by Kara Heinrichs of Ann Arbor Alpacas
The U.S. alpaca fiber market is still being developed. Currently, it’s a combination of some cottage industry and some commercial processing. Even just 5 years ago, most alpaca fiber was processed or sold directly by the breeder themselves. While this can be a lucrative way to handle each year’s clip, it’s time consuming and ultimately the market is limited by the number of handspinners or craftspeople in an area. As the alpaca industry grew in the United States it became clear that supply would outstrip demand. It was important for U.S. alpaca breeders to create additional markets for their fiber and cost effective ways of processing it and adding value by turning it into finished goods (yarns and garments).
Because of this, AOBA formed the Alpaca Fiber Cooperative of North America (AFCNA) in 1998 to create, promote, and market alpaca products for its members. In addition, groups of alpaca owners have also banded together regionally to create fiber co-ops (like the New England Alpaca Fiber Pool (NEAFP), the Rocky Mountain Lama Fiber Pool, and others). These co-ops and fiber pools take their members’ clip and process it en masse, generally turning it into finished products (yarns, sweaters, scarves, socks, etc) which are sold back to members at a discount. Members can then retail these goods themselves in farm stores or sell to other retailers.
Marketing Alpaca Fiber Directly
Over 30% of American consumers surveyed by the International Wool Secretariat (in Australia) reported that they were “allergic” to wool. In a follow up study it was found that most of these consumers were not really allergic to wool in the conventional way. (Though some individuals are allergic to the lanolin in sheeps wool.) The perceived allergic reaction for most was actually “prickle” caused by coarse fibers close to the skin. (see Alpaca Fiber From a Textile Point of View by Safley)
It turns out that it doesn’t matter what a garment is made of, if the fabric contains over 5% of fiber with a diameter over 30 microns, it will prickle or itch. This research also established that once the average diameter of the fiber in a fabric or sweater exceeds 22 microns, the prickle factor begins to appear as well.
Breeders selling their alpaca fiber need to recognize that not all alpaca is luxurious just because it’s alpaca. Only fleeces that average under 22 microns with less than 5% fibers over 30 microns should be marketed as luxury fleece, suitable for wearing against the skin. Other fleeces should be sold as medium or strong for use in outerwear or quilting batts or carpets, for example. This grading can be done using micron tests or simply by hand based on a subjective assessment of the fleece’s fineness.
The alpaca industry can learn a lot from other luxury fiber industries. For example, cashmere (from the hair of the kel goat) avoids the prickle stigma by requiring any fabric labeled as cashmere in the North American market to average 18.5 microns and have no more than 3% of the fiber over 30 microns. As a result, the cashmere image is one of luxury and consumers trust that it will be soft and comfortable.
In marketing fiber directly, look for area spinners guilds and fiber arts guilds. Some require you join in order to sell at meetings and shows, others welcome vendors and breeders for special events. Finding out how to reach these people just requires a lot of footwork and phone calls. Public shearing and educational events are also a good way to draw fiber people directly to your farm. This isn’t an official list, but here are some representative retail prices at which Great Lakes alpaca breeders sell their fiber:
Fiber Grade Price Prime adult (fine) $2-3 / oz Prime baby (fine) $3-4 / oz Prime royal baby (superfine) $3-5 oz.
When breeding for the luxury fiber market, alpaca breeders strive for lower micron values and long staple. Crimp and rich color are also generally valued by handspinners. Jane Wheeler’s work on mummified alpacas discovered in Incan ruins found animals that had 17.9 micron fleece with very low deviation. (See Secrets of the Alpaca Mummies, originally printed in Discover.) Today, in North America micron values of 18 to 30 are more common, though some very finely fleeced animals are available. While fiber fineness needs to be balanced with production values like density, staple length, and yield, clearly the genetic potential for extraordinary fineness is there.
Working With a Co-op or Fiber Pool
Each of the established fiber co-ops and pools varies a little bit in their operations and governance, but working with most as a breeder is fairly similar. In general, when breeders join a co-op/pool, there’s a fee involved, which is either a membership fee or a purchase of a share. Once a member, the breeder sends a portion of their clip each year after shearing to the co-op (anytime between June and August is typical). Some breeders send their entire clip, some process or sell some of it themselves and send the rest to their co-op. Shipping can be costly, so, for example, AFCNA has regional collection points to reduce breeders’ shipping costs.
Once in the co-op’s hands, the fiber is grouped by color and sorted by fineness and type (huacaya or suri). It’s then either sold on the world market or processed in these batches. The co-op makes finished or semi-finished goods using either the fiber or the proceeds from the sale of the fiber, which it resells to members at cost or wholesale prices.
Each of the individual co-ops and pools varies in terms of where the fiber is processed (North America or South America), whether the finished goods are made directly from its members’ fiber or from fiber purchased from the proceeds of the sale of members’ fiber. Pricing, dividends, and the specific finished goods available also vary. Check the fiber resources page of this section for a more complete list of co-ops and regional fiber pools, and then you can research the specifics of each.
A key advantage to co-ops and fiber pools for most breeders is the availability of finished goods. A pound of fine alpaca fiber can be sold for $48 (at $3/oz), while yarn made from that pound of fiber can be sold for around $60, and a sweater made from that pound for up to $200. Additional processing adds additional value and marketability. Perhaps more importantly, as the volume of the U.S. clip grows in coming years, these groups can represent their members to the fashion and apparel industries and retailers to sell the finished goods directly and create new markets for alpaca products.
When breeding for a commercial fiber market, breeders still continue to breed for fineness but are much more likely to also value production qualities like density and overall fleece weight, as well as characteristics that make a fleece easier to process commercially, like uniformity. In commercial processing, fiber is sorted into classes, so the specific qualities of an individual fleece are lost in the whole. AFCNA, for example, sorts fiber into four color groups: white huacaya, colored huacaya, white suri, and colored suri; and then by fineness (<20 microns, 20-22.9 microns, 23-26.9 microns, and >27 microns). Breeders who contribute finer fleeces receive a premium over those who contribute coarser fleeces, but only within those classes. So breeders of commercial fiber are more likely to weigh the relative advantages of fiber fineness vs overall yield within a fiber class and are less likely perhaps to seek the illusive 13 micron fleece–most commercial processors couldn’t currently handle anything that fine, and it’d be no more valuable in this market than a 19.5 micron fleece.
The alpaca fiber industry in the United States is young and growing, but already great stides have been made to ensure a market for our U.S. alpaca clip and to open new markets as supply increases.