Alpaca has been a major part of Natural Fibre Company processing since we relocated to Cornwall in 2005-6, constituting up to a third of our processing. The softness, drape and smooth nature of alpaca yarns is especially nice!
For hand knitting, the results are often helped when alpaca is blended with a little wool, to add memory and elasticity, and we have produced some spectacular specialist yarns using silk or other fibres too. We also blend alpaca with 10% nylon for sock yarns as this is required by sock knitting companies. Alpaca socks are hard wearing and low odour. We have also used 50-50 blends of leg and coarse fibre together with strong wool and produced a successful carpet yarn.
Originally natives of Chile, Peru and Bolivia, alpacas are camelids as are llamas, vicuna, guanaco and camels. Basically, there are two main types of alpaca: huacaya and suri. Huacaya is the more common of the two and has a fluffy coat. The suri coat is both lustrous and wavy; the fibre is also longer than that from the huacaya. The differences between the two are similar to those of short and long-wool sheep.
Most camelids have a double coat combining both coarse and fine hairs, but alpacas mainly have a fine, soft fleece. Some have coarser 'guard' hairs, which increase with age. Each animal produces a wide variety of hair, much more so than sheep or goats. The best fibre comes from the back and sides, the worst from the legs.
The fibre qualities are usually defined as baby, adult and coarse, but because of the wide varieties of breeding, adults can produce finer fibre than babies. Generally the micron count increases with age: it is usually under 22 for baby, 22-27 for adult and over that for coarse.
Some of the fibre is lustrous, but the crimp is generally low. It can sometimes be difficult to spin, particularly if the fibre is very fine.
Alpacas come in 23 official colours ranging from white to black and dark brown including chestnut and ginger. These are our names for the colours, not the official ones! The colours of alpaca fibre are much brighter than those of wool, due to the structure of the fibres, which means that white alpaca is very popular to make paler yarns which, with up to 30% coloured fibre, will make an attractive base yarn for dyeing. Coloured alpaca can also be used to strengthen the natural colour of wool.
Like mohair, the fibre is hair rather than wool and it feels smoother. Around 30,000 alpacas live in the UK and many owners are members of the British Alpaca Society.
Most of the top quality breeding stock comes from Australia where a lot of research has been done to improve the quality of fibre. There have been attempts to set up national co-operatives in the UK, but nowadays owners tend to work alone or in groups.