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Merino Sheeps Wool vs Alpaca Fiber–the show down, dun dun duh.


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Home Forums Gear Forums Gear (General) Merino Sheeps Wool vs Alpaca Fiber–the show down, dun dun duh.

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  • #1307689
    just Justin Whitson
    Member

    @arcturusbear

    Alpaca fiber and Merino wool have many similarities, but some important differences. Similarities: Both have great odor control, both quite insulating (if the fiber size is similar Alpaca will be more so), and both are heat retaining when wet.

    Some important differences, Alpaca is innately less itchy because the scales on same are of a lower height, less of them, and generally the fiber is smoother. Merino is not itchy if the fibers are small enough, and anyways what happens with a lot of sport merino garments is the scales are taken off or filled in to make laundering easier and more fool proof.

    Laundering Alpaca is innately easier, because it has less tendency than untreated Merino to felt and thus doesn't shrink as much.

    Importantly, Alpaca has a much higher tensile strength than Merino, is less moisture absorptive, and usually has at least semi hollow fibers (either pockets of hollowness, or in the more guard type hairs fully hollow cored) which means it dries faster/wicks better and is warmer per similar sized fibers (however, a garment made with much finer, solid fibers can be more warm and air trapping than a garment made with more coarse/large but hollow fibers).

    Someone once argued with me on another forum that Merino is ultimately tougher and stronger than Alpaca because even though Alpaca has a much higher tensile strength, Merino fibers lock together which greatly increases the overall strength and durability. This is actually true up to a point.. however relativity. This debate got brought up in the context of backpacking, baselayers, and sport/outdoor's brands.

    If you took say a non sports brand Merino wool sweater, that is untreated, and you deliberately felt it (entangle the fibers together), you can create a fairly strong and durable fabric–stronger and more durable than Alpaca. However, this just does not apply at all to most popular, sports wear merino out there–especially baselayers made by the well known and popular brands that cost an arm and leg usually.

    The reason why it doesn't apply is because most of these companies either take off the scales of the fibers (which is what potentially entangles the fibers together and also really shrinks the garment) or they fill them in. Either way the point is, is that it doesn't apply in these baselayer cases and Alpaca's strength and durability is far superior. Alpaca has one of the highest tensile strengths of any natural fibers, 2nd only to silk and some bast fibers (like hemp, linen, etc).

    I've actually noticed that in the last couple of years, that i've begun to see more Alpaca based baselayers being marketed, and honestly, it's about time because Alpaca is in many ways superior to Merino. Just think of it in evolutionary terms. The Alpaca is an animal that has been bred to a more extreme climate than Merino Sheep. While Merino have in recent modern times been exported/imported to more extreme climates (partially to force them to adapt by making finer fibers that trap more air, etc), it will take time for them to catch up to the Alpaca origins which evolved over a long period of time. In the high Andes where Alpacas originated, they can experience temps anywhere on average from -30 degree F, to above 100 degrees with super intense U.V., and in the paramo levels lots of rain/snow and moisture at times, but in other places desert like. The Alpaca's "wool" developed to be able to handle all these and keep the animal alive and in relative comfort.

    I've yet to get any Alpaca based baselayers because of the high prices. I do have and use Alpaca sweaters (and hats) which i really like, but not so much for backpacking because they are heavier and warmer than what i need for hiking in most conditions, and for rest/camp, down just makes more sense because it's so light and packable. And while they handle moisture extremely well for a natural fiber, they still aren't as quick drying as thinner poly based fleeces, polypro or the like. But i would love to eventually try some thinner/lighter Alpaca based baselayers.

    Interestingly, the former CEO for Malden Mills which makes Polartec, started a company based on making unique, natural fiber based baselayers primarily out of Alpaca, but with some added Tencel (to further increase strength, durability and softness and maybe to lower cost some). Alpaca btw, is also more innately "eco" friendly to the environment than Merino sheep are.

    Here's a link to the company:
    http://www.komafram.com/

    And here's a very interesting article from the media about the company and their somewhat unique products:
    http://alpacaculture.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=643:performance-meets-luxury-in-komaframs-alpaca-blends&catid=35:north-america

    It's funny, but when i brought this up at another forum a couple of years ago or so, people there derided, made fun of and basically told me i was stupid for advocating the use of Alpaca over that of Merino. However, it seems that people and companies (aka the "mainstream") are starting to finally catch on to the very nice combo of properties of Alpaca fiber based garments.

    Anyone here who has and uses Alpaca based baselayers? If so, what do you think?

    #2025001
    Max Dilthey
    Spectator

    @mdilthey

    Locale: MaxTheCyclist.com

    As a merino wool fanboy, you had me until your last paragraph… I don't think BPL is out to attack Alpaca lovers.

    I have a few things I'm curious about. I want you to be right, because I love great fabrics, but I am unsure.

    1. You say "Most companies" and "The top companies" etc. etc. but you don't directly address company names. Who removes scales, who uses "fillers", who avoids interlocking fibers?

    2. There's a difference between tensile strength and bending strength. I know a synthetic fiber can bend 1,000-2,000 times before it breaks. Wool can bend 20,000 times. How often can Alpaca bend? I'm not really looking at Alpaca rope, after all.

    3. Price is a major consideration. There are, to my knowledge, a lot more sheep than there are Alpaca. Sure, they've got Alpacas in upstate new york, but their wool isn't exactly contending with the Andes.

    4. I'm sorry, but I have to throw a couple of eggs. If you make a post called "Merino vs. Alpaca, the showdown" and follow that with no references to companies and very little scientific comparison on important properties like bending durability, moisture management, etc, and you haven't even TRIED alpaca, I'm having a tough time giving you the credit your last paragraph begs for.

    My 2¢

    #2025009
    Desert Dweller
    Member

    @drusilla

    Locale: Wild Wild West

    It's one of my favorites, alpaca, but only cause I've used alpaca socks for winter and I have two alpaca ponchos. A year ago I scored a Rogers and Goffigon bolt of alpaca/ wool fabric (50/50) which I'm saving for a winter clothing project. I did a shrink test in warm water and it DID shrink a bit, if I were to make an outfit I would be tempted to preshrink before cutting out the pattern. I've never seen an alpaca and wool base layer. That would be awesome. I also found a really nice cashmere soap which I use for all my wool and cashmere "For Cashmere Only" on ebay, great stuff for smart wool, ibex and other natural "hair" softens and seems to restore the natural oils.
    Have you looked at the possum gloves and socks? Really lightweight but hairy, I treat mine with great care and the soap I mentioned above works fine with it. A thin base layer of the possum/ wool might be interesting, but the hairy-ness of it might not appeal to the masses.
    Winter Silks makes a cashmere and wool long underwear, but it's kind of delicate, warm but thin.

    #2025012
    just Justin Whitson
    Member

    @arcturusbear

    Good points Max, but i will note that i'm not being paid to write articles with various references and footnotes, but writing this stuff on my own free time and for brevity sake have to generalize some.

    Most of the major sports wear Merino brands use a lot of treated merino. Icebreaker, Smartwool, Ibex, etc, etc. They do this for two main reasons, to make it less irritating to the skin and more importantly to make it easier for laundering. Untreated Merino will severely shrink when laundered wrong–particularly when using warmer water or putting it in the dryer on anything above low. This is easy enough to look up if you want to verify it.

    You are correct about the difference between bending and tensile strength. The bending strength of Merino does not make it strong and durable though, it allows it to retain it's shape better–it "springs" back to shape very well–it's the natural fibers equivalent to "spandex" and the like. Merino baselayers are notorious for being pretty fragile and that is because the tensile strength is so low. The ones that last longer, are the ones that put some synthetic in there as well–usually nylon or polyester. I have some Rab MeCo baselayer stuff that i actually bought off a guy from here, and it's durable enough, but then again, it contains 35% polyester fiber.

    Alpaca does not have the extreme bending strength that Merino has, and so can loose it's shape/form easier. However, this is easily remedied by putting a small amount of spandex, lycra or the like in with it. Plus, lighter/thinner garments like baselayers by nature, will have less problem with losing shape than their heavier sweater versions.

    I "HAVE" tried Alpaca. I have and use Alpaca gloves, hats, and sweaters. I rarely use Alpaca sweaters for backpacking though because they just are too warm and too heavy (but i have tried it though). Neither do i use a Merino wool sweaters (but i have tried them ;). Since gloves and hats more mirror the use of baselayers for backpacking (which i do use more regularly), i can say that Alpaca is great stuff.

    I'm not saying Merino sucks or anything, i like it and use it. I'm just saying that all the properties of Alpaca make it better than Merino especially when talking baselayers and comparing it to sheep wools that have been treated. If you take a well felted Merino Wool sweater or hat and a non felted Alpaca sweater or hat, i would place bets on the Merino wool versions lasting longer, but we're not talking about felting, sweaters, hats, and the like–these are only for comparison purposes.

    And yes, i agree, the price of Alpaca is a major drawback…though a lot of Merino stuff isn't exactly cheap, especially not that major brand, sportwears stuff we have been talking about. In a lot of cases with clothes, we are paying more for branding and fashion than actual real world value.

    #2025015
    Daniel Pittman
    Spectator

    @pitsy

    Locale: Central Texas

    Get Kat P in here. She uses a lot of Alpaca and Merino in her hats. It would be good to get her take on this issue.

    #2025017
    Max Dilthey
    Spectator

    @mdilthey

    Locale: MaxTheCyclist.com

    I'm still not convinced. I know you're not paid (although that's a lot of advertising…), but you started your post with "This is a showdown" and ended it with "Don't laugh at me," so I'm skeptical if this post is useful.

    My Ibex shirt is plenty durable, holds it's shape, and I wear it day after day, mile after mile, on trail and off. So, even if it is "more fragile" when you rip it apart by hand, it's durable enough for my use for tensile strength not to matter. Maybe when I try to escape a burning building with a clothing rope, I'll miss Alpaca, but for hiking and biking, I currently am not lacking tensile strength.

    Bending strength is much more important to me, especially with a baselayer. I would hate a garment that loosened up around the sleeves and neck after a couple of days, especially since I roll up my sleeves often.

    Just "adding lycra or spandex" to fix that issue isn't great, because those fibers hold odor. 90% of the reason I use wool over synthetics is to avoid odor, not the properties of the fabric itself.

    I would also question how complete your testing is with hat and gloves. Long-term wear testing for odor control is really the ultimate test of a baselayer, and crucial for your "showdown."

    #2025018
    Justin Baker
    BPL Member

    @justin_baker

    Locale: Santa Rosa, CA

    Is there a reason why alpaca wool isn't as common? Are alpacas more expensive to care for?

    The only thing I have to add is that while wool baselayers rip and get holes very easily, heavy wool sweaters and coats can last for ages. Much longer than a fleece or softshell.

    #2025019
    just Justin Whitson
    Member

    @arcturusbear

    Hi D.D.,

    I don't any any NZ possum stuff and haven't tried it, but i have looked into it. I've heard most commonly that it's quite warm for the weight and very soft, but not particularly durable. It's even less durable and strong than Merino, which is why it's so often mixed with decent percentages of Merino wool, or sometimes with some synthetic as well.

    Similar with Angora rabbit fur. It's also very warm and very lightweight, significantly more so than Alpaca and even a bit more so than NZ possum from what i've gathered in my research, but also quite fragile in woven form.

    I've experimented with using it (angora rabbit fur) more like goose or duck down and putting it in between layers of thin synthetic fabric. This last late spring or so, i made a weird quilt using a combo of angora rabbit fur, duck down, and one layer of 2.5 oz climashield Apex, and non quilted/baffled. However, i wasn't very careful and ended up making it heavier than i should have (like 2.5 lbs!). I had ordered 1lb of angora rabbit fur and apparently the lady gave me well over 1lb. I haven't been able to try it yet because it hasn't been cold enough too so far. Just from trying it in the house, it's crazy warm.

    #2025021
    Kattt
    BPL Member

    @kattt

    I will chime in here, not because I am an expert, but I have worked with both fibers for many years.
    In my experience, treated Alpaca ( to prevent felting) is not nearly as soft as untreated alpaca. Untreated Alpaca and to some extent even the treated wool, will "grow and grow", not having as much memory as other fibers.
    True, memory has a lot to do with the number of plies and twists in the wool.
    Statistically more people react to Alpaca than Merino, even though the former is softer to the touch,
    Durability; Alpaca can be durable if either woven or knitted very tightly, otherwise I would say it is less durable than Merino.
    Again, a lot has to do with the weight, the plies, the twist and the worked gauge.

    I have knitted two Alpaca blankets at a much tighter gauge than the yarn recommended; they will last for generations. Same with the Llama and sheep wool blend.
    Sweaters…I have made dozens in Alpaca, Merino, Blends and Llama. They each have their advantages.

    #2025022
    Max Dilthey
    Spectator

    @mdilthey

    Locale: MaxTheCyclist.com

    Thanks Kat!

    So this "revolution" in switching from merino to alpaca isn't likely?

    I would love a fabric that behaved like Merino but was superior. From the sound of it, that fabric is not alpaca in the things that are important to me: comfort, durability, price

    #2025025
    just Justin Whitson
    Member

    @arcturusbear

    "Just "adding lycra or spandex" to fix that issue isn't great, because those fibers hold odor. 90% of the reason I use wool over synthetics is to avoid odor, not the properties of the fabric itself."

    Max, frankly you don't really know what you are talking about with some of this, like the above.

    You would only have to add around 5% of spandex, lycra, or the like to make an alpaca garment mimic the great property of sheeps wool and 5% is NOT going to make a garment stinky at all.

    How do i know this, well i'm married for one and women's closets typically contain more stretchy type clothing that have a small percentage of spandex or the like in them. Being the fabric/fiber freak that i am, i have looked into this, and i've seen even just 3% Spandex added which gives significant stretch and spring to a garment. In fact, the Polypro leggings i bought recently, are 97% polypro and just 3% spandex and they are stretchy and springy enough.

    #2025026
    Max Dilthey
    Spectator

    @mdilthey

    Locale: MaxTheCyclist.com

    Man, you should have just said "I'm married and my wife has a closet" in the OP, you'd have me convinced!

    ;)

    #2025027
    Kattt
    BPL Member

    @kattt

    Comfort. Durability. Price.

    What type of clothing are you looking for?

    My only experience is with working the wool myself; I really don't know about commercially available Alpaca products.

    For me, in order to make Alpaca as durable, I have to work it so tightly that it becomes very, very warm. That would be great in colder climates.
    Price…it is more expensive.

    Alpaca is soft, yet less people tolerate it than other wools.

    Laundering Alpaca is actually more difficult. It will stretch to almost twice it's size if not controlled and has to be blocked to find it's shape again. Merino has better memory.
    This applies to untreated, or "feltable" wool.

    Wet Alpaca smells more than sheep wool.

    I love Alpaca, but it is not the answer to all.

    #2025030
    Max Dilthey
    Spectator

    @mdilthey

    Locale: MaxTheCyclist.com

    Basically, my Merino baselayers are durable and hold their shape. They're comfortable. They're also reasonably priced.

    If I am going to switch to Alpaca for a baselayer, it has to be at LEAST those things. I don't think it's reasonable to mass-produce it to reduce it's price, so that's a strike. If it's woven extremely tightly, it's gonna lose some of the softness that the unworked fibers have on Merino, so it's going to be a little less comfortable (correct me if I'm wrong), and the durability that matters to me is that my baselayer stays skintight and out of my way. The fabric is missing this.

    So, I'm a little bit on the skeptic side. I'm not saying "Alpaca sucks! This guy is nuts!" but I don't really see it "winning" the showdown, by any means. It's different, maybe better for some people, but not for me.

    I'm getting a little combative. I ran a triathlon today and I'm tired. OP was looking for a fight and I couldn't resist a little mental combat.

    #2025031
    just Justin Whitson
    Member

    @arcturusbear

    "Statistically more people react to Alpaca than Merino, even though the former is softer to the touch,…"

    It's important to mention, i think, the actual reasons for this, is simply because there is less higher quality Alpaca out there than there is Merino. Merino is very well developed market, with a huge emphasis on ever smaller diameter fiber sizes and it's a very well regulated market. Alpaca is both less mainstream and less well regulated market.

    So ime, there is more coarser, larger diameter fiber stuff out there for Alpaca, and this is what bother's people's skins more than anything. There was a study done on this with various different fibers and the study found that it didn't matter so much what the fiber was, but how small or large it was, which is what people reacted to. The smaller the fiber diameter, the more comfortable it felt.

    If you take a garment made out of untreated sheeps wool, and a garment made out of untreated alpaca wool, and they have the same exact fiber diameter average, the Alpaca will be both softer and less irritating to the skin and this is because the Alpaca fibers have shorter, less barbed, and less frequency/number of scales. With the same size fibers, it's going to be the scales and how they are structured that will matter more…

    In any case, we're not talking thicker hats, gloves, and sweaters really, we're talking about thinner, lightweight baselayers. The high tensile strength of alpaca is a huge plus in that area. It's also a bit warmer and has better moisture handling properties than Merino given if similar quality (micron size).

    And again, if you add just a little spandex or lycra, you won't have to worry about it losing it shape. Plus, that is less of worry with lighter and thinner garments anyways. With heavy sweaters, it much more of an issue.

    #2025033
    Kattt
    BPL Member

    @kattt

    The diameter does not seem to matter.
    But Alpaca tends to have longer hairs in it. That seems to matter.

    Question.
    Have you worked with these fibers ?

    #2025036
    just Justin Whitson
    Member

    @arcturusbear

    "The diameter does not seem to matter."

    According to that scientific study it's what matters the most and more than what actual fiber is being considered. I will try to look for and link it in the near future.

    Besides, if you look at the structure of the fibers, it doesn't make any logical sense at all that alpaca would be more irritating to the skin than sheeps wool. It actually makes logical sense the opposite because of the scale structure of sheeps wool is more innately irritating to the skin than alpaca's.

    Maybe there is something else going on, but i have no idea what that would be. Are the people you talking about comparing it to Sports brand Merino stuff, or just to your stuff?

    Because if they are comparing it to Smartwool, Icebreaker, Ibex, etc or any treated wool then yeah it would make sense that people would say Merino is less irritating because these are treated to take off or fill in the scales.

    With no scales, a fiber is going to feel much, much more comfortable against the skin.

    #2025038
    Max Dilthey
    Spectator

    @mdilthey

    Locale: MaxTheCyclist.com

    This is the first you've mentioned moisture management. Any more info on this? How much better is it and why?

    Also, what study is this on fiber size?

    Also, sorry, more questions… What makes you say Ibex, Smartwool, and Icebreaker treat their wool?

    #2025040
    Kattt
    BPL Member

    @kattt

    I have no idea about scientific studies on this. You may be correct there.
    I know from over 40 years of working with wool. I am also on "Ravelry" the online fiber community. There is a lot of information there on Alpaca and it is well beyond my personal experience.
    Same weight wool and still more people react to it. That is not something I would say from just my own product.
    Look into Ravelry ( over 3 million members).

    Against my own skin I would take Alpaca any day.

    Treated Alpaca is not nearly as soft as non treated, in my experience. Just like Merino.

    #2025041
    just Justin Whitson
    Member

    @arcturusbear

    "Have you worked with these fibers ?"

    Not in the sense that you have. I have and have used various alpaca garments (i also have two alpaca throws, 1 alpaca merino blend one, and 1 lambswool throw) and various merino stuff. I agree they have different strengths and weakness. But again, we're not talking heavier, thicker things like sweaters, hats, and blankets where the springiness of sheeps wool is going to be more of an asset. I've experimented with felting wool some as well.

    In one of my earlier posts, i said a felted Merino sweater, hat, or the like is going to be tougher and longer lasting than an alpaca version. I even explained the reasons why. Making statements without explaining the mechanics and logic behind it, doesn't help people understand the "why's" behind things.

    But my post is really about thinner, lighter weight baselayers, particularly comparing alpaca to the common treated, sportswear, popular brand merino stuff, and many, many people here have said that their merino baselayers don't tend to last so long or be that durable.

    #2025042
    Max Dilthey
    Spectator

    @mdilthey

    Locale: MaxTheCyclist.com

    Can you expand on what you said about alpaca having better moisture management? How much better? Also, why is it better?

    Kat_P, any info here?

    #2025044
    Kattt
    BPL Member

    @kattt

    "Making statements without explaining the mechanics and logic behind it, doesn't help people understand the "why's" behind things. "

    True enough. I could google it, then copy and paste..
    Again, I do not claim to be an expert nor have I studied much of the mechanics. I am basing my statements on my experience and what the majority of people on Ravelry have experienced.

    Again, I love Alpaca. It is not a perfect fiber.

    #2025045
    Kattt
    BPL Member

    @kattt

    Sorry Max. Not sure about that. Once wet Alpaca gets heavier than comparable Merino, as it holds more water. Maybe it is better at repelling it initially? Not sure.

    #2025046
    Max Dilthey
    Spectator

    @mdilthey

    Locale: MaxTheCyclist.com

    Justin, Kat's the resident expert. She doesn't have to "prove" herself, necessarily, because everyone on BPL already knows her expertise on this particular subject. We know she knows, and we know she knows how to show us she knows. I wouldn't go down the "put up or shut up" road here.

    Still wondering about moisture management :(

    #2025047
    Kattt
    BPL Member

    @kattt

    No expert…but thanks.

    Just a lot of experience. Started knitting at 3. I am now 46..

    Über pricey…but Quiviut would beat them all, I think.

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