Is Alpaca Wool Soft? (And How Soft Is It?)
If you have ever seen an alpaca, you can guess that its fur is soft and fluffy. However, not all woolen products feel soft to the touch. You are probably wondering if alpaca wool feels soft, and if so, how soft it feels?
Alpaca wool is generally soft, but its softness depends on the quality of the yarn. Baby and royal alpaca are the softest categorizations of alpaca wool (between 18 and 23 microns). Regular alpaca is usually around 25-27 microns, which is still softer than regular sheep wool (30-40 microns).
The easiest way to define softness is by talking about the micron count of the wool. But there is more to soft wool than just microns. Soft wool doesn’t itch, is water resistant and drapes perfectly.
Why Alpaca Wool Is Soft
The softness of a fiber is determined by the micron-count, which is measured in micrometers (or micrometres). In short, the micron-count is often referred to as microns. The micron measures the diameter of the fiber in one thousandth of a millimeter (0.001 mm). Yes, that’s very tiny.
As a general rule of thumb, you could say that a smaller micron indicates a softer fiber. The micron count is the most important aspect of the quality of a fiber, although crimp, color, yield, length and strength also play a role.
Alpaca wool can be divided into different categories based on its micron count:
Source: Alpacas of Montana, Blog (May 12th, 2012)
When you are only given the micron count of an alpaca woolen item, you can safely assume that the lower the number, the softer the garment. In case of the alpaca fiber, it is the unique fiber texture that will guarantee its softness when it has a low micron count.
Alpaca Has a Unique Fiber Texture
An important aspect of the alpaca fiber is that it is hair rather than wool. Hair usually has no scales, which is why hair can’t be spun into yarn - it is too smooth. On top of that, hair lacks crimp and elasticity, two other important factors when it comes to fiber softness and its capacity to be made into yarn.
To compare, wool (from sheep, goats, muskoxen, bison, rabbits and camelids) generally has a scale-like texture. Every fiber has minuscule scales that protect the fiber. First, they help make the fiber water absorbent, yet repelling; second, they help make the fiber strong, yet flexible; and third, they help make the fiber soft and smooth.
The size of the scales often determines how soft a fiber is. With a smaller micron-count, you can expect smaller scales, so again, as a general rule of thumb, you could say that a lower micron-count means smaller scales, which, in turn, means that the fiber is softer. The larger the scales, the more irritation or skin rashes they can cause.
Crimp and elasticity are also two major factors when it comes to fiber softness. AND, to the differences between hair and wool. While wool has high crimp and elasticity, hair has basically zero. This means that hair is generally coarser, less bouncy, more prickly, and thus less soft. It also means that it is impossible to turn hair into yarn.
Yet… Alpaca is always used as yarn? And it is super soft? And elastic? This has to do with the uniqueness of the fiber texture of the alpaca fiber:
Despite being hair, it has scales.
Despite being hair, it has crimp.
Despite being hair, it is elastic.
How Soft is Alpaca Wool Compared to Other Animals?
So… The alpaca fiber is actually hair, which means it should be coarse, prickly and sturdy. Yet, it is less irritable than sheep wool, and softer or equally soft as other wool fibers. That is pretty awesome.
Let’s look at the micro-count of the wool, hair or fur of other animals to compare:
Alpaca wool: 23-30 microns
Sheep’s wool: 40 microns
Baby alpaca wool: 18-23 microns
Merino wool: 15-25 microns
Cashmere: 15-19 microns
Angora wool: 12-16 microns
Silk: 10-13 microns
Mohair: 25-45 microns
Vicuña: 12 microns
Camel: 4-40 microns
Bison down: 21-24 microns
Qiviut: 12-14 microns
Yak: 16-20 microns
As you can see, alpaca wool is not the softest animal fiber in the world, and in fact, there are plenty of other options available. As you will find out, though, the very soft fibers are indeed extremely soft, but also (potentially) extremely expensive.
The soft bison, yak and camel hairs can only be found on a limited part of the animals’ bodies. The coarse coat hairs (which there are many more of) are extremely strong, but not at all soft (80-90 microns for yak, for example). Other fibers are scarce because the population is limited (vicuña, qiviut, baby alpaca). And other fibers are extremely expensive because the production process is super intensive.
Why Not All Alpaca Wool Is Soft
Not only is there a difference between the wool of different animals, there is also a difference of softness within the same race, and even within the same animal.
Among alpacas, age plays a huge role. Baby alpaca is known to be some of the softest fibers and comes from the first shearing of an alpaca, typically done when the animal is around one year old. These fibers are so soft because they are still “new”, and when an animal is shorn more often, the hairs grow back a little bit coarser (as they become coarser with age).
Then, there are different parts of the animal that bring softer or coarser fibers:
A Soft Fiber Is Also Itch-free (Most of the Time)
A soft fiber is generally soft when it has a lower micron-count. However, there is a difference between breeds and animals: a 20 micron sheep hair might not be as soft as a 20 micron alpaca hair. This has to do with the fiber structure, as we have seen earlier.
The scaly structure of the fibers causes irritation to the skin (or itchiness), which is highly uncomfortable! The difference between different fibers can be the scale-height: alpaca fibers are generally smaller scales and thus lower in height. Therefore, they are likely to cause much less irritation, itchiness or discomfort.
A Soft Fiber Is Also Water Resistant
The scales on the alpaca hair also help it be water resistant. The scales interlock and neatly connect, so that there is no room for water to enter the hair. This doesn’t only help prevent the garment from getting soaked (which it eventually will, if it gets wet enough), but also helps prevent smells, stains, or mold from taking over your alpaca woolen product.
So, the softer a fiber, the finer its scales, and thus more benefits!
I wrote a full article about this - if you’re interested in learning more about the topic, click the following link: Is Alpaca Wool Waterproof?
A Soft Fiber Also Drapes Perfectly
The hair-like fiber texture of alpacas gives it a shiny, glossy, and silky appearance. Given that the fiber texture is so smooth, it also helps to give alpaca woolen garments a great look: they drape naturally well.
Whens something drapes well, it means that it naturally falls well. You can throw an alpaca woolen scarf over your shoulders and without needing to arrange it, it will look good on you. This is because of the silky fiber texture that makes it so smooth. Whereas other soft fibers can be fluffy, they can stick to other pieces of clothing that you are wearing.
Alpaca wool is naturally classy!