South American Alpaca Wool has many of the benefits of sheep’s wool and more. The two are very different animals that have evolved in different environments and thus, gives rise to the unique qualities of the alpaca fiber.
This elegant yarn has increased in popularity over recent years, and in this article we will explore the reasons behind its admiration, how to care and maintain it, and under what circumstances, alpaca wool is the go to yarn.
An alpaca is a South American camelid that resembles the llama, but is smaller and has a much thicker, softer and luxurious fleece.
They are bred specifically for their fiber, adored for millennia because of its soft feel, strength, and warmth. In fact, one of the key economic bedrocks of the Incan civilization was it’s textile industry, based on the wool of the Alpaca.
They traditionally were bred in the heights of the Andes (mainly in Peru), but also Chile and Bolivia. That was until the arrival, and colonization of South America by the Spanish. The Spanish saw the Alpaca in a direct land competition with sheep and proceeded to slaughter them for meat, nearly to the point of extinction.
Thankfully, the Alpaca survived with the population now totaling several million in the altiplano of the Andes. In recent years, with the world rediscovering the wonders of this fiber, Alpaca farms have been popping up in the US, Australia, and the UK.
However, due to the smaller populations of Alpacas, compared to sheep or goats, alpaca wool yarn is a more expensive than that most other types of yarn. The annual worldwide supply of Alpaca Yarn currently totals around 4000 tons with nearly 90% of the production from Peru.
Move over sheep wool. Alpaca yarn takes home the gold medal here. In laboratory testing at Yocum-McCall, Alpaca was shown to be three times warmer than sheep’s wool.
In a second study, it has been demonstrated that while Sheep’s Wool manages an impressive 30 degrees Fahrenheit range of comfort, however, it just can’t compete with Alpaca, which clocked up a 50 degree F range of comfort.
Alpaca Wool fibers have tiny hollow cores containing microscopic air pockets, much like polar bears. It’s these that provide excellent insulation by holding in your body heat, thus keeping you warm during those cold, dark winters.
It is the same air pockets, which while keeping you warm in the winter will also allow the garment outstanding breathability during the summer, and thus keeping you cool.
In fact, light garments made from alpaca can keep you warmer in the winter than many heavy jackets yet, more comfortably fresh during the summer than a cotton sweater.
Alpaca wool yarn is seven times stronger than the wool of a sheep, which is pretty tough in itself. It is so sturdy it is considered the most durable fiber of any mammal in existence. Lasting longer than many other luxury fibers, such as wools, cashmere, and silk.
It should be no surprise since the alpaca has evolved to live in the harsh environment of the South American Andes. Surviving, the blazing heat of the desert environment to the long, cold Andean winters.
Garments made by the Inca from alpaca yarn, have been excavated in near perfect condition despite having lain dormant for many hundreds of years. So, with the proper care, any project made from alpaca wool yarn can be in your possession for years (or even handed down to the next generation).
One would expect that with such durability and strength, it would come at a price in the form of weight. Not so. The same microscopic air pockets in the fiber that enable such excellent insulation properties also help to reduce the overall weight. Alpaca yarn is almost as light as air.
This minimal weight makes the fiber very versatile for a range of knitting projects.
Alpaca yarn is often mistaken for cashmere because of the soft texture, the silky look, and lightness of the yarn. This softness is due to the alpaca fiber having a smoother scale surface than sheep’s wool.
With the rise in the production of cashmere, there has also been a decline in the quality and one could argue that alpaca now outranks cashmere for its soft feel.
Unlike, sheep’s wool, Alpaca fiber contains no lanolin. Lanolin is the natural grease that sheep produce to keep their fleece waterproof. Which, unfortunately, can to some people give an allergic reaction. This lack of lanolin, therefore, makes the alpaca fiber safe to wear for those of us with skin allergies.
Additionally, the smooth scaling of the Alpaca fibers means it is ideal for those who have sensitive skin that would have trouble dealing with wearing a sheep wool garment. Alpaca yarn means no irritation.
While alpacas do not produce lanolin, their wool is still highly waterproof. In laboratory testing, alpaca was shown to absorb no water, and will instead wick any moisture away from the body. An additional factor in keeping you fresh.
Alpaca Fiber being hand dyed in Peru
Alpaca fiber comes in 22 natural colors (with over 200 shades) from white, cream, gray, brown and black. These shades can be mixed to produce new non-naturally occurring tints or are dyed easily in a wide-ranging selection of colors.
Alpaca yarn production has an incredible light environmental footprint, especially when compared to sheep’s wool, cotton or cashmere. Alpacas run free and are sheared about once every year, much the same way they have been millennia.
Unlike cashmere goats, which are considered one of the leading causes of desertification in Mongolia, Alpaca’s do not eat the root structure of the grasses they feed on. Plus, they’re soft hooves unlike the sharp hooves of the goat are much kinder to the landscape.
Turning raw alpaca fiber into yarn is a process that does not require the heavy use of chemicals unlike the processing of sheep’s wool nor requires the levels of pesticides and water that are necessary to grow cotton.
The most obvious downside of alpaca fiber is its cost. With so little produced each year, and it’s ever increasing popularity the cost of a skein of its yarn can be prohibitive. Please ensure that it is the right yarn for your project before you buy.
The fiber of the alpaca can get fluffy and release fine, long, thin hairs that can cause irritation to the mouths or noses of babies. If you are planning to knit baby wear, you should opt for a Merino Wool or Merino/Silk Mix when knitting for the little ones.
The quality of alpaca yarn can, unfortunately, vary when it comes to shedding, so check reviews if you are going to buy through online suppliers, or ask the personnel at your local yarn store if the wool will shed.
Cardigans, sweater, hats, and scarves are some of the most fashionable garments for knitting with alpaca yarn. Because of its lightweight and silk-like surface, this wool brings elegance and comfort to whatever project you have in mind.
However, before you run off to look for an alpaca yarn sale. Sage advice when wanting to choose alpaca yarn for a knitting project (or any yarn for that matter), is to do your research.
Check different suppliers and their prices, and if you are sure this is the right choice for a large project, then buy a little and make a swatch first.
In addition to standard Alpaca yarn, you may have heard mention of baby alpaca yarn. I erroneously initially believed that baby alpaca was the fiber from a young alpaca. However, this is not the case. Baby alpaca refers the inner, softer and airier hair of an Alpaca: a genuinely premium yarn.
Alpaca Sweater Knitting Pattern via Amazon
Bernat Alpaca yarn is a very popular blend of the natural alpaca and resilient acrylic yarn. It is a chunky yarn that gives more definition to the stitches – or crochet creation. Most of these particular Bernat blends are approximately 70% acrylic and 30 % alpaca, but it can vary up to 85%/15% too.
As a rule of thumb, as with most types of wool, treating your alpaca garment with a little more care and attention will help it stay more pristine and last longer.
For centuries Alpaca fiber was the yarn of royalty and has seen a marked return to popularity in the last two decades. It rightfully should be considered a luxury yarn, but I will leave it up to your personal preference as to where it ranks in your knitting basket.
eKnittingStitches wish you all the best with your alpaca project and feel free to get in contact if you have any questions..