When selecting high quality fiber should you select alpaca, merino wool, or cashmere? Which fiber is best for quality and value? And are these luxury wools worth the extra money?
If you’ve bought something from Patagonia or worn a pair of Smartwool socks, you’ve experienced the benefits of merino wool. There are a lot of top brands that use this fiber. Other brands like Saks Fifth Avenue, J.Crew, and Club Monaco will lean towards the higher end fiber of cashmere. Cashmere is a luxurious fiber that has been in use for hundreds of years and it is known for its soft and durable wear.
But what about the lesser-known fiber of alpaca? How does it match up?
When you compare alpaca wool to sheep’s wool or cashmere, you’ll quickly see alpaca outperforms both types of wool.
At first, I thought I was partial to alpaca fiber because I’m head over heels in love with alpacas. But the more I researched alpaca fiber, the more I realized it is the superior fiber.
Shearing Day is the Best Day of the Year
Every year we shear our alpacas in the month of May, so they are cool for the summer months. Shearing day is crazy busy, but it is also very rewarding. It’s harvest time on the farm and it makes the alpacas super happy. After shearing they dance around in their new nakedness, they roll all over the ground, they bask in the warm sun, and they spend a good twenty minutes trying to figure out who is who since everyone looks different.
I love shearing day because I see the fruits of our labor and I know the fiber will be made into yarn, hats, mittens, rugs, dryer balls, and other cool products. I also love shearing day because it is the cycle of nature, and it fulfills the true purpose of the alpacas.
Alpaca has long been called the “fiber of the gods” because it was originally used for royals and those of high standing. It was the wool of choice for the elite.
Today alpaca fiber is used by people of all economic standing and geographic locations. I have local farmers and hunters who shop in our store right alongside the wealthy ski buffs. Today alpaca fiber is for everyone and its popularity is growing each year.
Alpaca Truly is the Superior Fiber
It’s easy for me to say alpaca fiber is superior to merino wool or cashmere, but there are many reasons why I believe this to be true. There are also a lot of scientific studies that support the amazing benefits alpaca wool offers.
Below is my list of alpaca fiber characteristics that make it a top choice for clothing, home goods, toys, and all types of alpaca products.
Alpaca fiber is highly wearable:
- Soft like cashmere
- Higher comfort factor and very low “prickly” feel
- Hypoallergenic and free of lanolin
- Fire resistant
- Water resistant with a low absorption rate
- Dries quickly
- Naturally wicks water away from the skin
Alpaca wool is very durable:
- Higher tensile stretch
- Odor resistant
- UV resistant
- Resistant to abrasion
- Resistance to pilling
- Wrinkle resistant
- Low static
- Stain resistant
Alpaca fiber offers superior temperature control:
- Significantly warmer than both sheep’s wool and cashmere
- Superior thermal regulation to maintain the optimal temperature in both cold and warm weather
- Lighter than cashmere or merino wool so it is perfect for layering
Alpaca fiber is eco-friendly:
- Alpaca fiber is free of harsh chemicals and dyes
- The wool comes in lots of natural colors that include shades of white, beige, fawn, brown, rose grey, silver grey, and black
- Alpaca wool is biodegradable
- Alpacas have a very light foot, so they do not damage their pastures
- Alpacas lightly snack on foliage and they don’t uproot it
- Alpacas are very efficient eaters, so they use far less hay than other livestock animals
When you compare alpaca fiber to merino wool or cashmere, alpaca fiber will outperform both types of wool in virtually every criterion.
Alpaca is the Versatile Fiber
Alpaca fiber is suitable for usage in knitting, crocheting, weaving, or felting. This means the fiber can be made into a lot of products. From sweaters, mittens, and hats to rugs, dryer balls, and stuffed toys – alpaca fiber is versatile. While most people think of knitted products like gloves or scarves, alpaca fiber also is used in household goods like pillows, throws, comforters, and placemats.
When we purchased our first five alpacas, I was part of the population that would equate alpaca fiber to being limited to sweaters and hats. As I processed our alpaca fiber into products, I discovered there was a robust alpaca industry that was actively making lots of unique products from alpaca fiber.
Here is a sample list of products you can make with alpaca fiber:
- Baby booties
- Blankets and throws
- Christmas ornaments
- Dryer balls
- Gloves and mittens
- Hats and headbands
- Horse saddle pads
- Leg warmers
- Long johns
- Nesting balls
- Shawls and Wraps
- Shoe insoles
- Ski vests
- Stuffed animals
FAQs About Alpaca Wool and Products
Why do alpaca products feel so different than other goods?
Alpaca products are generally made from the highest quality of alpaca fiber. As alpaca farmers we are taught to scientifically test our alpaca wool each year, so we know the exact micron count and comfort factor of our harvest. I ship samples of our fiber to professional testing facilities so I know the quality of the fiber, and once I know this quality, I am better prepared to make sound breeding decisions and determine how best to use the wool.
Alpaca wool is scored into terms like royal alpaca, baby alpaca, and superfine alpaca or grades like grades 1, 2, or 3. The score tells the farmer and product buyer the quality of the fiber, which will directly lead to the softness of the products produced.
The lower the micron count, the softer the fiber and product made from it.
|Huacaya Fiber Grade||Classification||Micron Count|
|Grade A (Grade 0)||Ultra Royal||10-16.9 Microns|
|Grade 1||Royal Alpaca||17-19.9 Microns|
|Grade 2||Baby Alpaca||20-22.9 Microns|
|Grade 3||Fine or Superfine||23-25.9 Microns|
|Grade 4||26-28.9 Microns|
|Grade 5||29-31.9 Microns|
If you are buying alpaca products, you’ll want to pay close attention to terms like royal alpaca and baby alpaca. These will highlight goods that are naturally soft and made from the highest quality wool.
Is alpaca wool warm?
Alpaca fiber has been tested to show it is warmer than cashmere and at least three times warmer than sheep’s wool. This makes it the perfect material for outerwear like coats, hats, gloves, and scarves.
Why is alpaca wool so warm?
What makes alpaca fiber so warm is the hollow core. This is referred to as medullated fiber, and as alpaca farmers, we test for the level of medullation in our herd. The hollow core supports the storage of air and this air creates a cocoon of heat to warm you in the coldest of temperatures.
Is alpaca wool cooling?
What will surprise a lot of people is alpaca fiber cools you and insulates you from the heat of the sun. The same hollow core that keeps you warm in winter will keep you cool in summer.
On hot summer days, you can look out in our paddock and see our alpacas laying around sunbathing. You would think they would overheat, but they don’t. In fact, the alpacas with the thickest fiber tolerate the sun the most. That is because the fiber helps protect and cool them from the sun.
Do alpaca blankets and throws keep you warm?
If you pick up an alpaca throw, you’ll notice it is much lighter than most blankets. This light feel may lead you to think the alpaca throw wouldn’t be as warm as other blankets. But that isn’t true. Alpaca fiber is lightweight and significantly warmer than other materials so even the lightest throws will keep you toasty warm.
Is alpaca wool hypoallergenic?
One of my favorite characteristics of alpaca wool is it is hypoallergenic. I am highly allergic to sheep’s wool and I cannot wear anything that contains even a small about of merino wool or other sheep’s wool. I have no issues with alpaca.
What makes alpaca fiber hypoallergenic is the lack of lanolin. Sheep’s wool (and merino wool) contain lanolin and people like me are very allergic to lanolin.
If you find traditional sheep’s wool uncomfortable, there is a very good chance you will not experience the same unpleasant outcomes with alpaca products.
Is alpaca wool itchy?
The majority of alpaca products will not be itchy and this is because alpaca wool is hypoallergenic and it does not contain lanolin. The caveat to that statement is an alpaca breeder or mill that uses low quality alpaca fiber which has a low comfort level.
When alpacas are first born, they have very fine and soft fiber. As they age their fiber quality will degrade due to health changes, poor nutrition, or undesirable genetics. Our goal as an industry is to make sound breeding choices so we amplify the fiber quality and longevity of this quality.
Each year we professionally test our fiber, so we know which alpacas have the most desirable fiber traits for breeding, fiber production, and manufacturing of alpaca products.
On our farm we do not use fiber over 30 microns for any products other than dryer balls and nesting balls. This helps make sure Grandma Lil’s hats and headbands are super soft.
Some fiber processors may manufacturer goods from this lesser quality fiber. When this happens, you will encounter alpaca products that have a lower comfort factor. This should be an anomaly and not the norm.
How do you clean alpaca wool?
The process of cleaning alpaca wool is varied by the alpaca product and composition. For example:
- Alpaca socks are generally made from a combination of alpaca wool, bamboo, and other materials. Because of this, most alpaca socks and be washed in the washing machine on cold and machine dried on low.
- Products that are made of 100% alpaca fiber are best washed by hand or on a cold cycle in the washer. You would not want to machine dry these products, and instead, you would lay them flat to dry.
- Alpaca rugs are generally 100% alpaca wool and they are large. The easiest way to wash rugs is to place them in the bathtub with cold water and shampoo. Then once washed they would be laid flat to dry.
What is baby alpaca wool?
Baby alpaca wool is based on the micron count of the fiber and it is not attributed to the age of the alpaca. Baby alpaca fiber is some of the softest alpaca wool available and it has a micron count between 20.1-22 microns. Royal alpaca and ultra royal alpaca are the only grades that are softer than baby alpaca.
Is alpaca wool humane?
Contrary to what PETA and other animal rights groups would lead you to believe, alpaca wool production is very humane. Our alpacas are free range, they have 24/7 access to food, water, and shelter, they are well-loved, and we take great care during the process of shearing.
We pay professional shearers from Montana to come to Northern Michigan to shear our herd. My husband and I are present the entire time and I am often on the mat with my alpacas to help keep the calm. The process is like going to the dentist. No one likes it, but it is part of keeping the animal healthy.
I can tell you which alpacas are best friends, which alpacas love me over my son (and vice versa), and I can tell if an alpaca is not feeling well. I can do this because I love them, I spend a significant amount of time with our herd, and because I do everything I can to make sure they are well cared for and loved.
There is nothing about our farm that would be considered inhumane. Just the opposite. Visitors (and our vet) can see we love our alpacas and they love us.
The Downside of Alpaca Fiber
In the last year, I’ve been forced to accept the downside of the alpaca industry – unequal supply and demand.
In the United States, the alpaca industry has a limited number of experienced fiber mills that can process raw alpaca wool. Alpaca farms must wait between 9-12 months to have raw fiber converted into yarn. The supply of fiber processors is tiny compared to the number of farms wanting and needing their services.
As alpacas and their products grow in popularity, our industry has struggled to keep up with the growing demand. We have far more alpaca farms seeking fiber processing and product creation than is available in the United States. And sadly, the gap seems to grow annually.
I hope with all my heart this changes. I want the world to experience the magic of alpacas and the amazing products they can produce. This can only occur if we level out the gaps in the supply chain.