Alpaca fibre is one of the world’s most luxurious fibres. It grows in 22 officially recognised colours and every shade in between and of course can be blended or plyed (twisted) during processing to produce further variations. Alpaca fibre is harvested once a year at shearing.
Good quality alpaca has inherent qualities – it is soft to the touch (known as handle), should be bright (lustrous for suri) and should not feel dry, rather well nourished. Alpaca fibre has fewer and lower scales on each individual fibre compared to sheep’s wool adding to the good handle & softness. Suri fibre has fewer and a lower scale profile compare to huacaya fibre. A staple length of 3+inches is most suited to commercial processing and up to approximately 9” locks of suri.
For some applications it is necessary to blend sheeps wool with alpaca, however more 100% pure alpaca products are emerging to the market place.
Alpaca has been a ‘must have’ product since Sir Titus Salt (1803-1876) introduced it into the UK market place in around 1836. Having discovered some unwanted bales of fibre at a Liverpool mill, Titus purchased the fibre and spent 18 months perfecting his method of producing alpaca material, later presenting a coat to Prince Albert for Victoria. Alpaca coats, gowns and materials became a very desirable, though very expensive, luxury fashion commodity during Queen Victoria’s reign; in fact alpaca garments were so prized and so hard wearing that they were often bequeathed in the wills of the deceased to the next generation.
Titus became the largest employer in Bradford, West Riding of Yorkshire, where in 1851 he built built the model industrial village of Saltaire as a result of his success.
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.
Many UK breeders have their own alpaca fibre processed within the UK and sell the artisan products direct to the public. Google ‘British alpaca fibre’ and you will discover a myriad of stunning creations and discover the enterprising nature of the UK alpaca community. BAS members are making and selling all types of alpaca products ranging from insoles for shoes and wellingtons with coarser fibre to babywear and exclusive luxury fashion items at the other extreme. There is a use for all grades of alpaca fibre.
Knitters (hands machine and industrial) revere quality alpaca yarns. South Americans use a lot of heavy bright dyes on the yarns which suits the garments and products that they want to make for their home market; however here in Europe the vast range of natural colour is the attraction. The natural, subtle yet extensive colour palette offered by alpaca fibre is one of its main attributes. In its natural undyed state, it also comes with significant environmental and ethical properties making it very attractive to the “green” maker and market.
The BAS FIBRE COMMITTEE aims to provide a focus through which the membership can advance their initiatives towards the creation of a viable commercial market for alpaca fibre and products in the UK.
Join the British Alpaca Society today and become part of a national community, dedicated to all things alpaca. Membership offers knowledge, networking and support to help you protect your investment and work towards your own alpaca aspiration.