First thing you probably don’t need to know: alpacas are cute. Dangerously cute. That face (image from American Lifestyle Magazine), and faces just like it, have crafters everywhere saying:
- “awww!”, and
- “I want one!”, and
- trying to convince themselves and anyone who lives with them that they need to start raising Alpaca.
If you go down that road just know that:
- no matter how cute raising any livestock is work, and
- all that work cuts into knitting/crochet time, and
- if you still do it I think you’re nuts, and
- I’d like some fleece at shearing time.
The second thing you probably don’t need to know: alpacas are camels. Well, technically they are camelids, which means they are in the same biological family as camels. Camels, ancient camels, first popped up in North America about 44 million years ago. Yes the first camels weren’t in the Middle East or Africa, they were in Canada and Colorado and such. How weird is that? The camel ancestors roamed all over and spread south to South America and into Asia via the Bering Strait. Then, about 11,000 years ago all the North American Camels died. (It was the same time all the mastodons died off.) So the South American camel ancestors and the Eur-Asian camel ancestors were separated and of course today they are very different animals.
Alpacas come from vicuñas, a wild camelid that lives high in the Andes mountains.
So do llamas, by the way. Both alpacas and llamas are descended from this same shy animal. About 6,000 to 5,000 years ago people started domesticating and breeding these camelids. The ones bred to be pack animals and/or for their meat became what we today call llamas. The ones bred for their fleece became alpacas.
There are two distinct varieties of alpaca: Suri and Huacaya. Suri are the expensive, rare ones. Suri alpaca have long, silky, shiny fleeces. The fibers are nearly straight and can be quite long.
Huacaya alpaca are more common. They look fluffy because their fleeces are shorter and have more curl and crimp. If you are buying alpaca yarn or fiber and it does not say which type it is… its almost certainly Huacaya. When you buy Suri Alpaca its usually says so on the label (and you’ll know it by the higher price).
Alpaca have no lanolin, no grease, in their fleece. That makes it quite different from sheep fleece. For anyone with a lanolin allergy that’s good news. Its why you sometimes see alpaca yarn labeled as “hypoallergenic”. Its also sometimes labeled as “prickle free”. Now I personally won’t claim that alpaca is prickle free. My experience tells me alpaca can be plenty prickly… unless you get baby alpaca.
As alpaca get older their fleeces get rougher. Specifically they develop guard hairs which are coarse and a bit wiry. So the best alpaca fleeces are from babies. Technically a baby alpaca can be up to 18 months old. Its any young alpaca that is getting its first shear. Yarn made from those fleeces might be able to pull off the prickle-free claim.
And I’ll end with one more fact about alpacas that I couldn’t seem to work in above. Its a little fact that you almost certainly don’t need to know and might not find very interesting at all but I’m going to tell you any way: alpacas like to go poo in the same place every time. Yep they have “toilet” areas. If you keep more than one alpaca, they will go poo in the same place often at the same time. How weird is that? Now this behavior seems to be the basis for the claim that alpacas can be housebroken and kept indoors but there is No Way At All I believe that, not even for a second. The idea of alpacas living in the home and using some sort of industrial sized litter box is exactly the kind of lie Texans tell to see if anyone believes it.
No one is keeping alpacas inside like cats right? And if they are I don’t even want to know. Just let me live in ignorance. And send fleece.