John & Susan Merrell
41390 Hwy 226
Scio, OR 97374
503-394-3790
503-551-7219 (cell)
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Hand Grading

Of surprise to many people is the fact that the grading/classing of virtually all natural animal fibers still begins by hand. While technology provides the means to provide objective measurements and confirmation of the sorter's skill, no machine has yet been developed that can replace the sight and touch required for accurate classing.

No individual animal, let alone breed, produces fiber that is consistently uniform in color, staple length, or fineness. This is particularly true of alpacas, which producer the widest range of natural colors of any type of animal. Beyond the issue of color, fiber fineness can range across three or more grades on a single animal.

There have been some attempts to develop a technological solution to the grading of fiber, but they have met with only limited success. The general approach takes advantage of the fact that fibers of similar diameters fall at different rates in a horizontal airflow. (This is the basis of most "de-hairing" machinery.) In theory, then, it is possible to skim off fibers by fineness, working from coarsest to finest, but in practice this does not appear to produce a satisfactory end product.

Hand sorters have proven able to make amazingly fine distinction in fiber diameter using nothing but the sense of touch. Trained alpaca graders can consistently sort raw fiber into ranges of only 3 μ, and to do this at the rate of 150-250 pounds a day.

This, of course, is the same process that has been used in South America for thousands of years.

Hand grading of alpaca involves several criteria:

  • Staple length - generally 2, sometimes three usable lengths
    • 1.5" - 3.5" (best for woolen processing)
    • 3.5" - 6" (best for worsted processing)
  • Color - can vary significantly
    • Bolivia sorts to 17 colors
    • Peru sorts to 22 colors
    • Canada sorts to 9 colors
    • US sorts to 7 colors
    • Etc.
  • Fineness - generally 5-6 grades
    • Grade #1 < 20 μ
    • Grade #2 20 - 22.9 μ
    • Grade #3 23 - 25.9 μ
    • Grade #4 26 – 28.9 μ
    • Grade #5 29 – 31.9 μ
    • Grade #6 32 + μ

The best use of scientific measurement of fiber, using tools such as the Laserscan or OFDA 100 is the core testing of bales of hand graded fiber, serving as a validation of the quality of the bale for buyers.

 
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"He smoked several pounds of my tobacco, and taught me several ounces of things worth knowing; but he would never accept any gifts, not even when the cold weather came, and gripped the poor thin chest under the poor thin alpaca-coat. He grew very angry, and said that I had insulted him, and that he was not going into hospital. He had lived like a beast and he would die rationally, like a man..."

Rudyard Kipling
Indian Tales
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