When it comes to warm, soft and fuzzy, there’s nothing like an alpaca. This animal’s coat is made of silky, luxurious fibers that are warmer than wool, softer than cashmere, and hypoallergenic.
Alpaca are native to the altiplano (high plain) region of the Andes. This area includes parts of four countries (Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina) at an average elevation of 12,300 feet. The climate is cool year-round, with the ground remaining frosted for over 6 months at a time, so this species has developed thick, velvety fleece to retain warmth.
Alpaca in Peru
Estimates are that 3.5 million of these animals reside within Peru’s borders, comprising 80 percent of the world’s population. There are thought to be at least 50,000 families in the altiplano that raise alpaca for income.
These creatures eat less food than others of their size, and the sparse native grasses of the high plain provide all the nutrition they need. In fact, they need to eat only 2 percent of their body weight to remain healthy, because of their highly efficient digestion.
Alpaca stomachs have 3 compartments that extract all possible nutrients from their forage. Also, they have developed adaptations to preserve their food supply, such as two-toed, padded feet to tread gently on the vegetation and consuming only exposed leaves so that the roots can regrow.
The most valuable part of this species is its fleece, with annual exports of $175 million for Peru. Found in 52 naturally occurring colors, it is used to make everything from gloves to sweaters to blankets. The fleece sells for $3 to $5 per ounce, depending on its quality.
Peru’s textile and garment industry as a whole generates $2.1 billion for its economy.
The government of Peru has founded a new venture that seeks to promote this fiber in the high fashion industry. In November of 2013, 5 designers traveled almost 4,000 miles from New York City to Peru to learn about the possibilities of using this luxurious woven material. Their 6-day trip included meeting indigenous herders, watching the fleece being spun into yarn, and observing how the resulting fabric can be transformed into garments.
Not only is alpaca fiber incredibly soft and warm, it is also durable. It grows a natural resin, which protects it from staining or wrinkling. Ancient woven cloths of alpaca have been found in archeological sites in Peru, dating back to 2500 years. Buying a sweater that lasts for that long means you’d better pick a style that won’t go out of fashion!
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