As early as 5000 years ago the Inca, high up in the Andes of South America, started domesticating the alpaca. Alpacas were hailed by the Incas as a “gift from the gods” – their exquisite fleece so fine and silky, that only royalty was afforded the luxury of wearing cloth made by their wool.
When the Spanish conquered South America, they failed to see the value of alpaca fibre; they preferred sheep’s wool from Europe.
In the mid-1800’s the value of alpaca fibre was ‘re-discovered’. Textiles made of alpaca fibre have made their mark in the fashion industry across Europe. Today the centre of the alpaca textile industry is in Arequipa, Peru. Yarn and other products from alpaca fibre are sold mainly in Japan and Europe.
Alpaca are a camelid species, related, among other, to llamas and vicuñas, as well as bactrian and dromedary camels in the Far East. Llamas are used to transport small loads and are very hardy.
Facts at a glance
Indigenous to South America, the number of alpacas found in other countries is increasing. It is estimated that there are around three million alpacas found all over the world, of which 99% live in Peru, Chile and Bolivia.
- Alpacas are very gentle by nature and easy to handle
- There are two types of alpacas – the Huacaya and the Suri. 90% of alpacas are huacaya; they have a full, woolly fleece. Suri alpacas have a lustrous fibre hanging down from the animal like dread locks
- Their life-span is between 15 to 20+ years
- Gestation is 11.5 months – one cria is born; twins are extremely rare
- An adult alpaca is approximately 1 metre in height (at the wither) and weighs between 70 to 90 kg
- The alpaca’s feet are padded – protecting the pastures they graze on
- They are ‘modified ruminants’ with a three-compartment stomach; grass and hay are efficiently converted into energy
- As they are camelids, they are able to thrive without consuming too much water; however a constant supply of fresh water is necessary
- Fencing alpacas does not require special material – the same fence as for sheep can be used, as long as there is no barb wire. A small holding or small farm is very suitable for keeping alpacas – 1 hectare can hold up to 15 animals
- Alpacas have only a few dung piles in their pasture, thereby making it easy to clean the paddocks and controlling the spread of parasites. Their dung can be used for fertilisation; the South American Indians use the dung for fuel
- A grown alpaca produces enough fleece each year to create several soft, warm scarves; the yield is between 2 to 4kg. They are shorn once a year, without causing injury to the animal. The fleece comes in about 22 basic colours with many hues / variations, i.e black, grey / rose grey, light / dark brown, a variety of fawn and white.