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Alpaca fleece, Wool Expo, Armidale, NSW


Alpaca fleece is the natural fiber harvested from an alpaca. It is light weight or heavy weight, depending on how it is spun. It is soft, durable, luxurious and silky natural fiber. While similar to sheep’s wool, it is warmer, not prickly, and has no lanolin which makes it hypoallergenic. Alpaca is naturally water-repellent. Huacaya, an alpaca that grows soft spongy fiber has natural crimp, thus making a naturally elastic yarn, perfect for knits. Suri has far less crimp and thus is best suited for woven goods, but is wonderfully luxurious as well. The designer Armani has used Suri alpaca to fashion Men's and Women's suits. . Alpaca fleece is made into various products, from very simple and inexpensive garments made by the aboriginal communities to sophisticated, industrially made and expensive products such as suits. In the United States, groups of smaller alpaca breeders have banded together to create "fiber co-ops," in order to make the manufacture of alpaca fiber products less expensive.

In physical structure, alpaca fiber is somewhat akin to hair, being very glossy. Alpaca fibre is similar to that of merino wool fibre, and alpaca yarns tend to be stronger than wool yarns. The heel hole that appears in wool socks or in elbows of wool sweaters is nonexistent in similar alpaca garments. In processing, slivers lack fibre cohesion and single alpaca rovings lack strength. Blend these together and the durability is increased several times over. More twisting is necessary, especially in Suri, and this can reduce a yarn's softness.

The alpaca has a very fine and light fleece. It does not retain water, is thermal even when wet and can resist the solar radiation effectively. These characteristics guarantee the animals a permanent and appropriate coat to fight against the extreme changes of temperature. This fiber offers the same protection to humans. Alpaca is sustainable as a fiber, and is naturally organic. Alpacas as animals are soft on the environment, making alpaca a truly green textile.

The Alpaca fiber contains also microscopic airbags that make possible the manufacture of light textiles as well as different kinds of clothing. The cells of the central core may contract or disappear, forming air pockets which assist insulation. Fleeces vary from alpaca to alpaca and in some alpacas there may be a higher incidence of medullated fibres, compared to wool and mohair. This can be an objectionable trait. Medullated fibers can take less dye, standing out in the finished garment, and are weaker. The proportion of medullated fibres is higher in the coarser, unwanted guard hairs: there is less or no medullation in the finer, lower micrometre fibres... These undesirable fibers are easy to see and give a garment a hairy appearance. Quality alpaca products should be free from these medullated fibers.

Good quality alpaca fiber is approximately 18 to 25 micrometres in diameter. Whilst breeders report fibre can sell for 2 to 4 dollars per ounce, the world wholesale price for processed pre-spun alpaca “tops” is only between about $10 to $24 US/kg (according to quality), i.e. about $0.28 to $0.68 per oz. . Finer fleeces, ones with a smaller diameter, are preferred, and thus are more expensive. As an alpaca gets older the width of the fibers gets thicker, at between and per year. This is often caused by over nutrition; if fed too much nutritious food the animal doesn't get fat, instead the fiber gets thicker. Any alpaca fiber exceeding 34µ is classified as llama.

As with all fleece-producing animals, quality varies from animal to animal, and some alpacas produce fiber which is less than ideal. Fiber and conformation are the two most important factors in determining an alpaca's value.

Alpacas come in many shades from a true-blue black through browns-black, browns, fawns, white, silver-greys, and rose-greys. However, white is predominant, because of selective breeding: the white fiber can be dyed in the largest ranges of colors. In South America, the preference is for white as they generally have better fleece than the darker-colored animals. This is because the dark colors had been all but bred out of the animals. The demand for darker fiber sprung up in the United States and elsewhere, however in order to reintroduce the colors, the quality of the darker fiber has decreased slightly. Breeders have been diligently working on breeding dark animals with exceptional fiber, and much progress has been made in these areas over the last 5–7 years.

The preparing, carding, spinning, weaving and finishing process of alpaca is very similar to the process used for wool.

Types of alpacas

Suri Alpaca
There are two types of alpaca: Huacaya (which produce a dense, soft, crimpy sheep-like fiber), and the mop-like Suri (with silky pencil-like locks, resembling dread-locks but not actually matted fibers). Suris are prized for their longer and silkier fibers, and estimated to make up between 19-20% of the Alpaca population. Since its import into the United States, the number of Suri alpacas has grown substantially and become more color diverse. The Suri is thought to be rarer, possibly because it is less hardy in the harsh South American mountain climates, as its fleece offers less insulation against the cold.

History of alpacas

Alpaca have been bred in South America for thousands of years. Vicuñas were first domesticated and bred into alpacas by the ancient tribes of the Andean highlands of Peru, Argentina, Chile and Bolivia. In recent years alpacas have also been exported to other countries. In countries such as the USA, Australia and New Zealand breeders shear their animals annually, weigh the fleeces and test them for fineness. With the resulting knowledge they are able to breed heavier-fleeced animals with finer fiber. Fleece weights vary, with the top stud males reaching annual shear weights up to total fleece and good quality fleece. The discrepancy in weight is because an alpaca has guard hair which is often removed before spinning.

History of fiber industry

The Amerindians of Peru used this fiber in the manufacture of many styles of fabrics for thousands of years before its introduction into Europe as a commercial product. The alpaca was a crucial component of ancient life in the Andes, as it provided not only warm clothing but also meat. Many rituals revolved around the alpaca, perhaps most notably the method of killing it: An alpaca was restrained by one or more people, and a specially-trained person plunged his bare hand into the chest cavity of the animal, ripping out its heart. Today, this ritual is viewed by most as barbaric, but there are still some tribes in the Andes which practice it.

The first European importations of alpaca fiber were into Spainmarker. Spain transferred that fiber to Germanymarker and Francemarker. Apparently alpaca yarn was spun in Englandmarker for the first time about the year 1808 but the fiber was condemned as an unworkable material. In 1830 Benjamin Outram, of Greetlandmarker, near Halifax, appears to have reattempted spinning it, and again it was condemned. These two attempts failed due to the style of fabric into which the yarn was woven — a type of camlet. It was not until the introduction of cotton warps into Bradfordmarker trade about 1836 that the true qualities of alpaca could be developed into fabric. It is not known where the cotton warp and mohair or alpaca weft plain-cloth came from, but it was this simple and ingenious structure which enabled Titus Salt, then a young Bradford manufacturer, to use alpaca successfully. Bradford is still the great spinning and manufacturing center for alpaca. Large quantities of yarns and cloths are exported annually to the European continent and the US, although the quantities vary with the fashions in vogue. The typical "alpaca-fabric" is a very characteristic "dress-fabric."

A pair of Huacaya alpacas near an Inca burial site in Peru


Due to the successful manufacture of various alpaca cloths by Sir Titus Salt and other Bradford manufacturers, a great demand for alpaca wool arose which could not be met by the native product. Apparently, the number of alpacas available never increased appreciably. Unsuccessful attempts were made to acclimatize alpaca in England, on the European continent and in Australia, and even to cross English breeds of sheep with alpaca. There is a cross between alpaca and llama — a true hybrid in every sense — producing a material placed upon the Liverpool market under the name "Huarizo". Crosses between the alpaca and vicuña have not proved satisfactory. Current attempts to cross these two breeds are underway at farms in the US. According to the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association, alpacas are now being bred in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, UK, and numerous other places.

In recent years, interest in alpaca fiber clothing has surged, perhaps partly because alpaca ranching has a reasonably low impact on the environment. Outdoor sports enthusiasts recognize that its lighter weight and better warmth provides them more comfort in colder weather, so outfitters such as R.E.I. and others are beginning to stock more alpaca products. Using an alpaca and wool blend such as merino is common to the alpaca fibre industry in order to improve processing and the qualities of the final product.

In December 2006 the General Assembly of the United Nations proclaimed 2009 to be the International Year of Natural Fibres, so as to raise the profile of alpaca and other natural fibres.

Natural Dyed Alpaca Wool

Before dyeing the alpaca fiber must go through other stages:

i. Selection of wool: according to color, size and quality of fiber;ii. "Escarminado": Removal of grass, dirt, thorns, and other impurities;iii. Spinning;iv. Washing: to remove all the dirt and grease.Once the fiber is clean then it is possible to begin with the process of dyeing.

Natural dyeing: (recipe used by andean artisans):To dye 1 kg. of alpaca wool with cochinilla (natural dye).Boil 5 liters of water in an aluminum can with 100 grs. of cochinilla for an hour.Sift and put the wool in the water.Boil again for an hour and ad 50 lemons cut in halfs.Then take out the wool and hang for drying.Note: For dyeing with another natural dye (native plants) add 2 kgs, of the products to the water and boil.

References

  1. Quiggle, Charlotte. "Alpaca: An Ancient Luxury." Interweave Knits Fall 2000: 74-76.
  2. Quiggle, Charlotte. "Alpaca: An Ancient Luxury." Interweave Knits Fall 2000: 74-76.
  3. Stoller, Debbie, Stitch 'N Bitch Crochet, New York: Workman, 2006, p. 18.
  4. http://www.properfashion.com/women-s-wear/giorgio-armani-women.html
  5. The Quality and Processing Performance of Alpaca Fibres Australian Government RIRDC 2003
  6. Davison/Holt 2004
  7. Fiber Characteristics of U.S. Huacaya Alpacas by Angus McColl, Yocom-McColl Testing Laboratories, Inc., Chris Lupton, Texas A&M University System, and Bob Stobart, University of Wyoming 2004
  8. Quiggle, Charlotte. "Alpaca: An Ancient Luxury." Interweave Knits Fall 2000: 74-76.
  9. Alpha Tops
  10. Quiggle, Charlotte. "Alpaca: An Ancient Luxury." Interweave Knits Fall 2000: 74-76.
  11. Quiggle, Charlotte. "Alpaca: An Ancient Luxury." Interweave Knits Fall 2000: 74-76.
  12. Quiggle, Charlotte. "Alpaca: An Ancient Luxury." Interweave Knits Fall 2000: 74-76.
  13. "Alpaca." The New Encyclopædia Britannica. 11th ed. 1911.
  14. "Alpaca." The New Encyclopædia Britannica. 11th ed. 1911.


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