Alpaca! Just the name of this gorgeous animal evokes warmth, softness and coziness. It’s snowy and freezing where I am, and alpaca sounds just like a warm hug.
But what makes alpaca so much warmer than sheep’s wool? There are so many different breeds of sheep, what breeds of alpaca are there?
Here’s everything you need to know about preparing and spinning alpaca fiber!
Alpacas are part of the Camelidae family, the genus that doesn’t have humps (like camels). This group, consisting of alpacas, llamas, guanaco and vicuna, migrated to South America thousands of years ago and began to be domesticated in the Andes Mountains.
Although the popularity of alpaca waned in favor of sheep in the 1500s, the demand returned a few centuries later and grew into Peru’s multi-million-dollar alpaca industry. Alpacas were imported to the United States in 1984.
There are two basic varieties of alpaca — Huacaya and Suri. Huacaya alpacas are by far more numerous world-wide, and have rounded bodies and dense, fluffy fiber that is more similar to sheep’s wool. The more rare Suri alpacas, on the other hand, have more slender, angular bodies and silky, lustrous fiber that hangs in curly ringlets.
Preparing alpaca fiber
Alpaca comes in lovely natural colors of black, white, fawn, gray, or brown, and has a smooth, long fiber without guard hairs (though some individual fibers can be more coarse than others). Baby (or cria) alpaca usually refers to the first shearing of the animal, which is the finest and softest fiber the animal will produce.
Huacaya alpaca, being the fluffier, more wool-like variety, can have a bit of crimp in the fiber. In general though, alpaca doesn’t have the type or amount of crimp that allows sheep’s wool to maintain its elasticity and bounce. If you don’t spin or knit it up tightly enough, this can lead to sagging and drooping over time.
But what it lacks in bounce it makes up for in softness and warmth! Alpaca fiber lacks the cuticle present in sheep’s wool that can irritate your skin with a prickling sensation, so it feels smooth and silky to the touch. Alpaca is very insulating, and holds in body heat while still being breathable - it can be up to three times are warm as wool! Alpaca fiber takes dye well, although it tends to look more muted than the same dye on wool or silk.
There’s no lanolin in alpaca fiber, so you don’t have to wash it before spinning. It will probably still be dusty and dirty, but some people find that it helps hold the fiber together while you spin. Beware though, you’ll still have to pick out bits of plant matter by hand, and your spinning wheel might need a bit of a cleanup afterward!
Photo via Laura Chau
Alpaca fiber can range in staple length anywhere from 3-6 inches, and can be blended with other fibers or spun on its own. Compared to wool, alpaca has a narrower range of "twist tolerance" — if spun with too little twist, the yarn can be limp and lackluster. With too much twist, the yarn can bias or twist back on itself while knitting. Stop and sample often while you’re spinning to make sure you like the finished yarn.
Alpaca is a smooth, strong, dense fiber, and worsted preparation and spinning such as combing and short draw emphasizes these qualities. If you want to introduce more loft into your alpaca handspun, use a woolen preparation (carding) along with a woolen spinning method like long draw or spinning from the fold. These drafting styles help capture more air into the center of the yarn, reducing the density and weight.
In either case, pay special attention to your joins — without the cuticle of wool, alpaca can easily slip apart if the joins are weak.
Alpaca is quite sensitive to the preparation method, so if you’re interested in seeing the true range of characteristics in the fiber, look for raw fleeces to experiment with. Spinning alpaca well takes a bit of practice, but you just might find that it’s a fun challenge that’s worth the effort.