Alpaca

sort of south american camel...

The animal

An alpaca is a long-haired South American mammal and are the domesticated form of vicuñas, which inhabit the mountain slopes of the Andes in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Chile.
Alpacas are closely related to the llama, a descendent of the guanaco, and both are highly valued for their wool; often called fibre to distinguish it from sheep’s wool.
They are smaller considerably than the llama, with an adult weighing in at about 70kg. Like sheep they are prized not only for their fleece but also for their meat and their skins. The skins being made into carpets - alfombras, quilts - colchas, slippers - zapatillas and dress coats - casacas, whilst their dung is burned as a fuel.

Their fleece is often referred to as 'the fibre of the gods', as it was formally reserved for the Inca nobility and retains its high value.

These slender-bodied and long-legged animals have rather petit heads on top of longnecks and are farmed for their wool and often kept as pets.

They are far more docile than their wild ancestors; although remain alert when around them as when they are distressed, or feel threatened, then they show their ancestral heritage by spitting, which is a common characteristic of the Camelidae family… think camels.
Although its preferred habitat is at altitudes of 3,000-5,000 meters, they can thrive at lower altitudes and are farmed throughout the world and are now a common, if unusual sight, throughout Europe, New Zealand, Australia and North America.
It is thought that the peoples of the Andes began to domesticate them 4-6000 years ago, and they featured in the ancient artwork of the Moche people of Northern Peru.

There are now two recognised breeds, the Huacaya and the Suri. The main difference between the two is the length and fineness of their fleece, which therefore influences the fibres they produce.
The Huacaya breed is more common and has a compact crimpy fleece with shorter fibres compared to the longer fibres of the Suri (which can grow to 15cm per year), giving it a dreadlock appearance.

Video by Karolina Grabowska

The fibre

So now we know a little about the animal from where this much sort after yarn is derived, let's learn more about this fibre that is favoured for its high breathability, moisture-wicking abilities, heat retention, softness and durability.
Depending on the spinning technique the yarn derived can be either light or heavy, which means it is ideal for a number of knitting projects.
Adapted for the cold high altitudes of the Andes, the fibres are equipped with tiny air pockets, making them hallow, these small spaces enhance breathability as well as insulation, thus it is one of the warmest varieties of animals' fibres.

Alpaca fleece has very low levels of the waxy substance lanolin most, if not all, of which is removed during the production process, making it friendlier for people susceptible to allergies.

The natural crimp in the Huacaya breed's fleece gives the yarn an elastic characteristic making it easier to knit than the yarn produced from the Suri breed.

Historically, for obvious reasons the yarn was mainly produced in South America, however, there are records from the 1800s of European manufacture. The indigenous method of spinning the yarn uses a variant of a drop spindle called a 'pushka", which looks like a spinning top and uses gravity to combine the wool fibres into a single fibre.
Unlike sheep's wool, it is only once the fibre is spun will it be washed to remove any impurities.

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Ethical and environmental considerations

The farming practices and the harvesting of the wool, as well as the relatively low production and traditional processing used means that the environmental impact of producing this yarn, are negligible.
From a welfare perspective, most alpacas are free-range and kept in social environments.
One thing to watch out for is the dyes or bleaching processes used to prepare the yarn. There is a wide range of beautiful natural colours and shades, and traditional natural dying methods make beautiful colours. Globally there are many certifications schemes, such as the Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS) and World Fair Trade Organisation (WFTO) to help you with your ethical and environmental consumer decisions.

Knitting with it

The yarn gives a good stitch definition, although not ideal for intense patterning that works best with crisp stitches.

Stitches that create volume such as the brioche stitch work well and of course its fluffy nature makes it a good choice for colour work where the fuzziness hides the joins quite well.

Beware that it can stretch quite a bit, so make sure to knit a swatch, wash and block it to see how it reacts.

The fibre

Ethical and environmental considerations

Knitting with it

Gallery