by Eric Hoffman. Published (with pictures not shown here) in The Camelid
Quarterly, September 2004
In the last twenty five years in North America there has been an increased understanding of the fundamental characteristics of camelid fiber. This is particularly true in the alpaca business where terms such as handle, crimp, staple length, weight, luster, character, density and coverage are emphasized, prioritized, and judged in official live animal shows and fleece competitions. The increase in mini-processing mills throughout North America is further evidence of the expanding knowledge of fiber. In general this increased understanding is about alpaca fiber and not the other three South American camelids: the vicuña, guanaco and llama. For today’s alpaca breeder, knowledge of fiber characteristics - actually developing the skill to identify and compare them and how these characteristics relate to one another - is essential to developing competency in assessing fiber.
The subtle differences between one animal and the next is often the subjective domain of the show judge. Their challenge is to rank animals based on relative quality after taking into consideration a wide range of factors. The codification of show criteria for fiber has done two things: 1. made breeders aware of certain qualities and 2. entrenched this criteria in breeding programs that are directly aimed at show results. As the influence of show criteria becomes entrenched, the actual process of fiber processing is in its infancy in most of the alpaca-raising countries outside of South America. Could it be that the criteria and emphasis, and their pervasive influence in the show ring, are somewhat ahead of our fiber processing knowledge about
what governs value in the world market place? Are we on the right track when it comes to developing fiber characteristics in our animals for the commercial market?
I’m happy to report that in the course of researching “Chapter 10, Fiber Processing, Characteristics, and Nomenclature” for the
Complete Alpaca Book, much of the areas of emphasis for the show ring
seem to make good sense to the processor, but not all of it. Before I get started on my areas of concern and introduce a somewhat fresh perspective on prioritizing fiber characteristics, I should mention that research for this chapter took me to South America, Australia, Europe, New Zealand and North America. In some instances my inquiries exposed basic assumptions and conventional knowledge in areas outside of South America. Some of this input seemed less than convincing when looked at in the context of what the fiber mills in Peru feel is important, and when alpaca fleece is compared to it’s wild progenitor, vicuña.
Why knowing the vicuña is important
Vicuña is world renowned for its incredibly low average fiber diameter (AFD), 12.5 microns. It is by far the finest and most consistent of all camelid fibers. It is valued at between $400 and $600 per kilogram (2.2 lbs), which is significantly higher than any other
specialty fiber. Before one can begin figuring ways to import vicuñas it is important to realize that the vicuña is a wild animal that is protected by numerous international treaties that specifically forbid exportation. The significance of introducing the vicuña to this discussion and understanding more about its fleece has to do with its close relationship with the alpaca.
In 2000 Dr. Jane Wheeler and a group of scientists proved, through DNA microsatellite testing, that the wild progenitor of the alpaca (Vicugna pacos) is the vicuña (Vicugna vicugna). With this part of the South American camelid story officially accepted by the Royal Society in London and other parts of the scientific community, the debate on where alpacas came from has been put to rest. Vicuñas and alpacas belong to the same genetic continuum. Unequivocally marrying vicuñas to alpacas poses some obvious questions about the relationship between alpaca and vicuña fiber characteristics and may provide the basis for fiber improvement models for the alpaca.
For example, density studies based on skin biopsies completed in 1979 at the Universidad Nacional Agraria in Peru concluded that vicuña hair follicle densities are three to four times as dense as the average alpaca. Vicuñas consistently have a follicle count of around eighty-five follicles per square millimeter, while most alpacas range between twenty and forty follicles per square millimeter. Similar to the low 12.5 AFD, that might vary a micron or two from one vicuña to the next, the consistency in density from one vicuña to the next is also consistent – between eighty-five and ninety-five follicles per sq. mm. This, of course, depends on which part of the animal the sample is taken from.
However, vicuñas don’t always come in first place when compared to alpacas. In the area of fleece regeneration, which translates to fleece weight, vicuñas regenerate about one inch (2.9 cm) of fiber growth a year and produce only about 1.5 pounds (500 grams) per shearing. Over their 6,000 year domestication process it is clear that alpacas were bred to regenerate a longer fleece more rapidly than vicuñas. However, along the way fineness and other desirable aspects of vicuña fleece were sacrificed. Wheeler and other scientists believe that on a grand scale, alpaca fiber quality declined dramatically following the Spanish Conquest (1532) and the subsequent disintegration of ancient husbandry practices. For example, pre-conquest alpaca mummies examined by Wheeler recorded standard deviations of 1.0, which is unheard of in today’s alpacas. A good alpaca today will be lucky to maintain a standard deviation of 3.0.
Vicuña fleece characteristics are a result of more than one million years of evolution in a cold and harsh environment. The species’ optimum characteristics for survival are genetically assured in every vicuña that is born. The fleece from one vicuña to the next varies little in color, length, density, and fineness. Vicuñas are uniformly earthen colored with a white bib and legs. Their fleeces range between twelve and fourteen microns, and their bi-annual shearing staple length is about two inches (5.8 cm). Alpacas are less consistent. They range between fifteen and thirty-five microns with wide ranges in standard deviation from one animal to the next. Alpaca annual fleece weights range from one to twelve pounds, and on rare occasions, higher. A randomly selected group of one hundred vicuñas of varying ages would have more predictable and consistent fiber quality than a group of one hundred randomly selected alpacas. One could predict the vicuña fleece quality and yield by knowing the number of animals being shorn. And, most importantly, the soft handle of vicuña fiber is on a pedestal by itself when comparing the merits of camelid fibers. It is unbelievably soft. The consistent and low micron count of the vicuña offers a guaranteed quality within set parameters.
A frequent criticism of vicuña fiber is that since vicuñas produce such a miniscule volume of fleece, and require dehairing, they are an inefficient fiber producer. A publication from a sheep fiber expert in Australia describes vicuña fleece as “primitive,” possessing characteristics that should be avoided. In this publication its author presents his alpaca fiber improvement plan, which reads much like some models used for Merino sheep.
In the fiber business the “primitive” label is applied to two-coated fleeces of all kinds, but there are vast differences in what this means when comparing wild goats and sheep to guanacos and vicuñas. Guanacos are two coated but their under coat is consistently between fourteen and nineteen microns and is much desired by processors for its consistency and because most of the fleece is harvestable. Vicuñas are also two-coated but less so than guanacos. However, not in the manner of many animals whose guard hair dominates the animals pelage so pervasively that processing it isn’t worth the trouble.
When it comes to the “primitive” label with vicuñas the generalizations don’t hold up very well. The generalized dehairing rap is often overstated. About seventy percent of a vicuña fleece is useable, which is much higher than most two-coated animals. Typically the primary fleece (blanket) is sparsely sprinkled with guard hair. The vicuña’s coarser guard hairs are usually far less than thirty microns. This compares well to the eighty percent use of an alpaca fleece that usually has between one and fifteen percent of hairs greater than thirty microns, resulting in an unwanted prickle factor in all but the best alpaca fleeces. Also, the vicuña’s ratio of primary to secondary follicles is superior to most fiber bearing animals, even when compared to breeds of sheep who have been selectively bred for centuries to improve this important ratio. For the vicuña the notable negative is its lack of fleece weight, but the trade off in fineness and market value compensates nicely.
Value of fiber in the world market puts a premium on fineness above all other characteristics
In the international fiber business high market price favors consistency and fineness without medullation. The Wool Record in England, mainland European and South American sources indicate that fineness with consistency is not to be trifled with when valuing an animal for its fleece characteristics. Focusing solely on the world price in 1999 and ignoring boutique market prices in newly developing alpaca breeding countries, the price for raw alpaca was between $12 and $24 per kilogram (2.2 pounds) while legally harvested vicuña sold for $400 to $600 a kilogram. Chinese cashmere (a goat), which ranges between and thirteen and fifteen microns was selling for around $80 per kilogram. Using these numbers it would take approximately twenty-five kilograms of alpaca to equal in value one kilogram of vicuña, or four kilograms of alpaca to equal the value of one kilogram of Chinese cashmere. There are marketing variables that contribute to these prices and one could argue that comparing these values is like comparing apples to oranges. But regardless of the variables rareness, soft handle and fineness are important determinants of price and reputation in the world marketplace of luxury fibers. From this author’s perspective the challenge to alpaca
growers is to create a more consistent quality of low micron fiber in a greater percentage of the alpaca population. We can learn from the vicuña.
Camelids and sheep have been on separate evolutionary paths for 39 million years
It would seem that a logical way to improve alpaca fiber would be to first fully understand the characteristics of the vicuña, especially its fineness. Instead most of the alpaca fleece improvement philosophies being pushed forward around the world today are based on sheep, a wool bearing animal separated from camelids by 39 million years of evolutionary development. Without a doubt there is generalized knowledge about fiber development that is universal -the importance of fineness and low variability for manufacturing high-value end products. But not everything that we know about sheep wool applies to other fiber animals. For example with Merino sheep, crimp (uniform waviness of fibers giving a staple a corrugated look) is sometimes cited as indicative of density, fineness and fleece weight. This idea has been transferred to alpaca fleece evaluation with the belief that if crimp is present the rest will follow.
Are secondary fiber characteristics sometimes over-emphasized?
Both cashmere and vicuña don’t have locks characterized by crimp. Instead they have crinkle (curvature in individual fibers that are independent of other fibers). If you open their fleeces you won’t see the wavy corrugated look found on some alpacas and many, but not all, sheep breeds. In the case of cashmere and vicuña, crimp doesn’t indicate fineness or density, and their fineness and soft handle make cashmere and vicuña the world’s unquestioned elite fiber leaders. Furthermore, the vicuña, with predominant crinkle instead of crimp, is incredibly dense. Clearly, there are many questions about applying characteristics of sheep fleece to alpacas that are not fully answered.
Working as an alpaca screener for the past nine years for many different entities I have handled around 12,000 alpacas from many different regions in the Andes. Part of screening requires taking fiber samples from each animal. My observation is that there are many alpacas that have varying degrees of crimp, clear bundling, laudable fineness, excellent densities and high fleece weights. There are also many alpacas that are equally as fine, dense and in all ways as desirable for processing purposes who have fleeces characterized by crinkle instead of crimp. I have seen coarse coated alpacas with and without crimp. The show ring and attendant marketing campaigns can often define value and influence breeding decisions. The all encompassing importance assigned to crimp and now bundling is something worth thinking about for anyone breeding alpacas. This is important because animals without these qualities, no matter how fine and how dense their fleece, will not enjoy the limelight, and their value in the animal market will suffer. More importantly, when looking at the long haul and the need to create more fine fleeced alpacas, discriminating against fine fleeced animals based on secondary fiber characteristics may retard the effort of achieving greater fineness.
We can learn from the long established large fiber mills in Peru
In Peru, where ninety percent of the world’s alpaca fiber is processed, good quality fleeces are defined as those ranging between seventeen and twenty-six microns, the industry wide acceptable range for manufacturing most alpaca products. I asked Derek Michell, the CEO of the largest alpaca processing mill in the world what premium qualities breeders should keep in mind when thinking about alpaca fiber. He thought for a moment and then said, “Smooth handle, absence of guard hair, fineness, sheen and density.” Later I interviewed the heads of the next two largest mills and each cited the same criteria, without talking to one another. when asked what they considered premium fiber characteristics, the following statements show uniformity in thought:
Luis Chavez (general manager on Inca Tops,
Arequipa, Peru, 2003):
Fineness, No medullation, Handle, Luster, Density, Cleanliness
Gilberto Sartafy (general manager of Prosur,
Arequipa, Peru, April 1, 2003):
Fineness, No medullation and reduced coefficient of
variation, Handle, Luster, Density, Cleanliness
Combined with Derek Michell’s statements, what the big fiber mills feel is important shouldn’t be discounted or forgotten.
There is one more thing to consider, the role of fleece weight in alpacas is an important part of understanding the development of the alpaca in recent times. For most of the last thirty years the large mills in Peru have paid alpaca growers for their fiber solely based on weight with little regard to coarsening. As odd as it may sound, the savvy compensino could make more money by shearing a two-coated llama than an alpaca under such a system. The emphasis on paying solely based on weight has resulted in some fairly bizarre culling decisions. More than one large grower on the altiplano culls animals and sends them to slaughter if they fall below their desired fleece weights, regardless of how low the animals micron count may be. Under such a system a fifteen micron alpaca producing four pounds of fleece would be culled. Rural Alianza, the world’s largest alpaca raising entity, reports their records show the optimum for huacaya alpacas production is approximately nine pounds of fleece with a micron range between twenty-two and twenty-three. Julio Cuba, the President of Rural Alianza, feels this is the species optimum. Though there are exceptions, Cuba believes alpacas with lower micron counts tend to
have much lower yields than the optimum nine pounds. Additionally, animals with greater than optimum fleece weight tend to be coarser. Cuba tailors breeding practices to fit the parameters set by the large mills. Pushing the outer limits of fleece weight while attempting to keep the microns low may deserve careful re-examination, given the potential value of low microns and what we know about the ultimate low microns expressed in the vicuñas, the wild progenitor.
Perhaps considering the unique attributes of the fleece of the alpaca’s progenitor, the vicuña, we would do well to emphasize fineness and lack of medullation in our breeding decisions, even if the end result were somewhat lower than average fleece weights. With a primary goal of creating more fine-fleeced alpacas than now exist, financial incentives should be offered for fine, uniform fleeces, either typified by crinkle or crimp lock structure. In some parts of the world incentives for growers producing low micron fleeces already exist, but it will take time and economic stability for financial incentives to result in a meaningful change. At the very least, it would be a worthwhile study to breed with fineness and low variability as the top priorities to see if the resulting alpacas fleece characteristics more closely imitate a vicuña than a sheep. For a moment imagine an animal whose fleece fineness ranges between fifteen and twenty microns for most of its lifetime with an average fleece weight of four to five pounds. If this could done with consistency involving tens of thousands of alpacas, alpaca fiber growers around the world would find themselves enjoying an entirely new price structure and role in the world’s luxury fiber market. Could it be that less is more, providing it is very fine?
About the Author
Eric Hoffman is the primary author of the Complete Alpaca
Book, a 600 page textbook about all aspects of alpacas that has been favorably reviewed around the world. Eric was the founding two term President of AOBA, created the first DNA based camelid registry in the world, continues to work in South America as a screener for entities around the world, and has produced more than 150 articles on camelids, some appearing in the San Francisco Chronicle, Outside, International Wildlife, Animals, Living Planet, and Wildlife Conservation. He is past editor of The Alpaca Registry Journal and is a regular contributor to the International Camelid Quarterly.