An alpaca is a domesticated species of South American camelid. Other camelids include vicuñas, llamas and guanacos. The alpaca descends from the vicuña, having been domesticated for approximately 7,000 years in the Peruvian Highlands. It lives in herds that graze in the Andes between 3,500 m and 5,000 m in Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Ecuador, where it feeds on natural pasture. They warn the herd about possible danger by making sharp, noisy inhalations that are extremely high-pitched. They can attack predators with their front feet, and by spitting and kicking.
There are two breeds of alpaca: ‘Huacaya’ with thick, curly hair; and ‘Suri’ with long straight, silky hair. In Peru, roughly 90% of the 4,000 alpacas are Huacayos and the other 10% Suris. Alpacas are too small to be used as pack animals and are bred solely for their fibre and meat. Alpaca meat was once considered a delicacy by Andean inhabitants. An adult alpaca has an average shoulder height of 90cm and a weight of 50 kg. Peru is home to some 75% of the world’s alpacas. Due to selective breeding, the majority of alpacas (80%) are white, the remainder having a range of colours from brown and grey to black. The broadest range of colours can be produced by dyeing white fibre, and white fleece is generally of better quality.
A female alpaca usually bears one young after a 50-week gestation period. The normal lifespan of an alpaca is approximately 10 years. There are no known wild alpacas, though its closest living relative, the vicuña are believed to be the wild ancestor of the alpaca. Alpacas and llamas can successfully cross-breed. Alpacas require much less food than most animals of their size. They generally eat hay, grass or plants. Many plants are poisonous to the alpaca.
Alpaca fibre has been used for clothing since Inca and pre-Inca times as it is warm, soft, not prickly and durable. In addition, it is naturally water-repellent, flame resistant and hypoallergenic. Alpaca fabric became fashionable in Europe in 1836. More than a decade later, 1947 saw the beginning of the industrialisation of the fibre in Peru. Alpacas are sheared each spring and produce 5 – 10 lbs of fibre per alpaca. Almost half of this amount is first-quality fibre, the other half second- and third-quality fibre. The Moche people of Northern Peru often used alpaca images in their art.
The industrial processing of alpaca fibre comprises a series of steps. Firstly, the fibre is sorted according to colour and fineness. Any grease, soil and vegetable matter is then removed by washing the fibre. Dyeing the fibre may occur at different points during processing. Finally, the yarn is used to produce knitted or woven fabrics, including scarves, sweaters, hats, gloves, ponchos and a wide variety of textiles. Illegal alpaca smuggling has become a growing problem.