What Is So Special About the Alpaca Fiber? (Science Explained)
Alpaca wool is often marketed as an exclusive luxury fiber with many unique qualities and characteristics. However, many of these claims remain unsubstantiated and you probably wonder what is so special about the alpaca fiber. Let’s have a look!
The alpaca fiber is not the warmest. Nor the softest. Nor the strongest. Actually, it is not even close to being the most exclusive fiber in the world. What is it, then, that makes alpaca wool so special? It is the combination of its softness, strength, warmth, and many other qualities that make the alpaca fiber unique.
The alpaca hair fiber has a unique structure compared to other wool fibers because it is soft and fine, without being weak or vulnerable. The outside of the alpaca hair is covered with microscopic scales, while there are air pockets on the inside of the fiber. The combination of fineness and strength is unique for alpaca.
Let’s have a closer look at the fiber to discover each of them.
Alpaca Is Soft Thanks to Its Fiber Texture (Despite Being a Wool Fiber)
While alpaca wool is not the softest fiber in the world, it is definitely among the softer fibers that exist. With an average of 25-28 microns, alpaca wool is softer than most regular sheep wools. It is also softer than llama (25-30 microns) and mohair (25-40 microns).
On the other hand, it is not as soft as merino wool (generally between 15-25 microns), camel (18-22 microns), yak (16-20 microns) and angora (12-16 microns). And it is not even close to the softest fiber in the world: qiviut (8-10 microns).
In fact, it seems that alpaca wool is pretty average, right?!
That’s right, and that is exactly what makes alpaca wool so special. The fiber texture of the alpaca hair is smooth, yet strong. Its fibers are soft, yet flexible. It is not just soft, it is soft without disadvantages.
If you were to put alpaca fiber under a magnifying glass, you would see that the scales on the alpaca fiber are miniscule. All wool fibers are characterized by their scales. The scale-like texture of the fiber is important because it keeps the hair flexible and it gives the fiber other advantages, like water-resistance, for example (more about that below!).
So, those scales… The difference between the alpaca fiber and other wool fibers is the protrusion of the scales. They are not as high as those of other fibers. When something is protruding, it sticks out (also called serration: read more on Wikipedia). So, if scales are protruding, you can feel them. When you can feel the scales of wool fiber, it feels itchy. Itchiness occurs when the nerves close to the skin are triggered by the touch of the fiber.
The micron count of alpaca wool is relatively low. A lower micron count means less protruding scales: they are simply smaller and thus shorter. Compared to other wool fibers, alpaca wool does not have the lowest micron count possible. However, it is low enough to make the scales very little protruding and thus very prickle-free.
Alpaca fiber is a little more special compared to other wool types. Even wool fibers of a similar micron count can still have larger scales, like regular sheep wool, for example.
According to Cameron Holt, considered to be a highly renowned alpaca expert, the scale height of the alpaca fiber is about 0.3 - 0.4 of a micron, while the scales of sheep wool protrude about 0.8 of a micron! Read more about it: Alpaca Myths: Or Are They? (Link goes to a PDF file).
So, alpaca wool has small scales that don’t stick out much thanks to its low micron count, but also because it is alpaca: it just has smoother scales than other fibers.
Alpaca Wool Is Strong Despite Being Soft (Thanks to the Fiber Texture)
Comparing alpaca wool in terms of strength is actually a pretty difficult thing to do. The strength of alpaca wool is measured in staples, which means it is measured per bundle of hair, instead of one single strand of hair. This is done because alpaca wool is stronger as a bundle, and it is more representative of the real-life use of alpaca, as it is often used as a bundle: yarn.
So, according to Wild Hair Alpacas and Breezy Hill Farm Alpacas, the staple strength of alpaca wool is measured to be on average 50 N/ktex. In short, this means that for 1 kilometer of alpaca fiber, that weighs 1 kilogram (2.2 lbs.) in total weight, a force of 50 Newton is needed to break the bundle of yarn.
All right… Just take it from me: alpaca wool is pretty strong.
If you are curious to find out more about the science behind the strength of the alpaca fiber, check out my article about it: How Strong Is Alpaca Wool?
That being said, if you want to compare alpaca wool to other fibers, it would mean that you need the same staple size to give any accurate information. There is probably a reason why this has not been done yet (or at least, not that I know of despite my extended searching on the Internet).
There are a lot of factors that influence the strength of the alpaca fiber: weather conditions, nutrition, age, area from which the sample is taken and even the level of stress that the alpaca experiences (for real!). It is therefore very hard to draw any conclusions on the claims that alpaca wool is stronger than other fibers.
Cameron Holt (alpaca expert) has tried to find evidence for the claims that alpaca wool is stronger than wool. You can read more about it here: Alpaca Myths: Or Are They? (Link goes to a PDF file). His conclusion, however, is that it seems possible that alpaca wool is stronger, but that there is a lack of evidence.
So, I’ll stick to my statement that alpaca wool is strong, and I will explain to you why the fiber texture is important for this.
When you compare wool fibers to other natural fibers, you will see that (most) wool fibers have that scale-like texture. The scaly texture helps the wool fibers interlock tightly. So, when wool fibers are spun together into yarn, the cumulative fibers become even stronger.
The length of the fiber is important, too. Wool fibers are generally longer than other types of fibers. Alpaca wool, which is shorn only once a year at most(!), is especially known for its long hairs. When you use long hairs, it provides an environment for the scales and fibers to interlock and stay put.
In conclusion, alpaca wool is a strong fiber, without any of the disadvantages that strong fibers naturally bring. For example, jute is super strong, but you won’t wear that coarse fiber on your skin! Or polyester... Sure, it is really strong, too, but also disastrous for the environment!
What is so special about the alpaca fiber is that it is naturally strong while being incredibly soft, while not hurting the environment in its production.
Alpaca Wool Is Warm Because of the Hollow Fiber Texture
Another main characteristic attributed to alpaca is that it is warm. Wearing an alpaca woolen garment keeps you warm when it is cold outside. To be exact, according to Wild Hair Alpacas it is estimated that in a 0°F (-17.78°C) atmosphere, your body will feel as if it is in an environment of about 50°F (10°C) wearing alpaca wool.
Interestingly enough, despite the claims, there is no substantial evidence that alpaca wool provides a certain temperature. Firstly, how warm alpaca wool makes you feel depends on many different factors. The temperature that it might provide depends on the type of garment that you are wearing. It will also depend on the structure of the garment (is it knitted or woven?), the thickness of the yarn and the design of the garment.
Knitted garments tend to give more warmth because there is more space between the fibers that provide little insulating pockets (very much apart from the insulting pockets inside the fiber!) and therefore are warmer than tightly woven items. Knitted garments also generally have a looser fit, which means that there is more space for air to heat up, giving more warmth to the body.
One way or another, alpaca wool is warm. And despite not knowing how warm it exactly is, I can promise you that wearing an alpaca woolen item will be warmer than not wearing an alpaca woolen item. Alpaca wool is warm thanks to the special fiber structure.
Alpaca has a medullated fiber: there are tiny little pockets on the inside of the hair that provide a space where air gets trapped and then heated up. Makes sense, right? Normally, a medullated fiber also indicates that the fiber is thicker in diameter and more brittle, which is not so desired.
It seems like you can’t have the pros without the cons…
However, alpaca wool seems to be medullated while still being soft and strong! How is that possible? It is a unique characteristic of the alpaca fiber. Simple as that :) The core of the alpaca fiber is also continuous: giving space to even more warming air! And explaining the advantage for alpaca wool compared to sheep wool.
I wrote in much more detail about this in a separate article: Is Alpaca Wool Warm? Click the link to learn!
The Alpaca Fiber has Many Other Qualities Thanks to its Structure
OK, alpaca wool is soft, while still being strong, while still being warm. That’s pretty cool. But, so is merino wool, cashmere and mohair. And probably some other types of fabric, too. So… What’s all the fuss about?
Haa, there’s more to that pretty, little alpaca face!
Erhum… There is more to the alpaca fiber. Thanks to its unique structure, it is also water-resistant, wind-resistant, breathable, stain-resistant, odor-resistant, non-iron, durable, resilient, flexible, pill-free, wrinkle-free, stretch-free, lustrous, silky, shiny, drapey, AND affordable.
The Scale-like Fiber Texture is Great at Wicking Away Moisture
Again, it is the fiber structure of the alpaca hair that makes it do all those things. The scaly structure (with the protrusion being so low) can wick away moisture, damp, stains, rain. It makes it resistant to many different things, and alpaca wool is therefore perfect to wear doing many different things.
While you wouldn’t really go hiking in a woolen sweater, you can definitely consider wearing an alpaca woolen garment for outdoor activities. Not only is alpaca wool water-resistant, but it is also incredibly breathable.
The Strong Fiber Is Durable
Alpaca wool is also much more durable than other (wool) fibers. The small scales prevent a garment from pilling, so it will last a long time before it will start to look old, worn out or used.
Read more about this in another article I wrote: Does Alpaca Wool Pill? (Causes Prevention and Solutions)
Alpaca Wool Is Not as Expensive as Other Luxury Fibers
Alpaca wool is also among the more affordable wool fibers.
In my article Why Is Alpaca Wool Expensive?, I analyze the price-quality ratio of alpaca woolen garments. Turns out, alpaca wool might have a higher price tag on it, it is not expensive for the quality you get!
Other wool fibers, especially the warmer and softer ones, are much more expensive, like qiviut, vicuña and bison down. Don’t get me wrong: those fibers are probably superior in quality and are much rarer than alpaca wool, so they should be much more expensive than alpaca wool!
The Alpaca Fiber is Lustrous
Another special characteristic of the alpaca fiber is that it looks good. Lustrous fibers are often praised for their exquisite looks. The fiber has a silky texture, which makes it look and feel like silk while being much stronger and warmer. Silk might be softer and dress more elegantly (and be more suitable for summer) but alpaca can definitely be used for garments that are meant to impress.
Read more about the brilliance of the lustrous alpaca fiber in another article I wrote: Is Alpaca Wool Shiny?
Alpaca Wool Is the Perfect Combination of EVERYTHING
I love alpaca wool. One of the major reasons for my unconditional love for this beautiful fiber is that it comes from South America. The continent that taught me so much about life. About unconditional love. About growth. In harmony with the world.
When I lived in Peru I learned that life is about balance. There is no right or wrong as life will guide you from one extreme to another to find what is important to you.
For me, it is important that people are treated fairly. That men and women are treated equally and that there is harmony in every step that we take. This lesson inspired me to start Yanantin and to empower women in Bolivia by paying them an honest salary and a happy work environment.
You can support them, too. Check out the webshop and all alpaca woolen products available.
Still not convinced that alpaca wool is pretty damn special? Have a look at this extended list of options that you can use alpaca wool for. I bet some of these will surprise you!