The alpaca is the most colour diverse fibre-producing animal in the world. There are 22 colours including shades of black, brown, grey, caramel, fawn and white. The insulating qualities of the fleece are incomparable and protect them against the extremes of temperature found in The Andes. Alpaca fibre is second in strength to silk but softer than cashmere and uniquely shares the characteristics of both hair and wool, making it very soft and glossy.
Bunched together, the Huacaya fibres support each other, standing out perpendicular to the skin, giving the fleece a bulky appearance. This is different to the Suri (also an alpaca), the fleece of which hangs from a central parting and is more hair-like with straight, long locks and little crimp.
The width of alpaca fibre is measured in microns. A micron is one-thousandth of a millimetre and ancient alpaca mummies show breeders had achieved consistent fibre diameters of around 17 to 20 microns. Also, the fleece contains little or no lanolin and these two factors mean the fibre does not itch and can be used for people with skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis.
Alpacas are descendants of the Vicuna, animals that produce the finest fibre in the world. Although their fibre is often under 14 microns, it has no density and one animal will produce less that half a kilo of useable fleece every two years.
Huacaya alpacas are being bred for fleeces with density and staple length as well as a low micron count, so each animal is capable to producing between 1 and 5 kilos of high quality fibre per year. A fleece is judged on the amount of crimp visible because there is a direct correlation between the crinkly effect you can see and the density of the fleece overall, thereby creating more elasticity in the final yarn. It is also meant to have lustre so that the light reflects back from the follicles – the brighter the fleece, the finer the fleece.
All alpaca breeders are aiming for an ‘Advanced Fleece’, recognisable by a deep crinkle effect with regular waves (frequency) and deep curves (amplitude). They are also striving for colour consistency so that an animal has one colour throughout the whole fleece. All alpacas carry five genetic coat colour inheritance traits (this is why there are 22 distinct colours registered by the British Alpaca Society) and why mating animals of the same colour does not necessarily guarantee the colour of the cria when born. When registering a cria, the colour is taken from the fibre nearest the skin and when examining a fleece the changes in colour are caused by the alpaca sweating (called suet) or by the dirt and dust on the outer fibres which is washed off whilst at the mill.
Alpacas – in their Andean roof-top home – live closer to heaven than any other living creature. It is said that at night they disappear from the icy mountain-tops to the diamond-sparkling sky of the Andes and only reappear when the pink light of dawn begins to tint the morning mists.
Perhaps it is fitting, therefore, that Andean folk legend regards them as creatures belonging to the Mountain god, loaned to mankind only for as long as we look after them properly. Ancient Indian myth describes the gift of alpacas to man as part of the dowry which accompanied the Mountain God’s daughter when she fell in love with a human. In the beginning the young couple lived in the god’s domain, but eventually the husband became homesick and the god’s daughter agreed to follow him to earth along with a selection of the most beautiful, sleek alpacas. The one condition imposed by the god was that the husband must take especial care of the flock and especially of one tiny cria which must always be carried.
All went well for a while, but the husband became lazy and left the tiny cria on the ground to fend for itself. When she saw this, the god’s daughter fled back to her own world and all but a few of the alpacas followed her through the streams and rivers which connected the realm of the gods with the realm of men.
And this is why alpacas are so fond of water and will get into streams (and even water troughs) as they seek to return to their mistress.