Francis E.B. Rainsford
Alpaca Fibre Prices ?
Will the Bubble Burst?
Along with prices of other speciality animal fibres, alpaca continues to benefit from price levels not experienced since 2000. Even wool has seen a present 14-month elevation of prices that shows no signs of slowing down. Initially, observers were quick to suggest that these rising values are supply-driven, where static or declining fibre production has led to a point where inadequate levels of supply have caused artificially high prices. As the trend goes on, however, there has been more acknowledgment of the strength of retail demand for these fibres and the continued emptiness of the pipeline. Having said that, a new factor appears to have entered the arena where the economic forces of supply and demand traditionally slug it out ? that of diminishing oil reserves.
The manufacture of the majority of synthetic fibres involves, in the main, carbon derivatives and this fact alone places them in direct competition for dwindling resources, due to sustained pressure on oil. Added to more general awareness of better managing the planet?s natural materials, the end consumer is more socially aware than at any previous time in man?s history. As a result, the trend of returning to textiles made from natural fibres rather than ?virgin? synthetic ones is a strong one, leaving the best market options open to synthetics for those that use recycled materials (such as plastic bottles). It could well be that this shift in the balance of things will see an averaging out of prices for natural fibres rather than the more usual pronounced highs and lows of past years. If this comes to pass, it will be good news for fibre growers who will be able to budget for price stability and plough back more profits into improving the quality of their product.
With regard to alpaca, the consumer should particularly be a winner as any improvements to the overall quality decline suffered during the past twenty years or so will be immediately noticeable ? finer microns, root to tip uniformity, less kemp, fewer medullated fibres, etc. ? all of which contribute to better handle and softness. When combined with alpaca?s durability, these features will ensure a purchase unsurpassable by both synthetic and other fibres. So will the current price bubble burst? Well, the cemeteries are full of those who have tried unsuccessfully to second-guess fibre prices over the centuries, but maybe, just maybe, we are witnessing the establishment of a new pattern that could reposition natural fibres at more advantageous economic values from here on.
Natural vs. Synthetic Dyes ?
Which are more commercially viable?
Alpaca breeders who retail products from their animals via small shops, catalogues, and/or the Internet and who are on the hunt for someone to convert their fibre into finished goods invariably ask, ?for colours other than the natural alpaca ones, will you be using ?natural? dyes?? Up rears the old argument about which dyestuffs are best, natural ones or synthetics. Dr. Ian Holmes of the University of Leeds, points out that natural dyestuffs (mainly from plants but also from animal and mineral sources) have been used for at least 5,000 years and were used exclusively for dyeing textile materials prior to 1857 when William Henry Perkin discovered Mauveine, the very first synthetic dyestuff. Up until the 1920?s both natural and synthetic dyes were used alongside each other, but the increasing ease of manufacture of the synthetic dyes, and the fact that they do not need mordants to fix the colour prior to dyeing, gave them a big advantage. Coupled with the birth of synthetic fibres, for which natural dyestuffs were not suitable, the less commercial activities of craft industries or limited edition apparel collections soon became the new downsized world of natural dyes. Before the production of synthetic dyes in 1857, the world?s population was around one billion people and land was plentiful for the production of cultivated material for dyestuffs (e.g. madder, indigo, etc.) or for finding them in their natural habitat (e.g. logwood, brazilwood, etc.). Natural dyestuffs were extracted to colour natural fibres, cotton, wool, silk, and flax, primarily, and where, at the time, colour fastness of dyed textiles was variable and the washing of clothes, primitive. Dry cleaning of silk was first commercialised in Paris around 1855 using camphene ? a kind of turpentine. Later, other solvents such as gasoline, paraffin, and benzine were used. Then, in 1906, the electric washing machine was invented; synthetic detergents in 1917; and fluorescent brightening agents in 1930. The consumer soon learnt to expect more, vis-a-vis the performance of clothes and their colours.
Today, with a world population of around six billion, arable land is considered more essential for food production rather than vegetable sources for natural dyestuffs. Commercially and to a more environmentally-aware consumer, natural dyestuffs present more problems than synthetic ones:
? They require the use of metallic/vegetable mordants for fixation, which creates waste disposal issues with vegetable-based impurities and toxic metal mordants in dyehouse waste water run-offs.
? They generally are worse performers with regard to colour yield and colour fastness.
? The view that natural colourants from natural dyestuffs provide an ecofriendly alternative is not borne out with a cradle-to-grave analysis of their cultivation, production, extraction, and the application methods needed to fix them to textile materials.
In light of the above, you decide for yourself: which is commercially more viable, as well as environmentally friendly in the long run?
Copying Nature For More Eco-Friendly Textiles
Man has always looked to the natural world for inspiration in terms of design, fashion, art, and engineering. Nature?s inspiration has been adapted to the hulls of boats (imitating the skin of dolphins), ultrasound usage in sonar and radar (copying the echolocation of bats), and the simple brick built arch supposedly from the human spinal column, to name but a few.
In the textile industry, one of the most famous examples of ?bio-mimicry? is found in everyday use in clothing. In 1948, Swiss engineer George de Mestral was removing burrs that his dog had picked up on a walk, when he realized how the hooks of the burrs clung to the dog?s fur. As a result, he took swatches of velour and crochet, combining the two to create VelcroŽ.
Textile environmentalist John Mowbray points out that today?s breakthroughs in nanotechnology offer many opportunities to advance eco-friendly textile products, where, as an example, preliminary work using this technology has given scientists new scope for diffracting light on the surface of fabrics, trying to mimic the natural scales of iridescent, coloured butterflies. It is hoped that this could be a future way of replacing contaminating metal-based dyes.
The chemical company, BASF, has developed a modified self-cleaning finish that can be applied to fabric surfaces. It is based on the design of nature?s minutely pitted surface of the lotus leaf. What is interesting is that the carrier matrix in which this finish is embedded, consists of tiny particles less than 100 nanometres in diameter. The nanotech finish is much more durable than previously achieved, so it can be applied to dirt-repellent clothing requirements and pass the toughest challenges posed by modern day washing machines.
The concept of clothing which needs fewer wash cycles is certainly worth exploring. Initially, the plan is to apply this new finish to cotton wear. The textile industry waits to see if stain-resistant cotton clothing could result in significant savings in terms of energy use and conservation in laundering processes ? not to mention better management of dwindling water resources. This type of advancement will serve to give a much-needed boost to traditional wool finishes such as ?Superwash? and thence on to other animal fibres, such as alpaca.
Bowing to consumer demands, many retailers have already begun to seek products which meet what is becoming known as the ?triple bottom line? factor ? which takes into account the environmental, social, and financial performance of new sustainable products. As a result, the marketplace may see an increase in garments that have ?designed in? recyclability, compostability, or durability properties.
@Alpacas Magazine; all rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.