Monday, August 13, 2012


In gathering my thoughts for this post, it struck me that in my language the precursor to the greatest of questions is such a tiny word.  Three letters, that is all. It’s not that way in other languages … the French use more than twice as many letters, but then, the French are known for their flourish.


The tiny little word can even grate on the nerves of a toddler’s parent.  Yet, do we ever stop asking why?  I hope not.  It’s an acknowledgement that we are always on the road of learning things we did not know before. It’s a good road to be on … maybe even keeps our brains functioning when all the other parts of our bodies start to creak and freeze.

Why the pondering of this word? Because I’ve been working with alpaca fiber and have noticed that it is incredibly soft. And I have to wonder: Why?  I’ve been feeling like a little kid.  I keep asking myself why is this yarn so soft?  Why is that fleece softer than the others I’ve worked with?

I have Google and know how to use it. Did you know you can bypass all the commercial junk when searching a topic by going to “Google Scholar”? I did that this morning, but realized that so much of the search results came either with incomprehensible language (and the papers were in English!) or a hefty price tag to read the contents of a study. One paper that answers the very question I was asking was going to cost me $32 to have access to it for one day. YIKES!!

So back to regular Google I go and type in the title of the scholarly paper and sure enough, the top several results were linked to the journal that wanted to charge me $32 to read the paper. However, somebody else got their hands on the paper and has it as a PDF which I was able to access at no charge.

Not that it answers my question … the language is still somewhat incomprehensible! But at least, I understood this significant statement:
"For a given fiber diameter, we  know that alpaca fibers are much softer than wool fibers. The reason for this apparent difference in softness between alpaca and wool is beyond the scope of this study. Suffice to say that the smoother surface of alpaca fibers is one of the main factors that contribute to their softness."

The paper also relates that alpaca has more scale ends and lower scale heights than wool. And, of course, there is some heavy-duty mathematical analysis and graphs and equipment used in analysis that made the paper all the more incomprehensible to me.

(For your amusement, a spoof on the same paper used to taunt Steeler fans.)

At least I understand “scales” and “scale height.” Human hair has scales too. And I knew that they had something to do with why my hair is relatively straight whereas my daughter’s is super curly. And it does not stretch the mind much to realize that all animal hair has scales too. So I guess the bottom line is that the more scales on a strand, and the closer the scales lay to the core of the hair shaft, the softer the fiber feels to the touch. Yet, another page I read said alpaca has LESS scales than wool from sheep. Maybe I’m misunderstanding the term “scale ends” in the scholarly paper? But everything agrees that scale height is an important factor, the lower the height, the smoother and more luxurious the fiber is and hence, it feels softer.

There are other factors that contribute to the softness of fiber … the diameter, how long the fiber is (which is called “staple length”), and the degree of crimp in the fiber.  The thinner the fiber, the softer the yarn; and likewise the shorter the fiber the softer the yarn will be. However, alpaca generally has a longer fiber than sheep, yet the fineness of cashmere. Perhaps fineness trumps length?

As for crimp, alpaca goes in both directions. Huacaya alpacas have plenty of crimp so the yarn spun from this fiber will be “elastic” and is good for knitting and crocheting. Suri alpaca has far less crimp and the resulting yarn is well-suited for weaving. If you like scarves, do yourself a HUGE favor and buy a scarf woven from 100% alpaca!

Another nice fact about alpaca fiber is that there is no lanolin in the fiber and therefore is hypoallergenic. People who are sensitive to wool may be able to wear and use garments and items made from alpaca. It’s certainly much softer on bare skin. And let's face it, the critter is CUTE! At least to me, they are cute. And I have to wonder ... why??


The Paper Princess said...

Dear Hilary

Thanks for your recent visit to Create With Joy - I'm delighted to meet you!

I have to tell you - the background of your blog is identical to the specialty paper I originally chose for my wedding invitations - so I think you have GREAT taste! :-)

I enjoyed your post (LOVE alpacas!) and wanted to invite you to join us for Friendship Friday (my themed weekend blog hop) as well as for Inspire Me Monday and Wordless Wed!)

Have a wonderful week and I look forward to getting to konw you!

Create With Joy

Hilary Johnson said...

Thank you!!! I will definitely check in for the blog hops. Finding creative people is one of my favorite "past times"!

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