South American Indians have been raising alpacas and using their fleece for creating cloth for thousands of years. A close relative of the llama, vicuñas, and even camels, alpacas are hearty animals inhabiting the Andes mountains of the South American continent. The ancient tribes of Peru, Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia found alpaca wool so fine that it was used to make the clothing of the tribal royalty.
Not only was the alpaca used as a source of fibers for warm fabric, but it was also bred and raised as a source of meat. The animal was so valuable to these ancient peoples that it has many myths and rituals among the various tribes, some surviving right up to the modern-day.
The Alpaca Trade
The first exportation of alpaca wool from South America was done by the Spanish colonists. The Spanish then traded the yarn with both Germany and France. The English, however, couldn’t quite find it suitable for commercial spinning and weaving, and early attempts were dropped. The fault was not with the alpaca fleece but rather with the methods used at the time and the type of cloth the English were attempting to create with it.
The Birth of the Alpaca Industry
Finally, in 1836, a young cloth manufacturer in Bradford, England, introduced an alpaca cloth woven with cotton warps. This cotton-alpaca blend made for a fine cloth suitable for “dress fabric,” and an industry was born.
The success of and demand for alpaca-cotton fabrics nearly caused the collapse of the young industry before it could truly take off as it swiftly outstripped the native alpaca supply. Apparently, alpaca breeding never really caught on, and unsuccessful attempts were made throughout the British Empire, from Australia to Canada. In an attempt to bolster the supply, there were also rather unsatisfactory trials of breeding alpacas with sheep and llamas. Neither created a fleece as fine or commercial as a purebred alpaca’s. This eventually led to the scarcity and higher prices of alpaca wool and wool blend fabric that persists into today’s modern era.
Today’s native Andean alpaca population stands at about 3.5 million, most residing in Peru. Alpaca farming is still found across the globe with sizable efforts in Europe, the U.S. (whose herds number approximately 20,000), New Zealand, Australia, the U.K., and Canada. Cloth manufacturing is mostly a cottage industry, springing up among the enterprising farmers involved with the animals. Outdoorsmen and sports enthusiasts value the fabric for its warmth while still maintaining a lighter weight than other wools. Successful blending with Merino wool has produced a fine, warm, lightweight fiber that is once again causing a stir. While alpacas come in 22 natural shades—one of the most varied among wool-bearing animals—selective breeding has made white the preferred color of the fleece. This is due to its ability to be dyed in almost any hue imaginable.
The long history of the alpaca continues into today and is likely to continue on through the centuries, as man appreciates its hardiness and usefulness and the quality of its fleece.