Let’s Talk Alpaca

Mix of alpaca yarn types

This summer has been a record breaking hot one. This fact alone makes it difficult to think about knitting cozy garments for Fall/Winter 2018. However, I still want to discuss alpaca fiber, one of the natural hair fibers that has been bred for thousands of years for its excellent quality. Alpaca is an option that is often overlooked because of its exclusive and expensive reputation.

What is alpaca?

Alpaca is a member of the Camel (Camelid) family, and a cousin of the llama. It is distinctively a South American animal, but today other parts of the world breed alpacas. The majority of the world’s alpaca population is still found in Peru, Chile, and Bolivia.

There are two types of alpaca: Huacaya, which produces dense, soft fibers with crimp, and Suri which grows long silky fibers. Huacaya currently comprise about 90% of the alpaca population, and only around 10% are Suri. Both alpacas produce coarse hairs on certain parts of their bodies that must be removed to obtain the soft hair used in yarns and fabrics. Most of the hand knitting yarns come from the Huacaya alpaca.

Image of Huacaya Alpaca
The Huacaya Alpaca
Image of Suri Alpaca
The Suri Alpaca

Fiber Properties of Alpaca

  • alpaca fibers are longer than sheep wool fibers. Huacaya hairs range between 2-6 inches in length, and Suri hairs grow up to 11 inches per year. Alpaca fibers are also heavier (15-35 microns in diameter) than wool fibers, and become heavier as the diameter increases in size.
  • their high strength produce long wearing fabrics.
  • has similar moisture properties as wool, meaning the fibers absorb a large amount of moisture while maintaining a dry feel to the skin.
  • has fewer scales than wool, contributing to its lustrous appearance.
  • alpaca does not secrete lanolin like wool. Those with lanolin sensitivities may find alpaca an appealing option. Note: Lanolin is typically removed from wool fibers in the cleaning process by the large scale manufacturers, and used in the production of other products.
  • because of its lower number of scales, alpaca doesn’t felt as easily as wool.
  • not as elastic or flexible as wool.
  • some brands may lint heavily, particularly the long hair varieties.
  • alpaca fleece comes in more than 22 natural colors. There are more than 300 color shades from blue-black, brown-black, brown, fawn, white, silver grey, and rose-grey. White is predominant, and can be dyed in the largest range of colors. The natural colors are great for knitters wanting color without the harmful effects of dyes.
  • due to the fiber’s hollow core, alpaca is very warm and holds the heat.
  • pure alpaca yarn of the superfine variety, such as baby alpaca and royal alpaca are better choices for garments. They are softer against the skin and lighter weight than the coarser grades. Alpaca blended with wool makes it easier to spin and increases the elasticity of the yarn. Blending alpaca with mohair, silk, or angora add other qualities that you may like.

Alpaca on the Needles

  • consider touch, drape and warmth when choosing a project. I once owned a 100% alpaca coat that was so hot, I had to remove it when shopping. Bulky, 100% alpaca can be very heavy and warm, and is not the best choice for garments.
  • overall it creates a dense, relaxed fabric that drapes well on the body. The finer varieties are better for knitting.
  • alpaca benefits from a subtle textured pattern like seed stitch. A smooth alpaca in stockinette stitch may reveal irregularities. Cables or heavier stitch patterns will increase the weight of the fabric.
  • naturally the fibers have a lot of drape, and by adding weight will increase the drape and pull things out of shape. The garment construction should be carefully considered or it will sag. Another one of my knitting mistakes was double stranding a worsted weight alpaca yarn to make a sweater. It had a lovely sheen, but was very heavy and warm.
  • because of its low elasticity, be cautious of ribbing, which becomes more decorative than stretchy.
  • getting the right gauge is critical to the success of an alpaca project: too loose and the yarns slip around and droop; too tight and the fabric will be stiff.

You’ll be in knitters heaven, when knitting with luxurious, fine baby alpaca. Understanding alpaca’s fiber properties will help you choose the right type for your project. There are pros and cons when knitting with any of the fibers that are made into yarns. The ultimate goal is to match “the right fiber and yarn” to “the right project”. There is no “wrong fiber or yarn”, only a “wrong choice”.

Alpaca wool blend yarn made into an ombre wrap
My ombre wrap design in seed stitch; made with Berroco Ultra Alpaca, a popular alpaca/wool blend yarn.