Soft and dense, or lustrous and silky, alpaca is used to make high-end luxury fabrics and outdoor sports clothing
A domesticated member of the South American camelid family, the alpaca (Lama pacos) numbers 3 million head worldwide. Around 80% are found in the Andes, but sizeable herds (totalling around 200 000 animals) have been established in North America, Australia and New Zealand. Shorn annually, an alpaca produces about 3 kg of fibre.
Alpaca fibre is partly hollow, from 20 to 70 microns in diameter and comes in 22 natural colours. It is light, stronger than sheep's wool, and provides excellent insulation. Huacayo alpacas produce soft, dense, short fibres, while the fleece of the rarer suri is lustrous, silky and straight. Alpaca blends well with wool, mohair and silk.
CNR-ISMAC, Biella, Italy
Alpacas, usually in herds of less than 50 animals, are the main source of income for an estimated 120 000 families in the highlands of Peru (above), Bolivia and Chile. There is limited scope to expand alpaca production in the Andes, due to lack of grazing land. Herds in North America and Australasia are expanding by almost 20% a year, and could soon become significant world suppliers.
Production and trade
Annual output of alpaca wool in Peru, the main producer, is estmated at around 6 500 tonnes. Around 80% is shipped as fleece to textile makers (chiefly in China, Germany and Italy), earning export income of around $50 million a year. The main purchaser of alpaca fibre, China, has begun importing alpacas to create a domestic fibre industry.
Uses of alpaca
Of the South American camelids, the alpaca is the only one whose fleece is used in any quantity for spinning yarns for fashion applications.
The primary end use is knitwear, but it is also woven into cloth for clothing, accessories - such as shawls and stoles - and rugs. The premium alpaca fibre is cria, shorn from young animals and considered lighter, warmer and softer than cashmere.
Blue Sky Alpacas
To widen use of alpaca fibre, some textile manufacturers blend it with wool, cotton and silk for both knitwear and woven cloth.
There is also a growing market for outdoor sports clothing made from alpaca thanks to its lighter weight and better insulation during cold weather.