Alpaca Yarn

My friend, Roseann, was kind enough to mail me her copy (not a photocopy!) of the magazine Interweave Knits – Winter 2007 issue’s article, “Discovering Alpaca, Your Guide to Choosing, Using, and Enjoying Yarn” by Clara Parkes.  Roseann, also known as the Uber Knitter, wanted to get my reaction to this article since we two have discussed the spinning and preparing of alpaca fiber as well as knitting with alpaca yarns many times.  In fact, Roseann’s blog currently shows a photo of her beautiful, cabled alpaca hat, handspun and knit from the fleece of my former alpaca herdsire, Valentino. 

Since my long-winded reponse to the above-mentioned article may be too much for some readers, my main points are:

1. Huacaya and Suri alpaca  fleeces and yarns are very different and should be discussed separately.  For superior luster, drape and brilliant color, choose Suri alpaca.  For wool-like qualities, choose Huacaya alpaca.

2. Different brands of alpaca yarns have greatly differing qualities and should be discussed individually.

3. There is so much misinformation available regarding alpacas and their fleeces and yarns that it is best to ignore any out of date sources of information and concentrate only on the more current scientific information.

For those stalwarts who want to know more, here is the entire review:

I was overjoyed to see Clara Parkes, who happens to be the author of, “The Knitter’s Book of Yarn,” rightly points out that,

“…many of these, docile, quiet animals ended up in places like petting zoos, where the onslaught of eager, outgoing children sometimes prompted the animals to defend themselves by spitting.  This earned alpacas a bad and unjustified reputation as ill-tempered beasts.  But spend a quiet day with the animals on their own turf, and you’ll quickly fall in love.”

What a perfect way to describe the situation when would be alpaca lovers try to interact with alpacas out in public and then feel disappointed that alpacas are not as “friendly” as they would like them to be!  That paragraph alone makes the entire article worth reading in my opinion.

photo of my son and Chloe happily spending time together during halter training at home on our farm

However, I was dismayed to find some of the information offered in the article to be misleading at best.  The author states that llamas and alpacas, “descended originally from the Camelid family.”  It would be more correct to say that alpacas and llamas ARE members of the Camelid family. 

In discussing the smooth coated Suri and the crimpier Huacaya varieties* of alpaca, the author states that, “Both animals grow coarse “beard” hairs, which must be removed, and the the soft wool-like hair used in yarns and fabrics.”

Oops!  I had to read the above paragraph several times before I accepted the fact that Ms. Parkes is describing both Suri and Huacaya fleeces as “wool-like.”  The two coats are completely different in type and, to lump them together in the minds of spinners and knitters will lead to a lot of disappointment!  Suri is very similar to high quality, single coated llama fleece or kid mohair, and is suitable for worsted-type garments only.  It is not “wool-like’ in the slightest. 

my daughter poses with our Suri alpaca, Comet.  Comet had 1 almost year of fleece growth in this photo.

Even more surprising, is the author’s reference to “beard” hair.  Alpacas have been bred for thousands of years to be single coated animals in the blanket portion of their fleeces and fiber-quality alpacas should have a very negligible amount of guard hair in their blankets.  Certainly there should not be enough guard hair there to require the spinner to remove them by hand!

photo of my hands holding open Pendragon’s fleece.  Note lack of guard hairs!

Some older, or poorly bred alpacas may have quite a bit of guard hair and these fleeces should never be sold as “alpaca fleece” or spun up into “alpaca” yarn.  They would not meet the standards of the buyers of alpaca fleece and yarn and can only hurt the market for alpaca products.  The Peruvians sometimes label these fleeces, “llama” when they are sold but they also sacrifice many of their older alpacas for food.  They do not sell these inferior fleeces as “alpaca” and breeders in the U.S. should not be selling these either.

To misunderstand that alpacas are a single coated fiber animal, misses the entire point of their use and popularity!

close up of unadulterated alpaca fleece from my farm with one guard hair circled in red.

I wondered about the source of the author’s  phrase “beard hair” instead of the term, guard hair, which is almost universally used by all alpaca and llama breeders worldwide.  So, playing Google detective, I searched Google on the term and found 2 main references to beard hair along with the word alpaca.

The first came from the book, “The Microscopy of Technical Products” published in 1907  by Thomas Franz Hanausek and translated by Andrew Lincoln Winton.  On page 139 under the heading:

“Alpaca, Vicuna, Llama, Huanaco.”

Mr. Hanausek states:

“Four species of goat like animals belonging to the camel family yield hair of industrial importance.  Two of these, the alpaca goat (Auchenia Paco) and the llama, (A. Lama) are domesticated, while the other two, the vicuña (A. Vicunna) and the huanaco (A Huanaco) occur only wild.” 

Note: emphasis on the words “alpaca goat” is mine.  The author goes on to say,

Huanaco and vicuña wool are now seldom found on the European or American market…The commercial products contain both beard hairs and wool hairs.”

I dare to hope that this book was NOT the source of the Ms. Parke’s use of the term “beard hairs” but it was the number one Google result on the day that I searched.  In addition to using the word “goat” in reference to the alpaca, the genus names for all 4 animals used by the author are either incorrect or, at least, out of date. 

The current genus names are: llama, (lama glama), alpaca (vicugna pacos), guanaco (lama guanicoe) and vicuña (vicugna, vicugna.) The genus name of the alpaca was changed from (lama pacos) to the current genus name in 2001 as more evidence came to light that the alpaca was descended from the vicuña rather than the llama as previously thought. 

Google result of seach for terms, “beard hair alpaca”

Another highly ranked Google result shown above has the term “beard hair” appearing in, “A Bestiary of Useful Fibers” by Peter Warshall, (Whole Earth Summer 1997 ) in which, Mr. Warshall states,  

“The two popular cameloid wools from South America: Alpaca is high-grade — softer, finer, stronger and more lustrous than sheep wool. Alpacas coevolved with high Andes grasses, limiting globalization compared to sheep. Their slippery fibers resist dying and weaving. They can be sheared only once every two years. But, alpaca fleece contains no waste wool (“kemp”) as do other wool providers. The llama is larger (sometimes twice the weight). A multi-purpose cameloid, locals love them as pack animals with the perk of harvesting a coarser, weaker wool with lots of kemp. Not a high Andes specialist, llamas have begun to spread to the mountains of the United States.”

The mistakes in the above paragraph are far less defensible than those of the 1907 technical tome because alpacas were first imported to the U.S. in 1984 and, by 1997, the printing date of the article mentioned above, there were many alpacas living in many different climates in the United States. 

Mr. Warshall’s ideas about “slippery fibers” may be the result of his thinking that Suri was the main type of alpaca and his idea that either variety of alpaca has a fleece that resists dyeing is especially preposterous, but far worse is his pronouncement that alpacas can only be shorn once every two years! 

It isn’t my intention to look up and argue with each and every one of the innumerable books and articles that contain misinformation about alpacas and their fleece, only to illustrate the dangers of writing any modern book or article about alpaca fleece and yarn without checking into the up-to-date sources of information and eschewing those that are too old and incorrect to be useful.  It may be that neither of these was the source of Ms. Parke’s term “beard hairs.”  Unfortunately she does not offer any sources for her information on the nature of alpaca fleeces.

Moving on from the beard hair issue, Ms. Parkes also claims that, “Alpaca fibers are longer than fine sheep wools, ranging in length from 4 ½ to 11  inches (11.5-28cm) or longer depending on how frequently they’ve been shorn.” 

It’s hard to argue with that statement because it seems to be describing only the length of Peruvian fleeces and the shearing intervals used in Peru.  However, even the most inexperienced alpaca breeder will tell you that the length of Suri fleeces differ greatly from those of Huacayas, as do the ability of each type of alpaca to go unshorn in warmer weather. 

Because the Suri fleece is not as insulating as that of the Huacaya, Suris can tolerate going unshorn for longer periods.  For this reason, any statement of normal fleece lengths or shearing intervals regarding alpacas should specify which type of alpaca is being referred to.  In the U.S., all Huacaya alpacas should be shorn every year to avoid potentially deadly heat stroke caused by an alpaca trying to survive the summer unshorn. 

Here are two more of her statements that made me wish that Ms. Parkes had made more of an effort to differentiate between Huacaya and Suri type fleeces,

“Alpaca has a smooth, dense, and lustrous hand, absorbing dye readily and reflecting it back with brilliance and luster.”

“For this same reason, any kind of ribbing in pure alpaca will be decorative only-the yarn won’t reliably keep your fabric snug.” 

The words “brilliance” and “luster” are usually associated with the much smoother, shinier Suri-type alpaca fleece while the ability of the alpaca fleece to produce a snugly-fitting ribbed edge would be possible in a Huacaya-type fleece only.  At least Ms. Parkes correctly asserts that alpaca fiber accepts dye well.

Having claimed that using ribbing in alpaca yarns will not produce the desired snugness, she then goes on to review specific brands of alpaca yarn and says of one in particular, “the inelastic drape of most alpaca yarns make them a poor choice for cabled or textured patterns, but this yarn (Blue Sky Alpacas Royal) would be a standout in an Aran sweater.”

Could that be because the creators of Blue Sky Alpacas Royal yarn have made some effort to use crimpy Huacaya alpaca fleeces when producing their popular alpaca yarn?  I couldn’t tell from their website.

 “ Knot Hat, A Blue Sky pattern as advertised in Vogue Knitting Fall 2007. Designed by Bobbi IntVeld. Shown in Blue Sky Royal, #708 Seaglass.”

Note the use of ribbing which seems functional rather than merely decorative on the tightly-fitting hat above.

I, myself, have spun up, and knit with, many, many alpaca fleeces, of both the Suri and Huacaya variety and found that the garments that I spun and knit from Huacaya fleeces have kept their shapes quite well through several years of wear and repeated washings. 

The mittens pictured below, for example, have been worn by me almost every day throughout two winters while doing horse barn chores and still fit the same way they did when I first put them on.  In order to remove horsey smell and hay coverage, they have been washed many times and, while they no longer look perfect, they have completely resisted pilling and stretching.

My final complaint has to do with Ms. Parke’s assertion that the word ‘royal’ in one alpaca yarn’s name is, “code for royal baby alpaca.”  The last thing any of us needs is more confusion about the terminology used to express alpaca fiber diameter!

Marketing hype aside, both “baby alpaca” and the much newer term, “royal” refer to the micron count of the alpaca fiber in question.  Fiber of “baby alpaca” grade often comes from adult alpacas and royal can come from adults as well.  Many of the Peruvian alpaca producers also routinely label coarser alpaca fleeces, “llama.”  When discussing grades of alpaca fibers and yarns, it’s best to stick to the micron designations and their grade names and leave specific animals and their ages out of it.  Here is an example of the type of alpaca fiber grade chart I wish the author had used:


Baby 20.0-22.9

Superfine 23.0-25.9

Medium 26.0-28.9

Course 29.0-35.0

Strong >35.0

Chart taken from Candian Camelid Fibre Cooperative

Even then, it pays to remember that longer staple lengths=less ends in the finished yarn so a longer fleece with a slightly higher micron count can feel better against the skin than a shorter fleece with a lower micron count. 

To her credit, Ms. Parkes states in her final paragraph, “No matter what the label says, remember yarns can still vary dramatically in softness and quality of presentation, even within the same fiber grade.  Ideally, you want to touch the yarn for yourself to determine if it’s the right material for your intended project. “

I couldn’t agree more.

*Though many alpaca breeders and enthusiasts refer to Suri and Huacaya alpacas as separate “breeds,” many genetic experts have pointed out that they are more correctly classified as two varieties of the same breed in the same way that some dog breeds have members with either curly or smooth coats.