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 Peru, representing 75% of the world's total population, the Alpaca provides the main means of sustenance for thousands of families in the high Andes.
The Alpaca is usually 3‚ 9" to 4‚ 9" in height, and weighs between 99 to 174 pounds. It has a smaller and more curved profile than the llama and has a distinguishing fringe of hair on its forehead.
At elevations of more than 1312 feet above sea level among impressive landscapes where daily temperature ranges can be as much as 86 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 Peru 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 variable, but a general average is about five pounds. There are specimens, however, which can yield fleeces weighing up to 15 pounds.
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, rugs 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.