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If you’ve already worn an alpaca sweater or wrap, you pretty much know why it’s renowned for being one of the most prized natural fibers on the planet, and already a preferred fabric of luxury fashion houses. You already know that the impeccably soft, lightweight, breathable material that drapes beautifully comes from the adorable alpaca, which is native to South America. And you’re also absolutely certain that alpaca is already a staple in your winter wardrobe. But have you ever wondered how this fantastic fleece is turned into your favorite sweaters, hats, and shawls? Allow us to break down its production process below.
Alpaca wool is derived from the natural fibers that grow on alpacas. There are two breeds of alpaca: the Huacaya alpaca (fluffy sheep-like wool) and Suri alpaca (draping locks with a silkier, more lustrous fiber).
Alpacas are considered “easy keepers.” They are gentle grazers and have soft pads, which are easy on the pasture. Keeping alpacas happy and healthy in their natural habitat is the first step in the wool’s journey of becoming a luxe fabric.
Shearing of alpaca is typically done once a year, usually taking place in January through April. This allows the alpacas to re-grow their coats throughout the warmer months (and not have heat stress), and be prepared for the colder months of winter.
An alpaca is ready for shearing when its hair has grown to a certain length. Scissors are used for the shearing process. It can take up to four people to shear an alpaca, since the gentle creature is quite resistant to the process (it’s like trying to give a toddler a haircut). The entire coat usually comes off in one large mat since the breeders will shear the alpaca close to the skin.
The short fiber will then be sorted into a number of categories, ranging from the finest to the coarsest. The coarsest wool is typically used for felted jewelry and handicrafts, while the finer wool is utilized for the production of garments.
After the fiber is sorted, any seeds, burs, and other waste or debris that the alpacas have picked up will be carded using a fine-toothed brush. They can also be cut out by hand. During the carding process, the individual wool fibers are also combed in a uniform direction. And while alpaca already comes in 22 natural shades, it is at this point that the fibers can be dyed. After the carding process, alpaca wool is ready to be spun into yarn.
Once the alpaca yarn has been formed, it will be washed to remove its impurities. The Peruvians use a variety of wild plants to make a natural, non-toxic cleaning substance. The organic detergent (either using a root or plant that is grated or pounded and mixed with water) creates a foamy wash which effectively cleans the dirty wool in just a few minutes. Once the wool is clean, it will be hung to air-dry.
The dried wool will then be ready for the final step which will turn it into a finished textile product. Similar to how you can knit and crochet doilies and sweaters at home using a ball of yarn, alpaca yarn will be knitted or weaved into hats, wraps, sweaters, socks, etc. –all ready to be exported around the world.
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Alpaca fiber is rapidly becoming one of the world’s most coveted, eco-friendly materials. The use and production of alpaca wool in Peru (its largest exporter and producer), dates back to the era of the Incas when alpaca was revered for its durability and exceptional qualities –the fine fleece was even reserved for Incan royalty.
But to better understand the sustainability benefits of alpaca wool, let’s compare it to cashmere –its main rival, so to speak. For many years, cashmere was the gold standard in luxury fabric. Any indication of colder weather would already prompt us to slip on the classic cashmere sweaters whose softness was synonymous with luxury. However, due to its mass production, cashmere’s superiority began to collapse. Its substantial decline in quality coupled with the worsening environmental conditions, has pushed society to find better alternatives.
Alpacas belong to a family of four South American camelids. They are cousins to the camel! They spend their days roaming freely on the Andes mountains, their native habitat. Unlike camels and llamas, alpacas are not used as pack animals, but cared for to be used exclusively for growing wool. They are caught by farmers, are gently sheared, then released back into the wild. They are shorn once a year, and this actually benefits the alpaca because removing their fleece prior to the hot, summer months will aid in avoiding potential heat stress.
Fascinatingly, Peru is home to the largest population of alpacas. Peruvian history is actually steeped in alpaca farming –from the breeders who raise the livestock and master sorters who gather the best fleece, to the knitters who produce the world’s best sweaters, hats, coats, and wraps. Alpaca, certainly, plays a significant part in Peru’s textile heritage. The Incas even represent what perfect breeders should be –they are able to preserve the culture and tradition of alpaca breeding, passing on their wisdom and craftsmanship to Peruvian breeders.
Peruvian breeders and artisans hold 80% of the world’s production of alpaca fiber. And it is in the breeder’s best interest to let alpacas live as long as possible, because the industry surrounding them is also an essential local business that provides more than 120,000 families with a valuable source of income.
Alpacas produce an incredibly soft and warm fiber that is now considered more luxurious than other fabrics. Unlike sheep’s wool and cotton, alpaca fiber does not require caustic steps during its production and therefore, does not produce pollution or harm the environment. Here are some fast facts that will make you love alpacas even more: