May 28, 2018
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Why alpaca fleece rivals wool in warmth and comfort

By Aislinn Sarnacki, BDN Staff

The morning sun filtered through the storefront windows of Maine Alpaca Experience on Main Street in Ellsworth, illuminating a shop full of colorful hats, shawls, sweaters, socks, teddy bears, handbags, mittens and scarves.

Not yet 1 year old, the establishment still catches shoppers by surprise. And after passing through the front door, it’s not long before they discover that all products in the shop have one thing in common: alpacas.

Tall, fluffy creatures native to the Andes, alpacas are cousins to the camel and produce fiber — like sheep — that’s spun into yarn and worked into felt. Their long, crimped fibers are often warmer and softer than sheep’s wool. In fact, the finest alpaca fleece is likened to cashmere.

“We are passionate about the animals and the product they produce,” said Corry Pratt, who co-owns Maine Alpaca Experience with her wife, Robin Fowler Pratt. “[We] wear it every day. We believe in it. We know it’s true, what is said about it, and we want to share that with other people.”

The Ellsworth shop is just a branch of the Pratts’ alpaca operation in Maine, and at the center of their business is their home and farm in Unity — Northern Solstice Alpaca Farm. There they care for a herd of 40 alpacas. They’re expecting their next baby alpaca in September.

The Pratt’s first foray into the world of alpaca farming was in 2002, when they traveled the country to visit alpaca farms and learn more about the animal and the small but steadily growing industry of alpaca fiber clothing, accessories and other products.

“We knew if we got into alpaca farming that we wanted to know enough about it to be educators, to teach others about it,” Corry Pratt said.

They then apprenticed at an alpaca farm in Thorndike for a year before constructing their own barn in Unity and purchasing their first three alpacas — Salsa, Hamilton and Splenda — in 2006. Since then, the couple has purchased additional alpacas and selectively bred their own to create a herd of alpacas that produce fleece of such high quality they’ve won numerous awards at alpaca shows throughout the country.

“We raise show champions, very high quality alpacas,” Corry Pratt said. “And we mentor other alpaca farmers.”

As an experienced alpaca fiber judge, Corry Pratt knows exactly what to look for when it comes to high quality alpaca fiber.

“Alpaca fiber, what makes it different from other fibers is the fineness of the fiber, the length of the fiber, and the fact that it doesn’t have lanolin like sheep’s wool,” she said.

Lanolin, also called wool wax or wool grease, is a wax secreted naturally by wool-bearing animals.

“Typically if folks have a reaction and call themselves allergic to wool, it’s from one of two things, one is from lanolin, [and the other] is the chemicals they use to scour lanolin out of the sheep’s wool,” Corry Pratt said.

Then there are people who aren’t allergic to sheep’s wool, but nevertheless, it makes their skin itch. That’s caused by the coarseness of the fibers in wool, Cory Pratt explained, as well as the texture of those fibers. If examined under a microscope, sheep’s wool fibers typically have a diameter between 30 and 40 microns. (A micron is a a measurement of length equivalent to one millionth of a meter.) In contrast, a human hair is much coarser at about 100 microns. And high quality alpaca fiber is less coarse, running between 17 and 27 micron, Cory Pratt said. That’s one of the key reasons alpaca fiber is softer and more comfortable to people’s skin than wool.

Furthermore, alpaca fiber is also said to be warmer than sheep’s wool — four to seven times warmer, according to Corry Pratt.

“The fiber is hollow, so it works just like a thermos works trapping in warm air,” she said.

Sheep’s wool is not hollow, but it does contain air pockets, which makes it a good insulator. Just not as good as alpaca fiber.

Another difference between sheep’s wool and alpaca fiber is the way it reacts to water. Sheep’s wool absorbs water and releases water easily, making it a good material to wick moisture away from the skin. Alpaca fiber, on the other hand, is water repellent. And both materials are flame resistant.

“You only have to wear a pair of alpaca socks once to know that something is different,” Corry Pratt said. “We love having people realize that and say, ‘Oh, I need more,’ or ‘I want my friend to know about this.’”

That being said, it’s important to know that not all alpaca fiber is equal in quality.

When it comes to the quality of fleece alpacas produce, it has a lot to do with genetics and the health of the animal. Farmers selectively breed alpacas for desirable fiber characteristics. For example, alpacas come in more than 20 different colors, with white being the most desirable color because it can easily be dyed different colors. Shades of gray are relatively rare, and true black is also desirable. In addition, some alpacas produce finer, softer fleece than others, and they can pass on that trait to their offspring.

That’s why Corry Pratt has put so much time into learning how to judge it. Examining and placing alpaca fiber into categories is extremely important in determining what fiber to use in what products. In general, the softest, highest quality alpaca fiber is used in products that touch the skin, while the coarser fibers are used in products that do not, such as tote bags, fleece-lined hats and teddy bears.

“Some people just throw it away, but we’ve found ways to use it,” Corry Pratt said.

At Northern Solstice Alpaca Farm, judging and sorting of alpaca fiber is Corry Pratt’s job, and she does it each June after the herd is sheared of their winter coats. The process is painless, unless you count mental or emotional distress, of which there is as bit of that. Each alpaca on the farm seems to have a different opinion about shearing.

“Some of them act like they’re getting a massage, while others just scream and scream about it,” she said. “It’s not their finest hour.”

On an alpaca, there are three zones of fleece. The saddle, which covers the back, is where the finest quality fibers come from. The fleece from the neck is lesser in quality. And the leg fibers are the lowest quality. So right away, those are divided during shearing.

Pratt then sits down and judges the fibers on several fronts, including length, fineness, color and strength.

Diving deeper into the various qualities of alpaca fleece, Corry Pratt explained that some alpacas produce more guard hairs than others. Guard hairs are long, straight hairs that appear throughout the curly, soft fleece. In creating most clothing, fleece with a lot of guard hairs is undesirable because it makes the garment feel coarser and potentially itchy.

Through judging and sorting alpaca fiber, the Pratts also can monitor the health of their alpacas. When they’re sick or stressed or not eating a healthy diet, their fibers may not grow as long, or they may be brittle. The quality of their fiber also may reflect the weather that year. Cold weather typically prompts them to grow longer, denser fleece.

After sorting the fiber, the Pratts sends much of it to a mill in Massachusetts to be made into yarn. One alpaca typically produces six to ten pounds of fiber a year, and that equates to roughly 20 skeins of yarn. The Pratts then sell that yarn in their shop and online, and they use it to knit apparel and accessories.

In addition, they send some of their alpacas’ fleece to the New England Alpaca Fiber Pool, which uses alpaca fiber from throughout New England to create a variety of products, including mittens, hats, scarves and shawls. The Pratts then buy these products at wholesale and resell them in their shops knowing that fiber from their own alpacas are likely used in some of the items.

In the U.S., there are currently an estimated 300,000 alpacas living on farms. This number is the result of a slow and steady growth dating back to the 1980s, when about 3,000 alpacas were imported into the country before the outbreak of mad cow disease made importation of livestock difficult and expensive, Corry Pratt explained.

Since the animal is built for a cold climate, Maine is a good place to farm them. To date, there are about 100 alpaca farms in Maine, Corry Pratt said, and Northern Solstice Alpaca Farm is actively mentoring new farms. They also host seminars at their farm about alpaca ownership, including classes on parasite ID and neonatal care. And in 2009, they founded the Alpaca Center of New England as a source of education and support for alpaca farmers in the region.

“It’s a very odd business,” she said. “We don’t have enough alpacas in the U.S. to process enough fiber we need to maintain a textile industry.”

“Our job is to encourage people to raise alpacas, to pioneer an industry,” she added. “Until we have a million [in the U.S.], we don’t even have enough to maintain a textile industry. We’re about 10 years away from that.”

In addition to their shop in Ellsworth, the Pratts have a shop at their farm in Unity, as well as a shop in Northport, which they opened in 2015. And while their shops certainly help them make a living off of their passion, they also serve as informal education centers. A live feed from their alpaca barn is on display behind the cash registers, and spinning and knitting classes are offered on a regular basis.

“We want to continue to educate and have people raise these animals… We’re approaching 60 years old. We’re not going to be in this for another 50 years,” Corry Pratt said. “What we want is to leave this business in the hands of good people who are going to continue and are going to bring the alpaca industry to the level of cotton and wool are right now today in the U.S.”

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