by Kara Heinrichs of Ann Arbor Alpacas

Some of the buzz words you hear in talking to breeders about their alpacas are, in fact, the fiber characteristics for which that breeder is breeding, these include:

  • Color–alpaca is classed by ARI into 22 color categories, though in reality the specific colors of the animals have over 200 distinct shades (see The Kaleidoscope and Fiber Evaluation by Hoffman). The color classes make it possible to group fleece colors for processing
  • Fineness–a measure of the diameter of each of the hair follicles, generally measured in microns
  • Staple length–the length of fiber an animal produces between shearings
  • Density–the number of hair follicles per square inch
  • Uniformity–the even distribution of all the characteristics that are valued in a fleece
  • Crimp/crinkle–the waviness present in huacaya fiber. In sheep’s wool, the more uniform the crimp, the finer the fleece was thought to be.  In alpacas, this isn’t necessarily true (suris exhibit almost no crimp), but it continues to be valued by North American alpaca breeders and gives huacaya alpacas their characteristic look
  • Fleece weight–the full weight of the blanket fleece and seconds

Other more subjective factors are also considered in breeding programs, like luster in huacayas or sheen/shine in suris, uniformity of color, and handle.

No breeding program can select for all of these traits at once, and some of these traits counteract each other to some extent (for example, a fine fleece will weigh less than a courser fleece of equal density). Most breeders have selected one or several of these traits to focus on in their breeding programs. Different traits are more or less valuable depending on the intended end use–commercial processing, hand spinning, felting, quilting, for show, etc. So it’s important to know your market and goals.

When evaluating fleece on an animal, know which factors you’re looking for and judge the animal with your criteria in mind. It’s typical to split the fleece in at least 3 areas (the center side, the front shoulder and the back rump) to judge the uniformity of the animal’s fleece characteristics across the entire blanket.

Evaluation in Fleece Shows

Evaluating fleece once it’s off the animal is often the most objective way to do it.  It can be done more leisurely, and you’re not influenced by other aspects of the animal.  Fleece shows provide useful objective feedback from experienced fleece judges about the quality of a specific fleece.

Fleece Shows

The AOBA fleece judging system is an absolute system. All fleeces are judged by comparing them to an “ideal” fleece, which is expressed as a perfect score of 100 points. The scoring breakdown is as follows:

  • Handle & fineness–20 pts
  • Uniformity–20 pts
    Consistency (8pts), staple (7pts), color (5pts)
  • Character–15 pts
    Huacaya: Crimp (10pts), lock structure (5pts)
    Suri: Lock style (10pts), density (5pts)
  • Luster–10 or 15 pts
    Huacaya: Brightness (10 pts)
    Suri: Sheen, gloss or shine (15pts)
  • Lack of medullated fiber (aka, guard hair)–5 or 10 pts
    Huacaya: 10pts
    Suri: 5pts
  • Lack of impurities, stains, fleece damage–5 pts
  • Volume/Weight–20 pts
    Annualized yield–weight divided by the number of months growth then multiplied by 12 (months)

Judges can disqualify a fleece that is unsound, containing tender breaks, matts, excessive debris, or parasites. Show fleeces are the blanket fleece, which has been picked clean and skirted to remove any fiber that’s not of the same quality as the blanket (no neck, leg, or belly hair). The blanket fleece is folded in thirds and rolled so that the cut side is facing out and placed in an unmarked clear plastic bag for showing. See the AOBA Show Division Handbook for complete rules and tips on preparing and presenting fleeces. See the AFCNA clip care manual for illustrations of rolling fleeces.

Spin-Off Competitions

Spin offs are an optional fleece class at fleece shows. In a spin off, breeders submit a 2oz sample of their best fiber, which is prepared and spun by experience handspinners/judges. After the judge cards and spins a portion of the fiber, scoring is based on the following criteria:

  • First impression
  • Staple length
  • Cleanliness
  • Lack of second cuts
  • Lack of guard hair
  • Lock structure
  • Ease of preparation
  • Ease of spinning
  • Softness
  • Crimp or curl
  • Luster or brightness
  • Texture
  • Loft