Alpaca…And Then Some
By Bill Ley, Parris Hill Farm

I’ve always taken pride in the fact that I know a little bit about everything. But when it came to alpacas, I realized how wrong I was. Sure, if I was in the first round of The National Spelling Bee I could spell alpaca. A-L-P-A-C-A. Alpaca. If there was a true or false on my trade school entrance exam, ‘Does an alpaca have four legs and a tail’? True. But even when I asked my over-educated daughter the difference between a cashmere sweater and an alpaca sweater, her answer was, “about $200”.

To learn more about these interesting animals, I went to Bill and Linda Ley at the Parris Hill Farm in Brownsville, VT. For starters, Alpacas are fiber-producing members of the Camelid family raised exclusively for their soft and luxurious wool. Their fleeces are sheared once a year. Each shearing produces roughly 5-10 pounds of fiber per animal, per year.

There is evidence that forty million years ago, the alpaca’s early ancestors inhabited the lower plains of North America and evolved into two Camelid groups – lamaloid and camel. Then, approximately 3 million years ago, these early Camelid split up into three groups. Some journeyed north through the Bearing Straits and into Asia and on into Africa. Another group left North America traveling south through Central America, hugging the coast, and settled in Chile, Peru and Bolivia. The last group stayed behind and existed for centuries. Approximately 10-12,000 years ago, the Camelid of North America disappeared. The cause of their disappearance is not known for certain. The two groups that migrated out of North America thrived and became the one and two hump camels of Africa and Asia and the Lama family of South America (llama, vicuna, guanaco and the alpaca).

Around 1400, the Incas conquered almost the entire western half of South America and carved out an empire that extended from modern-day Columbia and Ecuador to Chile in the south and Argentina in the east. They created this empire in less than 100 years and produced lasting architectural marvels and developed fiber arts to a very sophisticated level. To the Incas the alpaca had very special religious significance. They sacrificed an alpaca at sunrise, noon and sunset to appease their gods. Only royalty was allowed to wear alpaca fiber.

In the mid-1800’s, an Englishman named Sir Titus Salt got a package of raw alpaca fleece. So he set about modifying his fiber mill to process the lanolin-free alpaca fiber. He developed a luxurious cloth that he sent to the British royal family. It became the popular cloth of British and European aristocrats, making Sir Titus a wealthy man. He re-invested his wealth in building a large alpaca-exclusive mill called “Saltaire” in England.

The first alpacas were imported into North America in 1984. In 1988 the Alpaca Registry (ARI) was created as a division of the International Llama Registry. Almost every alpaca born in North America is now registered to guarantee its parentage and investment value. When a baby is born, its owner sends in a few dropsl of its blood to be DNA tested at the University of California, Davis. Once its parentage is verified, the Alpaca Registry issues a pedigree certificate to the owner. No animal can be shown without proof of registration and most breeders will only purchase registered alpacas. In 1998, ARI closed the registry for imported alpacas in order to preserve the value of the existing American herd.

Alpaca fiber is stronger and more resilient than even the finest sheep’s wool. Unlike sheep’s wool, however, alpaca contains no lanolin and is ready to spin right off the animal. It comes in 22 distinguishable colors. It is considered hypoallergenic, because of the way the scales of alpaca fiber lie down against the shaft of each hair follicle, so it doesn’t irritate the skin.
Historically, alpaca production has been concentrated in the high Andes Mountains where pasture is limited. The worldwide population of alpaca is barely three million animals. As a result, alpaca is considered a specialty fiber with limited available supply. Alpaca fleece is comparable to cashmere in softness and is often mixed with other fibers, such as mohair, to vary the texture of the yarn produced. A strong domestic commercial market for large volumes of alpaca fleece is easily envisioned and a national fiber co-op is working with breeders large and small to see this vision become reality.

Males strike a pose broadside to signal aggression from far off. They stand sideways, rigidly holding their tail high, neck arched, ears pinned back and nose tilted skyward. It can signal to an intruding male a mile off that it’s approaching the gesturing male’s territory. A male in the company of females is likely to strike this pose.

When a dog or cat walks nearby, all alpacas will stand with their bodies rigidly erect and rotate their ears forward in the direction they are staring. The tail is usually slightly elevated. This posture signals curiosity about a change occurring in the immediate environment. This posture will come before and “alarm call” or rapid flight, if the herd interprets the change as danger. It also will cause the entire herd to bunch together and move forward in unison to investigate or chase off the intruding animal. Alpacas have keen eyesight and can often see hidden kitties long before people can.

The holiday party season is here (my last one is well into January) and you are now well informed about alpacas. Once conversation has past the weather, hurricane Irene and people you see too often or not often enough, you can impress both friends and strangers alike with your thorough knowledge of the alpaca.