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Combs, Cutters and Injuries

Alpaca Shearing injuries are often as much a matter of a lack of knowledge of the equipment as faulty technique. Shearing equipment is a marvel of design. Let the tools do the work.

Let's look at shearing combs. The comb on properly adjusted shears is the only thing that actually touches the alpaca, and is the primary source of injuries to an alpaca during shearing. Understanding its design and function can help you to avoid injuring to your alpacas.

Combs have been carefully designed to take into account the different forces being applied while shearing - the downward and forward pressures of the shearer, and the resistance of the fleece as the comb passes through it.

Comb

The curved undersides of the comb’s teeth serve to part the fiber at skin level. However, as can be seen in this diagram, the top of the teeth are really the area that lead the shears through the alpaca’s fleece. The resistance of the fleece on this upper surface tends to force the comb down, more tightly against the alpaca’s skin, as well as resisting the forward movement applied by the shearer. (A - the resistance of the fleece forces the comb in this direction.) Note in this diagram how the skin of the alpaca tends to wrinkle immediately in front of the comb. THIS IS THE SOURCE OF MOST INJURIES.

If the tip of the comb’s tooth punctures the skin, the skin will then ride up the tooth until it comes in contact with the cutter at which point a minor puncture wound instantly becomes a serious laceration. As the tip enters the skin, it is forced deeper, which in turn will drive adjacent teeth into the skin. What results is a long, wide gash in the alpaca, clearly something we want to avoid.

How? The first thing is to understand the physics involved. The downward forces applied by the fleece allow you to use a light touch. If the shears are held at the proper angle in relationship to the alpaca, you will need to apply little downward pressure. The fleece and comb will do this on their own.

IF THE SHEARS ENTER THE FLEECE AT TOO STEEP OF AN ANGLE, THE DOWNWARD FORCE IS MAGNIFIED, INCREASING THE CHANCE OF DRIVING THE TEETH INTO THE ALPACA'S SKIN!

You need to be aware of areas of loose skin, as the teeth can easily be drive through a fold of skin in these areas. On an alpaca, the areas of greatest risk seem to be on the brisket and flank, but care should be taken around any joints. The direction of the blow, which will be covered later, will minimize the chance of cuts, but you should also use your free hand to pull the skin taut in these areas. Do this from behind the shears, pulling the alpaca's skin toward you, which will bring the fleece into the teeth of the comb.

SpearComb

The profile of the comb is very important. The tip of the teeth are obviously curved for a reason. If through sharpening and use the proper curve is lost, we have what is called a “spear point.” Such a comb will glide through the fleece easily, but greatly increases the risk of serious cuts.

CombAngle

The angle of entry of the shears into the alpaca’s fleece is important. Too steep and we increase the likelihood of injury. To shallow and the comb will tend to ride up and over the fleece (right). This is a common error for beginners, as they will rock the shears back on the heel of the comb in an effort to avoid injuring the alpaca. The individual fibers will tend to be pushed ahead and bend around the teeth, leaving a stubble of unevenly cut wool on the alpaca. This creates an uneven staple length which decreases the value of the fleece, and will probably lead you to pass over the same areas multiple times, ensuring the dreaded “second cut.” The teeth of the comb need to maintain contact with the alpaca for correct and efficient shearing. Once the shearer develops the knack to keep the teeth on the alpaca, shearing becomes easy. Remember, let your tools do the work.

 
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