Shorn yearly, the fleece of an alpaca can weigh five to eight pounds, or more. Alpaca fiber is warmer, softer, stronger and lighter than wool. The alpaca’s fleece will grow three to four inches yearly, which coincidentally is the length preferred by hand spinners.
Alpaca fiber has a reputation for soft, luxurious handle and elegant drape. It is used in garments made in fashion centers from Italy to Tokyo. Sweaters and blankets made from the alpaca’s exquisite fleece may become heirlooms.
Alpaca fleece is unique in that the “blanket” or most valuable part of the fleece does not contain “guard hair.” The fur covering most animals is of two types, the soft undercoat and the coarser overcoat. In fiber producing animals such as cashmere goats the coarse guard hairs must be removed, a costly and tedious process. Alpaca fleece is also devoid of the lanolin that sheep produce. This results in a fleece that can be spun immediately after shearing without any further processing.
The processing of alpaca fleece is a major industry in South America. Each year the alpacas are sheared. Skilled workers hand sort the fleece for different grades of fineness. Huge textile factories process the raw alpaca fleece into high quality yarns that are subsequently manufactured into exclusive fashions.
In South America, alpaca breeders have traditionally been paid by the pound. This has encouraged breeding practices selecting for fleece density, often at the expense of fineness. North American breeders have recognized that fineness carries a premium, and generally breed for this in their alpacas. Today, America arguably has the best alpacas in the world.
Alpaca fiber is one of the rarest of luxury fibers. The unique qualities of the alpaca’s fleece, coupled with its relative rarity, ensure a continued demand.