Alpaca could have been created especially as the perfect fiber producer for minimal environmental impact. These South American camelids were never domesticated to the same extent as sheep, so they retain a greater degree of natural hardiness and disease resistance. Unlike sheep, they require little or no regular treatment with pesticides, as they are much less prone to parasitic infestations. Their grazing land requires no fertilizer; in fact, they do better on poor grazing, as they have adapted naturally in their semi-desert homeland to high fiber forage. Nor does their fleece require scouring to remove lanolin; it doesn’t contain any. A gentle wash is quite sufficient.
This soft, lustrous fleece will accept dyes quite readily but why bother? Alpacas come in a wider range of natural colors than any other fiber animal–22, in fact–including a true rich black, through brown and russet, as well as various shades of grey, fawn, honey, and from a delicate apricot to light champagne, and pure white. So no toxic chemical residues remain in the fiber, or the environment, simply because there’s no good reason to use any of these harmful chemicals in raising alpacas or processing their fleece.
Alpaca Fleece: Too Good to Be True?
The most attractive quality of alpaca, however, is its combination of fineness and strength. The best alpaca fleece has a fineness and silky feel comparable to cashmere but with several times the tensile strength for the same fiber diameter. This allows very fine yarn to be spun, producing beautifully soft garments, hardwearing yet wonderfully lightweight. This fineness provides a further benefit: the fiber is too soft and delicate to irritate the skin, so no rash and no prickle factor.
If all this sounds too good to be true, I will point out there is just one drawback: alpaca’s limited availability. Only 4,000 tonnes of this exquisite fiber are produced worldwide each year, making it an even scarcer, more exclusive material than cashmere, at around 5,000 tonnes. This compares to nearly 2 million tonnes for sheep’s wool. No wonder that the alpaca was considered to be the real treasure of the Incas!
Due to the added difficulty of working the fibers and desirable characteristics, products made from alpaca usually are more valuable than those made from sheep’s wool.
How is Alpaca Wool Made and is It Humane?
We care about how animals are treated in the production of alpaca clothing and we care about the earth’s health. So, we addressed a tough question: How do you ensure that the alpaca are being treated nicely by the people raising them and then during the collection of their wool? Is alpaca wool humane?
We Alpaca’s suppliers have worked with alpaca for long years. Here is what we know:
Alpacas are domesticated animals that have lived together with man for thousands of years. They do not live in the wild. Most alpacas in South America are raised and cared for in small groups on family pastures in the Andes mountains. For many of these families, the Alpacas are considered members of the family. The Alpacas are gentle, friendly animals that have their own personalities. The fiber from the animals is often the source of some of the family’s clothing and usually their main source of income. It’s in the family’s best interest to care for the Alpaca because, without them, life in the Andes can be very difficult.
Alpacas are not pack animals (that is left to the llamas). They are solely raised for their beautiful fiber. That fiber is sheared off usually once a year, after the cold winter. The shearing is actually good for the alpaca as it gets rid of the dirt and parasites that accumulate in the thick coat. Alpaca and man have a symbiotic relationship in the Andes; each helps the other.
With respect to how we ensure this is the case, that’s a more difficult question. We work with the most trusted alpaca companies in the US and Peru. For generations, these family-owned businesses have helped grow the alpaca industry.
They have a strong emphasis on environmental and social responsibility. These companies have research organizations. These research groups focus on how to improve the quality of the alpaca fiber through science and education. They spend a lot of time with these family farmers, teaching the indigenous people of the Andes how best to take care of their animals, how to keep them healthy, how to care for them when they are sick, and how to make the animals be the most productive they can be.
While there is always room for improvement, we believe that our partners all the way through our supply chain, from the manufacturer to the family farmer caring for the alpacas, are doing the best they can to be conscious of their animals and the environment. For without the alpaca, the Peruvian Andes would be a very different place, a place much more difficult to survive in, let alone thrive.
Our conclusion is a yes: alpaca wool is an ethical, humane, eco-friendly choice for beautiful, high-quality, and durable alpaca wool products. Alpaca clothing also keeps you cozy throughout the cold winter months while breathing easy and comfortable in other seasons.
Alpaca: The Production Process
Alpaca fiber produces luxury clothes, but a lot has to be done before this can happen. Making clothes from alpaca fleece is similar to making clothes from sheep wool and involves many different stages to which we will look at.
This blog is dedicated to describing the cycle required between shearing the alpaca fiber and achieving a ready to wear garment. This is the method followed for alpaca products.
The average time between shearing the fiber and producing a finished garment from it is about 150 days. A basic timeline is as follows:
The breeding of alpacas in Peru goes back some six thousand years. Today hundreds of thousands of families spread over the vast territory of the Peruvian Andes at heights ranging from 3,000 to 5,000 meters (9,800 to 16,400 feet) above sea level are engaged in this activity. There are some three million alpacas in Peru, representing about 80% of the world’s population.
Alpacas are sheared once a year, each animal yielding an average of about five pounds (2.3 Kg) of fiber. In Peru, alpacas are sheared by hand and only between November and March, which is the summer season. This allows for the alpacas time throughout the milder months to regrow their coats to be prepared for the coming winter.
Sorting is the process where the alpaca fiber is classified according to fineness and color. Fibers are measured in terms of their average diameter in microns, one micron being a thousandth part of a millimeter. Alpaca is manually sorted by ladies. In a single alpaca fleece, different grades of fiber may be present: Royal, Baby, Finca, Superfine, Huarizo, Coarse and Mixed Pieces. Alpaca fiber is sorted into eight basic shades.
In this process, the coarse fibers, or guard hairs, whose diameter is greater than 30 microns, are removed from the fine material. This operation is usually carried out manually and is used mostly to eliminate the coarse fibers, hair by hair, from Vicuna and Guanaco fleece.
Scouring and Drying
The scouring process eliminates excess grease, dust, and some of the vegetable impurities from the alpaca fiber. Biodegradable detergents are used and are applied at very low concentrations. The fiber goes through up to five scouring bowls containing water and detergent at different temperatures.
Carding eliminates certain impurities, very coarse fibers, and short tufts while predisposing the fibers for sliver formation.
After carding, the fiber is combed so that short fibers “neps”–very small masses of tangled fibers–and remaining impurities are removed. The combed fiber is produced as a thick sliver wound into packages known as “tops.” The tops are the starting point for producing different kinds of yarns.
Alpaca fiber can be dyed to an infinite variety of shades. However, in order to dye it to most colors, especially light ones, only white fiber can be used. It is possible to dye alpaca as scoured fiber or in the form of tops, yarns, skeins, or cones.
The sliver of fiber is attenuated and converted into yarn through drafting, twisting, and setting the twist. A yarn free of faults and knots is obtained and is packaged in different forms such as cones or skeins. Yarns may be 100% alpaca or blend with other materials.
There are three ways of producing knitted structures: by use of either crochet, knitting needles, or a knitting machine. In all of them, the basic operation is to construct a mesh by interlacing yarn or yarns.
Weaving is the production of cloth on either hand-operated or mechanical looms. In both cases, the fundamental principle is the interlacing of wart threads with transversal weft yarns to produce a fabric. The thickness of the yarns determines the weight of the cloth.
This is the process whereby bolts of cloth are turned into garments such as ruanas, capes, ponchos, throws, and many others. The cloth is laid out on long tables where the patterns are drawn with the aid of computerized systems and cut out with electronic scissors controlled by a single operative. Once the pieces for the garment are obtained, they are sewn together. The made-up garment is then pressed, labels are applied, and it is packaged.