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What is ultrafine fleece in alpacas?
Ultrafine is a term adopted from the merino wool industry & was related to alpaca fibre in 2006 by the fibre focus group known as 'Alpaca Ultimate' of which we were co-
Why bother breeding for such ultrafine fleece when it is much easier to breed just fine to medium?
The answer is simple -
Ultrafine fibre in recent years has made up to $70-
Prices for all natural fibres fluctuate but ultrafine is always more valuable than other grades of wool.
Recent word from Peruvian processors is that the future for alpaca fibre is sub 18 micron (Source: C.Holt, Bega Show 2008)
What does fine really mean?
In the alpaca industry the word 'fine' means different things to different people, some call a 24 micron fleece 'fine' but to a breeder aiming for ultrafine fibre it is nowhere near fine enough!
Ultrafine is currently 18 micron or less for Alpaca Ultimate & there are length requirements etc.
In the merino industry Ultrafine is technically fibre 15.6 micron or less according to wool metrologists.
But if I breed heavy cutting fine to medium fleeces won't I make just as much?
This is one of the most common held beliefs out there, but it is wrong. Just do the math!
To make the same money as just 1 kilo of Ultrafine fleece you need to grow over 10 kilos of medium micron fleece & nearly 5 kilos of fine fleece!
It has been proven in studies done in the sheep wool industry that heavier cutting animals cost more to feed & are harder on the paddock soil & thus have a lower stocking rate, which increases maintenance costs. So each kilo of fleece from the heavier cutting 25 micron animal for example is actually making you even less money per kilo when all factors are considered, in relation to the lower fleece weight 17 micron ultrafine animal.
Don't most ultrafine alpacas only have an ultrafine first fleece then blowout?
Many alpacas that are advertised as having an ultrafine fleece may have already moved to the fine category on the 2nd fleece or have had fleece tests done at only a few months old, only to end up several micron higher at 1 year of age.
What is just as important as starting ultrafine is staying that way for as many years as possible.
Micron blowout we believe is more important to consider than just going for density or style, as many prize winning animals have stylish dense fleeces worth only $10 or $20, the ability to maintain a low micron over time makes an animal worth it's weight in gold to us, especially if it also has good style & structure etc.
Does a few micron make a difference in the very fine categories?
It is worth taking a lesson for the future from the sheep industry where ultrafine fibre can jump $100 extra per kilo for a 14.5 micron fleece compared to a 15 micron fleece -
In 2007 the highest price paid for merino was a whopping $953-
When the alpaca industry starts to produce higher quantities of ultrafine fibre categories, we to can expect to receive higher payments. But we can't expect higher payments before we can guarantee manufacturers quantity of this precious fibre
What else is important in Ultrafine fleece?
Like any fleece ultrafine needs to be as good as possible in all aspects, such as defined crimp & staple structure etc.
Having a fleece that is even in micron throughout the body of the alpaca is also very important.
A low SD (standard deviation) is the best way to see if there is variation in the fibre , we aim for SD's under 4.0 on early fleeces, but preferably in the low 3's or even lower!
The best way to determine if an animal has an even micron throughout the body is to do a grid test -
A difference of 5 micron between the mid side & the hip for example is not good, whereas only 1 micron variation is much better.
Also having a useable fleece length of 75 to 120mm approx for ultrafine is important -
The majority of processors actually want fleece around 100mm, with 120mm being the absolute maximum cut off point for many.
Because alpaca fibre buyers & manufacturers currently demand white fibre that they can dye any colour to meet current fashion demands, white fibre commands higher prices commercially.
Coloured alpacas in general have not been producing fibre as fine as whites, but it can be done & once we have more of it we may see the prices for coloured ultrafine increase also.
The fleece below is a 2nd fleece of only 17.7 micron, SD3.6 from a breeding female. Her 3rd fleece was 17.1 & SD 3.3!
The vicuna only produces fawn fibre yet is the most expensive natural fibre on earth. (see bottom of page for more about Vicunas).
Consider the Vicuna
The Vicuna, measuring only 70 -
It grows the finest natural fibre in the world, at an average of about 12.5 microns.
The Vicuna only grows about 2.5cm of fleece per year & is shorn every 2 years for no more than 5cm or 2 inches of fine fibre!
The weight is also very low at about 500g in total per shearing, only comes in the one colour fawn & also needs dehairing even though it's medullated fibres are all usually under 30 micron which is better than alpaca.
Also consider that the Vicuna is a wild animal that has to be rounded up & herded into a catchment area for shearing, which takes the efforts of hundreds of Peruvian farmers to achieve.
Why would they bother all things considered? Because ultrafine Vicuna fibre is the most highly paid natural fibre per kg, averaging $1000 per kg!
The fabric sells wholesale for between $2500 & $5000 per metre!
This alone, proves the worth of ultrafine camelid fibre. The Peruvians wouldn't bother if it wasn't profitable. The textile manufacturers wouldn't bother if there wasn't a market for this luxury fabric.
So think for a moment, what if we can breed alpacas this fine, that grow a longer length of fleece than Vicuna, come in more than just fawn & cut a heavier fleece weight?
If you think this is out of the question then think again -
Some of the Peruvian pre conquest alpaca mummies discovered by Dr Jane Wheeler (below), when tested had SD's of 1.1! So it has been done before, & I believe can be done again. On a small scale to start, but in the decades ahead alpacas approaching the fineness of the Vicuna will I believe become more commonplace & eventually one day be an Australian bred rival to the Vicuna in the global luxury fibre market.
Photo courtesy of Dr Jane Wheeler
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