The Perfect Choice for Winter

7th October 2009

Farmed for their lightweight, luxurious fibres, alpacas have seen a surge in herd numbers in areas such as North America, Australia and China. A member of the camelid family, along with llamas and camels, 80% of the numbers of alpacas can be found in the Andes region of South America. The alpaca is the only member of the camelid family which is regularly used to produce fashion garments, with Queen Victoria reportedly keeping many pieces of alpaca clothing.

For over six thousand years, the alpaca fleece has been known by their traditional farmers as ‘Fibre of the Gods’ for its warm, soft, lightweight and lustrous feel, without any itch factor. It was used to produce clothing for Incan royalty in the Andean regions. Its hollow fibres mean alpaca wool is very lightweight and also insulates extremely efficiently, making it a perfect winter fabric for items such alpacas mittens and alpacas jumpers. Alpacas fleece is available in 22 different natural colours with more than 200 shades, giving you choice without having to incorporate anything synthetic. But for those of you who wish for something a little more radiant, alpaca’s fibres are highly effective at absorbing fabric dye.

In the UK alone there are around 19000 alpacas being bred for their wool, to be used in the production of alpaca jumpers, alpaca scarves, alpaca shawls and alpaca mittens. Alpaca is a versatile fibre, which can even be blended with wool, cotton or silk to produce fine knitwear and woven cloth. Due to the current huge demand in the market, herd numbers are growing in North America and Australasia by as much as 20% annually. Alpaca herds are huge business, especially for the 120,000 families living in the Peruvian, Bolivian and Chilean areas of the Andes who breed and care for the 3million alpacas still in their native land. Peru also exports 80% of the fibres it produces, bringing in an annual export income of $50million.

There are two types of alpacas, both producing very different types of fibres. The huacaya alpacas produce soft, dense, short fibres, and account for 90% of the worldwide alpaca population. The suri alpacas on the other hand, making up the other 10%, provide lustrous, silky and straight fleece. To retain its unique characteristics, it is important to maintain your alpaca fleece garments; items should be soaked in tepid water with a mild detergent, and then left to dry slowly and naturally. Exposure to any heat during washing or drying could leave your alpaca mittens, scarf or shawl feeling brittle.

Alpaca, usually in herds of up to 50 animals, are shorn annually, each producing around 3kg of quality fibre. The most sought after alpaca fibre is known as ‘royal baby’ or ‘baby’, and is taken from young alpacas on their first shearing. It is considered warmer and softer than cashmere, and not quite as heavy. As well as alpaca mittens, rugs and other everyday items, the domesticated camelids are also used in the production of outdoor sports clothing. The durable nature of these items also means they have become likely to be passed down through generations