The alpacas of the 21st century look quite different to the alpacas of the 19th century. 19th century alpacas resembled the llama and had a lot of guard hair (coarse hair). They were often mistaken for llamas. The commercial breeders of British Alpacas today aspire to breed alpacas that are closer to the alpacas of the ancient Incas that were destroyed by the Spanish.
Inca herd management is ranked among the top in the annals of world animal husbandry. These huge alpaca herds were thoroughly classified for uniformity in age, sex and colour on "quipu," a ledger made of knotted strings. British commercial alpaca breeders adopt the same practices but instead of a quipu use computers!
An artist's impression of a 19th century Alpaca Tippens Wood Sebastien
British alpacas are raised to be fibre producing animals and shorn annually. Good quality animals produce between 2.5kg and 5kg of fibre at each shearing. Although people commonly refer to it as “wool” what grows on alpacas is technically a hair because of its cellular composition. A cross section of alpaca fibre shows that it is a tubular hair with a medullated or hollow core and is structurally different from the solid or corticated fibre of sheep and most other wool-bearing animals. This unique structure probably accounts for the remarkable warmth and insulating quality of camelid fibre and contributes to its tensile strength and durability.
British Alpaca breeders strive to breed genetically strong alpacas that have fleece with a low micron count (1 micron = 1/1000 millimeter). A low micron count results in fine fibre and soft yarn.
To the touch alpaca is soft and silky with a rich handle and drape.
The characteristics of alpaca fibre -
- far softer than sheep's wool
- three times warmer than sheep’s wool (including cashmere)
- does not contain lanolin (a natural grease)
- shrinks very little during washing and processing
- extremely strong and durable
- provides greater insulation and a wider comfort range
- Thermostatically superior (50 degree F comfort range vs. 30 degree F for wool)
Garments made from alpaca fibre exhibit a slippery, silky feel. They do not pill or lose their shape. Alpaca garments can be worn by those who are allergic to wool. As Alpaca fibre is hollow it provides excellent thermal properties within extremely lightweight garments. Compared to wool and cashmere an alpaca garment is lighter, more breathable and far warmer. It also has less shrinkage than wool or cashmere.