Friday, January 9, 2015

Fleece or Be Fleeced -- Part One

Fleece is the most important characteristic involved in breeding alpacas, after sound physical structure. We know that the pre-Incan civilization selected for fleece on alpacas and with llamas they selected for their ability to act as beasts of burden. From archeological records, we also know that these pre-Incans had some mighty amazing fleeced alpacas. Now, there are a dazzling array of fiber statistics that are used to entice potential buyers. My suggestion is that, when handed a histogram, peruse the website of the testing lab that produced that histogram. These labs all make a great effort to ensure that people on the receiving end of their histograms can understand (1) testing methodology employed and (2) the meaning of each term applied to a fiber sample. One thing to keep in mind about a histogram, regardless of the testing methodology is that this is taken by the breeder from what is supposed to be the “mid-side” of the fleece. That can mean a busy shearer hands that sample to the breeder, or the breeder picks his/her version of mid-side, and so on. For this reason, I am one that prefers to look at the entire fleece, if shorn, and will do a thorough search across the animal if the animal is in full fleece. I like to think of a histogram as a potentially valuable compass point on a map, and I liken the entire fleece to the map itself.
Recently, someone posed a question on an alpaca forum asking people to list in order the fiber traits that they most desire/breed for. The list included the following:
fineness
density
uniformity
length
crimp
brightness/luster
handle
I contended in my short answer that I could not provide a purely ordinal ranking for the simple reason that I believe some desirable fleece traits are symbiotic and tend to show up together.
However, I will attempt to order fleece characteristics as they apply to my selection criteria.

Unformity: Simply, my first and most important characteristic is uniformity, provided this means uniformity of the average fiber diameter. As someone that sorts through a blanket fleece in its entirety, finding multiple grades of fleece in one blanket makes the process of deciding on a ‘best use’ of the fiber more difficult. Moreover, the more uniform the grade is across the entire blanket fleece, the better the HANDLE of the fleece. After all, when people new to alpacas just feel their fleece, they remark about how soft it feels! When I talk about grade, it’s not a “feel” thing, it is an “eye thing” yet getting it right with the "eye" can lead to a “feel good” thing!

Fineness: Fineness is a laudable goal as well and is even better if that animal’s fleece is uniform in grade. I purposely add older stud males to my breeding program that display fineness at an older age in the hopes that we can achieve lasting fineness in our breeding program. My top females in my barn are able to have crias yearly yet produce grade 1 or 2 fleeces (Grade 1 is under 20 microns, and Grade 2 is 20-22.9 microns) each year. You can call this quality lasting fineness or genetic fineness, but whatever, it is a prized characteristic in breeding stock, particularly since hormonal changes can coarsen fleeces.

Fleece Architecture: After this, I look for architecture to a fleece. Now, that includes a bundle of traits that I see working in a symbiotic fashion. Basically, I am looking for as much independence of individual staples as possible, preference that such staples are tight and have “heft” when placed between my thumb and index finger. I expect such a fleece to exhibit cohesiveness, as in it stays together if picked up (I like to say that you can sort a cohesive fleece out of doors in a gale force wind without any of it blowing away sometimes). I look for primary fibers (they are shinier than secondary “wool-like” fibers) to have character/crinkle such that they match secondary fibers. Sometimes, this characteristic can also lead to parity of fiber diameter between primaries and secondaries. I have also observed that, the more the fleece staples are tightly arrayed, the more likelihood that such fleece will exhibit a desirable brightness in addition to a very tactile crimp. Other things can affect brightness, but I will leave that for a future discussion.

Staple Length: I consider staple length to be an outlier trait but one which obviously contributes to fleece cutting weights and once we achieve quality fleeces, the more we can produce, the better. Over time, most animals’ staple does decline, and many that retain exceptional fineness over the long haul are observed to have a back-off in staple length occur more rapidly than animals whose average fiber diameter creeps up with time. We commonly hear of a trade-off in staple length with lasting fineness.

Density is one of those elements that is most difficult for many people to gauge. Apparent density is not density, and even in the show-ring, exceptionally fine animals with excellent density are referred to as “the finest in the class yet lacking the density of the animals standing ahead of him/her.” Not always, but it does happen! I remember when I was told that if you select for density that you will get fineness along with it in the bargain. It would be great were that the case. But that is a “sometimes” proposition, I think.

Crimp: Admit it, we all love crimp. A bright fleece with very defined crimp can leave even some of the best fleece sorters agog. There are a few things about crimp, though. Animals that exhibit a very high frequency crimp in younger years may have a less high frequency crimp as they age and, guess what, the average fiber diameter is also creeping up. Another thing that can occur is that organized staples become less organized with time.

Now, for some eye candy, because everyone loves eye candy!