Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Alpaca: sustainable fiber of the Andes

Alpacas have provided vitality, sustenance and warmth to the Peruvian people for over 6,000 years. Once reserved for Inca royalty only, their sumptuous fur continues to be a cornerstone for Peru’s economic development. There are nearly three million Alpacas in Peru, representing about 80% of the entire world’s population. Most of these animals belong to small, local herdsmen who continue to employ humane breeding and shearing techniques which have been passed down for generations.

Alpaca owners Grimeldina and Fortunato, as they prepare to shear their herd. (photo courtesy of Kelsey Quam)
Alpacas graze at elevations of 10,000 to 14,000 feet on the harsh altiplano of the Peruvian Andes. As a result, alpacas have incredibly insulating coats that are warmer and stronger than wool, yet remarkably lighter in weight. Their thick, luxurious coats naturally grow in over forty shades, ranging from white to black with all the grays and browns in between. This provides a glorious palette when left undyed, although the lighter shades of fleece dye to beautiful shades as well. Alpaca’s unique durability and delicious softness makes it one of the most luxurious fibers in the world.

In Peru, Alpacas are sheared once a year during the summer season, between November and March. Alpacas are gently and humanely sheared by hand, with each animal yielding about five pounds of fiber. Once the shearing is completed, highly skilled and expert women carefully sort and classify the fibers by hand into categories of regular (alpaca), baby alpaca, and royal baby alpaca. This fiber sorting process is measured in terms of average diameter in microns, one micron being a thousandth part of a millimeter. Interestingly, the selection of fiber is a manual process where the specialized "touch" of the women is the only way to classify it. These skills are handed down from one generation to the next and the women can easily distinguish between fibers whose fineness differs by only one or two microns.

The softest, finest fibers will have the smallest microns. Regular alpaca has an average of 25.5 microns for each hair, baby alpaca an average of 22.5 microns and baby alpaca royale an average of 19.5 microns. Baby alpaca does not necessarily refer to fiber taken from a baby animal, although the younger animals tend to have more "baby alpaca" hair due to less exposure to the sun. Like human hair, Alpaca hair becomes more coarse with increased exposure to the elements and successive clippings. Nonetheless, the fleece of an adult animal may contain a considerable portion of the baby alpaca fiber. The finest, softest hairs are often found on the neck and underbellies of the alpaca and will usually be classified as baby alpaca or baby alpaca royale. Baby alpaca royale is considered the best pick of the baby alpaca, with the smallest microns and the softest touch.

Once the sorting is completed, the fibers are then processed for use in textiles. This can involve scouring, whereby the alpaca fibers are cleansed using a very mild, biodegradable detergent. This eliminates any dust and grease that may have accumulated on the fibers. Once scoured, the fibers go through a carding process, which eliminates certain impurities, very coarse fibers and short tufts. The fibers may also go through one last filtering process known as combing to remove any remaining impurities and short, tangled fibers ("neps"). After all of the impurities have been removed, the fiber can go on to be dyed and spun, where it will finally be ready for use in knitting or weaving. Here at Peruvian Connection, we specialize in bringing you the highest quality alpaca knit-wear. Our new Fall collection is brimming with luscious alpaca finds, including our top-selling Brimfield Henley, made from the softest baby alpaca royale.


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