Alpacas originate from South America and were bred for their fleece rather than as working animals. And since the nineteenth century, Scottish hosiery manufacturers have been using this imported luxury fibre. However, today, Alpacas are bred across the world including in the UK. Although there are two types of alpaca – Huacaya and Suri – the majority of animals are Huacaya. Alpacas produce a very light, soft fleece that can create a beautiful yarn.
The Border Mill specialises in processing, blending and spinning alpaca from animal owners and breeders in the UK. Alpaca fleece – unlike wool – does not contain lanolin, which means no oil needs to be removed before processing. However, the fleece captures a lot of dust and needs to be tumbled to remove as much as possible before washing. Fleece is weighed before washing and carding, and after washing as much as half a kilo of weight in dirt and dust can be lost.
The Tender Point
Kate Embleton, the Border Mill’s Production Manager, is responsible for deciding how the fleece will be processed. On a recent trip to the mill, she described what is known as the tender point of the fleece. She pulled a small piece between her fingers to see how easily it would break. If it broke easily then she knew that the animal had been ill or distressed whilst growing the fleece. Fleece that is weak or has a particularly short staple needs to be blended with stronger fleece to withstand processing. She also explained that as alpacas become older their fleece becomes coarser and has to be blended with fleece from sheep or younger alpaca to create a yarn with a good handle.
Alpaca fleece comes in a wide range of natural colours but can also be dyed and blended with other fibres.
All photographs – unless otherwise credited – taken by a member of the F2F team and used with permission of The Border Mill.