Alpaca fibre has a long and colourful history. The ancient tribes of the Andean highlands of Peru, Argentina, Chile and Bolivia were the first to domesticate the wild vicuna which was, and still is indigenous to the area. By selectively breeding this animal, the alpaca breed was developed, becoming a crucial component for the survival of these tribes by providing meat, fibre, hide, fuel and the and the basis for monetary exchange.
Inca Civilization And Alpaca Fibre
The highly developed Inca society that sprung up in the rugged Andes mountains prized the alpaca for its ultra-fine fleece and were responsible through separation and selective breeding for developing the 22 natural colours of alpaca fleece that we see today. Clothing made from alpaca was reserved for royalty or the elite class; the common man was not allowed to wear it. Interestingly, mummified alpacas found in ancient Incan ceremonial burial sites have much finer and more consistent fibre than modern day alpacas. It is widely believed that the centuries following the Spanish conquest of the Incas and the subsequent decimation of their beloved alpaca herds was to blame. Hundreds of years of unsupervised breeding and llama crossbreeding have caused a decline in quality since those ancient times, but breeders around the world are working to bring back the excellence of the revered Incan alpaca.
The Spanish conquistadors failed to see the value of alpaca fibre, preferring the merino sheep of their native Spain and slaughtered 90% of the alpacas alive at that time. The alpaca fell into obscurity and was all but forgotten, except by the native people who managed to preserve small numbers of alpacas and who were sustained by their alpaca herds. However, in the middle 1800’s, Sir Titus Salt of Saltaire, England rediscovered this unique fibre when he found a discarded bale of it in a warehouse at Liverpool docks. The newly industrialized English textile industry was at its zenith when Sir Titus began studying the unique properties of alpaca fleece. He discovered, for instance, that alpaca fibre was stronger than sheep’s wool and that its strength did not diminish with fineness of staple. The alpaca textiles he fashioned from the raw fleece were soft, lustrous, and
he went on to create a double sided fancy cloth that was successful for over 40 years. He is reputed to have made Queen Victoria’s mourning clothes as the Alpaca cloth is light but as warm as wool so it can be worn all year round.
Alpaca Fiber Characteristics
Alpaca fibre is a specialty fibre and comes in 22 natural shades. Its softness comes from the small diameter of the fibre, similar to merino wool. Its glossiness is due to low height of the individual fibre scales that cover each individual fibre. It is five times warmer and more durable than sheep wool. It is also lightweight due to air pockets within the fibres, and it contains no oils or lanolin. The microscopic air pockets give it lightness and high thermal capacity.
Typically fibre quality is judged on fineness, length, fibre type, medullation and tensile strength. Breeding, nutrition, and management can influence all these characteristics. Alpaca fleece grows approximately five to 10 inches each year and can weigh anywhere from two to ten pounds from a mature animal.
The Suri alpaca fibre has unique fibre characteristics growing parallel to the body and hanging in long, non-crimped pencil locks, making them look as if they have dreadlocks. Suri fibre is lustrous, soft, and has been compared to cashmere. It is durable and warm, far more so than sheep wool and is used primarily to produce luxurious woven products. The designer Armani has used Suri alpaca to fashion men’s and women’s suits.
The huacaya alpaca fibre is dense, crimped and woolly in appearance. This gives them a soft, huggable, teddy-bear-like look and makes them overwhelmingly popular in the industry. While not as rare as the suri fibre, they produce a highly-prized fleece, better suited for knitted articles.
Alpacas lack the natural body oils produced by most animals. For processing, these oils are often washed out with chemicals or harsh soaps. This washing process and the natural oils can make it unbearable for some people to wear traditional sheep’s wool. Alpacas are considered to have single coat whose guard hairs are often so fine they don’t need to be removed for processing. Guard hairs are typically coarser than the soft undercoat which they are designed to protect. Alpaca fibre is very soft and can be worn next to the skin without irritation by most people.
Alpaca’s broad range of natural colours eliminates the need to dye, although it lends itself to dying very well. These natural colours come in different shades of white, fawn, brown, grey, black and many in-between colours. At Ffynnon Beuno, our small flock display a range of colours from black, grey and toffee brown though to creamy white and our boys are shorn every year in late Spring or early Summer. The change in their appearance is drastic!