area to accommodate my fiber needs. I have several large skirting tables that are made from plastic chicken wire on wood frames and set on tall saw horses. I set up one table near the shearing area. This is where I will deposit the blankets and roll them in paper. I place my roll of paper on the table and cut enough 4′ x 6′ sheets to accommodate my needs for a day of shearing. I will need two sheets for each alpaca. The other skirting tables are set up in a part of the barn that will temporarily be used to store fiber. Within a few days of shearing, I will move all the fiber to our old barn that I use for a fiber skirting/storage area.
We want the alpacas to be dry for shearing, so if the foreacast calls for wet weather, we keep the alpacas in the barn.
On shearing day, we usually have enough help that I can concentrate on gathering the fleeces and not have to help with holding the alpacas. We use a table for shearing. The alpacas lie on their sides and are restrained. One side is shorn and the alpaca is turned over while on the table and the other side is shorn. So we will be taking the blanket off in two pieces – one piece for each side. The blanket is the fiber from the torso of the alpaca – this is the best fiber. The neck fiber is usually a bit shorter and the leg and belly fiber is usually a bit coarser, though both differ from alpaca to alpaca.
Just prior to putting the alpaca on the table, we pick any surface debris off the alpaca’s fleece. The cleaner the alpaca, the cleaner the end fiber product.
Once an alpaca is on the table, I stand at the back of the alpaca and slide my cardboard just under the back. As the shearer starts at the belly and works his way towards the spine, I let the blanket roll off onto the cardboard. When that side of the blanket is off, I rush it over to the table where I have my sheets of paper, slide the fleece off the cardboard and onto the paper, roll up the paper, seal it with tape and write the name of the alpaca and date on the roll. The rolls are then piled up on the other tables.
While I do this, the shearer has not stopped. So I rush back and gather up the rest of the fiber from that side of the alpaca and separate it into various bags. I sort by feel and sight. All short, very coarse or very dirty fiber is thrown into one large “junk” bag. Good fiber – fine enough for spinning and at least 2″ in length – goes into the “seconds” bag of the appropriate color. Coarser fiber appropriate for felting is saved as “thirds” and is separated by color. When one side of the alpaca is shorn, the animal is turned over and we repeat the process for the other side.
We try to shear alpacas from light to dark to minimize color contamination. We also use a compressor to blow the table and shearing area clean of fiber between animals.
If the weather is wet or the alpacas are hot, the fleeces will be damp. Rolling the blankets in kraft paper is an excellent way to let the fleeces breathe while stored. I’m also careful not to close any of the bags of fiber too tightly.
We have an old barn that we no longer use for alpacas where I skirt and store fleeces. It has south facing windows and I have a couple of drop lights over the skirting table, so the light is good. When I want to skirt a fleece, I simply unroll it on the table and slide the paper out from underneath. The fiber will be a bit matted, but it fluffs back up after sitting for a bit. At this point, the side of the fleece facing up will be the cut side. I like to do most of the skirting from this side. I skirt around the edges, removing coarse and short fiber, and brush my hand over the cut edges to remove second cuts. Since the table is made from a mesh material, dirt and other debris falls through it to the floor. Once I finish skirting on the cut side, I gather up the fleece and flip it over to the tip side. There’s usually nothing more to do than pick off any stray debris or coarse fibers. I then put the skirted fleece into a clear plastic bag and mark the fineness and staple length on the bag.
Some of my best fleeces will be set aside to offer for sale at fiber festivals. The rest will be stored in the barn until I’m ready to send it out for processing into roving or yarn. When I want to put together a batch of fiber for processing, I will look for like fleeces to blend – similar fineness and staple length. Sometimes I want a solid color and other times I blend colors. The clear bags make it easy to pick and choose among colors.
Many handspinners consider alpaca to be a luxury fiber, maybe even an extravagance suited only for those very special projects. But alpaca farms are increasing in number in the US and alpaca fiber is becoming easier to find in all forms from right off the animals’ backs to warm and soft garments and accessories. Those handspinners who are fortunate enough to be in a position to raise livestock, might be surprised to learn that alpacas not only are easy to raise, but nonbreeding animals can be very reasonably priced.
If you haven’t tried spinning alpaca, you’ll find more selection than ever and much of it will be from local alpaca farms. You can search online for a farm in your area, visit a fiber festival to hand select your fleece or contact an alpaca farm. Most will be happy to send you samples of the fleeces they have for sale. In any case, you’ll find quality alpaca fiber to be a joy to spin and a pleasure to work with no matter your choice of fiber craft.
All Photos © Terry Miller.