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Selecting an Alpaca Fleece
In addition to being a spinner, I am also a camelid shearer. I am not an alpaca or llama farmer. I have been shearing for four years now, and I absolutely love it. Shearing gives me the chance to get a really good look at all grades of fiber.
If you would like to purchase an alpaca fleece to spin by hand, do not hesitate to call or drop by your local alpaca farm. Most farms prefer a call ahead, but will still welcome spur of the moment guests. Personally, I recommend asking to volunteer, if you can, on shearing day. There is nothing better to an alpaca farmer than extra help on shearing day. Your help may be rewarded in a nice discount. It also gives you as a potential buyer the opportunity to get up close with the fleeces when they are the easiest to assess. If you can, look at the fleece you are going to buy while the animal is still wearing it. Some traits like dried tips or over abundance of vegetation are far more apparent prior to shearing. Ask for a whole fleece price. Do not pay by the ounce for a raw fleece. While this means having some less desirable fiber in the lot, it is usually separated in bags by first second and third cuts. This makes it very easy to take the bag of thirds and either toss it, or wash it and try your hand at layer felting.
Alpaca farmers are very proud of their animals, and love to talk them up. They are like proud parents, so finding flaws in the fiber is no way to get a discount. Think first of what you want to create from the fiber, use that knowledge to ask for the right fleece for you. If you want to make outerwear, ask to see a male animal, as their fleece is usually a bit coarser than that of a female. If you are making something for next to the skin wear, look for a baby or female fleece. Remember, animals change, do not count on having the exact same fleece characteristics every year! The other thing to consider is the crimp of the fiber. While alpaca quality is judged based upon visible and uniform crimp, I have found that some of the best fleeces to spin (especially raw) are the fuzzy, less uniform ones.
Once you have selected your fleece an brought it home, you have a few options. Send it out to be washed and carded, wash it yourself and card or flick card it, or you can spin it in the dirt. There are a few farms that I shear for that blow out their animals so thoroughly prior to shearing, that there is barely a need to wash it. I love when I can get a really clean raw fleece like that, because it can create the most sensational yarn with very little effort. If you luck into one of these, do yourself a favor, take a dishpan and place the first cuts in locks, keeping the shorn sides all facing the same direction. You will have several rows of locks in your dishpan. Take it to the spinning wheel, pick up a handful of the fiber, being very careful to keep the shorn end facing the top of your hand. As you draft the fiber into yarn, the shorn ends are automatically spun into the center of the yarn. This creates a very wispy finish to the outside layer of the yarn. You can enhance this quality on your finished garment with a light brushing to give an angora-like halo.
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