Alpaca Fiber & Wool Process
High quality fiber is the foundation of Threads of Peru products, and is at the core of the traditional Quechua lifestyle. The women and children of many rural Andean villages spend much of their time tending their sheep, llamas and alpacas, which are the source of fiber for the Andean weaving process. The animals are usually shorn once a year and the fleece is either used for weaving or sold in bulk at the market.
Threads of Peru uses soft, luxurious alpaca fiber in most of its Quechua Collection items, from scarves and shawls to blankets and ponchos. Some products use fiber that has been sourced from the weaver's own animals, while others are made with yarn sourced from Michell, a responsible Peruvian alpaca fiber manufacturer that's been operating for over a century, with head offices in Arequipa.
Here are just a few of our fine baby alpaca products! Handmade in Peru!
Michell's fiber finishing processes are highly refined, producing some of the finest alpaca yarn in the country. They also have a strong commitment to traditional alpaca herding and they source all their raw fiber from small producers all over the country – including communities like Chaullacocha! They also have a special alpaca research and breeding program which is geared toward the improved health and well-being of the animals and traditional herders 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 fiber-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 alpacas are generally mild-mannered, an unwary stranger might find one unfriendly, as they tend to spit if they are threatened or handled by an unfamiliar person. There are two types of alpacas – 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. It chews off plant matter from the ground without pulling or damaging the roots. Alpacas do not bother trees and are 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. Generally smaller than the llama, unlike its cousin, the alpaca was never asked to carry cargo. The alpaca has long been bred for its fiber: well before the construction of the Great Pyramids in Egypt, nobles of pre-Inca civilizations in Peru were enjoying fine garments made of woven alpaca fleece; 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 of the species’ virtues, and arrogantly replaced alpacas with their own sheep. The alpaca was then used primarily as a food source, and their numbers dwindled. This noble animal might have faded from history were it not for the fact that the vanquished Inca, who retreated into the mountains, brought their prized animals with them, and the alpaca survived. Today, there are approximately 3 million alpacas living in the Andes.
Alpaca fiber is difficult to work with, as it is finer, softer and more "slippery" in texture than both sheep’s wool and llama fiber. It's also much harder to dye: it takes longer for the colors 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 both cashmere and mohair. Alpaca fiber is naturally hypoallergenic and less irritating to the skin than is sheep's wool. It’s an oilier fiber as well. Woven alpaca is water-resistant and highly breathable. It is washable, shrinks very little, and as is free of lanolin. It tends to resist dust. It's also is non-flammable and occurs naturally in 22 colors, making the alpaca the most color-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 from sheep's wool.
The most valuable alpaca fiber is “baby alpaca”, which is softer and finer than adult fiber. In fact, baby alpaca is not the fiber from a baby animal; rather, it is the first shear on a young animal. Today, modern breeding techniques are producing grades of alpaca fiber that are even finer than baby alpaca, such as “Royal Alpaca”.
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) This is the type best adapted to the high Andean environment, as well as the breed that is commonly kept by indigenous communities. These sheep developed over hundreds of years in the mountain regions of much of South America, and are believed to be descended from the Spanish Merinos and Churro, which were introduced in the mid-16th Century.
It is unclear whether there were existing sheep varieties in Peru before the Spanish arrived, but 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-size (weighing 30-50 lbs), and extremely hardy. The rams have horns and are typically white, black, light brown or a blend of these shades.
Although their wool production is low (approx. 1kg per year/per animal) the number of sheep in the Andes is enormous compared to the number of alpaca. As a result, sheep's wool is the most commonly used fiber for traditional Andean weaving. Wool is easier to work with and takes dye much better than does alpaca. Though not as soft as alpaca fiber, sheep's wool is extremely durable and warm, and the resulting cloth tends to be heavier than alpaca fiber products. Threads of Peru uses sheep's wool to produce accessory products that do not directly touch the skin, such as belts, bags and change purses.
The Shearing Process
Shearing of alpaca is done once every year or two, depending upon the health of the animals, the quality of the fleece, and the intended purpose of the fiber. Sheep are shorn every two or three years. Shearing usually takes place in January through April. This allows the animals time throughout the warmer months to re-grow their coats in order to be prepared for the oncoming winter.
In many rural Andean villages, before shearing begins, an offering is made to the gods and to the Pachamama (Mother Earth).
Offerings consist of a mixture of elements, such as huayruro (a red and black seed from the jungle), kiwicha, an Andean grain, various herbs, dried blossoms, and even dried llama fetuses. Led by one of the elders, the men make kintus (three perfect coca leaves) and blow on them, asking the blessings of the gods. Later, they fill conch shells with wine and throw the wine toward the alpaca. The shearing is carried out by hand, using scissors-like shears. It can take up to three people to shear an alpaca; two holding the legs and one doing the shearing. Restraining the legs is key to controlling the animals. The animals are not harmed in the process, but the intelligent alpaca does not like to be shorn and thus does everything in its power to escape. The sheep, which are smaller and less intelligent, are easier to restrain and shear. Once the wool is removed, the soiled or 'nappy' wool is separated and used for purposes other than spinning and weaving. In one of our interviews we were told of an Easter-time shearing of alpaca - a festive occasion called "Llama-Chuy". The Criollo sheep is a fairly low producer of wool, with a typical shearing amounting to between 800 grams and 1 kilogram (1.8 - 2.2 pounds). One year's growth from the alpaca can weigh from 2.25 to 4.5 kilograms (5-10 pounds).
Spinning Fiber into Yarn
Spinning is the process of turning the raw wool and fibers, shorn from the animals, into strong, consistent useful threads. Quechua weavers use a drop spindle (pushka), which is similar to a wooden top with an elongated axis. The pushka varies in size with the diameter of thread being spun. The act of spinning is known as puskhay. Multiple threads are combined to form stronger ones. Single strands of thread are removed from the pushkas, combined into balls and skeins, and then spun together again.
Spinning is done while walking along the road, chatting with friends, or watching over one's children or sheep.
The process of combining threads is called plying or k'antiy. A larger version of the pushka is used to do k'antiy, creating double (2-ply) or triple (3-ply) strands of yarn into thinner, stronger and more consistent yarn for weaving. The strands can go to 4-ply or higher, but this is less common. Alpaca fiber can be spun into much finer threads than sheep's wool.
It's rare to see an Andean woman or young girl without her hands busy spinning. It is a predominately feminine activity in indigenous culture, and often so commonplace as to be performed almost unconsciously. It is also common, in weaving communities, for boys to learn how to spin from a young age. Men will often know how to spin, even if they don't learn to weave. Spinning is done while walking along the road, chatting with friends, or watching over your children or sheep. It's a skill that people begin training in as children, and it takes years of practice to spin proficiently. Thus, spinning is a refined art in and of itself; one whose difficulty is often overlooked. Spinning is a vital part of the weaving process, as the yarn must be fine, but strong and even to be useful in weaving high-quality textiles.
Check out our hand-spun alpaca and wool yarn!
Peru has more than one kind of naturally-occurring detergent plant; these plants are traditionally used to wash shorn wool and fiber. In the Sacred Valley, Sacha Paraqay is a root that is grated into the wash water and mixed to create a foamy lather. Similarly, Illmanke is a green plant that's pounded with a rock or ground with a mortar and pestle; the resulting material is then mixed with water for the wash. Both plants produce a surprisingly effective white foamy wash water, which cleans the dirty wool in just a few minutes of vigorous hand washing. Once the wool is clean, it is hung to dry. Sheep's wool is washed before it is spun. But alpaca fiber is spun before it is washed, as the washing process separates the fibers in the soapy water, and makes the fiber even more "slippery" and thus difficult spin.