Alpaca & Wool
Raising of sheep and alpacas is a vital part of the Peruvian weaving process. The women and children of many rural Andean villages tend their sheep, llamas and alpacas, shearing them usually once a year, thereby collecting the fleece, which is used for weaving or sold in bulk at the market.
Alpaca is a soft, luxury fiber and is used to weave fine items such as scarves and blankets. Sheep’s wool is often used to weave more rustic products that do not directly touch the skin, such as belts.
When Threads of Peru purchases textiles from weavers, the fiber usually has been sourced from the weaver’s own animals. However, sometimes when weavers have run out of fiber or we require extra-soft baby alpaca, we purchase alpaca fiber from Michell, a reputable Peruvian business with head offices located in Arequipa. Michell is a responsible alpaca fibre manufacturer that has been working in Peru for over a century. They produce some of the finest alpaca fiber in the country. And they place special care on the breeding of alpacas to ensure the health and well-being of the animals all over Peru. Threads of Peru has been lucky enough to tour the impressive Michell factories and we have seen some of their alpaca farms and herds.
“The raising of fibre-producing animals is the foundation of traditional Andean weaving.”
Like the llama, the alpaca is a relative of the camel. It is also calm and aloof, highly intelligent and easy to train. While generally mild mannered, an unwary stranger might find an alpaca unfriendly, as they also tend to spit if they are threatened or handled by an unfamiliar person.
There are two types of alpaca – the alpaca suri, which has a very long, mop-like coat, and the alpaca huacaya – whose coat is shorter and curly, like that of a sheep. The huacaya is much hardier, and therefore more common in the Andes. The alpaca does not have hooves, and its padded feet do little damage to the turf of its range. Likewise, the alpaca chews off plant matter from the ground without pulling or damaging the roots. It does not bother trees and is generally considered to be of ‘low-impact’ to the environment when compared to other herding animals such as sheep or goats.
The alpaca has been domesticated for over 5,000 years and has been the focus of specific breeding programs since ancient times. The alpaca is generally smaller than the llama, and unlike its cousin, was never asked to carry cargo. The alpaca has long been bred for fiber, and well before the construction of the Great Pyramids in Egypt, nobles of pre-Inca civilization in Peru were enjoying fine garments made of woven alpaca fleece and their wealth was measured largely in numbers of alpaca.
The alpaca was still held in the highest regard when the Incas came to power in the Andes over 3,000 years later. However, when the Spanish conquered the Incas nearly 500 years ago, the invaders were ignorant to the virtues of the alpaca and arrogantly replaced them with their own sheep. The alpaca was used primarily as a food source and its numbers dwindled. The alpaca might have faded from history were it not for the fact that the vanquished Inca, who retreated into the mountains, took with them their prized little animals, and the alpaca survived. Today, there are approximately 3 million alpaca living in the Andes.
Alpaca fibre is difficult to work with as it is finer, softer and more “slippery” in texture than sheep or llama wool. Alpaca hair is also much harder to dye as it takes longer for the colours to penetrate it. This fiber is stronger and warmer than sheep’s wool and is second only to mohair in strength. It equals or surpasses typical thermic characteristics of cashmere and mohair. Alpaca fiber is naturally hypoallergenic and less irritating to the skin than sheep’s wool. Alpaca is an oilier fibre and woven alpaca is water resistant and highly breathable. It is washable, shrinks very little, and as it is free of lanolin, it tends to resist dust. Alpaca fiber is nonflammable and occurs naturally in 22 colours, making the alpaca the most colour diverse fiber-producing animal on earth. Due to these desirable characteristics, and the added difficulty of working the slippery fibers, products made from alpaca are generally more valuable than those made of sheep’s wool.
The most valuable alpaca fiber is that of baby alpaca, which is softer and finer than the fleece of the adult animal. Baby alpaca is not from a baby animal, but it is the first shear on a young animal.
The sheep of Peru consist mainly of three types – Corriedale, Junin and Criollo. Of the estimated 15 million sheep in Peru, 60% are Criollo (also called Pampa, Columbian, Creole or Chilludo) and these are the type best adapted to the High Andean environment as well as the ones commonly kept by indigenous communities. These sheep developed over hundreds of years, living in the mountain regions of much of South America and are believed to be descendants of the Spanish Merinos and Churro, which were introduced in the mid 16th Century. It is unclear wether there were existing sheep varieties in Peru before the Spanish arrived, and if there were, they may have played a role in the development of the present day genetic makeup of the Criollo. These sheep are small to medium-sized (weighing 30-50 lbs) and hardy. The rams have horns, and this breed is typically white, black, light brown or a blend of these shades.
Although their wool production is low (approx. 1kg per year/per animal) their numbers are enormous when compared to the alpaca. Therefore sheep’s wool is the most commonly used fiber in the region and most traditional Andean weaving is made from the wool of sheep. It is easier to work (weave and dye). The wool is extremely durable and warm, and the resulting cloth tends to be heavier than that produced with alpaca fiber.