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see West Melton

Alpaca Articles

Nic and Linda keep up-to-date with the latest in alpaca information, by reading widely, being a member of the New Zealand, Australian, British and American alpaca associations, and attending conferences worldwide.

They share this knowledge with others through holding industry training days and workshops, writing articles for industry magazines in New Zealand, Australia, UK, and USA and also through articles on this website and other websites.

Click here for more articles  

ALIGNING FIBRE - Part 6 of a 6 part series

By Nic Cooper Southern Alpacas Stud

Part 6 Wrapping things up         

The first five parts of this series dealt with the perceived and real attributes of alpaca fleece, and how growers of fibre should adapt their thinking to align their fibre production with processor and retailer needs.

Wrapping up, we offer some advice to those who really want to be growers - not just breeders. And we suggest some ways in which the Industry can re-align its show ring with the goals of growers - both in the short term with changes in emphasis, and longer term with changes in the structure of Shows. 



Some prominent alpaca breeders around the world are on record as saying they simply do not believe in there ever being a fibre based industry from alpacas. I guess they will have stopped reading these articles well before now.

They are breeders - not growers. They breed basically for pets and the show-ring, paying passing lip-service (in the alpaca sales process) to the wonderful fibre of alpacas. Their wonderful fibre gets binned, burned, boxed or stored for the moths.

But for growers the previous articles would draw an obvious conclusion. To succeed in a commercially driven fibre industry, a growing plan is required. Then you can develop a breeding plan that allows you to breed for the fibre you need to grow.

We would always suggest working back from the product.


A) The product

What product range(s) do I want to produce for?

fibre end productIs that product marketable?

Who will buy?

How do I access the market?

Who will be able to process for me?

Is the venture likely to be profitable?

Is there someone already marketing this product that I can sell to profitably?

Viable products (pictured) should be both the end result -- and the start



B) The fibre

What sort of fibre do I need to produce?

What animal will produce me this fibre?

What animals do I have now (what fibre do I produce now)?

How do I bridge the gap between what I have now and what I need?

What are my breeding goals in relation to emphasis on micron, weight, guard hair, colour contamination, and other less important factors?

What are my timeframes, milestones, etc?

Who will be my partners in this venture (if any)?

If you do not have such a plan – you are not a grower.


However you also need to know what you can realistically influence in your breeding, and what you cannot. In other words how strongly these characteristics pass from parent to offspring.

This is called heritability (the ability to inherit). Little work has been done on this in alpaca - however there have been studies in sheep and for the sake of this article at least I think we can draw on those.

I have to qualify here that studies emphasizing particular traits to breed for come up with different heritability scores to support their theories. So think in terms of rankings, not absolute numbers. Focus on the highs and lows - on the relationships - and get an indication of what you can get benefit from addressing.

The figures I have used concentrate on 30 month old merino sheep - when the fleece has matured and is more reliable. A 0.50 heritability is good in these terms. Higher - great. Lower - not so certain.




Excellent heritability, can be bred for reliably

Body weight


Excellent heritability, can be bred for reliably

Wool weight (greasy)


Good heritability, can be bred for

No. of fibres/mm2


Reasonable heritability, can be bred for

Length of staple


Less heritable effect - harder to breed for consistently



Less heritable effect - harder to breed for consistently



Less heritable effect - harder to breed for consistently


And finally I cannot see how you can make progress on your goals without solid independent measurement of the key fibre factors that contribute to that progress. And to me that means AGE –  Across-herd Genetic Evaluation - the industry’s Breeding Values programme. [Also known as EPD’s in some parts of the world]

If you are not a member of AGE you are not an alpaca fibre grower.

So, with a growing goal, with precise measurement, and with a view as to how successful you can be in achieving that goal, you finally have the blueprint for fibre success.


Can we learn from the Merino Industry?

With a successful natural fibre industry on our doorstep, the NZ alpaca industry in particular is well placed to both learn from, and benefit from, the success of that industry.

However that is a qualified “yes”.   It is a “yes” in product selection and marketing.  It is less of a “yes” in breeding strategy.

  merino discussions

The author discusses merino with the owners of  Balmoral Station, Tekapo


When merino sheep first came to Australasia in the late 18th Century they were shearing 2-3kg and were higher micron.  Merino was a “primitive” fibre much like the alpaca of today. It has taken the merino industry over 200 years to develop the low micron, uniform, pure white, heavy cutting, no guard hair wool we see today as the source of our Icebreakertm garments et al.

By 2009, merino growers have locked in (say) 19 micron, 19% cv, nil guard hair, no age blow out, use every bit shorn, herds that consistently produce to strict processor requirements.  The way the merino grower adds value today is through increasing yield (adding to the “guts” of the fleece), by adding marketing value (traceability, niche building etc) and by genetically addressing health concerns (such as foot rot). 

Alpaca growers have 200 years of breeding development to catch up with.  It involves gaining stability in micron, controlling cv, culling contamination, culling and reducing guard hair, eliminating blow out with age -  as well as adding fleece weight.   And we know from all our breeding studies that you can only successfully address a couple of objectives at a time.

The key is sorting out what are the key issues to address first, and aligning industry drivers to encourage the addressing of them.



The Role of the Show

If we assume all of the above, the industry needs to examine how the drivers and inhibitors in the alpaca world either encourage or distract from achieving these goals.

Sit around any group of alpaca owners - at dinner, at a conference, at gatherings - and see how soon the conversation turns to shows, ribbons won, and the use of the top sires who gain the ribbons.

The Show environment has a huge influence on the direction and focus of the alpaca industry - probably more so than in any productive primary industry.


  Sydney fleece show

The author viewing a fleece show in Australia



The question is – is that a positive influence or a negative one?

How well aligned are the show drivers to the grower needs?

Not the needs of the retailer - which will be more post-process oriented.

Not the processor needs - which will be more post-shearing oriented. 

But the grower needs -- to produce the right fibre for the shearer to shear well, the processor to process well, and the retailer to craft and market well.



Looking at other breeds it would be hard to conclude that the show-ring has had a particularly positive influence on the breed. Many merino breeders will tell you that the show-winning merino fleece is generally not the one that best fits their commercial model (i.e. earns them the most).



Most Valuable Commercial FleeceWhy is it that the Most Valuable Commercial Fleece, be it huacaya or suri, is not automatically the Supreme Fleece of the Show?

I would suggest that some traits judged for are more commercially important than others, and may deserve weightings that differ from the current model.


Pictured - A “most valuable commercial fleece" that was not a Champion fleece



Under the current Show Model

From the price based micron/weight elasticities (Part 2 of these articles) it would be reasonable to assume that micron (fineness) should carry significantly more importance than fleece weight or density (however you wish to define it).

The processor driven priorities should mean we need to place more emphasis on uniformity - across the body (giving greater usable weight), in length, in cv, and in lack of coarse guard hair. Remembering the two ways of influencing guard hair, the fineness of the secondary fibres should also be an ameliorating factor.

Lustre in suri should be emphasised (as it is) but brightness in huacaya may not be so important.

Crimp is probably emphasised too much in the show-ring given its place in the processor priorities and the multitude of conflicting opinions about the “best” crimp style. It is the “wow” factor for judges, easy to see and comment on, so it is probably something judges would hesitate in downgrading. But they should place emphasis according to its processing worth.

Some emphasis could maybe be placed on crimps per inch (as a factor for fineness?), and well aligned fibre (for density and crimp relationship?) Amplitude (low) for handle?  Or maybe amplitude (high) for weight? Or just amplitude relative to frequency? The debate is what!

And handle – well is it really just a proxy for micron and uniformity? Should the industry consider using these more measurable statistics, not the more subjective proxy?



We weigh show fleeces but we appear very reluctant to micron test them.

We feel or see micron differences in the show ring - but particularly at the lower micron levels (13 vs 16 micron) this is very imprecise -- yet vital for commercial assessment.

Micron testing show-ring animals is a possibility and would also be quite feasible for larger shows using portable OFDA 2000 machines.  Many merino fleece shows already do this.

I was glad to see recently USA Judges issuing a document of relative emphasis of fleece factors in the show ring - somewhat along the lines of the above. Maybe those guidelines could be adopted in other alpaca show-rings around the world?



Lustre and handle - bred for the fibre or the show-ring?

I am frequently told by breeders that they are breeding for lustre or handle. My response is normally “how are you doing that?”

If these breeders do not measure lustre or handle (and I do not know one that does) they are simply, visually or by touch, estimating what is heavily environmentally influenced.

Even if they measure and select for long scale length and low scale edge there is no research on its heritability.  The safest way to “select” for lustre and handle is to select on the two known and heritable genetic influences – micron and cv.

One has to conclude that breeders selecting primarily for lustre and handle are not selecting it as a breeding goal, they are selecting it for the show-ring!



A word on micron estimation

With vast experience and knowledge comes the ability to estimate (or guess) the micron of strands of fibre in front of your eyes fairly accurately. At higher microns.

Once you get below about 16 micron the job really becomes quite difficult. Yet in the show-ring these animals need to be identified, as they are the ones that will earn super price premiums for their fleece. They are the ones that – if we are judging commercially under our current class structures - should be rewarded.

It is a shame that the overseas trend has become assessing micron by feel rather than by eye. At lower microns human tactile studies are clear that this cannot be done.

It is a shame that judges sometimes talk actual microns in their verbal appraisals - whilst the owner stands there knowing what the real micron is from the test they did last week.

Micron testing both fleeces and alpacas would help judges do a better job, and would allow more transparency for the placings given.



Aligning Show Formats

If we judge under the current show formats – but on more processor driven commercial factors, an ultra-fine fleeced alpaca would normally win the Show.

That they do not, simply indicates that the current judging weightings are not commercial and (ergo) the signals sent from the show-ring are not supporting commercial ends.

Mid-micron woollen garment growers and carpet fibre growers would never succeed at Shows, even though they may be producing a brilliant fibre for their chosen end product. This also sends them the wrong signal.

So why do we judge in age, sex and colour classes when they have absolutely no commercial fibre relevance.

In many shows, merinos are judged along “product” lines with classes defined by micron range. That takes the micron pricing out of the judging equation, and means the judging can concentrate on what makes the best fleece chosen from amongst those with similar end use. You judge on uniformity of colour, length and micron, fleece weight and lack of guard hair in like micron bands.



In Conclusion

I am sure to have ruffled a few feathers with this series of articles, and there are many areas where the research has not been conclusive, or just has not been done.

However if these articles stimulate constructive debate in the industry, they will have achieved their goal. If they lead to areas of further research, they will have excelled my expectation. If they stimulate a review of the way we judge alpacas at shows it will be satisfying.



References used in the research behind these articles include:

The Quality and Processing Performance of Alpaca Fibres:  RIRDC 03/128 November 2003

Cool Lightweight Wools:  CSIRO

Hair Shine: An analytically elusive phenomenon? Advanced Technology Conference – Hair Technologies 2005

Relationship between age and postnatal skin follicular development in three types of South American camelids: Livestock Production Science  (2004)

A comparative study of the British and Italian Textile Industries    DTI Economic Paper #2. April 2003

Keratin and Hair – unattributed

Review of the New Zealand Merino Industry:  Agribusiness & Economics Research Unit, Lincoln University   August 2003

The Biella Merino Ambassador Programme – May 2007

Sulphur and Nutrition: North Dakota State University NDSU Extension Service

Australian Cashmere - attributes and processing  RIRDC August 2002.

What is Superfine Wool ? How fine it is ?  SGS  March 2007

Variations in fibre diameter with nutrition and age.:  The University of Adelaide, Waite Campus

Seasonal variation in fibre diameter and length in wool of grazing Merino sheep with low or high staple strength  Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture

Thanks to Elizabeth Paul for discussions on genetic sources of colour contamination

Northwest Alpacas – The case for crimp

Harvesting of Animal Textile Fibers: FAO Corporate Document Repository

Apparel Fibre Processing:  Andar Wool Processes

Cortex Cell Length:  Canesis Network Ltd

Goat Cashmere: producing the finest fibre from New Zealand goats: New Zealand Cashmere Association

Producing and marketing quality mohair  RIRDC  February 2007

Is crimp important?  Holt 2006

A survey of the relationships of crimp frequency, micron, character and fibre curvature.  Holt 2006

AAFL fibre price lists

Just Alpaca fibre price lists

Measuring Fibre Curvature: Key Issues   V.E. Fish

Fibre curvature in alpacas  SGS

The case of the disappearing wool follicles:  The Wool Press

CSIRO E news – Jan 2009

Human Hair and Cosmetic Science Conference 2005 – abstracts

Thanks to Balmoral Station for educating one of those breeders of “primitive fibre”

AANZ magazine and Stephen Mulholland for the article on understanding density

Thanks to those not mentioned but who find their research has contributed in any way to these articles


Updated July 2009

Nic Cooper and Linda Blake
Main West Coast Road, West Melton, RD1, Christchurch, New Zealand
Phone 0064 3 318-1917 | fax 0064 3 318-1927 | email alpacasnz@xtra.co.nz