Alpaca fiber has become well known for its non-scratchy softness and excellent insulation ability. Alpaca fleece also provides wicking benefits in humid conditions, which makes it ideal for many types of climates. The fiber's high strength and fire resistance have led to its use in varied clothing applications. To obtain this high-quality fiber, naturally occurring in 22 colors, alpaca ranchers and shearers work cooperatively to achieve the best possible fiber harvest.
An alpaca owner can improve his animals' coat quality prior to shearing day. A month before the big event, he places the alpacas in a clean, dry pasture mostly free of weeds and other coat-clogging vegetation. The owner ensures the alpacas are completely dry a few days before shearing them. On shearing day, he confines the alpacas near the shearing area for easier access. Sorting the animals by color starting with the lightest shade, and recording these results, creates a logical shearing order. Before the shearing begins, workers gently blow extra debris and dirt from the alpacas' coats.
An alpaca shearer ideally performs his work in a dry, shaded location that minimizes alpacas' sun exposure. A relatively flat surface, such as a gently rolling pasture, provides a nice stable platform for both the alpaca and the shearing workers. An area of at least 12 square feet allows workers sufficient room to move around the alpaca. Closely matching these location recommendations increases the chances of removing and bagging good-quality alpaca fiber.
The alpaca shearing process will proceed more smoothly if the shearer gathers the proper equipment beforehand. A spacious, sturdy tarp allows the shearer to access each alpaca on a clean surface. A humane restraint system keeps the alpaca immobilized. A good supply of combs enables the shearer and his assistants to remove grass or debris from the alpaca's coat. The shearer also needs a pair of quality electric shears, along with lubricant and blade sharpening equipment. Because nicks sometimes occur, the shearer should keep a supply of “Blood Stop” for minor accidents, along with a topical antibiotic preparation.
An experienced shearer often shears one alpaca side at a time, sticking to a pattern that divides the varied grades of fiber. The first-quality blanket fiber, prized for its yarn and fleece show value, comes off easily in one or two pieces. The shearer obtains the second-grade neck fibers separately from the third-grade leg and belly fibers. Each fiber grade merits its own wire-bottom sorting tray, designed to shed debris and dirt. Workers go through the fibers to pull out less-desirable short or hairy fibers resulting from a second trip through an already-sheared spot.
Based in North Carolina, Felicia Greene has written professionally since 1986. Greene edited sailing-related newsletters and designed marketing programs for the New Bern, N.C. "Sun Journal" and New Bern Habitat ReStore. She earned a Bachelor of Science in business administration from the University of Baltimore.