Until a few years ago, most of us had never heard of an Alpaca, but when importation was allowed in the 1980's they began to become more common. When visiting the Whirlwind Ranch on a local homeschoolers field trip several years ago, I was impressed with the animals and their owners. Located in the rolling hills of central Missouri, this farm is a beautiful testament to the glorious scenery of the Ozarks. The beautiful farm perched on a hill is dotted with the ever colorful alpacas. All colors and sizes you could imagine wander around the farm, living a fairly natural and carefree life.
The animals were very alert and interested in our presence, and Liz Mitchko pointed out each animal's name as we looked at them. With over 130 alpacas in residence, keeping names straight can be challenging. Many breeders choose names to help remember lineage or birth year. Each year at Whirlwind Ranch, people submit ideas for the next year's theme. They have used everything from Shakespearian to motel chains for name themes. They choose one submission each year to name the new crop of babies or crias. You can submit your own ideas on their web site, and you could be the winner who gets to decide this year's theme.
Alpacas are native to South America, and because of environmental factors, predators and husbandry practices, the mortality rate there is over 60%. Not so with these pampered guys and gals: with top quality feed, and personal bodyguards very few are lost each year. The quality of life for most farm raised alpacas is very high, and they tend to be allowed to live a fairly natural life with free access to pasture and plenty of outside time, if they choose.
Alpacas are unique in many ways, separating themselves from most animals by their peculiar practices and unusual personality traits. They live an average of 15 to 20 years, and weigh from 100 - 200 pounds when fully grown. The height can vary from 4 to 5 feet at the head, and are generally born weighing from 15 to 20 pounds. Alpacas, unlike most herd animals do not relieve themselves except in predetermined spots. This makes it easy to clean up after the animals, and like sheep, the manure is ready to use for fertilizer without composting.
They also have highly unusual mating practices which are fascinating to learn about. The females are induced ovulators, which means that ovulation and conception occurs after copulation, similar to cats. The male will approach the female, and after some "courting" behavior of nibbling the ears and rubbing necks, she will lie down or "kush". The male then mates with her in this position, until he has released the semen needed for conception. Because they release only a small amount at a time, this can take 15 minutes or more.
Births always occur in the early morning hours, as the mountains where these animals originated have freezing temperatures at night all year due to the high elevations. This gives the cria time to dry off, and get plenty of nourishment before withstanding the cold nights. The breeding and birthing practices of the Alpaca are truly extraordinary and set them apart from other herd animals.
Related to the llama and other camelids the alpaca has a similar fiber to offer the hand spinner. The finer texture and softer handle make alpaca a premium fiber for spinning. The vast difference in warmth makes alpaca fiber very desirable because you can have a very light fabric, yet get more warmth than a thicker, denser fabric made with other natural fibers. The fibers are hollow, allowing a much higher amount of insulation for a warmer, lighter fabric.
There are two types of Alpaca raised commercially for fiber. The Suri alpaca and the Huacaya alpaca are both being bred around the world. The fibers are very different and both command extremely high prices that can be in the hundreds for a fleece off a premium animal. The Suri has a longer more lustrous fiber, with ringlets and curls similar to long wools or mohair. The Huacaya has a fluffy teddybear-like fleece, with a nice crimp, similar to merino. The fiber is fluffy, yet has a slippery quality that makes it exceedingly easy to draft. It handles similar to kid mohair, but has a much softer feel, like that of angora. It has a unique character all its own, and is sure to please any spinner who hasn't tried it.
The fiber quality can vary greatly depending on the quality of the breeding of the animal, and also the animal's diet and lifestyle. The bottom line is that even coarser Alpaca is very fine and lovely, and both types are wonderful to spin with. You can mix Alpaca into another fiber at the mill for a blended roving or batt and achieve a splendid result. You can also ply one singles of Alpaca with a singles from another wool or fiber for some interesting and unique fabrics. The soft handle and lovely feel of this delightful fiber make it perfect for next to the skin wear and is also good for outer-wear due to its good durability.
The Alpaca has probably been used as a fiber animal for thousands of years in the South American countries, but is just now being made available to the rest of the world. Until very recently this fiber was extremely expensive and difficult to obtain, but now, with steady importation and breeders springing up everywhere, you should be able to get some of this incredible fiber for your next special project.