Alpacas are raised for their unbelievably soft fiber. The fiber or fleece is shorn from the alpaca yearly, usually in spring. During shearing the alpaca is gently laid down on a padded mat and restrained with ropes that are attached to it’s feet around the ankle. Although they do not like this process, it is the safest way to get all the fiber off and not cause injury to the animal or the shearing crew. The alpaca is usually on the mat for no longer than 5 -7 minutes.
The alpaca fiber can then be used in a variety of ways to provide income to the farmer. Each full grown alpaca can produce between 3 – 10 pounds of raw fiber. The prime or “blanket” fiber is about 1/2 of that and the rest is considered 2nds and 3rds which are a lower quality, but still usable.
Alpaca fiber is stronger and more resilient than the finest sheep’s wool. It’s also warmer than wool for the same weight, and has other desirable qualities such as flame resistance.
Unlike sheep’s wool that contains significant amounts of waste material and lanolin, alpaca contains no lanolin and is usally a relatively clean, dry fiber. This makes it easier to process and eliminates the need to wash and soak several times before processing. Alpaca is as light and soft as cashmere, yet much less expensive and more easily acquired and processed than cashmere. Alpaca comes in a great variety of natural colors including white, beige, several shades a fawn, brown, gray and black. The lighter colors can be easily dyed to provide a rainbow of colors for a fiber artist. Some people also experiment with the darker colors to a unique product.
Alpaca can also be blended with other fibers like fine sheep’s wool, cashmere, mohair, bamboo, silk and angora. These blends also make alpaca extremely versatile for use in everyday wear and also as expensive designer fashions. The scales of the alpaca fiber are unique in the way that they lay against the hair follicle shaft. This is believed to be why many people consider it to be hypo-allergenic, especially the ultra soft baby alpaca.