Alpaca wool is arguably one of the most exclusive types of wool out there, and so it comes as no surprise that it is also amongst the most sought-after types. Adding to its exclusivity is the fact that the wool is rare mainly because it is made from animal fiber. Naturally, it is available in 22 colors which range from black to shades of gray, ivory, and brown. However, the wool can just as easily be dyed for more interesting and varied color combinations.
One of the most reasons why alpaca fleece is so desirable is because it's silky soft, and yet it is 3x times warmer than regular fabrics and even compared to sheep’s wool. Other attributes that make alpaca fabrics stand out is the fact that they are hypoallergenic, which means that it is safe for people who have sensitive skin, is free from any type of oil and is waterproof.
The Cultural Association with Alpaca Garments
Alpacas and the fabric derived from their wool have a very close tie to the cultural practices and traditions of the Andeans. The image of the alpaca was often used in religious practices and rituals prior to the colonization of South America. The reason for such depictions was the fact that the people relied heavily on the alpaca for everything from clothing to meat. It was considered a gift from the great Pachamama.
The Conopas have taken their appearance from the beautiful Suri alpacas. The long side hanging locks, with thick bangs covering the eyes along with the depression on the back, are all features of this animal. The depression was often featured in ritual practices along with coca leaves, which was filled into the depression along with fat from the lama. It was thought that it would bring luck and fertility.
The people of the region believed that the alpaca was the product of a goddess who fell in love with a man. The goddess’ father allowed her to be with the man she loved only if the man would care for the alpacas. He would also be tasked with carrying a small creature for his whole life. The alpacas followed the goddess into the world. Things took a turn for the worse when the man set that small animal down, which led to the goddess fleeing back to her home. In an attempt to stop her, the man managed to stop the heard from fleeing. So, the alpacas today are decedents of those who couldn’t make it back with the goddess. Now they wait till the end of the world for their time to return. That’s why the Peruvians see alpacas and the fiber associated with them as being divine.
Alpaca Fiber Structure
Alpaca fiber on a molecular level has a similar structure as sheep wool fiber. However, the softness we associate with alpaca fiber comes from it having a smoother surface. Over the years American alpaca breeders have worked on enhancing the softness of the fibers by choosing animals with finer diameter fibers, usually those similar to merino wool. The diameter of the fiber happens to be an inherited trait for both sheep and alpacas. The overall difference in the fiber scales means that alpaca fiber is more glossy, and shines better than sheep fiber.
The molecular structure of alpaca fibers has a much higher tensile strength compared to sheep wool fibers. Silvers tend to lack fiber cohesion while single alpaca rovings are not very durable. However, when blended together the durability increases exponentially. In fibers derived from Suri, the wool has to be twisted but which consequently reduces the softness of the yarn.
The alpaca’s fleece is very light and fine. It also does not absorb or retain water for that matter, making it a good thermal insulator even when it is raining. Plus, it is shown to resist solar radiation. It is this type of protection that makes this natural fiber stand out from the rest.
Medullated fibers are those that have a core in the center. They may have interrupted, fragmented, or continuous central cores. The cortical cells that comprise the falls of the fiber tend to be tightly wrapped around the medulla, aka the core, which is made of yet another cell called medullary cells. The cells may either disappear or contract, which forms small air pockets, and this is what helps the fiber become an excellent insulator.
In some cases, medullation could be seen as an objectionable trait. One of the reasons for this is that they don’t absorb as much dye and so the finished garment does not look as uniform and consequently is weaker. Then the proportion of the medullated fibers tends to be much higher in the unwanted guard hairs making them coarser. The finer fibers have little to no medullation. The fibers are hence very easy to see and will make woven garments look hairy. That said high-quality alpaca products will be meticulously produced so that they don’t have medullated fibers.
Where is Alpaca Wool Produced?
Since alpacas are native to Peru, they happen to be the largest producer of alpaca fiber. The country accounts for a whopping 87% percent of the alpaca population in the world, and that accounts for 90% percent of the wool shipped.
The Arequipa region in Peru is by far the single largest producer, accounting for 99% percent of the country’s production of alpaca fiber. The region also has the most alpaca population, which is on the rise. Peru is now home to well over 3.8 million alpacas, with the population rising in Arequipa, Puno, and Cusco.
Major competitors in this space are Chile and Bolivia who too produce good quality alpaca fabrics and wool. While farmers in other countries also raise alpacas, these farms are often small, few and the farmers lack the knowledge to make sure that they are producing enough alpaca wool to export.
Peru has made a staggering $68.3 million in exports of alpaca wool from January to November in 2017. That figure has grown over the past three years with exports now over 4500 tons. So, by the looks of it, Peru will continue to be the world’s leading producer and exporter of alpaca fiber.
Why are Alpaca Fabrics Labelled as Being Luxury Clothing?
To understand where the lifecycle of alpaca fabric starts, we have to get to the very beginning, i.e. the alpaca itself. That’s right the alpaca is an animal which belongs to the camel family. So, it is a lot like a camel but is extremely hairy. Now there are two alpaca breeds, i.e. the hucaya and Suri and each breed has a slightly different fleece. The Suri have lustrous, silky, long locks, and the Hucacayas have very soft and full fur.
The fiber itself has many amazing features; experts believe that we are yet to discover all of its unique features. However, from what we know so far, their fleece exhibits the following characteristics:
- Very soft
- Does not trigger any allergies
- Very comfortable
- 100% natural
- No pilling
- No lanolin used
- Easy to dye
The wool is very thin and airy, which means that it easily dries yet effectively resists the sun’s radiation. That said it can continue to keep a person warm regardless of how cold it gets. After all the alpaca wool is what makes it possible for these incredible animals to survive if not thrive in the otherwise bitter cold and temperatures that drop and rise sharply.
On average, an adult alpaca will produce merely 10 pounds of fur or fiber each year which anywhere from 18 to 25 microns. The interesting thing here is that the thinner the fiber is, the more luxurious it will be. That’s why the fiber taken from the youngest alpacas are regarded as being the best, most precious, and often the warmest.
Once the fiber or fur is sheared off, it is then spun into yarn which is sold to expert weavers. The weavers then weave them into everything from coats, to jackets, and even dresses, pullovers and cardigans. You can also buy genuine alpaca yarn and if you know knitting, knit it into something for yourself too. Though since the yarn is so expensive, it is best to leave this to the professionals too.
What’s the Difference Between Cashmere, Sheep’s Wool and Alpaca?
Many people are confused between all three types of fibers and rightfully so because at times the finished product you see online for all fibers looks the same. Wool is generally the best, as it is a natural fiber and will keep you warm during the winter. The vast majority of people are perfectly fine with merino wool and cashmere. However, there has been a steady rise in the popularity of clothing made from alpaca by people who want their warm clothes to be more comfortable.
While sheep’s wool fabrics have been around for generations and are used for everything from vests, to pants, dresses, and coats, they are often not as comfortable as Cashmere. Cashmere is generally softer, lighter, and has a good feel to it compared to sheep’s wool. Cashmere is also traditionally used for cardigans, sweaters and baby blankets. Though alpaca takes things one step further. Alpaca isn’t just stronger, warmer, and more comfortable than cashmere but is also free of lanolin and does not trigger any allergies.
Unlike cashmere and sheep’s wool alpaca wool and fiber is resistant to static and pilling. Also, its lightweight means that coats and clothing can be made thicker without added weight. That’s why it is classified as being the ultimate luxury fiber and is used by many manufacturers of high-quality garments. Their long life means that much of what is purchased and used can be in use for generations.
What is the Difference Between Suri and Huacaya Alpacas Wool?
Let’s start with Huacaya wool or fabric which is fuzzier and has more body to it than Suri alpaca wool. However, to the untrained eye, both the llama and the huacaya alpaca may look similar because both animals have the same sheep-like appearance.
The fur or raw, unprocessed wool is spongy and light which makes huacaya alpaca wool more desirable for bulky garments like fleece jackets and sweaters, though they aren’t a good fit for textiles which require finer texture. When woven into yarn, the fibers have a natural crimp, which is why the resulting garments look wavy. Obviously nobody would want to wear a wavy looking suit!
Suri wool and the resulting fabric, on the other hand, is straighter and finer. Suri alpacas are naturally long-haired and shaggy, which is why it is easier to tell the difference between the two camelids.
Suri alpaca wool, when spun into yarn, is more versatile, and so it can be formed into different widths suited for various applications. Even though the wool isn’t bulky or as thick as Huacaya wool, that fact means that it can easily be tailored into garments like shirts and suits. However, it continues to remain soft and breathable two features which are highly prized by buyers.
Alpaca Fabrics and Their Colors
As mentioned above, alpaca’s natural fiber color varies, all in all, there are 22 different colors. These colors can be shades of brown, black, blue, silver, etc., as well as white, gray, and pink. White is considered the most precious and popular color for different reasons as we’ve listed below:
- Traditionally and historically alpaca breeders in Europe have taken great pains to breed animals that are white and consequently produce white wool. Even though the locals didn’t have a particularly favorite shade of wool, white eventually became associated with quality. Plus, over time, the quality of that white wool improved to the point where it is today seen as being a touch better than other colors.
- White is also easier to dye. So, it can receive custom coloring as required.
White is in such high demand that Peruvian farm workers are often tasked with collecting white fibers which may originate from non-white or albino alpacas. That said we’re seeing things change s alpaca breeders are making improvements to the quality of other colors.
Natural Dyeing Process
Even though alpaca fibers and garments are dyed using different methods, the most desirable are natural methods. So, we’ll discuss the natural method below.
Before the fiber is dyed, it has to be passed through four stages:
- At first, the wool is selected based on size, color, and the quality of every fiber.
- The fibers are then cleaned. Making sure that they are free from thorns, grass, dirt, etc.
- The fibers are then washed thoroughly to remove grease and dirt.
- Finally, the fibers are spun.
Once the fibers are clean and dry the process of dying can be commenced. Generally, a kilogram or 2.2 pounds of alpaca wool can be dyed with cochinilla, which is a natural dye. Here is how it works:
- Five liters of water is boiled in an aluminum can, and then 100g of cochinilla is added for an hour.
- The fibers are then put in the water after which it is boiled again but this time with 50 half cut lemons.
- The wool is then removed from the water and hung out to dry.
The outcome of the natural dyeing process mainly depends on the quality of the fibers. The better sorted the fibers are, the more uniform will be the resulting color across all the fibers of the yarn.
What Clothing is Alpaca Wool Used to Make?
On the whole, animal fiber like alpaca wool is used to make warm clothes or ones meant to keep you warm during the winter. Generally, wool is used to make ponchos, vests, jackets, sweaters, etc. It is also perfectly suited to craft accessories like shawls, scarves, stuffed animals, beanies, socks, hats, etc.
However, there are some garments for which alpaca wool is ideally suited, and we’ll quickly run through them below:
Here is our TOP-5 list of garments you can make using alpaca wool:
Scarfs and Shawls
If you want to buy something simpler and arguably cheaper, then the alpaca shawl or scarf is the best choice. It will give you first-hand experience of why this South American treasure is so sought after in both North America and the world. Make sure you either buy the 100% alpaca or one with a silk blend.
Our Alpaca socks are have been known as the "most comfortable
An alpaca coat is comfortable, does not itch and wards off the cold better than any material. Wearing it is a luxurious experience. Regardless of if it is a short cutaway style coat or a long swing coat or perhaps a sweater coat, the experience is unlike any other material out there today. So an alpaca coat is the absolute best investment.
Since alpaca is lightweight, that makes it perfect for dresses. Regardless of it is an A-line design or a sleeveless cut, the fabric will ensure that you’ll turn heads. These dresses are warm, and so they are ideal to wear in both fall and winter.
Sweaters will be the most obvious use of alpaca fabric, and even though it costs more, you will not regret it. The fiber is as warm as cashmere and in some cases even warmer, and it's way more comfortable. You can also buy a sweater with elegant ruching and side splits which can be worn for special occasions. The fact that this fiber is so versatile means that it can be tailored to fit all occasions and styles.
Poncho overcoats offer freedom of movement without compromising comfort. You still get the same warmth and pleasure as you would with any other style of clothing but without hindering your movement. Alpaca ponchos look great with everything from short dresses to jeans and leggings. You can also mix and match with other alpaca clothing for either an elegant or casual style.
Alpaca is a fabric which, according to experts, is here to stay. They are available in various colors, and in different weights. Not only is it warm, but it looks great. That’s why alpaca clothing’s future is bright.
Treating and Cleaning Alpaca Fabrics
Keeping alpaca fabrics clean is pretty simple. So you don’t need to follow a long list of instructions but instead just dry clean it. We recommend you don’t wash alpaca because the wrong method can destroy it or at least reduce its durability. Dry cleaning is the one proven way to ensure that the fabric lasts for decades.
Like other forms of natural wool, alpaca is elastic so it can shrink or stretch after being washed, which affects the size of the garment. That’s why you’ll only want to trust a professional dry cleaning service with your precious alpaca garments.
If the garment has a lining washing it with water can result in it eventually fading and popping out from the sleeve if the fabric shrinks. Considering how much a quality sewing service will cost to fix it, it is best to not handle the washing of alpaca garments at home.
The Obvious Green Choice
If you have read this far then, you already know why alpaca fabrics are so popular, expensive and consequently sought after. However, there is a little more you should know about alpaca fabric, which we consider to be the cherry on the tort. Some people who are considering this fabric may want to know these facts before they buy. In a nutshell, alpaca fabrics are eco-friendly, and below is exactly why we are saying this:
- The most obvious reason for alpaca wool being eco-friendly is the fact that it is renewable. That means no animals are hurt or killed during the process. However, the shearing process isn’t fun for the animal and in particular, alpacas. Though research shows that they feel better after the wool has been removed. One reason for that being is that they can be up to 7 kilograms or around 15 pounds lighter.
- Another fact worth considering is that alpaca fibers are very durable. Being extremely durable means that they don’t have to be replaced after a couple of years like other garments. Now just how long do we mean the fabric can last? Consider that much of the Peruvian clothing made from alpaca fabrics centuries ago are still around and in museums. Also, alpaca wool and clothing is passed down for generations in Latin America, and even after being worn by generations, they show no sights of wear. That’s how long you can expect it to last!
- The hypoallergenic properties of alpaca fabrics have already been discussed above. However, the fabric is also lanolin free. All of this translates to the fact that no dangerous or aggressive chemicals are used to process the wool. Again not using dangerous chemicals is automatically environmentally friendly.
- Alpacas live in severe climatic conditions. The Andes is their natural habitat, and these animals have a very small footprint in terms of economy, ecology, and physiology. Their two-toed feet are very small, which does not harm precious grazing fields. Their front teeth work as a lawnmower which cuts the grass instead of ripping it out something we’ve seen sheep and goats do. That’s why the plants grow back quicker and some even thicker. Since it is a camelid alpacas don’t require much water or grass like sheep and goats. So, they don’t require as much space for pastures meaning that a small family can afford to raise them.
- Alpacas are productive animals compared to sheep and goats. One good instance of this is that it will take three cashmere goats to produce enough wool for a standard sweater, whereas a single alpha can produce enough for three sweaters. So, for those raising these animals, it assures a higher return on their hard work and investment. Not to mention that the resulting garment will be softer, more durable, and comfortable to wear.
The Cost of Alpaca Wool
Now before we go into quoting any prices, it is important to keep in mind that the price will vary depending on where you live. For instance, alpaca wool and resulting fabrics will cost more in Asia and the Middle East as compared to South America and North America.
The actual price of alpaca wool varies widely depending on quality and price. Generally, high-quality fiber will sell for between $3 and $5 per ounce, with wholesale rates at an average of $1 per ounce.
The thickness of the wool plays a major role in the pricing. When the fleece has a comparatively smaller diameter, it is more expensive and more desirable. The thicker alpaca fleece, on the other hand, is cheaper because the wool is derived from old alpacas. Thinner wool is derived from the fur of young animals and so is more expensive. The price is also dependent on the color of the wool and the breed. So, highly sought after colors like white by certain breeds like the Suri are more expensive.
Alpaca Wool Certifications
How the alpaca wool is harvested is very important, and if the methods used fall within given parameters, the fabric is certified by the WFTO or World Fair Trade Organization. That said to qualify for a WFTO certification, the wool has to be produced in a manner that’s sustainable, i.e. good for the workers, environment and the animals themselves.
The United States Department of Agriculture is another important certification for alpaca wool. It is a state-controlled association which has a set of principles which if followed, will ensure that the resulting product is certified. Some independent organizations also certify alpaca wool as being organic. Though the certification isn’t as impressive as perhaps that of the USDA. When purchasing clothing, you’ll often see the certification label stitched into the fabric.
Alpaca Makes Switching from Cashmere Easy
Many alpaca products don’t just measure up to cashmere but are better in many ways. That is what generally makes switching from cashmere to alpaca so easy. Over the years, we’ve seen the quality of cashmere decline. The decline was a result of Mongolia’s privatization of the cashmere industry back in 1990. So, breeders, as a result, started to crossbreed their cashmere herds with others in a bid to increase the quantity and not quality. The resulting goats produce more cashmere per pound of body mass, but the fibers are coarser and shorter. Consequently, the resulting sweaters are now less soft and will pill. So, most people don’t look at cashmere the way they did because now it feels cheap.
Even though alpaca fiber with its larger diameter has a coarser texture compared to cashmere the expertly sorted, shorn and woven wool have a staple length. So, the diameter ranges from it being prime to the super soft texture of a baby alpaca. That means depending on from where the hair is shorn, i.e., if it's from the undersides and legs of a mature alpaca then it is coarser compared to the under hairs of a young alpaca which is exceptionally soft.
Similar to how certain parts of cattle are labeled as prime cuts, the same goes for sections from where the hair is taken from the alpaca, which is labeled as prime fibers. So, a sweater that’s crafted from super soft wool derived from the hair of a baby alpaca will rival that of the best cashmere in terms of softness and downright outdo it in terms of strength and durability.
The standard price of a sweater made from 100% alpaca wool is anywhere from $180 to $300, which may seem expensive, but it is an investment. Cashmere fibers are just four centimeters in length and considered long but compared to alpaca fibers they are short which measure up to twelve centimeters. That’s why they are less likely to pill and far more durable.
In the United States, textile production generates 14 million tons of waste annually and so by buying one, high-quality alpaca fabric-based product that will last you a long time, its an investment in the future of the planet. Not to mention that it is much more comfortable compared to all the recyclable natural products out there. Furthermore, it is stylish and offers the ultimate luxury experience which you can hand down to future generations.