Shearing and processing
The love and popularity of alpaca fibre is on the rise. Combining softness, warmth and strength, alpaca fibre has all the benefits of wool without the itch. Available in natural colours but easily dyed, there’s many elements that alpaca fibre can be used for.
Alpacas need to be shorn annually. This is usually done in spring or early summer so that the alpacas have grown enough fleece back before the weather cools again and so they have their fleece removed before the weather gets too hot. Depending where you live also has some influence on the window for shearing, for example in some coastal areas of NSW where there is not the risk of frost or severe cold, shearing may start earlier than in other locations in NSW. Talk to an experienced breeder in your area to find out when alpacas are typically shorn in your area. Local breeders may also be able to advise you on alpaca shearers that are in or visit your area. When breeders only have a small number of Alpaca It may be beneficial to liase with other breeders locally to organise shearing simultaneously in order to secure the shearers services.
Alpacas are generally tied down or restrained for shearing, this may sound unpleasant but it is the safest way for both the alpacas and the shearer and is the standard practice in the alpaca industry. If done correctly with the right equipment, it causes no harm to the alpaca. Alpacas can be shorn on a specially built table designed for shearing or on the ground (you will need something placed on the ground to shear on, your shearer can advise you of their preferred options).
It is recommended that those new to alpacas talk with experienced breeders about the shearing process, equipment, set ups and resources needed, or better still find one willing to have you go and watch their shearing first, many breeders will be open to this. For those yet to purchase their first alpacas, put finding out about shearing on your list of questions to ask the breeder you do purchase from.
It is also recommended that experienced alpaca shearers are used as they have learned the techniques for shearing and handling alpacas and can also give advice on the requirements for shearing. Discussions should be had with the shearer prior to the first shearing to agree what the service will include as it can vary. You will also need to ask if they place the alpaca on the table or floor and tie them down or if you will need to make arrangements for someone else to do this or decide if you are going to do these tasks; also inquire if they bring any of the equipment or if you need to have it.
Try to book in a shearer as far in advance of your shearing time as possible, some alpaca shearers already have bookings 12 months in advance and it can be very hard to secure an alpaca shearer in some areas if left until peak shearing time.
Guidelines for Shearing Shed Set-up and Fleece Preparation
Fleece and Fashion
Depending on your alpaca breed, the fleece will have different characteristics.
High-quality Huacaya fleece should have a uniform fibre with a consistent colour, length, strength and crimping. It is consistently bright and fine, with little guard hair. Suri alpacas provide a fleece of greater lustre, yet share many of the same ideal properties, including integrity of colour, consistent length, strength, and a lack of guard hair. Healthy alpacas should produce a consistent yield across their bodies.
Many of these fleece characteristics are determined by genetics, so it is important to research breeders and the animals’ histories carefully before you invest. The fibre types, fineness, colour, length, guard hair, crimp, brightness and yield are all genetically determined; however, nutrition and health also play a large role in the fineness, length, strength and yield of the fleece.
Australia now boasts several alpaca garment and yarn manufacturers. Internationally, there is strong interest in the fibre among fashion houses, and as the industry grows, our farmers will be further able to meet all supply demands, both nationally and internationally. Now, the demand outweighs production.
As a luxury fibre market, the returns on alpaca fleece can be generous, and the demand for quality animals and quality fleece is increasing.