Alpaca fleece is a premium fiber and in high demand in the fashion industry. It is lightweight, warm, durable, soft and not itchy. Handspinners appreciate its quality, and handcrafters find it easy to work with. The natural hues are highly desirable, yet light colors readily accept dye. Many ranches have small stores selling yarn from their own animals or clothing and accessory products crafted from the fleece.
Size and fiber quality. Llamas were primarily bred to be beasts of burden, and alpacas were bred primarily as fiber producers. An average alpaca stands 34″-36″ at the withers (shoulders), whereas a llama stands 42″-48″ at the withers. Alpacas weigh 125-175 pounds on average. An adult alpaca will generally produce 5-8 pounds of high-quality fiber each year.
Alpacas have a life expectancy of about 20 years.
Females reach breeding capability by 16-24 months. Males usually don’t reach sexual maturity until 24 months or more, with the rare one becoming potent as early as 12 months.
The gestation period is 11-1/2 months (~350 days).
With good nutrition and time off every few years, females will breed throughout their life.
Alpaca crias average 15-18 lbs. Delivery usually occurs during the daytime and rarely requires the assistance of humans. Twins are extremely rare. Cria are weaned at about 6 months of age.
The alpaca is an herbivore, grazing on grass and munching weeds, shrubs and trees. They process their food through 3 stomachs where special secretions enable the animal to absorb 50% more nutrients than sheep. Low-protein feed is recommended, with additional mineral supplements for females since they are generally pregnant and/or nursing.
Not very often and usually only at each other, to signal displeasure at a herd member. A pregnant female ‘spits off’ an inquisitive male to let him know she is disinterested in his advances.
The alpaca is prey to mountain lions, coyotes, bears, and other carnivores. In its native Andes, the alpaca’s long neck helps spot predators among the rocks of the mountain slopes. On Canadian farms and ranches, llamas, donkeys, and guard dogs such as the Great Pyrenees, are often used as herd guardians.
Humming is the most common sound an alpaca makes, a sort of musical purring. The mom calls to her cria by humming, or they hum to communicate with each other within the herd. When alarmed, a staccato tooting is made by one animal, then joined in by the rest of the herd as they focus attention in the direction of potential danger.
During breeding, which lasts from 20 to 30 minutes, a male trumpets or ‘orgles’ a love song to his mate.
Their manure is excellent fertilizer and may be applied directly to the garden without danger of ‘burn.’ Because alpacas are not nomadic, they mark their territory with their dung piles and usually wait to get to the designated area to defecate or urinate.
The alpaca’s two-toed feet are soft pads protected on the top and sides by toe nails. Unlike hard hooves, they leave the terrain undamaged. And as they graze, they only nibble the top of the pasture grass rather than uprooting it. By rotating between two or three pastures, there is always a fresh supply of grass.
If alpaca is such a great fiber, why don't I see it in stores everywhere? Why is it so expensive when I do find an alpaca product?
First, there are not enough alpacas in the U.S. and Canada (approximately 200,000) to supply a mill with enough fleece to keep a textile mill running throughout a year. There needs to be an estimated amount of at least 500,000 in the U.S. and Canada in order to generate enough fiber, so we only have about 20% of the amount we need at this time. Peru has about 4 million alpacas, so they are able to produce many alpaca products from their mills. Also, it takes special machines to process the fine, smooth alpaca fiber, so not just any mill can produce alpaca yarn or garments. Alpaca farms, like us, who do have their fleece processed must do it at boutique, specialty mills in small quantities, driving up the price. Then, many items (like ours) are hand knit, instead of on a machine, which again increases the amount of money put into the garment.