all about alpacas
Alpacas are members of the camelid family and until the 1980s were bred only in their native South America. They have been domesticated for fine cloth production for thousands of years. The oldest known recording of these charming creatures was 1,000 years before the great pyramids of Giza. Inca nobles demonstrated their wealth by the number of alpaca's they owned, as well as showing off the beautiful fur garments.
The alpaca is an outstanding example of domesticated selective breeding. It is a people-friendly, earth-friendly, easily-managed farm animal that, up to the 15th Century produced a fleece that assisted the building of one of the greatest Empires known to man, that of the ancient Incas.
- Alpacas are gentle and curious by nature, easily handled and halter-trained to lead.
- They have a gracefully vague resemblance to the fabled 'push-me-pull-you' child's toy. They weigh around 70kgs and their gait is more akin to that of a camel.
- Alpaca fibre is silky soft, lightweight, yet durable - rare qualities that meet the demands of the modern consumer.
- Alpacas are economical eaters but, unlike other domestic livestock, they have soft fibro elastic pads more akin to our kangaroo, minimising the environmental impact on our delicate Australian terrain.
- While Alpacas eat pasture close to the ground, they do not tear the plant as sheep do.
- Breeding one cria (offspring) per year, they rarely twin.
- Lifespan is approximately 20 years and the maiden female is first mated at one year. With gestation being 11 1/2 months, the adult female has her first cria at about 2 years, then breeds one cria per year.
- Alpacas birth only in daylight and delivery is relatively trouble free. The cria are often standing and drinking within an hour of arrival.
- Alpacas spit to ward-off intruders or the attention of an amorous male. This harmless behaviour is their main source of defence. They have been used as guard dogs for sheep herds to protect the animals from foxes. They rarely spit at people unless provoked.
Unfortunately, 500 years ago the conquerors, failing to see the potential of the alpaca, preferred the merino sheep of their native Spain. Sadly, the alpaca industry fell into disarray over the following centuries due to the introduction of European stock diseases, mismanagement and turbulent politics.
In the early 19th Century, with very limited quantities available for textile manufacturing, Europe created a demand for alpaca fleece, having discovered its unique properties.
A textile industry evolved in Peru and fleece was exported to Japan, Korea and Europe. The animal however, remained locked in its South American homelands due to lack of disease control. The first exports of camelids were in the 1980s to the United States and then to Australia.
For Australian Alpaca breeders the challenge has been to build an industry with an animal not previously exposed to Australia breeding techniques.
Even in its relatively untouched state the fleece compares favourably with other natural fibres so the potential for improvement is considerable.
Why Alpaca Fleece is Different From Competing Fibres.
In March 1994 Peter Weiss, of Weiss Pringle fame, launched the Australian Alpaca Centre's Fashion Parade at the Coolaroo Classic Auction, where he said.
"This timeless natural fibre is light, airy in character and its nearly weightless warmth makes it one of the most remarkable fibres in the world. It is a wonderful fibre for Australia because it can be used all year round".
With its unique structure, Alpaca fibre is silky-soft and very light. Under microscope it has a smooth, flat cuticle (surface scales of the fibre) that imbues it with the softness and feel of cashmere, making it superior in quality to other competitor fibres such as Merino wool or cotton.
Alpaca fleece is unique in that it has a semi hollow core. This characteristic gives Alpaca fibre its ability to maintain softness, lightness and warmth and allows it strength and flexibility for processing into a wide assortment of textured fabrics,
Though structurally similar to cashmere in softness and silkiness, the Alpaca, grows a beautiful fibre over all its body, shearing up to 4kg and with improved breeding techniques 7-8kg annually. Alpaca fibre, unlike fibres such as vicuna and cashmere, does not require an expensive and tedious dehairing process.
Lightweight & Warm
The Alpacas homeland high in the Andes has meant the animal has had to cope with huge extremes in weather conditions, where it can be very cold in the alpine winter and very warm in summer months with high radiation from the sun. Over thousands of years the species has evolved a fleece that has unique thermal properties designed to keep the animal warm in winter yet cool in summer. It is the semi hollow core of each fibre that has created warmth yet lightness and durability. Compared to other natural fibres, alpaca fleece offers an outstanding warmth to weight ratio ie lightweight yet warm. Alpaca fleece is a very clean natural fibre and does not require the use of environmentally damaging chemical or potentially unhealthy treatments for use in bedding and clothing.
For more information regarding breeding alpacas please visit the Coolaroo website.