What is an Alpaca?
Along with Llamas, Guanacos, and Vicuñas, Alpacas are a member of the South American Camelid family. Aside from the Vicuña, Alpacas boast the rarest and finest fiber of all the camelids. These passive animals have been domesticated for thousands of years and are prized for their luxurious fiber. They come in 22 basic natural colors with many variations and blends, more than any other livestock.
Alpacas In South America
The majority of Alpaca ranches in South America are located in the high altitude regions of Peru, Bolivia and Chile. Despite the fact that conditions on the Altiplano are often harsh, the alpaca has thrived as a domesticated animal for some 6,000 years. Alpacas and Llamas played an important role in Inca culture. Together, they produced food, transport, fuel and clothing. The fine fleece of the Alpaca was reserved for the exclusive use of Inca royalty. Spanish conquistadors did not recognize the value of Alpacas and, as a consequence, they were almost completely annihilated in order to make room for the Merino sheep that were brought by the conquerors. The survival of the Alpaca can be credited to its importance to the indiginous people of the Andes and its ability to adapt, as the Spaniards pushed them off prime grasslands to increasingly higher altitudes.
Two types of Alpaca: Suri and Huacaya
The first importation of Alpacas into the United States took place in 1984. These early imports were Huacayas from Chile and Bolivia. It was not until 1991 that the first Suris showed up and not until 1993 that the first Peruvian stock became available. By that time, actual screening requirements were in place. The North American herd is largely made up of Huacayas but there is a well developed and organized Suri herd, as well. According to the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association, the world Alpaca population is approximately 98% Huacaya and 2%Suri. Current ARI Statistics ( link to: http://www.alpacaregistry.com/public/statistics) list around 97,000 Huacayas and 22,00 Suris registered in the United States.
The word 'Suri' comes from the Aymara people who are predominantly found in Bolivia and Chile. The Aymara were known as weavers in the time of the Inca Empire. 'Suri' is actually an adjective which can be used to refer to anything straight, thus in the case of alpacas, Suri refers to their straight locks. Suri fiber is used for coats, sweaters, and luxury apparel as well as for interior fabrics and textiles. It is most often made into fabric, rather than yarn. Because they are relatively rare, the fiber and the Suri itself are highly prized and bring a premium price. The Suri Alpaca can be easily recognized by its unique fiber which hangs from the body in long distinctive locks. These graceful locks may take on a twisted or flat form of various sizes and gives the Suri an elegant appearance. Suri fiber is noted for its slick handle, soft feel and brilliant luster. A superior suri fleece will be both dense and fine and its characteristics will be uniform from one part of the blanket to another. Suris are prized for their rarity and grace.
Cute and cuddly in appearance, the Huacaya's fleece is distinguished by the presence of crimp, which enhances its use in spinning. In general, Huacaya is best suited for knit wear. A superior Huacaya will exhibit a bright, well nourished fleece with both density and fineness as well as uniform crimp along the staple length. The fleece characteristics should be uniform from one part of the blanket to the other. The handle (or feel) should be soft to the touch, with a minimal presence of guard hair. Huacayas are prized for their easy marketability. After all, who can resist that face?
Alpaca Fiber (Link to a fiber for sale page)
The Alpaca industry has grown significantly since the early days and it is not difficult to see why. The fiber speaks for itself. It has the look and feel of cashmere yet it does not easily pill, stain or create static and it is more resilient and stronger than wool. While Suri and Huacaya fiber should be comparable in terms of micron, Suri fiber is more lustrous and has a slick 'hand' or feel to it. Spinners note the similarities of working Suri to silk. Huacaya fiber is somewhat easier for the beginner to learn to spin. Versatile, Alpaca fiber is compatible with either the woolen or worsted manufacturing systems.