Known as “the fibre of the gods,” Alpaca was reserved for Inca royalty. The Alpaca fibre comes from the fleece of the Alpaca (Vicugna pacos), a species of South American camelids like the llama, Guanaco and Vicuña. Alpacas have been bred for their fibre and meat on the Andean highlands (between 3,500 and 5,000 metres) in Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Bolivia and Northwest of Argentina by the Amerindians for over 5,000 years.
There are generally two types of Alpaca fibre, produced by two distinct breeds of Alpaca. Huacaya (pronounced wah-kee-ya) is the dominant breed and thus produces the most common fleece type. It looks similar to sheep wool – voluminous and crimpy – making it a naturally elastic yarn well-suited for knitting. Suri (surrey), the second breed making up just 10 to 20 per cent of the Alpaca population, are prized for their longer and silkier fibres that hang down their side like “dreadlocks.” Since the fleece has no crimp, it is better suited for weaving.
Alpaca fibre is five times warmer and stronger than sheep’s wool. The fibre has air pockets which allow it to trap and contain more heat. It is softer than wool, thanks to a diameter that is comparable to merino wool, and silkier to the touch. It is naturally water-resistant, and since it has no lanolin, a natural wax secreted by some wool-producing animals which can trigger an allergic reaction, it is naturally hypoallergenic. The fibre is durable, does not easily pill, tear, or stain.
An adult alpaca produces between 2.5 to 4.5 kilograms of fibre per year. The fleece has a broad range of natural colours from ivory to black, and a broad spectrum of greys and browns in between. As many as 52 natural colours are recognised in Peru and 22 in the worldwide fibre market. Moreover, these natural colours can be blended to produce even more colours while the lighter shades absorb dyes beautifully.
The Spanish introduced the fibre to Europe but did not find much acceptance as the wool mills found it difficult to spin it into yarns. That is until Sir Titus Salt of Bradford, in the early 1800s, produced the first Alpaca cloth. Since then, the Alpaca fibre has been among the most sought after in the world of luxury fashion, particularly in the fall-winter season.