Alpaca Fiber, Llama Fiber, Sheep Fiber or Wool, How Are They Different?
Alpaca and llama fleece are classified as specialty or luxury fibers, but sheep fleece or wool tops the list of animal fibers used today. The camelids (alpaca and llama) are quite similar to each other in fiber and background, and though they bear some similarity to sheep, the differences between the fibers of these herding animals are outstanding.
History of Alpacas, Llamas, and Sheep
The cold Andean mountain range of Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Chile has been home to the Alpaca for thousands of years. Their ancestor, the vicuna, was domesticated by Inca Indians. Selective breeding resulted in the alpaca. The fleece of these animals was of such fine quality, it was reserved exclusively for royalty.
When the Spanish conquerors arrived, they did not see the same value in the indigenous animals and subjected them to much abuse, including crossbreeding them with llamas. The result was a decline in quality. Thankfully, the species and its value were revived in the mid-19th century by the Englishman Sir Titus Salt. Today the United States, Italy, and Japan are the top consumers of alpaca fleece. And as worldwide appetites continue to grow, North America continues to deliver superior alpaca fibers and products.
The llama is also a native of the AndesMountains and has been domesticated for as long as the Alpaca. It too provided native Incas with fine, gorgeous fleece. It’s descendent, however, is the wild guanaco not the vicuna. Llamas did not fare well with the Spanish colonists either, but their decline came a bit later in the 11th to the 13th centuries. They were selectively bred to produce strong, large animals for packing (carrying load during travel), hence the notable size difference between them and the alpacas. Llamas were given the nickname “beasts of burden.”
The llama rediscovery occurred in the 20th century, which was way behind its alpaca cousin. But breeders were no longer interested in the species as a load-carrying vehicle. They now saw the value in its fiber.
Evidence suggests sheep domestication occurred somewhere between 11,000 and 9,000 BC in the countries of Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria. In fact, the sheep is thought to be one of the first animals domesticated by humans. Derived from three different lineages of the wild mouflon, sheep were originally developed for meat, milk, and skin. It was not until 6,000 BC that Iranians discovered uses for wool, and eventually began trading it with Africa and Europe. That period could be considered the real beginning of the sheep wool industry.
Sheep arrived in England and Spain with Roman conquerors in 50 AD. From there, the industry exploded, especially in the 11th and 12 centuries. Christopher Columbus brought sheep to the Americas in the late 15th century. Sheep-rearing moved westward from the North American East Coast in the early 19th century. The animal arrived in Australia in the late 18th century as food supply for inmates. The wool industry did not begin there until the import of the highly-prized Spanish Merino breed, courtesy of one Captain John Macarthur of the British Army.
Today’s wool industry is global. The top supplier is Australia, which produces about one fourth of the world’s supply. New Zealand (N.Z.), Argentina, and the United States (California, Wyoming, and Texas- top states) follow. China is thought to be the world’s largest consumer of sheep wool.
Types of Alpaca Fiber
Alpaca fiber comes mainly from the following common breeds: Huacaya and Suri. Huacaya fibers are crimped, elastic, and dense, and resemble sheep wool. Suri fibers are straight, long, soft, entwined like dreadlocks, and likened to cashmere. You may also hear or see the terms Baby Alpaca, which refers to the very first fiber sheared from an adult animal. It is the finest, most durable, and highest quality of all alpaca fleece. The terms Royal, Medium, and Fine Alpaca fleece refer to fibers of certain diameters.
Types of Llama Fiber
Llamas have no formal breed classification except by the fiber they produce. There are two types, three types, or four type names, depending on where you research or with whom you speak. For instance, llamas in the two-category type are identified as ones with coarse fleece, and ones with soft or fine fleece. The three-category type llamas are Light-Wooled with smoothed heads, ears, and legs; Medium-Wooled with some fiber on their bodies and smoothed heads, ears, and legs; Heavy-Wooled with enormous amount of fibers on their entire bodies. The four-category llamas are (1) Ccara or Classic llamas with short fibers that shed; Curaca llamas with fibers of medium length; Tapada/ Lanuda llamas with non-shedding fibers; Suri llamas with non-shedding, long-hanging, entwined fibers resembling dreadlocks. (2) Bolivian llamas with extremely long fleece and ear hairs; Argentinean llamas with fine fibers; Chilean llamas with very thick fleece resembling sheep wool; Classic fiber llamas same as previously defined.
Types of Sheep Fiber or Wool
Various breeds of sheep are reared in various countries to produce wool of different types. For example, (1) Long-Wool sheep: Leicester -found in the United Kingdom (U.K.) and North America; Lincoln –found in Australia, N.Z., North and South America; and Cotswold –found in England and United States (U.S.). These sheep produce the coarsest, heaviest, longest wool.
(2) Medium-Wool sheep: Columbia –found in U.S.; Suffolk –found in England and U.S.; Hampshire –found in England and U.S.; Corriedale –found in Australia, N.Z., U.S.; and Dorset –found in U.K., U.S., and Australia. These breeds produce wool that is medium-soft and not highly valued. Their main supply is meat and not wool.
(3) Fine-Wool sheep: Merino –found in Spain (native land), North and South America, and Australia; and Rambouillet –found in France and U.S. These breeds produce extremely soft, fine wool of the highest value.
(4) Carpet-Wool sheep: Black-Faced Highland/ Scottish Blackface –found in Scotland (native), Italy, U.S., and Argentina. This breed produces a very coarse, thick fleece.
You may also see or hear the terms Lamb’s wool, which refers to fleece sheared from sheep that are younger than eight months old; Virgin wool, refers to wool that is not processed before it is used to make products; and Pulled wool, which is wool chemically-extracted from sheepskin.
Difference in Characteristics of Alpaca Fiber, Llama Fiber, and Sheep Fiber or Wool
All alpaca fiber has some manner of hollowness. This gives it its lightweight property. Alpaca fleece is also soft; smooth; warm; strong; durable; water-resistant (but will lose its shape when wet); fire-resistant (unless it comes in direct contact with flame source); versatile (can acclimate to a variety of weather conditions); contains no oils, lanolin, or grease (therefore, is hypoallergenic and does not cause your skin to itch); looks silken; comes in 22 different natural colors ranging from white, grey, brown, black and colors in between; and requires no artificial coloring or dyes, which make it environmentally-friendly.
The quality, degree of softness, and strength of alpaca fleece depends on fiber diameter and density. Diameter is measured in microns, with the softest fibers having a range of thickness from 10 to 22 microns. Coarser fibers have diameters of 30 plus microns. But even those so-called coarse guard hairs are on the softer side when compared with the guard hairs or scales of the sheep.
A micron, by the way, is a unit of length that is one thousandth of a millimeter or one millionth of a meter.
As with alpaca fleece, llama fibers has varying degrees of medullation or hollowness and are therefore lightweight. Llama fibers are also extremely warm; strong; durable; lanolin-free and therefore hypoallergenic; water-resistant but will lose its shape and shrink a bit when wet; versatile; comes in many natural colors: white, silver, grey, various shades of brown, rust, dusty rose, and so on. Unlike its alpaca cousin, however, the llama fleece color scheme can be solid, patterned, broken, or spotted (there is definitely no need for dyes here). Fibers are easily damaged by alkaline substances and sunlight. They are also not as elastic, soft or fine as alpaca fibers though some types are providing stiff competition in the softness area.
Regarding diameter, llama fiber ranges from 20 to 40 microns, though some say 25 to 31 microns. Llama guard hairs are long, very stiff, and tough. Sheep scales are still tougher.
Sheep wool is not as soft, fine, smooth, lightweight, warm, or strong as alpaca and llama fiber. It scorches easily; is prone to discoloration; will shrink in water; contains lanolin and therefore must be processed and usually with harsh chemicals. This is responsible for the fleece’s itchiness and irritation against human skin (there is current processing in place to make wool fleece more hypoallergenic). Wool is a highly synthetically-processed fiber, which also makes it less eco-friendly. Natural wool colors are not as extensive and so the fibers are dyed. In fact, since white wool is more dye-friendly, it is considered more valuable, according to the article “Sheep 101: Wool Production” from the website http://www.sheep101.info. Wool’s good qualities are its elasticity, and tensile strength. The diameter of wool fibers ranges from 11 to 45 microns.
Differences in Shearing Alpaca, Llama and Sheep Fleece
Alpacas, llamas, and most sheep are sheared annually in the spring. Sheep with long fleece are sheared biannually. Fibers are sheared from the neck, midsection, and legs of alpacas and llamas. The softest fibers are found midway on their backs. Fibers on their neck, underbelly, and legs are a bit coarser and of varying length. Fibers on their faces are not sheared. With sheep, the entire fleece is removed, including from their faces. Fleece from their underbelly is unusable .The rest of it has to be skirted (removing debris or dirty, contaminated, and low grade parts of the fleece from the more valuable whole).
Depending on age and breed, alpacas usually produce about 4 lbs. of fleece; though some animals can give you up to 10 lbs. Lamas produce 2 to 5 lbs. The “Sheep 101: Wool Production” article reports that one sheep can produce 2 to 30 lbs of wool, again depending on age and breed, while others quote 8 to 10 lbs per sheep. “Sheep 101…” says that 90 percent of all sheep produce wool.
Market Value of Alpaca, Llama, and Sheep Fiber/ Fleece
The highest quality and cleanest alpaca fleece sells for about $3 to $5.00 per ounce (oz.). Llama fleece sells for $3 to $4.00 per oz. The website http://www.howmuchisit.org prices sheep fleece at $2 to $3.00 per oz. Of course, these prices can vary with supply and demand.
Animal Fiber or Fleece Preference in Clothing
When It Comes to Clothing, Which of the Following Animal Fibers or Fleece Do You Prefer?
Uses for Alpaca, Llama, and Sheep Fiber/ Fleece
The finest quality Suri alpaca fibers are used by top fashion designers such as Armani in manufacturing clothing for both women and men. Other types of products made with alpaca fleece ranging from the softest to the coarsest are sweaters, vests, scarves, hats, socks, gloves, and other winter garments and accessories, blankets (outdoor and saddle included), pillows, and rugs. Llama fleece is used in the same manner in the manufacturing of similar products.
Fleece from Long-Wool sheep is usually used for tweeds, carpets, home insulation products, and tennis balls. Medium-Wool sheep fleece is used in the production of sweaters, socks, and blankets or is felted. Fine-Wool sheep fleece is used in spinning and manufacturing soft, inner-worn clothing. Overall, sheep wool is quite multipurpose and easily blended with fibers from other animals and plants.