In pursuit of the perfect alpaca
What is a perfect alpaca?
Ultimately what makes a perfect alpaca is its bone characteristics (conformation) and ability to create fine dense fleece. These two factors are inherited so if alpacas are mated properly the best of these of characteristics will be passed onto future generations.
However, in reality there are no 'perfect' alpacas. There are some that are extremely close, but if judged in a show no alpaca would score 100% from all judges in all classes So the task is to try and reach closer and closer to the goal of a 'perfect' alpaca with every generation you breed. Renowned alpaca judge and author Mike Safley of Northwest Alpacas, Oregon, USA described the image of the 'perfect huacaya alpaca' as follows:
“An ideal alpaca's look begins with the head, a dense top knot, well-covered cheeks converging with the wool cap to form a close V at the eyes, which are brown. The ears are shaped like an arrowhead and erect. The muzzle is soft and wedge shaped. The jaw should fit together correctly, with the lower incisors meeting the upper dental pad. The head and neck make up about one-third of an alpaca's height, the body makes up one-third, as do the legs.
The neck connects to the shoulder at approximately a 45° angle to the back, which is straight, dropping off a bit at the tail. When the alpaca is alert, the neck and back form almost a 90° angle with the head slightly forward. The perfect alpaca has a squared off appearance, with four strong legs setting squarely under it, giving it a graceful stance which translates into a fluid gait. The ideal alpaca has a soft, dense fleece with abundant coverage down the legs.
The cheeks should be well covered, and the bridge of the nose clean. The crimp in the top knot should continue down the neck, across the blanket, and into the tail, finishing down the belly and legs. The stars of any herd will catch your eye with an alert, erect appearance. Their fleece opens into well-organized locks of soft, bright, and lustrous fleece, which handles like silk or cashmere.” Source: The Alpaca Library, Northwest Alpacas
But this is only half the story. The characteristics of the fleece are just as important and are a combination of quantitative factors, such as density and staple length, and qualitative factors, such as fineness, crimp, uniformity, lustre/brightness. Huacaya fleece has a lot more crimp and grows out at a perpendicular angle – giving it the teddy bear look – compared to Suri fleece which has little crimp, grows vertically and hangs down in silky ringlets.
But actually all of qualitative and quantitative factors are important to consider together, especially when showing an alpaca. An alpaca fleece may have fineness below 20 microns but may lack suitable crimp and lustre. Also, a young alpaca may have extremely fine fibre, but this will change with age by as much as 2 points a year, and the final figure may not be known until it is five years old.
Again, Mike Safley has described what he considers the ideal huacaya fleece and it's a good description to bear in mind if you're breeding alpacas for their fibre:
“The ideal huacaya's fleece should be: fine, dense, uniform, and grow perpendicular to the skin. The fleece, which grows from individual follicles in the skin, should be made up of defined staples of crimpy “bundled” fleece. These bundles should organize themselves into staples which create a dense presentation across the animal. The huacaya alpaca should be well covered with a soft, uniform fleece, except on the ears and the bridge of the nose of mature animals. The muzzle and ears should be soft to the touch. The elite alpaca has a well-defined crimp in their top knot, which continues down the neck, into the blanket, the belly, and on to the tail. There should be very little medulation (coarse guard hair). The fleece should be well-nourished, exhibit a brightness or sheen, and be void of dull, dry, chalky fiber. The ideal huacaya will produce fleece as soft and as fine as cashmere.” Source: The Alpaca Library, Northwest Alpacas
As a final thought, the average staple length of an alpaca between shearing is around five inches. Folklore has it that Sir Titus Salt, the alpaca baron of the 1900s, was working with huacaya fibres that were 20 to 30 inches in length with the longest measuring 36 inches! Old wives tale or have we still got a long way to go with our breeding programmes?