Focus On: Amazing Alpaca
Posted on 13 October 2016
Warmer than wool, more durable than mohair and more exclusive than cashmere - a look at the origins and manufacturing process of this luxurious natural material.
Naturally harvested, alpaca has a rich history stemmed in the gods and royal class of South American culture. From high in the Peruvian Andes it’s one of the finest luxury fibres in the world; incredibly soft, with a silk-smooth texture so fine it was once reserved for Inca royalty. But luckily for us, mere mortals can now swathe ourselves in its luxurious softness as well.
Cousin of the llama, alpacas graze at elevations of 10,000 to 14,000 feet on the harsh high plains of the Peruvian Andes. Their thick, sumptuous coats grow naturally in over 40 shades from ivory to black, and every grey and brown shade between.
There are two types of alpaca, Huacaya (which produce a dense, soft, crimpy sheep-like fibre), and the Suri (with silky pencil-like locks, resembling dreadlocks but without matted fibres). Suris, prized for their longer and silkier fibres, has no crimp and is therefore a better fit for knitted garments are estimated to make up 19–20% of the North American alpaca population.
Maximum impact on your wardrobe, with minimum impact of the environment
In recent years, interest in alpaca clothing has surged, partly because alpaca ranching has a reasonably low impact on the environment, and their fleeces are harvested manually in a humane way by shearing them in a similar way to how sheep are shorn each spring. Each alpaca can produce an abundance of fleece throughout its life without being harmed and come in range of more than twenty naturally wonderful colours, from inky black to warm chestnut and snowy white, whilst lighter shades of the fleece also take dyes beautifully, making it invaluable to our designers when they want to bring a vibrant sweater design to life.
Fleece is the natural fibre harvested from an alpaca. It can be light or heavy in weight, depending on how it is spun; it is a soft, durable, luxurious and silky natural fibre, and while similar to sheep's wool, it is much warmer, doesn’t itch, and has no lanolin, which makes it hypoallergenic. Once an alpaca is sheared, the fleece goes through many steps before it can be made into a finished product. The fleece is cleaned to remove any debris, such as hay, grass and dirt. After the fleece is cleaned, it is ready to be carded - this process is like combing the fleece, it removes clumps from the fleece and allows the fibres to lay in one direction. Now the fleece is ready to be spun into yarn which can then be transported anywhere in the world to be knitted into wonderful garments.
To make felt, the fleece is laid in overlapping layers (lengthwise and then crosswise and lengthwise again) in a pan or tray or over a mould. Hot soapy water is then poured onto the fleece. To bond the fleece fibres together it is then worked by hand in a scrunching motion to really work the fleece on both sides and get a good bonding of the fibres. Once rinsed and dried, the felt is now ready to be used in any designs. Alpaca fleece is famous for its luxurious softness and doesn’t scratch or itch the skin like wool products and it’s also hypoallergenic since it doesn’t contain lanolin, an oil generated by sheep that can cause sensitivity in people with dermatological disorders. But most remarkably, it’s water resistant, and extremely durable, making it the perfect material for coats and knitwear alike as seen with the Willow Coat and the Emily Sweater from Enlist AW16.