Alpaca wool is some of the finest in the world for quality scarves, hats, and sweaters. Like wool, it absorbs moisture, and its hollow fibers offer better thermal protection than almost any other natural substance. At 22-26 microns, it’s softer than wool, and more durable. Only threatened by moths and excessive stretching, an alpaca garment can last for decades. While alpaca is produced in the Far East as well as the United States, the Andean regions of Peru, due to their climate and altitude, still produce the finest alpaca fiber in the world.
A special variation, “baby alpaca,” can be as small as 18 microns, and is considered the top 10% of alpaca fibers. Contrary to some claims, this is not just the wool of the young alpaca, but the very first shearing of the fawns, and is highly sought.
In almost all of the roadside vendors in Peru, and in many of the big stores, you will find that everything is “baby alpaca,” and “handmade.” Most of it isn’t baby alpaca, and quite a bit isn’t alpaca at all. Numerous blends of alpaca and acrylic are used, but plain sheep’s wool and acrylic can make such a soft yarn that imitations are often unloaded onto unsuspecting tourists. A 50/50 blend actually makes a very soft garment, more resistant to stretching, and slightly more comfortable than pure alpaca.
So how can you identify a quality alpaca scarf or sweater?
To start with, there’s the price. Alpaca wool isn’t commercially farmed, but rather produced by small farmers, the same way as it was a thousand years ago, so supplies are limited. The wholesale cost of a kilogram of alpaca thread is almost $40. That’s enough to make two light sweaters. If you are able to haggle a price down much less than $50, you are not buying a genuine alpaca product. $100-$250 is more common for a well-made sweater or shawl, in such trendy places as Alpaca111, located in the tourist section of Miraflores, and in other locations.
When shopping in the high-end market, you may also hear of vicuna wool. The vicuna is a wild animal, smaller than the domesticated alpaca, and produces the finest wool in the world. They aren’t shorn, but the shed fibers are instead gathered. It is not unusual for a quality vicuna product to fetch upwards of $1000. On the endangered species list for many years, several countries still ban the import of vicuna product, fearful that the creation of a commercial market for their wool will cause their habitat to be disturbed, endangering them further.
So how does one avoid being sold an overpriced imitation?
Alpaca is often compared to cashmere, but in addition to being much less expensive, it lacks the brushed-out look. If a garment has to be brushed out, you can be sure that it contains more acrylic than you bargained for. Pure alpaca also has a dull appearance, not shiny.
There is one sure way to tell alpaca fibers from acrylic, says the owner of Ethnic Peru, an established manufacturer of high-end alpaca garments. When lit with a flame, alpaca fibers create white smoke, whereas acrylic produces black. “Please don’t try this in any of our stores,” she jokes.
Well known companies that also export are held to a higher standard with the content and truth in labeling. For the socially conscious consumer, companies who are free-trade compliant are also required to pay their employees according to local labor laws. Peru has fairly progressive labor laws, and employers must not only pay a minimum wage, but also contribute to healthcare.
In summary, while it is possible to find a bargain on the back roads of Peru, the buyer must, most certainly, beware. For a quality product, expect to pay a little more. Even so, keep an eye out for imitations. By using a bit of caution, you can expect to find a quality garment, either in a trendy design, or in a more classic style that will last and last.
Personally, I think alpaca fiber feels fantastic – and so do the alpacas.