Alpacas are first and foremost fiber producing animals. They've been domesticated for thousands of years specifically because of their gorgeous fiber. As in the past, the future value of the breed will continue to be determined by their fiber producing capabilities. So whether you're interested in show animals, breeding stock, studs, or pets, all alpaca owners should understand alpaca fiber, its production value, its uses, and processing options.
Alpaca is classed as a luxury fiber (like cashmere, mohair, and angora) because of its fineness and relative scarcity. 90% of the world alpaca population is in Peru, so in North America, which has perhaps 2% of the world's alpaca population, alpaca fiber is especially scarce. This presents both an opportunity and a challenge for North American alpaca owners and breeders. Alpaca fleece commands high prices when sold directly to handspinners (from $2.50 to $5.00 an ounce--compared to sheep's wool, which sells retail for $6 to $10 per pound). But because there's not enough fleece produced in the US to interest most commercial processors, many alpaca breeders must make their own arrangements for processing the fiber. Fortunately, several fiber co-ops have been started by alpaca breeders and many small processing mills will work with specialty fibers like alpaca. Some of these excellent resources are listed in the resource list for this section.
Alpaca fiber exhibits the finest features of the world's natural fibers--it is strong, soft, warm, light, lusterous and has a good hand. Alpaca is as soft as cashmere yet stronger and warmer than wool. In addition, having evolved in freezing temperatures at high altitudes has given alpacas more thermal capacity in their fiber than nearly any other animal. Alpaca fiber contains microscopic air pockets which give it powerful insulating value while remaining light weight. All of which makes it ideal for fine clothing.
The two alpaca breeds--huacayas and suris--produce distinctly different fibers. Both animals produce long staple lengths (the length of the shorn fiber--generally between 4 and 6 inches), but huacaya is generally soft and crimpy while suri is slick and straight. In commercial processing, huacaya can be spun either using a woolen or worsted process, while suri is spun almost exclusively as worsted. Huacaya can be knitted into sweaters or woven into cloth. Suri is used exclusively in cloth, such as gabardine and crepe.
Alpaca is a naturally beautiful and unique fiber. It's silky and soft, but still durable. It's light, but warm. It's naturally colored, but take dyes well. Alpaca owners who focus on the fiber quality of all of their animals will always be assured of having a commercially viable end product and a more valuable herd.