Fibre of the Gods
The use of new world camel fibre dates beyond 4500 BCE. Even before the domestication of llamas and alpacas, the Inca forefathers of the high Andean plains collected wild guanaco and vicuña fibre and hides.
Archaeologists have discovered a great deal of alpaca fibre goods from graves and religious sites predating the Inca Empire in South America, a true testament to the durability of alpaca fibre and its long history. Prior to the European conquest and decimation of the Inca and their alpaca, fibre production had become a “state run” business that covered an area which included Peru, Bolivia, northern Chile and Argentina and parts of Ecuador. The Inca used their alpaca fibre for much more that just cloth. As well as weaving exceptional fabrics, the Inca used this fibre to build suspension bridges. To keep accounts, the Inca used quipus, (sometimes called talking knots). Quipus were recording devices that usually consisted of spun plied and coloured strings of llama or alpaca fibre. The cords had numeric and other values encoded by knots in a base ten positional system.
(Above Left: Inca weavers basket. Right: Inca Quipus. Both from the Larco Museum in Lima, Peru)
Alpaca fibre comes in a variety of shades ranging from white to black. While white has been the predominant colour and generally speaking was of finer quality due to years of selective breeding, breeders have been diligently working on breeding dark animals with exceptional fiber. There are many distinct and natural shades of alpaca, but new colours such as maroons are also being produced. Different colours of alpaca fiber can also be blended together to create other natural colours, without having to be dyed, while white alpaca fiber can be dyed to be any imaginable colour without losing its natural luster.
Pictured below are the 16 natural shades of alpaca fibre recognized by ARI.
Alpaca Fibre vs Wool
Alpaca fibre is finer, warmer and softer than sheep’s wool. Alpaca fibre is luxurious, durable, versatile, silky, and, because it has an absence of lanolin or grease it is naturally hypoallergenic. Alpaca fibre is naturally water-repellent and has excellent thermal capabilities making it ideal for the Canadian climate. It doesn’t tear or pill easily and can be cleaned without difficulty. Alpaca yarns tend to be stronger than wool yarns and have a somewhat flame retardant feature making them difficult to ignite. And because alpaca fiber has a very low “itch factor”, it is much more comfortable next to the skin than wool. The advantages of alpaca fibre lies in its exceptional durability and insulation properties. While the natural wave in alpaca fibre gives yarn some elasticity, alpaca fibre holds its shape best when blended with even a small amount of other fibre such as cotton, wool, bamboo, silk, mohair, or tensel depending on the desired look and outcome of the end product.
When compared to wool or man-made fibres, alpaca fibre is superior in many ways.
- is extremely fine with little guard hair
- has a higher tensile strength than wool
- is warmer than Merino wool
- is washable with a lower tendency to shrink
- does not retain water and can resist solar radiation
- has better wicking properties
- has excellent breathability
- resists odours, even in socks
- does not easily matt or pill
- contains no grease, oil or lanolin making it hypoallergenic
- has low static
- is naturally wrinkle resistant
There are two types of alpacas with two very distinct types of fibre.
The huacaya (pronounced Wuh-kai-ya) make up over 90% of the world alpaca population. Huacaya are fluffy like teddy bears and have soft spongy fiber which grows perpendicular to the body. Huacaya fiber has a natural crimp and crinkle to it.
The Suri alpaca is much less common. Suri fibre has far less crimp and its fiber hangs down from the body in long shiny locks like very soft, slightly curly hair. Suri fibre is very smooth which gives it high luster. It is often used in high end woven goods because this showcases the beautiful way the suri fibre interacts with light.
The diameter of the alpaca fibre is measured in microns, with one micron being equal to 1/25,000 of an inch. While a human hair may be 60 to 100 microns, alpaca fibre is considerably smaller in diameter.
The following is the industry guideline on alpaca fibre:
Grade #1 < 20 microns Ultra Fine
Grade #2 20 - 22.9 Super Fine
Grade #3 23 - 25.9 Fine
These finer grades of fibre make wonderful soft yarns. Products made of these fibres are usually lightweight and can be worn next to the skin with very little “itch factor”. These finer grades of fiber can be blended with 5% - 15% or more of fine wool, cotton, bamboo, tensel or silk.
Grade #4 26 - 28.9 Medium
Grade #5 29 - 31.9 Intermediate
Medium and intermediate grade fibres are excellent for making warm durable socks, fabrics or other products that need to be able to withstand considerable wear and/or abrasion or for products that require a higher degree of loft. Blends of 5% or as high as 30% of wool, bamboo, cotton, mohair, lycra, spandex and even nylon have been used to produce excellent fabrics.
Grade #6 32 – 35 Robust
Traditionally robust fibre has been used in felting and in making batts for duvets, however improved breeding standards is leading to less guard hair and uniformity of micron across the fleece allowing for innovation in new product development and a wider use for these fibres. Blends of 10% - 50% of wool or mohair are often used.
Beyond its exceptional physical properties, the increase in interest in alpaca fibre is partly due to the fact that alpaca ranching has a reasonably low impact on the environment, making alpaca a truly green textile. Alpaca have soft padded feet which do not impact the ground like other farm animals. Alpacas are browsers not grazers, so they only eat surface grass which improves grass regeneration. Alpaca also place their dung and urine in specific areas, not all over the paddock and alpacas do not tend to ring-bark trees. Furthermore, fibre processing for alpacas requires fewer chemicals than other fibres.
Also aiding in alpaca fibre popularity is the fact that outdoor sports enthusiasts recognize that its lighter weight and better warmth provides more comfort in colder weather, so outfitters are beginning to stock more alpaca products.