Introduction: Alpaca Fleece . . . . Now What?
A dear friend and fellow fiber enthusiast generously gifted me several pounds of raw alpaca fleece in 3 colors - black, white, and cinnamon brown. Happy Dance!
So what do you do with this wonderful bag of warm, fuzzy fluff?
This Instructable takes you through the process of washing the fleeces, several methods of prepping the fibers, and finally suggestions for using it in projects.
Several years ago I started a small fiber arts business called Flora & Fiber with a mission to offer a simple, fun approach to preserving and creating handcrafted traditions. My desire is to provide inspiration and education that sparks others to pursue their own creative passions. I'm sharing what works for me while incorporating my criteria of simple, fun, and a great end result!
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Step 1: A Little About Alpacas
Alpacas are part of the camelid family. Vicuñas, guanacos, and camels are found in the wild, while alpacas and llamas have been domesticated for several thousand years. The Incas of Peru raised both llamas and alpacas for fiber. Alpacas are smaller than llamas, and whereas llamas are primarily used as beasts of burden in their native lands, alpacas are mainly raised for their fiber.
The fiber produced by camelids is technically hair, although the softer fibers are sometimes referred to as wool. Most of the camelid spinning fiber or yarn on the market is from alpacas and llamas; vicuña and guanaco fibers are scarcer, and thus more expensive. Baby camelids have the softest and most desirable fiber.
Trivia Question: A baby camel is called a ______. A baby alpaca, llama, or vicuña is called a ______. A baby guanaco is called a ______. **see below for answers**
There are two varieties of alpaca, the huacaya (pronounced wuh-kai-ya) is the wooly type pictured above in the first photo and the suri (second photo) which have silky, long locks. About 90+% of alpacas are huacaya. Both types of fiber are soft, and typically do not have guard hair (coarse, water-repellant outer fibers that cover and protect the downy undercoat of some fiber animals). Alpaca is said to be three times warmer than wool. It is also a good alternative fiber for people who are allergic to wool.
I've read there are 22 natural shades of alpaca which include white, cream, a range of browns from very light to dark, reddish browns, black, and a range of grays from silvery to charcoal. In addition to its many natural colors, alpaca takes wool dyes wonderfully.
My four alpaca fleeces pictured above (third photo) are all huacaya.
Alpacas are sheared similar to sheep. The first photo shows the look of alpacas 'before and after' shearing.
Did you know that alpacas only have teeth on the bottom? They have a soft upper gum area which they chew their chud against with their bottom teeth.
Trivia Question Answers: A baby camel is called a CALF. A baby alpaca, llama, or vicuña is called a CRIA. A baby guanaco is called a CHULENGO.
Step 2: A Few Fiber Terms
As well as its multitude of natural colors, alpaca is known for its smooth feel, lovely drape, and fiber strength. Elasticity is not an alpaca characteristic meaning that it will not bounce back into shape; so 100% alpaca sweaters or socks would not be a great choice, but alpaca in blankets and wraps is wonderfully warm and cozy. Alpaca is often blended with wool to increase the elasticity of the spun yarn and finished product. It also blends beautifully with mohair, silk, or angora rabbit.
A fiber's feeling of softness is determined by several factors including smoothness and fineness. While most alpaca fiber feels soft, Suri alpaca fiber is particularly smooth. It is also a finer fiber; typically the finer the fiber, the softer it feels. Fineness is measured in microns (a micron is 1/25,000 of an inch). Some Suri fiber can measure less than 20 micron (as soft as cashmere) with an average fleece measuring between 24 and 28 microns in diameter. Huacaya alpaca fiber averages in the mid-20s in micron count; .
In the photos above, the first cream colored fleece is Huacaya and the second whiter fleece is Suri.
Staple is the length of the locks of fibers. Huacaya alpaca have a staple length of 2-6 inches, Suri staple lengths are typically longer.
Fleeces can vary greatly from one animal to the next; staple lengths vary, crimp (waviness) varies, some are smoother and slick, others are fuzzy.
Step 3: Prepare Fleece to Wash
I prefer to work with a clean fleece. Some people choose not to wash alpaca because, unlike sheep, alpacas do not have lanolin which can be sticky when spinning or working with it. Although my fleeces were not visibly dirty, it's amazing how much VM (vegetative matter such as sand, grit, hay, etc.) is removed throughout all the processing steps.
I decided to work in 4 ounce quantities therefore I weighed out approximately 4.4 ounces of each color; allowing for about 10% waste discard from VM, matted fiber, and broken tips.
I place each of these portions in separate zippered mesh laundry bags.
Step 4: Wash & Dry Fleece
I wash alpaca fiber in my washing machine - it is probably no dirtier than washing our farm work clothes which contain the same VM mentioned above!
I fill the machine tub about 1/2 full with water on the hot setting (our hot water heater is set on 130F). To this, I add a little less than 1/4 cup of Dawn, mixing it around gently, without making suds. I add the mesh bags of alpaca, holding each under until the air escapes and they submerge. I allow the alpaca to soak (not agitate) for 20 minutes, then I set to drain and spin only (no rinse water).
I remove the bags of fiber and wipe out the bottom of the washer tub. Keeping each fleece in the bags, I toss them gently by hand to fluff up the fibers. I repeat the same wash process as above, this time with just a few squirts of Dawn. Again, after spinning with no rinse water, I remove the bags of fiber, fluff them, and wipe out the bottom of the washer tub.
Finally, I place the bags of fiber back into the washing machine and add just enough hot water to cover (no soap) and immediately spin out the water. I repeat two more times until the bottom of the washer has no residual dirt. Very easy! No felting! Just nice, clean alpaca fiber!
I dry the clean fiber outside on a panel of 1/2" hardware cloth. The fiber dries under our covered porch typically in a couple of hours. I gently fluff and turn the fiber while drying, picking out any remaining large pieces of VM, matted fiber, and broken lock tips.
- I place each fleece in separate zippered mesh laundry bags.
- I wash the alpaca in my washing machine filling the tub about 1/2 full with hot water and about 1/4 cup of Dawn dish detergent. I soak (not agitate) for 20 minutes then drain and spin only (no rinse water).
- I repeat the same wash process as above, this time with just a few squirts of Dawn. Again, spinning with no rinse water.
- For the final rinses, I add just enough hot water to cover (no soap) and immediately spin out the water; repeating until the bottom of the washer has no residual dirt (typically two more times).
- I dry the clean fiber outside on a panel of 1/2" hardware cloth. While drying, I gently fluff and turn the fiber, picking out any remaining large pieces of VM (vegetative matter), matted fiber, second cuts, and broken lock tips.
Step 5: Fiber Prep - Combing (Part 1)
One method of fiber preparation is combing. The combing process not only removes remaining VM and shorter bits of fibers, but also aligns the fibers for easier spinning.
The frightening looking tool above is really not a Halloween prop, but rather St. Blaise combs.
Interestingly, their naming does originate in a rather gruesome history. In 316 AD, the governor of Cappadocia and Lesser Armenia, Agricola, arrested then-bishop Blaise for being a Christian. On the way to jail, a woman set her choking son at his feet. Bishop Blaise was known for healing miracles. He cured the child, and though Agricola was amazed, he could not get Blaise to renounce his faith. Therefore, Agricola beat Blaise with a stick and tore at his flesh with iron combs before beheading him. Saint Blaise is often depicted holding steel combs; his name connected to the way he was martyred. The similarity of the steel combs and wool combs contributed to Saint Blaise becoming known as the patron saint of wool combers and the wool trade.
To lash on (attach), the fiber is pulled over the tines; catching just the ends. Fibers are layered on until they cover about half the height of the tines. Notice my knuckles are perpendicular to the sharp tines to prevent injury.
Keeping the comb in my left hand stationary, I begin smoothly passing the second (empty) comb through the tips of the fiber; moving away from, NEVER towards me (don't want to end up like St. Blaise). With each pass, I work closer to the tines of the stationary comb, transferring fibers to the moving comb. If static starts to make the fibers fly-away, I spritz lightly with a little water from a spray bottle.
I continue combing in this manner, reversing hands on the combs so that I comb and transfer the fibers from the full comb to the previously stationary comb.
I comb until the fibers are aligned, free-flowing, and most short fibers are removed. This is subjective, best summed up as "to your liking"; usually three or four transfers prepare the fibers well.
Note: Suri fiber is longer and finer and just slips through the combs, I opt to card rather than comb Suri fleeces.
**Time Out for Safety Tip**
Several years ago, I took a Fiber Preparation class from Robin Russo. She emphasized the importance of promptly caring for any wounds or pricks acquired while using sharp fiber preparation tools such as carders and combs. Remember these are fleeces from ANIMALS who live in barns and pastures. So, hot water and soap wash, antibiotic ointment, bandaid!
Step 6: Fiber Prep - Combing (Part 2)
The photos above follow the sequence of steps described below.
Now, it's time to doff (remove) the fiber from the comb. To make this easier, I spread out the compacted fibers on the back of the comb.
I secure the comb, tines up, in its mounting station.
I pull a bit of the fiber tips to a point.
A diz is a small, round, concave tool with a hole in the center through which combed fibers are pulled.
A small hook catches the fiber "point" and the fiber is pulled out through the hole in the diz.
I pinch the fiber near the diz between my thumb and first finger, pulling it through. When the fibers start to separate, slide the diz up toward the comb again and continue to pull more fibers through the diz.
Pulling the fibers through the diz is probably the most difficult part of this entire process. It is an action that just requires practice.
Repeat pinch, pull, drop until there are only shorter fibers and/or small noils (tangles) left on the comb.
Top is the continuous strand of uniform, parallel fibers that results from the combing process.
I wrap the strand of top around my hand, stuffing the last bit into the center to form a little nest.
I wish you could reach through the screen and touch the heavenly softness of this feather light nest of alpaca!
After the first combing, the remaining fibers tend to be shorter and more jumbled. To separate any remaining long fibers, repeat the combing process a second time which usually rewards with another, albeit smaller, nest of top.
After the second combing, it is not very fruitful to comb the residual fiber again, but it can be carded.
Step 7: Fiber Prep - Carding
That bring us to another fiber preparation, carding.
I use a Strauch Finest Single Wide drum carder. Drum carders are a fairly expensive fiber tool, but like any handcraft, your tools can really make a difference in ease and efficiency. That said, if you don' have a drum carder, you can still attain similar results with a blending board or hand cards.
Here is an article from Interweave about hand cards.
I generally pass alpaca fiber three times through the drum carder. In the third photo above you can see the difference between the first pass (on left) and the second pass (on right). With each pass, the fibers become more aligned and homogenous; although carded fibers will not be as aligned as fibers prepared by combing.
The fluffy sheet of fiber that is removed from the drum carder is called a batt.
I often split the batt lengthwise into slivers (strips of carded fiber) and roll them up into nests to await spinning.
The carding process is also excellent for blending. The final photo shows beautiful heathered fiber nests created by combining various fleece colors of residual fibers from the combing process and carding them together on the drum carder.
Step 8: VM and Seconds and Neps . . . Oh My!
Photo 1 - See all the specks on my lap cloth? That's very fine VM falling out of the fiber as it is combed. Vegetative matter (VM) includes dust/dirt/sand, straw/hay, bits of dried poo.
Photo 2 - 1) Second cut - a very short piece of fleece that occurs when the shearer makes a second pass to trim off any little bits that were missed and 2) Guard hair - some fiber animals have multiple coats that contain not only desirable soft fibers, but also stiffer, prickly hairs which should be removed.
Photo 3 Nep - a small knot of tangled fibers. Just like second cuts and guard hairs, ideally these should be removed.
Step 9: Changing Color
Photo 1 & 2 Dyeing. Alpaca fiber takes natural and acid dyes well. Here I dyed the fiber with Madder [Rubia tinctoria] a rather weedy and uninteresting looking perennial plant that is a staple of natural dye gardeners for millennia. It produced a salmon-ish color.
Photo 3 & 4 Blending natural colors. I wanted a lighter shade of brown, so I blended a white and a cinnamon brown fleece in the drum carder resulting in a very lovely light brown
Photo 5 & 6 Blending other fibers. In this case dyed Merino wool is blended with white alpaca. I used 2 ounces of white carded alpaca (divided into 1 ounce portions) and 1 ounce each of red and blue Merino top.
Step 10: Make With It!
Handspun yarns . . . Knit cowl . . . Handwoven wrap . . . The possibilities are limitless!
I hope you enjoyed this class! Grab some fuzzy alpaca and make something warm!
Second Prize in the
Warm and Fuzzy Challenge