Sometimes fate has a funny way of bringing people together. In April, when I attended the Interweave Yarn Fest, I was walking through the marketplace and saw a presentation about to start. I wasn't planning on staying (because I didn't have much time to grab lunch before my class...), but the speaker stopped me and invited me to stay. It was Frana Biderman of Phi Beta Pacas ranch. Her presentation was on how alpaca fibers are measured and rated. I was surprised because I figured alpaca was alpaca or baby alpaca and that was about it. I'm somewhat new to the intricacies of fibers.
By the end of her presentation, she mentioned she lived in Taos, New Mexico. I had a short trip to Taos already planned a few weeks later, so I jumped up at the end of her presentation to ask if I could visit her ranch. Of course she welcomed me to see her beautiful alpacas and share a shorter version of her presentation with our podcast listeners.
On the VeryPink Knits podcast episode 49, you'll get to have an audio visit Frana's ranch if only virtually.
This conversation also gives us a chance to have a quick lesson on statistics and frequency distributions! In my other life, I'm a marketing research consultant, so this is made sense to me. But, based on feedback from the YarnFest presentation, I thought it would help to simplify what it all means.
Frana is looking for consistency in her alpaca fibers. She wants one alpaca to have as much of the same measure as possible. Alpaca fibers are measured in microns by examining fibers individually under a bright light. When they take samples from the alpaca, they will measure individual fibers and total up the number of fibers that measure at 1 micron, how many at 2 microns, etc. Alpaca ranchers seeking consistency in fiber want the highest number of fibers in the same measure. If you have 100 fibers measured, you want as many as possible to be the same micron rating.
Sample of fiber with more consistency
This first chart is an example of an alpaca that has a very consistent fiber. Most fibers rate in the 3 micron range.
The second chart shows an alpaca that does not have as much consistency. You can see more fibers ranging all the way from 1 to 6.
Sample of fibers with more variety
There is a lot more to be learned about alpaca fibers and how they are rated and measured. Alpaca Consulting USA has several papers available for free, including this paper that provides more specifics on the other features that are measured and how they are rated.
But, enough about the technical stuff. What are alpacas like in person? I was fascinated. They are quiet creatures, making only little humming noises. Frana said they have different hums for different moods. I tried recording sounds for the podcast, but they were so relaxed that the hums were not loud enough. I found myself wanting to just stare at them. They are like other worldly creatures from a Star Wars planet (especially the one with Ewoks), gentle and a bit skittish like cats. They are curious, too. While we talked one of them heard a noise on the other side of the house and went exploring. Soon the others followed. The video below is after Frana called them back with treats.
Next time you're shopping for alpaca yarn, I hope you appreciate these amazing creatures and the ranchers who care for them and painstakingly measure their fibers down to the micron!
If you get a chance to go to Taos, you must visit Vortex Yarns. It's a lovely shop with some of their own hand-dyed yarns, I couldn't resist adding some to my stash. The day I visited it was the end of April, but a strange snowstorm hit the town. It was magical and beautiful and a great excuse to buy yarn. I can imagine winter in Taos is great place to stay in and knit.
Okay, you came here for alpaca photos!