Vicuña

a wild camelides...

The animal

The vicuña (Vicugna vicugna) is found in the Andes of South America in Argentina, Bolivia and the plurinational states of Chile and Peru, and in more recent times in Ecuador, where they have been reintroduced. It is one of two wild camelids in this region, the other being the guanaco, and whilst the guanaco is the wild ancestor of the llama the vicuña is the wild ancestor of the alpaca. Their natural habitat lies at 3000-5000m and they are vital to these ecosystems, being central to the maintenance of the grasslands, water regulation, seed dispersal and carbon sequestration. They are diurnal feeders, meaning they feed during the day, on the grassy plains of the Andes and spend the nights on the slopes for added protection from predators such as the puma. At such high altitudes, the sun’s rays warm the air during the day, but temperatures plummet at night, thus the coat has evolved to deal with both extremes, with tiny scales on the surface of the fibre interlocking trapping air for insulation.
The Inca appreciated the value of the exquisite fibre this animal produces and only royalty was allowed to wear garments made of it, thus offering the animal protection. It was believed that the animals were reincarnations of a beautiful young maiden who received a coat of pure gold once she accepted the advances of an old ugly king. Its high cultural status is still evident today as it is the national animal of Peru and indigenous people perform special rituals centred around the animal.

Unrestricted hunting of the vicuñas between the Spanish conquest and 1964 saw the vicuña become of the most threatened species in South America, with its population plummeting to 10,000 and in 1974 it was declared endangered. Thankfully, due to conservation efforts, the adult population is now 350,000-450,000 according to the IUCN Red list where it is now listed as a species of ‘Least Concern’. However, due to different conservation strategies throughout its range, certain populations remain threatened with extinction. With the recovery of the species came the opening of international trade for fibre from live shorn animals and thus the conservation policy shifted to sustainable utilisation by Andean communities living in the vicuñas range. As with its cousin the guanaco, the main threats to the survival of this species are herders, loss of habitat, infrastructure, invasive species as well as climate change.
Considered more delicate and graceful than the guanaco, this social camelid stands at 75-85cm at the shoulder and weighs just 35-65kg when fully grown. Its long woolly coast is brown on the back and white on the throat and chest.

The fibre

As most animals are wild the indigenous peoples of its lands perform an annual chaccu, which dates from the Inca times, where they captured and sheared the animals every 4 years. During a chaccu the animals are herded into a funnel, captured, shorn and then released. Government sanctioned chaccus in Peru ensure that the animals are only shorn every 2 years. One adult will produce about 0.5kg of fibre.

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Ethical and environmental considerations

Due to its value, there is a thriving illegal market for the fibre, so do be very conscious of where you are purchasing your yarn to ensure that the cooperatives of indigenous people, so invested in the survival of the species, are benefitting from your purchase. Also bear in mind that for their efforts the communities only capture 2-6% of the value of the final product. In addition, labour conditions are poor with women doing most of the manual labour.

Knitting with it

Due to the rarity of the animal from which the fibre is produced, the extreme softness of the fibre, and that the fibre is processed by hand from start to finish, this fibre is the most expensive commercially available fibre in the world. The fibre is just 12-14 microns thick; it is also quite short; the mean fibre length is 30.9mm making it hard to spin. Whilst delicate, do not be deceived into thinking it is likely to break more than other fibre, its tensile strength is good and thus resistant to breakages.
The natural colour of the fibre is a light golden brown and is generally sold undyed. Its thin fibre and extreme softness make any garment feel luxurious. Being so thin makes it difficult to knit with and mistakes are harder to rectify, so give yourself more time to work with this fibre and finish your project.

The fibre

Ethical and environmental considerations

Knitting with it

Gallery