Alpaca and the Spanish Conquistadors

29th July 2009

The alpaca had thrived in Peru and Chile for thousands of years, living on and around the Andes Mountains, until the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 16th Century. As the conquistadors were unused to the native animals and agriculture, when they arrived they brought with them European livestock for meat and wool. Among these were sheep, including the Merino, well known for its superb fleece. Unfortunately, these sheep and other imported animals soon caused damage to the native habitat, and alpacas were forced away from the best grazing land, to harsh conditions more than 4000 metres above sea level, where the sheep did not venture. Many animals were also slaughtered by the invading people, due to the fact they were highly cherished by the Inca people as a sign of wealth and prosperity. The small herds that survived were the remnants of a huge population; it was the alpaca’s ability to live in the inhospitable high mountain regions which prevented it from becoming extinct.

Luckily for those of us who love these characterful animals, and the fibre which they produce, over the years the alpaca population grew again. Having said this, the years of expert Inca breeding had to some extent been lost, leading to a slight deterioration in the quality of fibre from the majority of animals. The alpaca is now renowned across the globe and the breeding of the very best animals has helped to improve fibre quality in certain herds. Despite this, by far the softest and finest fibre for alpaca clothing still comes from juvenile animals. The first year’s shear is known as baby alpaca, which is in demand for all sorts of garments, from bedsocks to baby booties. The very finest alpaca clothing, however, is made from royal baby alpaca. This amazing fibre is the very highest quality baby alpaca, recognised by its low micron count and luxurious feel. Very little royal baby alpaca wool is available – in the days of the Inca people, cloth made from this rare and valuable wool was reserved for use by royalty.

Although the wool of young animals is considered the most luxurious, alpaca clothing from older animals also shares many of its benefits. Those with sensitive skin or wool allergies are able to wear alpaca clothing as it is free of lanolin, and because it does not have the scratchy, itchy texture of other woollens. Even newborn babies can benefit from the ranges of blankets, mittens and cardigans available in alpaca. Those who purchase alpaca clothing or home ware (such as cushion covers) rarely look back and are only too eager to find their next alpaca product. The appealing animals capture the hearts of many. Their unique fibre, when woven by those with the skill of generations to produce high quality garments, seems like the natural choice. The alpaca has overcome the challenges of the 16th Century to become a much loved animal throughout the world, providing an income for the people of the Andes, and cloth for discerning customers in many countries.