We love alpaca at ECY, but feel like it's perhaps underestimated, or a bit under-appreciated. We get asked lots of questions about it, so have put together what we hope is a helpful and insightful blog post answering as many questions as we can. The first section is quite long by the way, but does need to come first. If you're interested in things like the difference between baby alpaca and other alpaca types, please scroll on down!
If you have any more questions that we've missed please do let us know. 🙂
Tell me about alpaca - where are the animals from and what is their history?
The alpaca (Vicugna pacos) is a domesticated species of South American camelid descended from the wild vicuña. They are often confused with the llama but alpacas are smaller. Genetic analysis shows that many of today's alpacas are actually the result of male alpacas bred to female llamas. There are two breeds of alpaca, Suri and Huacaya and they are distinguished by their fibre rather than conventional classifications. Herds of Alpacas are kept in Southern Peru, Western Bolivia, Ecuador, and Northern Chile with over half of the alpacas worldwide being found in Peru. The alpaca fibre used in our yarns, e.g. Askham 4ply, Askham Lace, Askham Aran, Whitfell DK and Whitfell Chunky, is untreated and sourced from Peru. There are a limited number of small British herds where the fibre is spun into their own-brand yarn.
Huacaya alpacas make up about 90% of the population. The Huacaya alpaca is thought to have originated in post-colonial Peru as the invasion of the Spanish Conquistadors forced them higher into the Andes where they developed a thicker fleece, more suited to survival in the higher ground. This harsh environment has created an extremely hardy animal. Huacaya alpacas grow dense, soft spongy fibre with natural crimp which gives a naturally elastic yarn.
Suri alpacas represent a smaller portion of the total alpaca population - around 10%. They are thought to have been more prevalent when they could be kept at a lower altitude where a thicker fleece was not needed but both breeds have been successfully raised in more extreme climates. Suri alpacas are prized for their longer and silkier fibres with no crimp, which may have been the reason for this breed only being used for royalty during Incan times.
Indigenous people used alpacas for their meat, fleece for clothing, and their images were used in art and in the form of conopas. Conopas were idols, based on the Suri alpaca, used during rituals thought to bring fertility and luck. Since the people in the region depended heavily on these animals, the alpaca fleece was seen as "the fibre of the Gods" with items using it believed to date back as far as two thousand years.
Herds of Alpacas are kept in Southern Peru, Western Bolivia, Ecuador, and Northern Chile with over half of the alpacas worldwide being found in Peru. The alpaca fibre used in our yarns, e.g. Askham 4ply, Askham Lace, Askham Aran, Whitfell DK and Whitfell Chunky, is untreated and sourced from Peru. There are a limited number of small British herds where the fibre is spun into their own-brand yarn.
Alpaca yarn was initially condemned as unworkable in England when it was first imported. With the introduction of cotton warps in 1836 Titus Salt of Bradford was able to use alpaca successfully. Bradford is still a spinning and manufacturing centre for alpaca with large quantities of yarns and cloths exported annually.
Alpaca fleece is made into various knitted and woven products, from very simple fabrics and inexpensive garments, as made by the indigenous communities for thousands of years, to sophisticated, industrially made and expensive products such as suits. Individual farms and makers also produce finished alpaca products like hats, mitts, scarves, socks, insoles, footwarmers, sweaters, jackets, as well as almost any other product.
What are they like to keep and how do they live?
Adult alpacas average at around 81–99cm (32–39in) tall to the shoulders, weigh between 48–84kg (106–185lb) and live for 15–20 years.
Alpacas can be gentle, intelligent, and extremely observant. They can be aggressive towards dogs, foxes and coyotes which makes them useful in guarding sheep. It is possible to train alpacas and they are quite easy to herd. They are increasingly being seen in British landscapes acting as flock guardians.
Alpacas use a communal dung pile away from where they graze which limits the spread of parasites.This allows for their waste to be collected and used as fertilizer and some alpacas have been house-trained!
Alpacas eat grass, hay, and plants, obtaining the necessary vitamins in their native grazing ranges. Farmers may also add silage to the diet. Alpacas have a three-chambered stomach which allows maximum extraction of nutrients from their food. Another reason behind the spread of alpaca herds is the reasonably low impact on the environment. Alpaca management requires very few chemicals (i.e. no organophosphates for flystrike, no pesticides for footrot) and they help improve soil structure with their droppings and apply low pressures on the soil.
Tell us more about the fleece and fibre?
Alpacas are typically sheared using special knives or shears once per year in the spring. The yield per animal is very variable, but is approximately five pounds (2.2kilograms) of fibre per alpaca.
The alpaca has a very fine and light fleece; it does not retain water, is a thermal insulator even when wet, and can resist solar radiation. These characteristics protect the animals against extreme changes of temperature which are common at high altitude. Being so hardy, they are easy to care for and not limited to a specific type of environment.
Alpaca fleece fibre is a soft, durable, luxurious and silky natural fibre. While similar to sheep's wool, it is warmer, not prickly, and bears no lanolin, which makes it hypoallergenic for many people. Alpaca fibre has a higher tensile strength than wool fibres and it is also flame-resistant. The fibre softness comes from having a smoother scale surface than most wool which creates the glossy shine prized in alpaca.
As an alpaca gets older, the diameter of the fibres gets thicker and so less desirable. The quality of alpaca fibre is determined by how crimpy it is, with a greater number of small folds in the fibre meaning greater quality.
Alpaca fibre is classified manually according to its fineness and sorted into qualities:
- Royal Alpaca (<19 microns)
- Baby Alpaca (22.5 microns)
- Super Fine Alpaca (25.5 microns),
- Huarizo (29 microns)
- Coarse (32 microns) and
- Mixed Pieces (short fibres coarser than 32 microns).
The fibre used in our yarns is baby alpaca, which is why so many people are able to wear it next-to-skin even though they’ve found that other alpaca yarns are too tickly due to being made from more coarse fibres.
Yarn from alpaca fibre can be light or heavy in weight, depending on how it is spun, and there are 22 natural colors, with more than 300 shades including true-blue black, brown-black, browns, fawns, white, silver-greys, and rose-greys. White is predominant following years of selective breeding as they generally have better fleece than the darker-coloured animals plus the white fibre can be dyed in the largest ranges of colors. Demand for darker fibre and reintroduction of the colors is increasing and has led to breeders working on breeding dark animals with increased fibre quality.
The preparing, carding, spinning, weaving and finishing process of alpaca is very similar to the process used for wool. Alpaca fibre can improve any other textile it is blended with and using an alpaca and wool blend such as merino is very common to reduce price (!!). Pure alpaca garments can be made without the addition of other materials, creating long lasting and very luxurious products.
Why do you use Peruvian alpaca then?
Thousands of rural families in the high Andes rely on the alpaca as they have done for thousands of years, shearing the animals and selling their fibre every year to provide their principal income. The alpaca yarn we use is sourced and spun by a family owned business with over 70 years of experience. They are keen to improve both the quality of the alpaca herds, which will generate more income for the herders, and the conditions of the families that produce the alpaca.
There are a number of programs running in Peru with the main aim to provide support for the sustainable development of alpaca raising which are supported by our supplier. It seeks to generate benefits for all those involved in the alpaca production chain, and especially for the thousands of rural families who make a living from this resource in the harsh conditions of the Peruvian highlands. Support and education are offered to the herders and their families on topics such as shearing techniques, animal health, reproduction, feeding, data storage, genetic management, selection of animals and the handling of pasture and forage. This allows the producers to implement improvement programmes and assess the impact of these changes. Community programmes provide yarn to villages for knitting children’s clothes, support local schools and contribute to the building of low environmental impact housing. We feel that this is an ethical way for us to buy alpaca yarns.
Garments made using alpaca yarn will be heavy and lose their shape, won’t they?
This is such a common misconception! Although making a garment in alpaca yarn can feel heavy whilst it’s in production, I (and many others who will testify!) find that once worn it’s no heavier than wool, especially if the tension/gauge isn’t too tight. It is cosy and and warm, like wearing a hug. The best thing you can do is make a swatch/tension square then wash it and hang it with a weight on the bottom so that you can see how much the maximum stretch might be. Again though, when washed and dried flat (which I recommend) there isn’t nearly as much stretch as you might think. Pure alpaca garments are hard wearing, soft, cuddly, and practical. A shawl/scarf/lace wrap made in an alpaca/silk blend is a particularly luxurious thing indeed, and yet not so delicate that you can’t throw it around and stuff it in a bag.