All About Alpaca Wool

In designing the ideal materials to keep us warm and comfortable, a few hundred years of science still lags far behind billions of years of evolution. This is why outdoorsmen prize wool and down for insulation, blue jeans are made of durable cotton, and leather is used to make quality shoes, coats, and belts.

Most of the wool produced worldwide comes from sheep, but these are by no means the only wool-producing animals. Alpaca wool is an incredible material, among the best natural fibers in the world.

Alpaca wool is:

  • Warmer and lighter than sheep's wool
  • Comparable in softness to cashmere
  • Durable
  • Hypoallergenic
  • Moisture-wicking
  • Wrinkle free
  • Odor resistant
  • Natural
  • Environmentally friendly

Close-up of freshly shorn alpaca wool

Alpaca wool is much softer than sheep wool, and it does not scratch or prick the skin like the wool of other animals. This for two reasons: first, because alpaca wool fibers are much finer (thinner) and second, because the fibers themselves have a smoother surface.

Hair is not smooth, but in fact has scales, as a result of how it grows. The scales on sheep hairs are pronounced, which makes it easier for them to feel scratchy and retain impurities. Alpaca hairs, on the other hand, have scales so subtle they almost can't be detected, even with an electron microscope. This makes them feel silky to the touch. This also explains why it is difficult to get something made of alpaca wool dirty - with such smooth fibers, there is nothing for impurities to cling to.

Sheep wool fiber
Cashmere fiber
Alpaca wool fiber
Sheep Cashmere Alpaca

Alpaca wool is both warmer and lighter than sheep wool. This is because alpaca fibers actually have hollow cores, while sheep fibers are solid. These hollow cores provide extra air pockets, which offer improved insulation.

Like other forms of wool, alpaca will wick moisture away from the skin when damp. Fabric made of alpaca wool is not waterproof - if you dump a glass of water on it, it will get wet. However, the fibers themselves will not absorb any water, they will still insulate effectively, and the fabric will dry rapidly.

Sheep wool contains lanolin, an oil that many people find irritating. Removal of lanolin from the wool during wool processing involves the use of harsh chemicals. People who are allergic to wool are usually reacting either to lanolin or to the chemicals used in treatment. Alpaca wool does not have lanolin and does not need to be processed using harsh chemicals, so most people who are irritated by wool will not be irritated by alpaca wool. This is why alpaca wool is considered hypoallergenic.

Because alpacas grow in a wide array of colors and production of its wool does not involve harsh chemical processing, it is considered a very natural fiber. Any shades of black, brown, grey, or white seen in something made of alpaca will not have been dyed. More brilliantly colored goods are made of white alpaca wool, which takes natural dyes well.

There are a few extra-fine grades of Alpaca wool, including baby alpaca and royal alpaca. Baby alpaca does not really come from a baby; it is from the first shearing of a one-year-old adult alpaca, which is finer and softer than the wool from older animals. Royal alpaca is an even finer grade collected from well-bred animals and sorted carefully to maintain quality. Baby alpaca is considered comparable to cashmere in softness, and royal alpaca is even softer.

Alpaca wool is frequently blended with sheep's wool or acrylic. A sheep's wool blend will produce a heavier fabric at a relatively low cost, but the qualities that make alpaca wool special will be diminished. A blend with acrylic will produce a fabric that feels soft and luxurious at first touch at a very low price. However, it will insulate poorly and the fabric will begin to pill soon after purchase, meaning that the fibers will begin to come apart and the article will appear to be shedding hairs.

Everything sold by the Rugged Andes Trading Company is made of unblended baby alpaca wool.