Alpacas --along with other species such as vicunas, llamas and guanacos-- belong to the Camelid species of mammals native to South America. Physically, they resemble their widely-known cousins, the camels, save for their humps.
Evidence states that these mammals have been around since approximately 3500 B.C., and have since been greatly valued in every civilization they’ve coexisted with. One of these civilizations was the Incan empire, which was comprised of what is today Peru, and a large portion of Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador and Colombia. Within this empire, Alpacas were held in very high regard, being even more valuable than gold, for which they were key in the display of the noblemen’s wealth, and in the sacred rituals performed in the name of the Inca.
Their population diminished around the 1600s as the Spanish conquerors began slaughtering them for not seeing their value, and only a number of them were salvaged by the Quechua people --indigenous people native to the Andes--. Alpacas then re-rose to the way they were treasured before around the 1800s, after an English nobleman pointed out the distinctive characteristics of their fleece.
Nowadays, the most common alpaca fleece bred for their wool are the Suri and the Huacaya, and they can be found all around the Andean highlands; however, the center of the alpaca enterprises is located in Arequipa, Peru.
Alpacas in North America
It is believed that the first sightings of this genus --camelids-- were located in North America, around Florida and California, about 10 million years ago. In regards to the South American species, evidence suggests their common ancestor migrated south from North America about 2.5 million years ago. These species were mainly two: the guanacos and the vicunas, being this last one the one which had the most influence over the emerging of the alpaca species.
Before 1980, alpacas in North America could only be found in zoos or sanctuaries; however, from 1983 onwards, their importation --mainly from Chile-- gradually increased until 1999, year in which the Alpaca Registry closed. As of 2018, the alpaca population in the U.S. is about a quarter million.
About Alpaca wool
Alpaca wool, once called “fiber of the gods” by the natives, is nowadays world-renowned for its smoothness and versatility, along with the richness and fineness of its fiber. Its fleece is superior to other textiles even regarding their own distinctive characteristics. For instance, it’s more resilient than mohair; shinier than silk; warmer and more durable than sheep wool, among others. It is 100% hypoallergenic due to its lack of lanolin --sheep wool’s wax--, and the microscopic size of its fiber allows it not to be an ‘itchy’ fabric.
Alpaca wool comes up to 22 different natural colors, and can also be dyed to more fashionable colors not found within the pure range.