What is Alpaca?

Alpaca fleece is the natural fiber harvested from an alpaca. It is light or heavy in weight, depending on how it is spun. It is a soft, durable, luxurious and silky natural fiber. While similar to sheep’s wool, it is warmer, not prickly, and has no lanolin, which makes it hypoallergenic. Alpaca is naturally water-repellent and difficult to ignite. Huacaya, an alpaca that grows soft spongy fiber, has natural crimp, thus making a naturally elastic yarn well-suited for knitting.

Suri has no crimp and thus is a better fit for woven goods. The designer Armani has used Suri alpaca to fashion men's and women's suits. Alpaca fleece is made into various products, from very simple and inexpensive garments made by the indigenous communities to sophisticated, industrially made and expensive products such as suits.

Primary Uses

Virginia Status

What Farmers Need to Know:

One of the benefits of raising alpacas is the crop of fiber our alpacas produce each year, and all the many uses for what is considered one of the finest and most luxurious natural fibers in the world.The two distinct breeds of alpacas: Huacaya (wah-KI’-ya) and Suri (“surrey”) both have fleeces that are soft and luxurious.  Huacayas have full, puffy fleeces whose crimp or crinkle is found throughout their fleeces.  

Suri alpacas have silky, lustrous, penciled fiber that grows in “dreadlocks” hanging down their side, giving the suri alpaca a completely different look.  Both types of fiber are deemed luxury fibers in the textile industry because of qualities that are so unique.An adult alpaca produces 5 to 10 pounds of fiber per year.

Industries that will Benefit the Most.

- Textiles
- Apparel
- Military
- Insulation

Near & Longterm Outlook:

The real money is in breeding: raising alpacas to produce more alpacas. Female alpacas can give birth about every 18 months, and average 7 offspring over a lifetime. Those offspring, depending on their gender and the quality of their wool, could sell for a lot of money. Breeding stock alpacas went for an average of over $25,000, and as much as $750,000 at auction, it didn’t take long for a breeding operation to turn a profit.
Even if the market for alpaca fiber might never make the industry profitable, farms might do better if they can sell the meat, milk, and leather. Maybe they should borrow a trick from Japan, and rent them out for weddings.

National Status

Primary Regions?

The U.S, and many state tax systems have incentive programs to encourage small farms, and alpacas are officially recognized farm animal by the federal, and many state governments. Compared to other farm animals, alpacas are “relatively docile” and easy to maintain, as libertarian pundit Jon Stoessel observed in a segment against these tax breaks. Somebody could easily put a few alpacas on his property, maybe hire somebody to manage and trade them, and significantly shrink his taxes. Quite a few did: “a California alpaca farm” became a euphemism for a tax shelter.

There are over 3,000 agricultural cooperatives in the United States whose members include a majority of our nation’s 2 million farmers and ranchers. Welch’s, Sunkist, and OceanSpray are well-known examples of agricultural cooperatives whose added value farm products are household brand names. Cooperatives differ from other businesses because they are member owned and operated for the mutual benefit of members. Farmer cooperatives exist for the mutual benefit of their farmer members with earnings returned on a patronage basis.

Crop History?

The American alpaca industry was born in 1984 when the first alpacas were brought to the United States from South America. After a few years, the industry quickly started to boom. In 1991, there were around 2,000 alpacas officially registered in the United States. By 2006, there were over 86,000.

Since its import into the United States, the number of Suri alpacas has grown substantially and become more color diverse. The Suri is thought to be rarer, most likely because the breed was reserved for royalty during Inca times. Suris are often said to be less cold hardy than Huacaya, but both breeds are successfully raised in more extreme climates. They were developed in South America.

Current Economics?

Suris, prized for their longer and silkier fibers, are estimated to make up 19–20% of the North American alpaca population.

Part of the reason alpaca breeding was so profitable in the United States was because imports of live animals are heavily regulated. This is particularly true when it comes to countries like Peru -- the country with the largest alpaca population in the world. Peru was a known location of foot and mouth disease, a disease that plagues livestock. Imports of ruminants -- alpacas included -- were banned. Supply was limited.

Worldwide Status

Primary Regions

Today it is not hard to notice the incredible movement of interest in alpacas across the globe. There are now serious alpaca breeding efforts happening in many major countries. To name a few: Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Italy, United Kingdom, South Africa, Japan and China.

There are only a few designers retailers who are able to produce luxury 100% Royal and Baby Alpaca products, namely Kuna.

South America, primarily Peru, remains the dominant producer of alpaca.  However, the size of herds in both North America (United States and Canada) and Australia (including New Zealand) have been growing, and these two regions can be expected to become significant producers of alpaca over the next 10-15 years.

It should be noted that there is evidence that China is showing interest in alpaca.  Not only is China the largest purchaser of alpaca fiber, there are reports that they have begun importing animals in order to establish a vertically integrated industry.

Crop History

The Amerindians of Peru used this fiber in the manufacture of many styles of fabrics for thousands of years before its introduction into Europe as a commercial product. The alpaca was a crucial component of ancient life in the Andes, as it provided not only warm clothing, but also meat.

The first European importations of alpaca fiber were into Spain. Spain transferred that fiber to Germany and France. Apparently, alpaca yarn was spun in England for the first time about the year 1808, but the fiber was condemned as an unworkable material. In 1830, Benjamin Outram, of Greetland, near Halifax, appears to have reattempted spinning it, and again it was condemned. These two attempts failed due to the style of fabric into which the yarn was woven—a type of camlet. With the introduction of cotton warps into Bradford trade about 1836, the true qualities of alpaca could be assessed as it was developed into fabric. It is not known where the cotton warp and mohair or alpaca weft plain-cloth came from, but it was this simple and ingenious structure which enabled Titus Salt, then a young Bradford manufacturer, to use alpaca successfully. Bradford is still the great spinning and manufacturing center for alpaca. Large quantities of yarns and cloths are exported annually to the European continent and the US, although the quantities vary with the fashions in vogue. The typical "alpaca fabric" is a very characteristic "dress fabric."

Current Economics

Alpaca fiber is recognized by the worldwide fiber market in 22 natural colors, from ivory to black, with all the grays and browns in between, making alpacas the most colorful animals on the earth

The alpaca industry, like many industries, is experiencing a large wave of uncertainty in the currently unstable economy. At the same time we are noticing opportunities on the horizon that are leading us into new industries. Despite our fears and frustrations we know that with the right planning we can chart our direction into sustainable markets.

Relatively little of the fiber produced by the US and Australia is currently finding its way into commercial production, but this will undoubtedly change.  By 2020 it is likely that the United States will be producing 2,500 tons of alpaca fiber a year.  Assuming that South America production remains constant (which has been the case over the past 100 years), this will mean that the United States will be producing from 20-30% of the world's supply of alpaca.

Important Fiber Terms