Alpaca fiber is an amazing resource that alpacas produce on a yearly basis. This fiber has been used for centuries in their native South American countries. It has been referred to as the fiber of the gods because of its extremely high quality. Alpaca can be of similar softness and warmth as cashmere and is much easier to clean than wool. There is a use for all qualities of alpaca. Alpaca fiber typically sells for between $15.00-35.00 per pound depending on the quality of it. It can be spun into a super light lace weight scarf that is very warm, or woven into a sturdy rug to keep your feet warm. This amazing fiber comes in at least 22 shades of the rainbow, and can be easily dyed to make any color you can imagine. Alpaca’s softness, warmth, and luster make it prized by hand spinners and high end retailers that enjoy a high quality product.
This renewable product is shorn yearly from the alpacas using electric or hand clippers. After it is harvested it is either put to use there on the farm or sent off to a mill or co-op that will return usable goods to the owner. This American made product is a luxurious resource and a great way to help pay the expenses for the animal throughout the year.
Harvesting your alpaca fiber in Indiana
Alpaca fiber is typically harvested once a year by shearing the animal. In Indiana shearing season runs from mid-to-late March through mid-June with some cria being shorn in fall. Most owners prefer to harvest the fiber after winter’s cold and before the challenges of hot humid summer days.
There are two basic shearing methods that are used when harvesting alpaca fleece – hand shearing and electric shears. Alpacas can be shorn using hand shears which are quite similar to scissors. This is most likely the least used method because of the time it takes and the alpacas need to be used to being handled.
A second method, using electric shears, can be done in several ways:
- alpacas may be shorn in a standing position,
- a team of handlers working together to shear alpacas on the ground, or
- a team working together to shear on a table. Alpacas can be shorn while standing; the animal needs to be fully acclimated to the sound and feel of the shears and the shearer and handler must be patient.
Shearing in a standing position with electric shears is not common, but may be used for touching up fleece after the animal is shorn on the ground or table.
Shearing on the ground is a common method and has the lowest initial cost for equipment. This method is especially popular and the most feasible if the farm has many animals. A good shearing team can shear more than 80 alpacas in an eight hour day. Ground shearing typically requires more people than other forms of shearing to keep the process moving well.
Shearing on a table is another widely used practice. It is possible for table shearing to be completed with just two people if the alpacas are used to being handled. Table shearing does require more time; the maximum number of animals that can be shorn in a day by an experienced shearer is approximately twenty.
Preparing the alpaca for shearing
Although there is no particular way to prepare the alpaca and fiber for shearing, there are some things owners or managers can do to maximize harvest and minimize second cuts (short fibers created when a good first pass with the shears is not completed). Second cuts are not desirable as they decrease the length of the good fiber and are not long enough to be used commercially.
Water and dirt are both a shearer’s bane. To help yourself and your shearer on shearing day, keep your animals as clean as possible. Animals that are kept on pasture tend to have the lowest amount of dirt ground into the fleece. Owners can use leaf blowers, hand blowers, hand dryers (on cool setting), and shop vacs to help remove dirt from the fleece prior to shearing. It has been suggested that suri alpacas be washed one week before shearing and allowed to dry completely.
There are several things that can be done to prevent moisture and improve shearing results in high humidity situations. Keep the alpacas in dry clean conditions prior to shearing, shear early in the morning and later in the evening, shear animals with light or fine fiber first, and position fans to blow air across the alpaca to keep it cool and help dry the fiber. If you are shearing outside, shear in the shade and try to keep alpacas that are waiting to be shorn in the shade and cool.
Shearing the alpaca
The shearer’s job is to provide the best cuts possible so you have fleeces that are good enough for commercial use or show. The shearer should be willing to cut three types of fiber: 1) blanket, 2) seconds, and 3) thirds. The blanket is the best quality fiber. It is typically the longest and the finest on the alpaca; therefore, it has the highest commercial value. The seconds are generally the shoulder, hip, and neck areas of the alpaca. Seconds have good market value, but are not quite as “valuable” as the blanket. Thirds are the short coarse fibers around the face, on the legs, and under the belly. Some, alpaca owners have found creative uses, such as mulch and bird nesting materials for this fiber or it can be made into rug yarn to produce sturdy, long lasting rugs
Storing shorn fiber
Fiber can be stored until you are ready to prepare it for processing. To store fiber, keep it in the bags you collected it in and place it in a location where it will be protected from insects, mice, and moisture. Keep the bags open to allow air flow, moisture can build in the bags and create an atmosphere for mold. Moldy fiber is not acceptable for processing.
Bits and Pieces
If you hire a shearer you are hiring a businessman and there are professional courtesies you should consider.
• Have your animals penned and ready to go.
• Don’t use shearing day as halter training day, have your animals acclimated to a halter
• Have enough people available to keep things moving.
• If you want to give shots and worm on shearing day ask your shearer if it is acceptable. Shearers know about how long it will take them to complete a job and they schedule accordingly.
• Remember you hired a shearer, any alpaca or fiber education or evaluations you ask for or receive gratis are above and beyond the shearer’s responsibilities.