Is Alpaca Wool the Softest Wool? (Compared to Qiviut, Angora, Llama, Cashmere, Camel, Sheep, Bison)
You often hear that alpaca wool is soft, very soft, even. And admittedly, it is pretty soft. With an average micron count of 26.5, alpaca wool is definitely softer than your standard wool! But is alpaca wool the softest wool? How does alpaca wool compare to other types of wool?
Alpaca wool is generally considered soft. Its micron count ranges from 18 to 27 microns. The softest wool, however, is qiviut, which has a micron count of 12-14 microns. Royal alpaca is the softest category of alpaca, measured at 18 microns.
There are so many wools and different types of soft fabrics. Let’s look at how well alpaca wool compares to other types of wool.
How Soft Is Alpaca Wool?
Alpaca wool is measured in micrometers (or micrometres), which measures the diameter of the fiber and basically determines the softness of a fiber. You will hear people in the wool industry refer to the softness in microns. The micron measures the diameter of the fiber in one-thousandth of a millimeter (0.001 mm).
It is generally accepted that a lower micron count indicates a softer fiber. This has to do with the fiber structure: as a fiber gets smaller, the tiny scales that you can find on wool fibers will also be smaller. The smaller scales will be more obvious when they are bigger. Scales can be protruding, which means that they can stick out. When scales "stick out" they can be felt on the skin, causing an itch or an irritation (the infamous prickle factor of wool).
If you’re interested in finding out more about what types of alpaca wool you can or can’t wear to avoid itchy skin, read my article by clicking on the link: Is Alpaca Wool Itch-Free?
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 in determining its softness.
Alpaca wool can be found in different degrees of softness:
Source: Alpacas of Montana, Blog (May 12th, 2012)
I wrote a more in depth article about how soft alpaca wool really is. Click the link to read the article: Is Alpaca Wool Soft? (And How Soft Is It?)
You will find different degrees of softness of alpaca wool and the different ranges of micron count are comparable to different types of wool, almost ranging from softest to coarsest fiber. Alpaca wool is truly versatile!
Alpaca Wool Compared to Qiviut Down
Let’s start with the softest fiber of all fibers: qiviut down. Qiviut is the queen of wool fibers, as it is soooo soft, nothing can beat it, really. According to Musk Ox Farm, the average qiviut fiber is 12-14 microns. That is really soft!
Qiviut wool is the down from the soft undercoat of the musk ox. The musk ox actually has really thick, strong and non-soft guard hairs, but underneath that thick layer of protective coarse hairs, you will find the softest fiber on earth: qiviut down. Qiviut is collected when the animals shed (naturally) and the loose hairs are combed and collected (by hand).
If you were to compare alpaca wool with qiviut, you would find alpaca wool to be kind of itchy. Especially the medium alpaca - which is also the most commonly sold type of alpaca fiber. If you were to compare royal baby alpaca with qiviut, it would be really close and you may not even feel the difference anymore at this stage.
The issue with both wool fibers is that they are extremely rare and therefore very pricy! But it is worth the cost: both royal alpaca and qiviut down are so soft, it feels fantastic on your skin. Besides, both keep you really warm in cold temperatures.
Alpaca Wool Compared to Vicuña Fiber
One of the softest fibers in the world is vicuña. It is also one of the most exclusive and most expensive fibers you will ever find. According to Bonny Doon Alpacas, the average vicuña fiber is 12.5 microns.
The vicuña roams the Andean highlands just like the alpaca does, although in many ways the vicuña produces a superior fiber. It has a uniform coat that not only guarantees it to be incredibly soft, but also equal in length, color and strength.
The vicuña has been close to being extinct and it is now a highly protected animal. It can only be shorn once every two years, and even then, it only produces a limited amount of fiber. When comparing alpaca to vicuña, it is obvious that the vicuña wins the softness-award.
And just to put it in perspective: the price of 1 kg (2.2 pounds) of raw alpaca fiber is $12-$28, while the same amount of vicuña can be sold for $400-$600! (Source: Bonny Doon Alpacas)
In case of the vicuña, which is by far the softest of the camelid-family, quality definitely comes with a price.
Alpaca Wool Compared to Angora Wool
Angora wool is the wool that comes from the angora rabbit. The most common types of angora are the English, German and French Angora, which all produce angora wool. All done well, the angora rabbit should not suffer as a result of wool production: animals can be shorn, or hand combed when they shed naturally.
According to Kromski North America, the average angora fiber is 12-16 microns. Angora is known for its incredible softness, and also for its "halo effect". You can recognize true angora wool by the fluffy, fuzzy look, just like the rabbit itself :) It is an appraised material that is not only super soft, but also extremely lightweight.
Angora wool lacks the scales and elasticity that most wool fibers have. So, while 100% angora wool might be hard to work with, a blend with another type of wool will make for an incredibly soft, strong and warm garment.
In short, angora wool is much softer than most categories of alpaca wool. And while it has all characteristics for making a high-quality fiber (like warmth, luster, and thermoregulation), it often needs to be blended for high-quality end-products.
Alpaca Wool Compared to Cashmere
Cashmere is the wool from the cashmere goat. Cashmere is known to be incredibly soft, and according to Soft Goat, the average cashmere fiber is 15-30 microns. However, only the finer fibers are used for garments, generally between 15 and 19 microns.
What is used for production is actually the soft undercoat, as the guard hair can be pretty coarse. Sorting the wool is a meticulous process, as the fibers need to comply with strict standards in order to be labeled cashmere.
Cashmere goats don’t yield as much fiber as other animals, so the production of cashmere is sometimes debated as many goats are needed to provide sufficient wool for production. As cashmere became more of a mass product, it lost its exclusivity as a luxury fiber. Many argue that alpaca is now the better option (at least the more sustainable one).
However, the quality of the fiber is in some ways superior to alpaca: it is softer than the average quality of alpaca wool. Still, both fibers have beautiful luster and are durable.
Alpaca Wool Compared to Yak Down
According to Wikipedia, the average yak fiber ranges from 16-20 microns. The down fiber is used for the textile industry. Just like its family-member the bison, there are, of course, coarser outer hairs (of 80-90 microns!!!), and so-called mid-type hairs (20-50 microns), but only the down is used for the textile industry.
Just like the bison, the yak sheds its hair, and it is then (or right before then) that they are combed and that the hair is gathered.
Yaks live in extremely harsh environments, and their coat is the perfect proof that mother nature is capable of adapting to any condition you can imagine. Their coat provides warmth and is extremely insulating and breathable at the same time. It is softer than many other wool types and it has antibacterial properties.
Yak wool is often compared to cashmere in softness, which means that it averages out on about 18.5 microns. However, yak has recently become more popular given the sustainable nature of the production process. It is comparable in softness to baby alpaca and royal alpaca, which are also obtained sustainably.
Just like bison, yak wool is often blended with other types of wool to make up for the short down hair and provide it with more strength and durability. The softness of your final yak fabric will depend on the quality of the blend that is used.
Alpaca Wool Compared to Camel Hair
Camels have surprisingly soft hair that can be used perfectly for making woolen products. However, while the quality is uniform for all types of camel fibers, the softness will vary a lot more!
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, camel hair is on average between 5-40 microns. That’s a very wide range and you can imagine that the usage of camel wool ranges a lot, too. The coarser hairs are mostly used for coats, blankets and rugs, while the inner, soft coat is used for knitwear, like fine sweaters and scarves.
Generally, you will find that products made with camel hair are generally really, really, soft. Often, baby camel is used and you will find that baby camel (just like baby alpaca) has a micron range of 17-19 microns.
It is strong like alpaca wool, and it comes in a variety of beautiful, brown colors, without the necessity of dying it.
Alpaca Wool Compared to Merino Wool
Merino wool is a little tricky to pin down to a specific number of microns. According to Wikipedia, the average medium merino fiber is 19.6 - 22.9 microns. Of course, you will find many different degrees of merino wool, and the softness will totally depend on the company or producer what micron count they use for their products.
Just like alpaca wool, merino wool can also be sub-classified by their micron-count:
Let’s give credit where credit is due: some types of merino wool are probably the softest wool fibers you will ever find! Merino wool that is used for thermal underwear and next-to-skin-garments, will use a fiber with a very low micron count to prevent itching.
Alpaca Wool Compared to Sheep Wool
Just like alpaca wool and merino wool, you can classify sheep wool in many different categories. And if you consider the fact that the merino breed is a sheep, too, some of the softest wool fibers are, in fact, sheep fibers.
I will look at some of the most common sheep fibers used for wool production.
Corriedale Sheep Wool
The Corriedale breed is your common fluffy, wool sheep, kind of sheep. It is a crossbreed of Leicester or Lincoln with Merino. As you can expect, the result is a fluffy, yet strong type of wool.
According to the Department of Animal Science of the Oklahoma State University, corriedale sheep produce a wool fiber of between 24.5-31.5 microns, which is pretty similar to medium alpaca. In short, you could expect corriedale woolen sweaters to be soft-ish, although they might not be entirely prickle-free.
Be careful with lower quality Corriedale wool, as everything above 30 microns will definitely leave an itch and can probably not be worn without an underlayer!
Peruvian Highland Sheep Wool
Another quality wool fiber comes from the Peruvian highland breed. This type of sheep is a crossbreed that resulted from the romantic encounters of Merino sheep that hooked up with Corriedale sheep.
According to Michell Alpaca, the average Peruvian highland wool fiber is between 24.5 and 28.5 microns.
The natural habitat of the Peruvian highland sheep is - surprise - the Peruvian highlands. Thanks to their adaptations to the high altitude, this breed produces a crimpy yet durable type of wool.
Funnily enough, Peruvian highland wool is pretty similar in micron range compared to medium alpaca wool, although this is not much of a surprise if you consider that they both live in the same environment. Both wool fibers have adapted to the weather conditions in the Andes: rainy, windy, cold and sunny. At the same time.
Rambouillet Sheep Wool
The Rambouillet breed is another descendant of the merino sheep. When Spain lifted its restrictions on exporting merino sheep, some were sent to France and Germany to improve their native breeds. You will find that many Rambouillets all over the world find their origin in either French or German flocks.
According to the Department of Animal Science of the Oklahoma State University, Rambouillet sheep produce a wool fiber of between 18.5-24.5 microns.
If you like to learn more about the (interesting!) history of the Rambouillet sheep, check out the full story (soap-opera) on Northwestern Yarns Website (click the link to go to their blog).
Rambouillets produce a wool fiber that is a little less lustrous than merino wool, but still very soft and (almost) prickle-free. When comparing Rambouillet with alpaca wool, you will find that it is close to the lower-end on the micron count, meaning that it is close to high-quality alpaca wool.
Cheviot Sheep Wool
Not a crossbreed, but a cross-border sheep: the Cheviot sheep originated in the hills between Scotland and England.
According to World of Wool, the Cheviot fiber has an average micron count of 30-35 microns. It is perfect for felting and hand spinning, thanks to its resilience and crimp (the bouncy type of wool), and despite the itch, you will definitely find cheviot-wool sweaters, especially because they are more of the economical kind of sweater. Plus, they have all the benefits that all wool fibers have. Apart from the itch, of course.
Compared to alpaca wool, Cheviot is definitely itchier. Ideally, any type of wool with a micron count lower than 30 should be itch-free (except for people with sensitive skin), and given that cheviot has a micron count of 30 and up, you will probably find it itchy. If you wear a shirt or long-sleeve underneath a cheviot sweater, the itch could become less.
Alpaca Wool Compared to Bison Down
Bison down is the soft hair that comes from the bison when it sheds naturally. Bison down is quite rare, as (the better brands, at least) will only gather the hair when it comes off naturally. You will find chunks of hair hanging from the trees and fences of the bison’s living environment.
According to All About Bison, the average bison down is 21-24 microns. Bison hair is 30-32 microns, and an average of 50 microns is given for the outer, coarse hair. The down and fine hair is sometimes blended with other wool fibers, to make it stronger and improve its quality. As bison hair lacks length.
The comfort factor of bison is really high and will feel very soft to the touch. However, the real softness of bison down will depend on what it is blended with, so make sure that you find a blend that uses another high-quality fiber, like alpaca, merino, cashmere or silk.
Alpaca Wool Compared to Llama Hair
The llama is another wool-producing member of the camelid family. It is a little bigger than an alpaca, but you can see that they’re family! According to Lost Creek Llamas, the average llama fiber is 25-31 microns (high-quality fiber, that is).
Compared to other wool fibers, llama wool has much less crimp and is therefore not as bouncy as normal wool. However, since llama wool is very warm and insulating, you don’t really need a lot of llama wool to stay warm. Apart from that, when comparing llama wool to alpaca, there are quite some similarities and the biggest difference is that alpaca wool is generally a little softer.
The softness has to do with the fiber structure of the llama hair, which is just not as smooth for llamas as for alpaca wool. It lacks the softness and smoothness of the scales like alpaca does. On the other hand, the llama fiber is definitely softer and less protruding than sheep wool.
Llama wool finds itself kind of in the middle and is, therefore, a little bit more budget-friendly than alpaca, while still having great quality!
Alpaca Wool Compared to Mohair
Mohair comes from the angora goat - not the same as the angora rabbit, which produces angora wool. According to Wikipedia, the average mohair fiber is 25-45 microns. Just like many other types of wool, the softer fibers will be used for finer garments, while the coarser fibers can be used for fabrics that are not directly in touch with the skin, like suits and coats.
Mohair has one benefit compared to sheep wool, which is that its scales are generally a lot smaller. In a way, you could say that they are underdeveloped, although it makes for a great feature as it makes the wool softer. However, mohair is often blended with other wool fibers to make it less "slippery" and assure that the fibers stick together well when spun.
Just like alpaca wool, the softness of the mohair fiber decreases as the animals grow older. Nevertheless, their softness is comparable and both make for warm, insulating, lustrous luxury garments. Both fibers have great wicking capabilities, are flame-retardant and do not wrinkle.