Alpacas: A Good Source of Fiber

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For most people living in the US, Memorial Day means a holiday from work, barbecuing in the backyard, the beginning of summer. For me, it means one thing in particular: alpacas.

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Just look at these adorable little fuzzy things! They’re impossible to resist. They’re like anime characters with their giant eyes and funny hair.

Anyway, every Memorial Day for the past few years, I’ve taken the opportunity to go help some friends with their annual alpaca shearing. To me, it really is irresistable: cute animals (not just alpacas, but llamas, horses, cats, and lots of dogs), great people, and incredible vistas of the Utah mountains. What could be better?

small-20150525-100How’s that for a view?

Now, shearing day is just the beginning of the process of making beautiful alpaca textiles. The fleeces have to be collected and stored for later processing; eventually they become beautifully soft yarn. Alpaca is both softer and warmer than merino wool, and has a silkier, denser quality; certain kinds of alpacas, called suris, have even silkier and longer fleeces. Blended with wool, alpaca fiber is excellent for sweaters, hats, mittens—anything that needs warmth or softness. On its own, or blended with silk, alpaca can make lace with a beautiful halo and drape. There’s not much you can’t do with it!

Shearing day can be a lot of work. There are a lot of alpacas to get through (20+ most years, plus four llamas) and the process is fairly involved. Each alpaca is hobbled—they’re shy creatures and don’t much appreciate being handled, so this is the safest way to get everything done, and the alpacas aren’t hurt at all, although they are very annoyed. The blanket fleece comes off first—this is prime fiber from the shoulders, sides, and back. It tends to be the longest and the finest, although often covered in hay if the ‘paca is a roller! Usually my job is to collect the blanket fleece as it comes off the animal.

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We pull the fleece off and bring it to the “skirting table”, where we pick off the very short pieces that sometimes get left behind as part of the shearing process, and any obviously unusuable fiber. This is, in my opinion, the best part—I get to handle the whole fleece, which is always incredibly soft, as alpaca tends to be, and has interesting color variations throughout. That fleece above could practically be considered “pink” with the white and red-fawn colors.

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Once the blanket fleece comes off, the rest of the “wool” follows. Some of it is considered second-quality fiber, from the legs and neck; the rest gets tossed, as it’s not worth the effort to process it or work with it. While the shearing is going on, the alpaca gets their nails trimmed, their teeth checked, and they get a whole going-over to check for any health problems or signs of impending crias (the technical term for a baby alpaca. That little brown-and-white one at the top is one of last year’s crias.)

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Unlike the last few years, this year we had rain and threats of more rain. Ultimately it meant we only got through the “girls” yesterday instead of all of the alpacas plus all four of the llamas. You can see the llamas above smirking that they don’t have to get shorn yet! (Llamas are a bit more work to shear, mainly because they’re much bigger than alpacas and tend to put up a proportional amount of fuss.)

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In the end we got 14 alpacas sheared, including the two crias from last year. Don’t they look happy to be naked? Well, I expect they’d be a bit happier if the weather would stay clear, but either way they’re now ready to be cool for the summer.

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Alpacas and horses? It’s not exactly “sheep and horses” but really, how could I resist?

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