With jet black eyes shyly hidden behind a ‘mop top’ reminiscent of the Beatles era, its no wonder these gentle creatures capture our hearts at first glance. Alpacas are cousins to both llamas and camels, native to Peru where they existed for thousands of years raised purely for their luxurious fibre. In the late 1880’s, a British wool importer noticed the unusually soft and glossy fibre tucked inside a sheep wool shipment from Peru, and promptly launched the introduction of alpaca wool to the European market. It wasn’t until the 1990’s that the first of five hundred alpacas made their debut in Canada, highly regarded as sustainable farm animals requiring very little maintenance, and leaving a gentle footprint on the environment. Naturally inquisitive and social, alpacas get along well with other farm animals, and are exceptionally clean, able to adapt to almost any terrain or climate. They are quiet animals, communicating with a gentle humming sound within the herd.
There are two very distinct types of alpacas- Suri and Huacaya. The Suri breed has long straight locks and a noticeably silky lustre, yielding a highly prized fleece. Suris make up less than twenty percent of the world’s alpaca population. Huacaya is the more common breed with a full coat of soft crinkly fleece that fluffs outwards in a teddy bear- like appearance. Over eighty thousand pounds of this buttery soft fleece is sheared in Canada each spring, processed into rovings, batts, felt and spun into luxury yarns, blending easily with silk, bamboo, linen, cotton, and mohair.
Alpaca fleece is quite different from that of a sheep. It is a hollow fibre containing no lanolin which makes it hypoallergenic. Exceeding sheep wool in strength and resilience, alpaca is highly rated for its thermal value, drapes well in knitwear, and is very lightweight. The only animal to come in so many colours, alpacas range from jet black, to black-brown, beige, fawn, silvery grey, to creamy white, a total of twenty-two officially recognised colours. White remains the most desired colour for yarn manufacturers as it readily accepts dye.
The popularity of these adorable animals continues to grow with hobby farmers, as one couple remarked, “we started with a pair of alpacas as pets, and in just three years we had a herd of thirty seven, they are hard to resist with their sweet disposition and charm.”