Hailing from South America, the alpaca belongs to the camelid family that also includes camels, llamas, guanacos and vicunas. They are a docile breed whose fleece spins into luxurious yarns. More than three quarters of the world’s alpaca population resides in Peru.1 In centuries past, the alpaca was an incredibly valuable animal, even more so than precious gems! Clothing created with alpaca was restricted for use by royalty. The alpaca has been domesticated and is treated as one of Peru’s national treasures. England has the double decker bus, the U.S. has Mt. Rushmore, and Peru has their alpacas. What a diverse definition of treasure!
Alpaca fleece is a “protein fiber”. This doesn’t mean knitting with it will make you stronger, it merely indicates that the fiber comes from an animal- namely, the alpaca. Alpaca fiber is strong, warm, and comfortable. Each fiber is hollow which makes it incredibly lightweight. Even the most delicate alpaca garments are warm for this reason. Perhaps alpaca’s greatest feature is that it can be worn next to the skin comfortably. The explanation for this is the behavior of the scales on the exterior of the fiber itself. They all lie flat in the same direction, making for a smooth surface. Less expensive than cashmere and with the strength of mohair, alpaca is highly desirable and functional. As with most natural fibers, alpaca needs to be handled with care when it comes to water exposure. Be sure to read and heed the washing instructions on your yarn or sweater.
While there are 2 breeds of alpaca, Huacaya and Suri, the former makes up a whopping 95% of the population.2 Differences between the two are numerous and as you may have guessed from the percentages, the Suri is harder to come by. Suri qualities include fleece that grows downward like human hair in wavy or curly locks with a silky texture. Huacaya fleece is coarser and grows straight outwards, at a right angle to the skin of the alpaca.
When alpaca fiber is processed, it is evaluated and sorted into one of several categories based on its micron count (in layman’s terms: the softness quotient). Micron count is a technical measurement determined by studying a sample of alpaca fleece and calculating the average diameter of the shaft of each fiber. Baby alpaca might have a micron count in the high teens whereas superfine alpaca would fall in the mid-twenties. The lower the number, the finer the fiber. *Please note that baby alpaca is a classification group, meaning it doesn’t always come from young alpacas. It merely refers to any fibers from an alpaca’s fleece that fall within said micron count. While fibers become coarser as an alpaca ages, it is possible for older alpacas to continue to produce fibers that fall in the baby alpaca micron count range.
If all of this jargon confuses you, then you might relate better to the methods used by Peruvian women who hand sort all of the fibers and determine their classification based on how they actually feel.3 The finest and softest feeling fibers are tagged as baby alpaca, and so on for fine and superfine yarns. Fiber from various parts of the animal can have different feels.
Knitted garments made of alpaca have some interesting properties. You should know that alpaca yarn is pretty stubborn when it comes to elasticity. It’s not that it won’t give, it actually has a tendency to be too generous. If you knit dense stitches and patterns or hang heavy embellishments on it, it will become distorted with no hopes of regaining its youthful figure. This is due to the aforementioned smoothness of the fibers. Since the scales lie flat in the same direction, the plies or strands of an alpaca yarn slide past each other instead of clinging and gravity can take its toll on the fabric. Gravity, as we know, can sometimes cause an undesirable elongating effect. So make those 100% alpaca projects light and airy, or use a blend for greater resilience and elasticity.
Speaking of which, all blends happen for a reason. There are ways to make alpaca yarn work for every project and that is by blending it with complimentary fibers. Blended yarns are not created arbitrarily. Wool, for instance, is a highly crimped fiber and therefore offers some elasticity. Since alpaca fibers contain only shallow waves, mixing in some wool makes an otherwise unyielding yarn a little more forgiving. Suri Dream is a hand knitting yarn innovation exclusive to Knit Picks. Imagine wearing a mohair sweater that wasn’t scratchy. Having trouble? By combining the super soft feel of Suri alpaca with a touch of wool and winding it around a strong nylon core, we have created an elegant alternative to mohair that causes zero discomfort. Sounds like a real dream to me!
1“A Shaggy Business” The Economist. Vol. 377, Issue 8455, p. 38. 12/3/2005.
2Quiggle, Charlotte. “Alpaca: An Ancient Luxury” Interweave Knits. Fall 2000.
3Lavan, Cindy. “Evaluating Alpaca Fleece” AlpacaNation – Alpaca Industry’s Central Marketplace. June 2002. http://www.alpacanation.com/articles/AlpacaFuture_Oct02.asp
Kelley and Bob Petkun started Knit Picks in 2002 to provide other knitters with affordable, luxury knitting supplies. Kelley is the host of a weekly podcast about knitting available at www.KnitPicks.com.
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