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Friday, 24 February 2012

How many British Alpacas does it take to make a jumper?

As posted as a Guest post on iMake earlier this month:

Some readers will have enjoyed the pleasure of casting on in alpaca yarn. Hopefully some readers will have also had the chance to meet some of the 35,000 alpacas now living in the UK. To answer this question ‘how many alpacas does it take to make a jumper’ we’re not talking about a sweat-shop barn full of frantically knitting alpacas (just imagine the knots they’d get themselves in!) but an insight into the journey undertaken here to get the fleece from the animal’s back to the yarn on your needles.

The fineness of the fleece depends on its breeding, the age of the animal and even how good their grazing is and sometimes how much the wind blew that year. An alpaca can first be sheared at around 10-12 months old which is where the yummiest and scrummiest yarns come from. As with a lot of things in life it can be all down hill from there – from the ripe of age of seven to eight years of age the fibre may well end up used as soft furnishings and stuffing. While we are talking about the age of the animal it is time to bust a myth – yarn labelled as ‘baby alpaca’ may have nothing to do with the age of the animal it came from – it is a quality label guaranteeing the softest fleece has been used. A few of the best alpacas here at Toft make the ‘baby alpaca’ grade at 4 years old, other less pedigree alpacas may never have a ‘baby alpaca’ grade fleece, even with their first fleece at under 12 months.

Alpacas are shorn in the balmy (!) months of May and June at which point they will have grown approximately 10cm, or 2 to 3 kg of fleece so are glad to be rid of it. You might have seen a sheep being shorn before with a burly man and sheers manoeuvring the animal into various positions to get at all the woolly bits. Believe me there is no man burly enough for the neck of an alpaca, so instead they use a gentle trussing table and a not-so-glamorous assistant to ensure that both alpaca and handlers are safe and secure.

Once the animal has been sent back naked into the field we get our hands straight into the fibre. Quality is everything - we process our yarn in 50kg batches and one handful of overlooked low quality fibre in with a premium batch would immediately contaminate and ruin the entire batch. This small quantity of lower grade fibre would spread and pollute the whole batch in a similar way to the impact 3 drops of green food colouring would have to your Victoria sponge cake mix. We use trained fingers and eyes to pick out all the good stuff which mostly comes from the saddle of the animal. Leg and neck fibre can make the grade on the good animals but mostly will never make it through to a yarn and end up used as stuffing inside pillows and duvets. Once we have finished sorting and we resemble Victorian street urchins, we will have an average yield of 1 kg per animal (so that’s around 2 kilos of fleece lost from the initial shearing in the legs and neck and belly that aren’t good enough to use).

One of the biggest appeals of alpaca in the natural colour range the fleeces come in. This variant of black, browns, fawns and creams allows us to create ten distinct colours without ever touching dye. Some colours are totally pure- such as ‘fudge’ can only be from deep rich fawn alpaca fleeces. Other simple colours such as ‘silver’ are blended from a percentage of white fleeces combined with some black- and the really arty bit comes in when making colours like ‘stone’ by mixing white, light fawn, chestnut and black in a delicate equation. This is also the stage where any additional blend fibres are added such as nylon for sock yarn.

At Toft all our hand knitting yarns are spun at a local Mill using a traditional fully woollen process- this is a method of spinning that gives our yarns loft and elasticity. Following many years of development we now manufacture lace, fine, dk, aran and chunky weights of 100% natural British alpaca yarn. It is a very difficult balancing process between adding twist for strength and durability, and keeping the fibres relaxed for ease and consistency when knitting and with finished handle of the fabric. We lose around 15% of the fleece weight whilst spinning. Following this the yarn goes off to the scourers to be washed for the first time during this entire process. Here we can lose up to a further 10% of weight in dust and dirt.

So how many alpacas does it take to make a jumper? Did you get all those sums? Approximately one double knitting weight jumper in a medium size (approximately 600-800g yarn) is the entire result of a year’s worth of eating, growing and rolling around for one alpaca. 1 jumper = 1 alpaca. So when you’re toasty warm in the snow spare a thought for ‘Basil’ or ‘Beatrice’ out in the field busy growing another soft coat for next year’s lucky customer.

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