A Multipurpose Material

3rd December 2009

Where should you look for a wool that is warm yet light, in a staggering variety of natural colours, and so luxurious that the finest fibres were traditionally reserved for royalty?

In the highlands of Peru, Chile, and Bolivia, on the slopes of the Andes. The animal that produces this remarkable fleece is the alpaca. Now bred all over the world, alpacas produce wool that is incredibly versatile and has a quality that excels over other materials, even made-made fibres.

Alpaca wool is sheared, spun and woven in the same manner as sheep’s wool, and is used to create bedding, homewares, and alpaca clothes. The fibres from these animals are incredibly silky and smooth, and have been likened to hair in their texture. When they are woven into skeins, they produce very soft and luxurious wool that does not have the prickly and scratchy nature of other wools.

Alpaca clothes are some of the most naturally warm garments around, and have been found to retain heat more effectively even than man-made materials such as nylon. The fibres of the alpaca are naturally hollow, and are therefore superb at storing heat, whilst being incredibly lightweight. Outdoor sports enthusiasts have celebrated alpaca clothes for these combined qualities, and many clothing companies are now producing alpaca sportswear, such as socks, hats and vests.

Most common wools and particularly sheep’s wool incorporate lanolin, a natural wax that many find can cause an allergy or unwanted reaction. In contrast, alpacas do not produce this wax, making their fibres lanolin-free. Consequently, alpaca clothes and bedding are hypoallergenic and perfect for those with allergies or sensitive skin, particularly babies and young children. The added benefits of a warm lightweight material would make alpaca an excellent choice for baby blankets, socks or baby-grows.

Alpaca clothes come in a huge variety of colours, and for those who prefer all-natural products there are over 22 shades of fibre, which do not require the addition of chemical dyes. Ranging from black through grey to white, and in a large array of browns and creams and silvers, there is a natural shade of alpaca wool to suit everybody!

There are two distinct breeds of alpaca, which each produce a different style of fleece. Huacaya alpacas have a thicker and coarser fibre which has a natural springiness, lending itself to knits. The Suri alpacas produce a smoother and finer coat, which is used more in woven goods such as shawls and wraps. However, the premium alpaca fibre is known as ‘baby alpaca’. This refers to the very first time an animals fleece is suitable for shearing; the fibres are at their smoothest and finest, and are of the highest quality. As alpacas age their coats become coarser, so baby alpaca is highly prized. As each animal can only produce this quality once, baby alpaca is much sought after, and used to make the most luxurious goods. Armani have even used alpaca in their suits and coats, undoubtedly to add an extra element to their reputation for quality.