Alpacas have flourished in South America for several thousand years. The Inca civilization of the Andes Mountains in Peru elevated the alpaca to a central place in their society. Inca royalty clothed themselves in alpaca garments, and many Inconnu religious ceremonies involved the animals. Museums throughout the Americas display textiles made from alpaca fiber.
The Spanish conquistadors failed to see the value of alpaca fiber; they preferred the merino sheep wool of their native Spain. For several hundred years, alpaca fiber remained a well-kept secret. It was not until the mid 1800s that Sir Titus Salt of London, England rediscovered alpaca. The newly industrialized English textile industry was at its peak when Sir Titus began studying the unique properties of alpaca fiber. He discovered that alpaca fiber is stronger than sheep's wool and that its strength did not diminish with the fineness of the staple. Soon, the alpaca textiles that he fashioned from the soft, lustrous fleece made their mark throughout Europe.
Even today, 99% of the world's alpaca population of approximately three million is found in Peru, Chile, and Bolivia. Alpacas were first introduced into the U.S. for breeding in 1984; as of December, 2004, there are nearly 68,000 alpacas in the US and Canada.
Physical Characteristics of Alpacas
Alpacas have an eleven month gestation period. Females are bred typically about their eighteenth to twenty-fourth month. A male alpaca does not usually begin breeding until he reaches three years old. At birth, the average cria (baby) weighs about 13-14 pounds. Alpacas usually emit an alarm call when they are worried or want to call attention to something. Spitting at humans is the exception, not the rule. Alpacas are curious animals and love to come up to people and sniff their faces. They will hum, cluck, or warble on occasion. They are very observant and seem particularly in tune to the body language of humans. Alpacas reveal a strong tendency to band together when frightened, and they generally are easy to handle due to their small size and amiable behavior.
Alpacas are prized for their dense and lustrous fiber. Today, the center of the multi-million dollar alpaca textile industry is in Arequipa, Peru. Yarn and other products made from alpacas are sold primarily in either Japan or Europe. Alpaca fleeces are sorted into seven basic color groups: black, silver gray, rose gray, brown, fawn, light fawn, and white. Michell and Inca Tops, two large wool-processing mills near Arequipa, Peru, further separate the fleeces into twenty-one colors that are varying hues of the basics.
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An alpaca is approximately one-half the size of a llama. Their weight ranges widely, from 90 to 175 pounds, and they measure 30-34 inches at the withers. Their form is more rounded than llamas, with a low tail set, shorter muzzle, and speared shaped ears. Their teeth suggest that they are probably descended from wild vicuna. For one thing, vicunas and most alpacas have no enamel on the tongue side of their teeth. Alpacas belong to the camelid family and this similarity to the vicuna has led some scientists to change their designation from Lama pacos to Vicuna pacos.
The fleeces are also sorted in categories. Huacaya has a crimp in the fiber that enhances its use in weaving and spinning. Suri is a straight fiber with no crimp and a wonderful luster. Chili is a straight fiber fleece that is coarser than the suri. Most alpacas, about 90 percent, have fleeces of the huacaya quality.
Alpacas, guanaco, llama, and vicuna fiber from a standpoint of cellular structure, are the same. The fiber is hollow, so it's very light, yet has remarkable qualities of insulation. Although alpaca and llama are both used in South America, the principal native domestic fiber animal is the alpaca. Animals are shorn once every year, and the yield ranges from five to ten pounds per animal. Currently, there is only a cottage market for the fiber in the US Fiber prices start from $3.50 per ounce and increase with the quality of the fiber.