“A lot of people who can’t wear wool because they find it too itchy can wear alpaca”
ASouthern Hemisphere import is becoming more popular as a way to keep folks in the Northern Hemisphere warm.
Danny Lucas, who runs Fort Ethier Alpaca Beauties farm near Wetaskiwin, currently has a herd of about 50 animals. She originally began with five animals in 1998. Lucas cares for the animals by herself, and does everything on her farm, from halter training to administering shots. However, she does need an active crew to help her shear.
The fleece of the alpaca has been compared to cashmere, and has a great insulation factor. The material contains no lanolin, and is slightly warmer than wool.
“A lot of people who can’t wear wool because they find it too itchy can wear alpaca,” Lucas says.
The scales on the shaft of the alpaca fibre are longer and do not generate the same prickle as sheep wool.
Lucas and a team of helpers shear the animals once every year. Some animals have their fur completely shorn, while others are given a “lion cut,” which allows extra hair to grow on the hip area. Some of the fleece from the animals is marketed through a co-operative, while other fleece is kept for show purposes.
Alpacas come in 22 natural colours, including white, fawns, greys, taupes, browns and blacks. Lighter colours can be dyed and all fibre can be blended with wool or different materials such as silk, wool or cotton. The fibre can also be made into felt or hand-spun, and the material can be made into clothing or can be woven into blankets and duvets.
The first fleece of an animal is its best and is generally the softest. The feel of the fibre is influenced by the animal’s genetics. The best fibre is generally found in the blanket area, which is the area typically covered by a saddle on a horse. Coarser hair is found in the armpit and brisket area, and is not as desirable.
Lucas is quick to point out that 2009 is the International Year of Natural Fibre.
“Alpaca fibre is classed as one of the greenest fibres,” she says.
Shearing is a relatively calm process as the animals know the routine. The animals are sorted and sheared according to the col-our of the coat, beginning with the lightest animal and finishing with the darkest ones. The animals generally have their toenails cut and teeth checked during the shearing process.
Each animal generates between four to 10 pounds of fleece, depending on its size.
“When animals get older, they don’t grow as much fibre,” says Lucas.
Once the fibre is sheared off the animal, Lucas spreads it out over a series of sieves, positioning it with the cut side down. The guard hair is removed from the fur, as the presence of guard hair results in a lower-grade fibre. Each animal will have fibre of a varying number of grades. The neck hair is often shorter than the blanket hair and is processed differently.
Lucas shows her animals, and enters her fleeces in numerous categories. Judges check the fleece for qualities such as density, brightness, crimp and texture. The quality of the fleece can also be incorporated into the judging of the entire animal.
Show animals are judged on the uniformity of their head and neck as well as their general appearance and confirmation. Animals need to be able to stand, heel and walk on a lead before they enter the ring.
Lucas is a member of several alpaca clubs and has also participated in fibre week at Olds College along with spinner, weavers, dyers and rovers.