The alpaca, whose scientific name is lama pacos, is the most numerous of the four South American camelid species. With a population of 3,5 million in Perú, representing 75% of the world's total, the alpaca provides the main means of sustenance for thousands of families in the high Andes.
The alpaca is usually 1,20m to 1,50m in height, and weighs between 45kg and 79kg. It has a smaller and more curved profile than the llama and has a distinguishing fringe of hair on its forehead.
Up at elevations of more than 4000m above sea level among impressive landscapes where daily temperature ranges can be as much as 30 Celsius degrees, thousands of rural families raise flocks of alpacas, as has been done for thousands of years, shearing the animals and selling their fiber every year, to provide those families with their principal income.
There are two varieties of the alpaca: the Huacayo and the Suri. The Huacayo is the more numerous type in Perú, representing 93% of the population, and has relatively short fiber which is dense, curly and voluminous. The hair covers almost all the body, only the face and lower parts of the legs having a covering of short fibers. The Suri has long, straight hair which is silky and exceptionally lustrous.
Alpacas are shorn with knives or shears, usually once a year between November and April. The yield per animal is very variable, but a general average is about five pounds (2,3kg). There are specimens, however, which can yield fleeces weighing up to 15 pounds (6,9kg).
The color of the fiber is variable, up to 22 colors having been defined, but is more uniform than that of the llama. Alpaca colors range from white to black through grays, fawns and browns. This characteristic is not to be found among other natural fibers, the 'noble' fibers, used in textile production.
The fiber is classified manually according to its fineness and sorted into qualities such as Royal Alpaca (less than 19 microns), Baby Alpaca (22,5 microns), Super Fine Alpaca (25,5 microns), Huarizo (29 microns), Coarse (32 microns) and Mixed Pieces (short fibers generally coarser than 32 microns).
The names of these qualities do not necessarily reflect the age of the animals or other phenotypic characteristics. The appellation 'Baby', for example, is applied to products (tops, yarns, cloth, etc.) where the average fiber diameter is 22,5 microns. The fiber used to obtain this quality does not necessarily come from baby animals; it could easily come from an adult animal with a very fine coat.
Each quality is employed to create different products such as cloth, scarves, sweaters, blankets, carpets and so on. The alpaca may also be blended with other fibers, generally of natural origin.
Alpaca fibers are extraordinarily tough and strong, even in the finest qualities, thus making it ideal for industrial processing. It is furthermore easily dyed to any color and always retains its natural luster.
It is also possible to process alpaca on the woolen or worsted systems, so that it can be used to produce a range of cloths from coarse tweeds to fine gabardine. Alpaca fiber does not easily break, fray, stain or accumulate charges of static electricity; it is easy to launder.
Alpaca provides a relatively high yield of fiber after processing (between 87% and 95% compared with 43% to 76% for sheep's wool). Furthermore, it is easy and economical to process owing to the lack of grease or lanolin in the fiber and, unlike cashmere, does not need to be de-haired.
Some of the factors which affect the value of alpaca are:
•Fineness: This is a genetic hereditary factor. The finer the fiber, the higher the price.
•Color: White fiber commands a higher price from industrial concerns as it may be dyed to any color, including pastel shades. However, craftsmen give a greater value to fiber of certain natural colors.
•Fiber length: The decision of whether to process the alpaca on the woolen system or the worsted system depends on the fiber length.
Production: The weight and degree of cleanliness of the fleeces are important.
•Impurities in the fiber: Greater prices are commanded by cleaner fiber.
•Nutritional considerations: Nutrition of the animal affects growth and fineness of the fiber.
The following are some of the textile properties of alpaca:
•Non-flammability: The fiber will not burn unless in direct contact with a flame.
•Elasticity and strength: Alpaca fibers have relatively high elasticity and strength, comparable with those of sheep's wool and other animal fibers.
•Hygroscopic properties: Absorption of ambient humidity is relatively low.
•Thermal properties:The structure of the alpaca fiber makes it an efficient thermal insulator, useful in different climatic conditions.
•Felting: Alpaca does not felt as readily as sheep's wool or other animal fibers.
•Handle: The alpaca fiber has a structure which gives it a very soft handle, comparable with that of a grade of sheep's wool three or four microns finer.
•Visual texture: Especially for overcoats, alpaca cloth exhibits an excellent drape, appearance, natural luster and handle; it maintains its new appearance for a very long time.
The Huarizo: A cross between an alpaca and a llama is generally known in Perú as a Huarizo. This hybrid has rather coarse fiber and phenotypic characteristics of both the alpaca and the llama. In the upper Andean zone, where alpacas are raised by families of herders whose resources are limited, it is not uncommon to find mixed herds of alpacas and llamas, and this can give rise to the procreation of huarizos.
For industrial purposes, the term 'huarizo' denotes a fiber quality which does not necessarily come from the hybrid animal; it is used to describe a product (top or yarn) in which the average fiber diameter is between 28 and 29 microns and may indeed come entirely from a pure alpaca.