Appreciating the Alpaca

7th October 2009

The camelid family of animals are believed to have originated between 10 and 50million years ago in the plains of North America, where 20 different species of camelid could be found roaming freely. Today, there are six different species of camelid; the dromedary and Bactrian camels found in Africa and Asia, and the guanaco, vicuna, llama and alpaca which are native to South America. The alpaca is a domesticated camelid, and has been bred for thousands of years for its soft, short fur, which is used in the production of unique alpaca clothes and fabrics.

There are currently around three million alpacas worldwide, with the majority (80%) of these located in the South American Andes regions of Ecuador, Southern Peru, Northern Bolivia and Northern Chile. The alpaca are the main source of income for approximately 120,000 families in these areas, but due to huge demand and depleting grazing land in this region, herds have been imported by many developed nations around the world, including Australia, New Zealand, USA and the United Kingdom. Herds in North America and Australasia are expanding by almost 20% year on year. Peru is the main producer of alpaca wool worldwide, with an annual output of 65,000 tonnes, earning the country $50million as an export industry. The primary purchaser of alpaca fibres is China, which has also begun breeding herds themselves. The fine fleeces are used to produce a range of unique alpaca clothing for people of all ages.

The alpaca is the only member of the camelid family whose fleece is commonly used in the production of fashion garments. The production of unique alpaca clothes is aided by the fact that alpaca fur comes in 22 different natural colours. The fibres are also stronger than those of sheep’s wool and, depending on the breed of alpaca, can be soft, dense and short (Huacaya alpacas) or lustrous, straight and silky (suri alpacas), with only 10% of alpacas making up the latter. They are shorn annually and would typically produce around 3kg of fibre per year.

The primary use of alpaca fleece is for the production of knitwear, such as jumpers, gloves, scarves and mittens; alpaca fleece is known for its high levels of insulation. It can also be easily blended with wool, cotton mohair and silk for the production of unique alpaca clothes, accessories and rugs. There is a premium kind of alpaca fibre known as ‘baby’ or royal baby’, which is much more desirable and also much more expensive. It is produced from an infant alpacas first shearing, and is known to be lighter, warmer and softer than most other wools. Another advantage to alpaca fibre is that it contains no lanolin, making it hypoallergenic. These properties make the fibre suitable even for those with sensitive skin, and even the youngest babies can wear unique alpaca clothing or benefit from an alpaca fibre blanket. Those looking to purchase a thoughtful woollen gift for Christmas, or for another special occasion, need look no further than alpaca products. The luxuriant feel of the garments and the individuality of the creature which produces the wool are sure to capture the hearts of friends and family alike.