Alpaca Wool

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There are two histories of alpaca wool, the ancient and the modern. Going back centuries to before the Spanish conquest of Peru, the Inca people thought so highly of the alpaca fleece that it was reserved for their royalty.

Then came a period of decline. As part of the process of conquest and subjugation the Spanish invaders hunted the alpaca almost to extinction. Its wool became very rare, and was virtually ignored.

This situation changed when in the nineteenth century the young Titus Salt of Bradford, Yorkshire (later to become a leading British textile industrialist and social reformer) discovered a discarded batch of alpaca wool in a warehouse at the port of Liverpool and recognised its potential. After much experimentation, and succeeding where others had previously failed, he developed a successful weaving system. ‘Alpaca’ became once again the cloth of choice among the wealthy upper classes, this time of Victorian England.

Alpaca wool is soft and gentle, and highly prized also for its combination of warmth and light weight due to the fibres being hollow. Another beneficial quality is its antiallergenic properties due to lack of lanolin, with the result that many people can wear it who are allergic to sheep’s wool.

However, all of this is too much of a simplification. Fleece varies considerably between the different breeds. Suri alpacas have long silky fibres, whereas the Huacaya has a dense crimpy fleece. Even within the same breed, though, there can be differences depending on the quality of an individual animal and the pasture where it has been feeding. The extremely fine fibre from young animals is highly prized.

Alpaca wool can be dyed to give any number of colours. There is, however, a broad spectrum of natural colours to choose from without dying – ranging through many shades from white and various depths of grey to black, and from pale fawns to rich browns.

One important contributor to the quality of alpaca wool, like any other wool, is the standard of shearing. The British Alpaca Society was during 2007 working to produce guidelines which should help to achieve more reliable quality. Another vital part of the process is the sorting of the wool after shearing to give batches of consistent grade and colour throughout. However, even more basic to long-term development and maintenance of quality is the generation-by-generation strengthening of the breeding stock (increasingly monitored and recorded using DNA genetic testing) and continual improvement in standards of husbandry.

After shearing there are many stages to be gone through before experiencing the delicious softness of an alpaca woven or knitted garment. The fleece needs to be cleaned, thoroughly washed, knots and clumps picked out, carded so as to separate and align the strands of wool, all this before it is ready for spinning into yarn. Some alpaca keepers sell their fleeces to woollen mills; others prefer to retain ownership of the fleece while it is processed for them and returned either prior to spinning so that they can do this themselves or as spun yarn ready for weaving or knitting.

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