[Shearing Title]

An Argument in Support of Shearing Crias

[T]here are those who believe that alpaca (and llama) crias should not be shorn. This belief appears to be especially strong among suri alpaca breeders. There are those who believe that crias should be shorn. I am a proponent of cria shearing and this article attempts to explain why I believe that shearing crias is a desirable practice.

[Faded Tips]Alpaca breeders know that the finest fleece an alpaca will produce is its "cria" fleece (more correctly this fleece should be called a hogget or yearling fleece). But, alpaca breeders have noted since the early days of the North American Alpaca industry that cria fleeces tend attract excessive amounts of vegetation and other contaminants. Breeders also noticed that the tips of the fibers were often a different color from the rest of the fiber. A common explanation for these phenomena is that the cria has been swimming in amniotic fluid for eleven months. This explanation is wrong.

Alpacas and llamas are born with an epidermal membrane that covers the entire body. The purposes of the epidermal membrane have not been fully determined though it does help the cria get through the birth canal. The epidermal membrane does not occur in llamas until the last two months of gestation.[1] I contacted Dr David Anderson, then at Ohio State University, College of Veterinary Medicine, to ask if he could tell me when an alpaca / llama fetus begins to grow its coat. Dr Anderson provided answers from Drs Murray Fowler and Ahmed Tibary. Dr Fowler wrote: "The Epidermal Membrane is visible grossly from about the last two months of gestation. It lifts off the skin at the time of hair development. Once formed, the hair coat is separated from the amniotic fluid by the EM." [2] Dr Tibary notes that: "based on aborted fetuses we receive I can tell you that we do not see any coat on 8 month old fetuses but 9 month old fetuses usually have some cover on the blanket and legs. So the coat may start developing towards the end of the 8th month. At 10 months the coat is pretty obvious." [3]

When the follicles begin to produce hair, the hair is very fine - the finest, most delicate fiber the alpaca or llama will ever produce. Then Boom! Birthday! That lovely soft fiber which has been protected by the epidermal membrane in the cria's sheltered world of its mama's womb is now assaulted by the harshness of the real world. Because of the fineness, the tips of the fibers are especially susceptible to damage through exposure to sunlight, rain, and dirt.

I haven't quite noodled out why the tips fade to a lighter color. Fading of tips is also common in hogget sheep fleeces (photo above). It may simply be exposure to sunlight as can happen in human hair or it may be something more complex.

It is clear to me that these most delicate parts of the fleece are easily damaged by the cria doing normal cria things like rolling in the dirt. If the first shearing occurs when the cria is a year old, the oldest, most delicate, tip-ends of the fiber are fourteen months old and have suffered a year of abuse. It is the fineness and age of the tip-end fibers that gives cria fleeces their Velcro®-like reputation and cause problems when the fleece is processed into a roving or yarn.

[Knotted Tips] If you look closely at a lock of fiber that exhibits the faded tips characteristic you will often see that the tips are dried and damaged and that they are locked to neighboring tips. You can often break these tips off in your fingers - it takes much less effort than breaking healthy fibers.

I propose that the reason cria fleeces so readily attract vegital matter is because the tips, once damaged, are more capable of interlocking with the surface scales of VM. So, in a sense, the damaged tips are essentially dry felted to each other and to the VM.

Individual fibers must be able to slip freely from the tangle of fibers fed into the picker, opener, and/or carder. When the fibers don't slip free of the lock because the tip of the lock is bound, they break. Broken fibers will show up as neps or noils in the roving. Also, because the tip of the lock is bound, it remains as a knot of fiber (sometimes rather large) as it proceeds through the carder. Because it is a knot that won't slip free, it can be shredded by the swift as it carries the knot past a the worker / stripper rollers. The shredded bits are additional neps that remain in the roving and ultimately in the yarn and finished sweater where they will eventually come out as pills.

Most people don't do anything with the fleece shorn from a cria except to save it for sentimental reasons. Kim Upper at Upper Alpacas in Roseburg, Oregon spins it. His blog describes how to do it.

[1] Fowler, Murray E.; Medicine and Surgery of South American Camelids 2nd Edition pp 399 et seq.
[2] Fowler, Murray E.: Email communication to Dr David Anderson
[3] Tibary, Ahmed: Email communication to Dr David Anderson

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Last modified: 2010 Feb 15 2332:04 UTC