Alpaca - Cloth from a Pioneering Era

9th July 2009

Have you ever wondered if there is a kind of natural wool suitable for those with sensitive skin? One which can even be worn against the most precious skin of all, that of a baby? Those who are unfamiliar with different types of wool may not have heard of alpaca, even though it has been used in Great Britain since the 19th Century and in the alpaca’s homeland of the South American Andes for thousands of years.

Though it differs slightly from its contemporary summary in the well known ‘Household Words’ magazine (which was edited by Charles Dickens), the story of how the alpaca wool was first made into the lustrous cloth we know today is an intriguing one. Sir Titus Salt (20th September 1803 – 29th December 1876) was born in Morley near Leeds, the son of Daniel Salt, a successful businessman in the wool industry. Titus had a good education, attending grammar school, before working for a couple of years as a wool stapler in Wakefield. After this he became a partner in his father’s business, which was called Daniel Salt & Son, for obvious reasons! By the age of thirty, Titus had started to run the company himself and over a number of years he expanded it until it was the largest employer in Bradford. His reputation and status was such that he became the mayor of the town in 1848, after some years as Chief constable. Despite his seemingly ever busy life, in 1836 Titus Salt had discovered some unused bales of unused alpaca wool in a Liverpool warehouse. He proceeded to perform some experiments on the wool, before deciding to purchase the entire stock. Titus had succeeded where many others had failed – he had discovered how to transform the wool into the fashionable and high quality cloth we know today.

Titus Salt is not only remembered for his contribution to the use of alpaca, but also for the creation of a village – Saltaire, which is located approximately three miles from Bradford by the river Aire. It was created to accommodate the staff at Salt’s new mill on the site, and over the years churches, bathhouses and almshouses were incorporated. Titus Salt was made a Baronet of Saltaire in 1869, then after a life of many great achievements, he died in 1876 and was buried at Saltaire Congregational Church. It is thought that the number of individuals who lined the route to the funeral may have exceeded 100,000.

Many of the famous names from the 19th are still widely known today, and many are responsible for trailblazing the way to new developments in technology, science and the arts. Titus Salt’s contemporaries included Robert Bunsen, Vincent Van Gogh, Richard Wagner and Arthur Conan Doyle. The pioneering spirit of the era lives on, as we continue to explore and understand the discoveries of the past, as well as of the present. Alpaca is a product from an age of many changes, but remains of just as much use to us in our modern lives, an ideal fabric for baby wear, gloves, shawls, sweaters and more.