I’m allergic to wool. Will alpaca make me itch? The hypoallergenic myth.
Perhaps this is the second most common question I hear, right behind, “Do they spit?” Typically, alpaca owners will rave about how much softer alpaca wool is than sheep’s wool and also claim it to be “hypoallergenic.” These claims are misleading and not necessarily true at all. What most people believe is an allergy to wool is simply a reaction to coarse fibers. Coarse fibers are coarse fibers. Alpacas can be coarse just like any other fiber animals. The “hypoallergenic” claim about alpacas is a myth. There is currently no criteria anywhere for establishing hypoallergenic certification. Some also suggest that an allergy to lanolin is the culprit. Lanolin allergies are extremely rare, but do exist.
Briefly, all fibers are measured in microns. This measurement reflects the diameter of an individual fiber. The lower the micron number the finer the fiber. The finer the fiber, the softer it is against skin, hence, no itch, no “allergy.” The itchiness is known as the prickle factor. Fibers from any fiber bearing animal, sheep, goat, bison or alpaca will be soft if the micron is low. Fiber animals with microns under 30 will not be as itchy to most people. The prickle factor is much more pronounced with fibers over thirty microns, or garments with more than 5% of fibers over 30 microns. Softer, very fine fibers with microns of 22 or less are ideal. Fiber length is also a component of the “prickle factor.” Shorter fibers, create more prickle than longer fibers, since there will be higher concentrations of fiber ends in specific areas. How the fiber is processed also effects how soft it feels. Woolen spun yarns are made of fibers of differing lengths, and are less likely to all be lined up in the same direction. This makes yarns lighter and full of space for air, which enables woolen spun yarns to insulate well and be the appropriate choice for lightweight warm garments. They are also less likely to have long, coarse fibers or shorter fibers removed which may increase prickle factor. Worsted spun yarns are created of fibers of the same lengths where short or medullated fibers have been removed. This make worsted spun yarns denser, stronger and with little room for air pockets. Great for woven applications.
Many factors effect the micron count of fiber animals. Typically, fibers will coarsen as the animal ages. Also genetics and diet play important roles. Fat animals are coarser. The breeding and selection of animals, in our case it is alpacas, is important. Wool growers must have an understanding of genetics, and have goals for a breeding program. Identifying animals that are genetically inclined to have softer, lower micron fleeces is important. Ultimately animals age and their wool coarsens. What may have once been an animal that produced wool for knitting yarns, may now be providing wool for felting rugs. Understanding and realistically assessing what you have for fiber is crucial in creating quality yarns. If coarse wool is used for yarns and garments worn close to the skin, it will be itchy.
To prevent the prickle factor, wear only soft wool next to the skin. You will be warm and comfortable.