Perhaps you've begun to see the term “Alpaca” used when talking about knits and accessories. If so, you may wonder just what alpaca is, and why it is different from other wools.
You can find endless technical information regarding alpaca on the web, however, there is one main reason why consumers can't get enough– it simply feels better to wear than any other textile.
Alpaca feels better because it is the lightest and strongest natural fiber known, but that's not all of what makes it so special.
When it comes to softness, it is on par with cashmere, and more rare. For every three tons of cashmere harvested, only one ton of alpaca is gathered. The epicenter for alpaca is Peru, while cashmere is produced and processed in Iran and Afghanistan.
Alpaca has other advantages over cashmere as well. It comes in 28 beautiful and lustrous natural colors, is more wrinkle resistant, will not form the little matted balls or pills that are so prevalent with cashmere and is easier to clean. Cashmere is recommended to be dry cleaned only, whereas alpaca can easily be hand washed. Alpaca also provides superior thermal insulation, when compared one on one. This can be explained by the way the alpaca's fleece has adapted over time to combat the often harsh Peruvian climate.
The big difference with alpaca fiber comes from evolution. Alpacas are native to the Andean region of South America. They are raised high above the tree-line in an arid climate with vast temperature swings, ranging from -4F at night, to 70+F in the daytime.
Over thousands of years, their fleece has evolved into a thermal regulator of sorts. Alpaca wool creates pockets of microscopic space with the ability to hold air inside, heating via the animal's body warmth, or insulating against the heat of the sun. Their fleece creates the perfect coat for the alpaca's environment, becoming a natural barrier to keep cold air from getting to the skin at night, and in the heat of the day, keeping them comfortably cool. Thanks to their perfectly evolved fleece, alpacas keep comfortable and safe no matter the climate change, allowing them to never get too hot or too cold. The thermal properties work for humans too! Wearing alpaca wool will keep you warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer.
The fleece, more akin to hair than anything else, doesn’t absorb moisture the way other wools do, sheep’s wool and cashmere included. This aids in controlling the humidity that surrounds the animal, or human, adding another level to this thermal protection. This is also why alpaca does not retain odor-- it doesn't absorb it.
The majority of clothing you find in the market right now is made from synthetic fabrics. Synthetic fibers, such as nylon, polyester, and acrylic were originally invented by scientists to improve on naturally occurring animal and plant fibers, yet over time they have proved to have many disadvantages. Synthetic fibers burn more readily than natural and are prone to heat damage such as melting. More electrostatic charge is also generated by synthetics. They are not skin friendly, making them uncomfortable for long periods of wear and irritating to some with allergies. Synthetic garments are also non-biodegradable.
Wearing garments constructed from any natural fiber automatically has many advantages over synthetics, but alpaca fiber's characteristics makes it leaps and bounds better than these cheap, non-sustainable materials. Compared with synthetics, alpaca fiber has superior breathability, low static electricity and wicks away body moisture. Alpaca is naturally flame resistant, whereas synthetics melt onto the skin, increasing skin damage if caught on fire, this is why so many synthetics are chemically treated with flame retardant chemicals. Alpaca feels luxuriously soft against the skin and is hypoallergenic. When the life of an alpaca garment has eventually passed, it is biodegradable, due to its 100% natural content.
Alpaca is often compared to and sold alongside wool, another natural fiber option more commonly known in the fashion industry. People buy wool for its warmth and protection against cold winds. In actuality, alpaca fiber is warmer, stronger, and more insulating. Many people cannot wear wool because it contains lanolin, causing allergic reactions. Alpaca is lanolin free and doesn't hold dust, providing a superior option for those with wool allergies. These qualities help alpaca products to stay clean longer, requiring less laundering.
Alpaca comes in grades of fineness. This grading adds to the luxury and cost of alpaca items.
- Premium Baby Alpaca or Baby Royal (1% of alpaca harvested)
- Baby Alpaca (15% of alpaca harvested)
- Super Fine Alpaca (30% of alpaca harvested)
- Course Alpaca (50% of alpaca harvested)
Alpacas are cared for in large co-operative farms in Peru*. There is no such thing as a “wild” alpaca. They do not have any means of defense and rely upon humans for their survival, and always have. They are walked from their encampment to the open Altiplano daily where they freely roam, and return home at night. Unlike other fiber producing animals they are not harsh on their environment, eating the tender shoots of grasses and plants, leaving the roots to regenerate.
Alpacas are shorn once a year, so that they can regrow their fiber. If left unshorn, problems with the animal’s health and nutrition may go unobserved due to the mass of wool that covers their body. Unlike sheep, the animal is never maimed or physically harmed to improve fiber production.
Alpacas are always treasured, however in the Andean region of Peru where alpaca are prolific, sometimes weak alpacas don’t survive. When this happens farms utilize all parts of the animal, using the carcass to feed themselves and harvesting the fur as pelt, to offset the loss. Alpacas are most valuable when they grow and thrive. We only work with farms that guarantee that no alpacas are ever harmed to obtain their fur pelts. This no-kill policy allows us to confidently use alpaca fur as trim, as well as for other real fur products; alpaca teddy bears, slippers, and more with a clean conscience.
Once alpaca wool is shorn, sorted by color and then by fineness, it is processed. Because it doesn’t contain grease, lanolin or environmental contaminants, it can be cleaned with gentle soaps that don’t contain lie or harsh chemicals. This protects not only the consumer, but those surrounding production facilities and the local eco system.
After seeing alpaca compared side by side with other fiber options, it is easy to understand why it's finally gaining popularity in the fashion industry. Alpaca is most comparable in softness and rarity to cashmere and mohair, but its superior qualities and sustainability outshine all other options. Fashion designers and editors are quickly catching on to this almost too-good-to-be-true miracle fiber! When someone stumbles upon alpaca for the first time, they generally feel they have found something special-- and they most certainly have.
Alpaca production is occurring in the United States as well as Canada, however the animals are raised much differently. We encourage you to find a farm in your area and see alpacas first hand.
As of today the production of yarn from fleece is limited in North America, namely because the volume is so low. Large corporate mills are unwilling to make the changes needed to process alpaca, mostly which are industrial as processing alpaca into yarn takes mechanical fittings different than that of wool and cotton. Production of yarns is done on a mini-mill level and obtaining consistent batches of yarn is problematic, therefore we utilize yarn from Peru, which, through scientific testing, meets or exceeds the quality levels we require for our production.