Alpacas are a South American camelid and are often confused with Llamas; though both come from the same area they are different species of the Camelidae family. Alpacas have been kept for thousands of years, for both their high quality fibre and their low fat meat. It is fair to say that Alpaca meat is still not widely available in the United Kingdom, but is known for being low in fat and cholesterol as well as high in protein; it has been marketed as the ‘healthy’ alternative to beef.
Alpacas can be split into two ‘types’ which are classified by the differences in their fibres. The Huacaya (wuh-cai-a) has a dense, crimpy fleece that looks like sheep’s fleece. The Suri (sur-ee) has a fleece that resembles dreadlocks that hangs from the animal in locks. While Huacayas are shorn annually, some Suris are shorn every other year to enable their fleece to reach full length for showing purposes. Huacayas are more common than Suris, though it is possible for a female Huacaya to throw a Suri cria (baby alpacas are called cria).
According to the British Alpaca Society (BAS) there are 22 officially recognised colours of Alpaca which range from whites and creams through to dark browns and blacks. Recently Alpacas with appaloosa (spotted) colouring have been born, this has been attributed to a leopard spotting gene (Lp) but it has yet to be confirmed whether or not this is present in Alpacas due to the rarity of its appearance.
Alpaca fleece is fine and smooth, with an average fibre diameter of around 20-25 microns in best quality animals, though it can be as low as 15 microns; to put this in perspective, the record softest Merino comes in at 11 microns, although the average is around 20 for most purposes. The smoothness of the fibre is because alpacas have flatter scales on the individual fibres on their fleece than sheep, which also means there is less lanolin that seeps into the fibres, so Alpaca fleece also feels less greasy than that of sheep. This gives a softness feeling advantage of around 3 microns compared to the same diameter of wool, which makes the fibre a first choice for those that want to knit garments for babies and people who find wool uncomfortable. Although smooth, alpaca has not the memory and resilience of wool, so it will drape well, but has little elasticity and makes a heavier, denser fabric.
Image from Popham Alpacas.http://www.pophamalpacas.co.uk/