Sorting and Grading Alpaca Fiber

Alpaca fiber, as well as virtually all natural animal fibers, has been sorted and graded the same way for thousands of years.  Despite new technologies for measuring the microns of various fibers, the experienced hand and eye remain the tried and true method used by the Peruvian people in sorting alpaca.  In fact, trained alpaca graders can consistently sort raw fiber into ranges of only 3 microns at the rate of 150-200 pounds a day.   Since no individual animal, let alone a breed, produces fiber that is consistently uniform in color, staple length, or fineness, accurate sorting and grading of the raw fiber is critical for producing profitable end products.

After shearing, the first step in sorting the fiber is by color.  It is interesting to note that many countries sort alpaca colors to different levels.  For example, Bolivia sorts to 17 colors, Peru to 22 Colors, Canada to 9 colors and the U.S to 7 colors.  For the purposes of your gray fleeces, if you have several different colors of gray animals, it would be beneficial to start sorting them into light, medium and dark, for both silver and rose.    If you don’t have enough animals to do this level of sorting, then you can just sort the silvers together, and then the rose gray fleeces together.
The second sorting process would be to determine the length and uniformity of each fleece.  Shorter fleeces, 1 .5 to 3.75 inches, would go into one pile, and fleeces over 3.75 inches go into another. If your objective is to have a uniform yarn, it is critical to match the lengths of the individual fleeces and put them together.  Putting together longer and shorter length fleeces into a single batch results in loss of fiber at the time of carding/combing, thus reducing the amount of final product, sometimes by 40%.  It also tends to produce yarns that are uneven, with spots in the yarn that are lumpy and unspun.  In general, alpaca provides a relatively high yield of fiber after processing, averaging 87% as compared to 43-76% for sheep’s wool.

The next step in the sorting process is grading the fiber for its quality.  This takes lots of practice!  However, just by sorting the fleeces by length is already going to dramatically improve whatever end product you will make.  The following is a chart of the different grades of alpaca fiber:

  • Grade 1  Ultra Fine  (Royal baby)              < 20 microns
  • Grade 2  Superfine  (Baby)                           20-22.9 microns
  • Grade 3  Fine                                                  23-25.9 microns
  • Grade 4  Medium                                           26-28.9 microns
  • Grade 5  Intermediate ( Adult)                     29-32 microns
  • Grade 6  Robust                                            32.1-35 microns       

You may never be able to sort your fiber to this level of sophistication, but in general, if you can sort your fiber into just 3 grades, you will be astounded at the difference in your finished products.  Just a note for clarification, the term “Baby Alpaca” when it refers to end products, is an “average” fiber diameter of 22.5 microns.  The fiber used to obtain this quality does not necessarily come from baby alpacas, but could easily come from an adult animal with a very fine fleece.

Processing Methods

There are two methods in which fibers are processed depending on the length.  They are Woolen and Worsted. 
Woolen Processing requirements and results:

  1. Short fibers  1.5 to 3.75 inches
  2. 6-8 crimps per inch for better loft (for huacaya)
  3. Makes knitted garments, from lightweight to bulky and some woven items
  4. Makes soft, lofty yarns which may pill over time due to random arrangement of fibers in carding process

Worsted Processing requirements and results:

  1. Long fibers 3.75-6 inches
  2. 3-6 crimps per inch (for huacaya)
  3. Makes woven fabrics, such as suiting material, knitted shawls and lace work
  4. Makes strong , smooth yarn with high tensile strength for durability in wear because fibers are aligned in one direction

Sorting and grading may seem like a daunting task when you face all those bags of fiber that have been piling up, but you will be very pleased with your outcome and so will your customers.  So, just to review:

  • Sort fleeces by color
  • Sort fleeces by length of staple
  • Sort fleeces by grade (at least in two piles- grades 1-4 and then everything else)

Now all you have to decide is where to send it!