Alpaca fibre is one of the most luxurious fibres in the world. It comes in 22 officially recognised colours and every shade in between.
Its most remarkable quality is its softness – alpaca fibre is inherently soft. This is due to the fact it has less scales on each individual fibre, compared to sheep's wool which has many, and more prominent scales on each individual fibre. (Suri alpaca have less scales than huacaya alpaca so their fibre is even softer.) Even at its coarsest, alpaca is inherently softer than sheep's wool and often a certain percentage of alpaca fibre is added to sheep's wool during the woollen process to enhance the handle or feel.
The lack of scales and smoothness of the fibre also gives alpaca a natural brightness as the smoother surface reflects the light better. Suri alpaca (because it has less scales) reflects the light like a mirror and is renowned for its deep lustre, as well as its luxuriously smooth handle.
Alpaca has been a must have item ever since Sir Titus Salt introduced it into the UK marketplace in around 1836. Alpaca coats, gowns and materials were very fashionable during Queen Victoria's reign – in fact they were so prized and so hardwearing that they were bequeathed in the wills of the deceased to the next generations. Sir Titus became the largest employer in Bradford, West Yorkshire, building the model industrial village of Saltaire in 1851 on the back of this success.
Today, many UK breeders process their own alpaca fibre and sell the yarns and products direct to the public. Google British alpaca fibre you will be amazed at what you will discover about the enterprising nature of the UK alpaca community. BAS members are making and selling all kinds of alpaca products, ranging from insoles for boots and wellingtons with coarser fibre, to babywear and exclusive luxury fashion items at the other extreme.
The BAS National Fibre Committee consists of representatives from the regional groups who meet together to discuss the uses of alpaca fibre. Its aim is to provide a national focus through which the membership can advance their initiatives towards the creation of a viable commercial market for alpaca fibre and product in the UK.
Knitters adore alpaca and rapidly become addicted to it once they have felt the softness and quality of the yarns. South Americans use a lot of heavy bright dyes on their yarns which suit the garments and products they want to make for their home market, however, here in Europe the attraction is the vast range of natural colours. The natural, subtle but expansive colour palette offered by the alpaca is one of its main attractions. In its natural state, undyed, it also comes with an environmental cache, making it very attractive to the 'green' market.
Properties of alpaca
Alpaca is a dry fibre with a minimum lanolin content which means it does not need to be scoured prior to spinning. It can be spun into yarn straight from the fleece and is often washed at the hank (a coiled bundle or yarn) stage of processing.
At its finest alpaca fibre gets as low as 15-16 microns (the mean of the fibre diameters or average diameter) which is very fine indeed, in fact it is often described as a hard wearing cashmere. At its finest it is used like cashmere to produce high quality, luxury garments in both the woollen process for knitwear and weaving and in the worsted process for fine suiting and materials.
The fibre from the huacaya alpaca (those that look like teddy bears) is more suited to the woollen process and the fibre from the suri alpaca is a lot like silk and more akin to the worsted process. At its finest, women's lingerie can be made from suri fibre.
However, even on a global scale, alpaca fibre is still very much a niche market. There are roughly three million kg of alpaca fibre produced in South America every year and this still only represents .04% of all the fibres processed in any given year. The average alpaca produces around 2.4kg of alpaca fibre per annum, with some having the potential to produce around 4-6kg per annum.