Ensuring High Quality in Fiber Products
When planning the products you are going to have made from your fleeces, consider the qualities of the fleeces so you make the best possible products from your fleeces. If you are talking to others about pooling fiber for a product, make sure you all agree on standards of quality for your product. Consider micron, length of staple and color.
Before you make a decision about the product that will be made from a particular fleece, know its micron or grade. We alpaca people often say alpaca as soft as cashmere and that it can be worn next to the skin. In some cases that is true; in most, it is not.
- Cashmere, by definition and by law, is 19.5 microns or less. Twenty-five micron alpaca is definitely not going to feel like cashmere, particularly when worn next to the sensitive skin on one’s neck!
- The scales along the shaft of alpaca fibers are significantly lower than those on sheep’s wool and the scales on suri fiber are lower than those on huacaya fiber. The edges of the scales are not rough like those on sheep’s wool. This gives alpaca a slick, sometimes silky feel as you run your hand (tougher skin than your neck) along the surface of an alpaca product. It’s what makes alpaca feel so soft, silky and luxurious to your hand when you stroke it. It is also a factor in making people say alpaca feels one or more grades softer than wool.
- Another factor in how luxurious an alpaca garment feels is a genetic and/or nutritional factor over and above the scale factor that gives a silky or a buttery feel to some fleeces. The scale structure and the genetic factor can be deceptive and make the fleece seem finer (micron) than it is.
- Though lanolin allergy and the quality of the scales on the fibers are factors in how itchy a garment is, it has been scientifically proven that overwhelmingly, the major cause of a prickly sensation when you wear wool or alpaca or any other fiber against sensitive skin such as the skin on your neck is the size of the cut ends of the individual fibers of the fabric of the garment. That’s right. It’s the cut ends; in other word, the diameter of each fiber, or micron, that is the biggest factor in determining whether an individual will find a garment comfortable or itchy when worn against the skin.
- An Australian study shows that virtually everyone can wear a garment made of 21.5 micron fiber next to the skin. (It can be alpaca, cashmere, merino, mohair, synthetic. If it’s 21.5 microns or less, it is comfortable.) Virtually everyone finds a garment of 30 microns or more itchy. So, in other words, almost everyone’s comfort level (or itchy level) occurs between 21.5 and 30 microns. The more fibers above your comfort level that poke into sensitive skin, the more itchy and less comfortable you will find it. More than 5% fibers over 30? People won’t like it next to their skin.
- This is why Grade 1 (under 19.9 microns) and the lower half of Grade 2 (20.0 to 22.9) is perfect for scarves and sweaters that will be worn next to the skin. Other examples of appropriate products for a grade include Grade 2 makes luxurious throws. Grade 3 (23 – 25.9) is great for outerwear like cardigans and jackets. Grade 3 is the most versatile grade. Grade 4 is great for socks and bags. Grades 5 and 6 can be used for upholstery fabric and rugs among other things.
- For what it’s worth, in general, the skin of young people tends to be more sensitive than that of older people, women’s skin tends to be more sensitive than men’s, light skin tends to be more sensitive than darker skin with red heads being the most sensitive of all.
Regardless of micron, if a fleece has more than 5% fibers over 30 microns (check your histogram), don’t consider it for garments worn next to the skin or even garments like cardigans that might be worn over a light shirt. Is there anything you can do to make a lower micron fleece that has more than 5% fibers over 30 suitable for garments? Talk to your mill about dehairing the fleece. Some mills provide this service; others do not. Some fleeces benefit from dehairing; others may not need it. Depends on the fleece, depends on the planned use…
You can see now why it is important to know the micron/grade of your fiber before you send it to be processed or made into finished products. It has been observed that when up to three consecutive microns are blended together, the resulting product is comfortable. When there is a wide range of microns blended together (eg. a 19 micron and a 28 micron fleece), the resulting product is inferior and most people find it itchy. Grades are based on groups of three consecutive microns and are used in throughout the textile industry.
How do you know what the micron of your fiber is? A histogram will tell you the micron of your fleece, there are people in region who are certified to grade fiber and even more who are apprentices working toward certification under either Ruth Elvestad or Robin Kuhl (Coarse Broads). Another way to determine this is to ask the mill you send fiber to. Don’t mix fleeces together until you know they are the same grade.
Keep in mind that your customers will spread the word about how soft and luxurious the alpaca product they bought is. If they find it itchy, they will also spread that word. In fact, people have reported on ravelry.com that alpaca is itchy…… We need to counter that by producing the best grade appropriate alpaca products we can.
Another important factor to consider before deciding on a product for your fleece is the length of the fiber. Fiber that is Short - from 1.5 inches to 3.75 inches - is ideal for woolen processing which gives a lofty, soft product. Most huacaya fleece is ideal for this. Suri, which often falls in the Long category - from 3.75 to 6 inch, is particularly well suited for sensuous, drapey products and processing by the worsted method which gives a smooth, silky fabric, perfect for suiting. Keep in mind that if the length is right, both huacaya and silky can be processed by both the woolen and the worsted methods.
One six inch fiber has two cut ends; two three inch fibers have four cut ends. Thus, a scarf made of six inch long 24 micron suri may not feel as itchy to a given individual as one made of three inch long 24 micron huacaya because it has half as many cut ends. The number of cut ends poking the skin is a factor in the point at which individuals feel their itchy point when wearing a garment.
Often a mill will give a price break when the amount of fiber of a particular color to be processed exceeds a certain weight. Think about combining colors – all of your browns of a particular grade and length in one batch instead of light browns or dark browns. Maybe you have one white fleece and combining that with your browns would give you that price break. Blending that white with the browns could give you a heathery look or a dark rose gray – talk to your mill.
Consider dyeing or hand painting your yarns. We all know that white alpaca dyes any color beautifully. Dyeing fawns and browns with shades of reds results in incredibly rich shades; dyeing gray fiber various colors gives subtle, subdued colors.