What are Alpacas?

Alpacas are a very eco-friendly farm animal. Alpacas are rare in North America, but live in herds and grow fleece, also called fiber, the same way sheep do. Their fiber is known for its durability, drape and luster. It is hypoallergenic and is best used in woven textiles. Alpacas produce the most sustainable and ethical wool of the wools you can find. In addition to having wonderful fiber qualities, alpacas are water and odor repellent. These qualities make their fiber ideal for making outdoor clothing. Alpacas also are gentle and soft, and have even been called huggable. No other farm animal has quite the same profile.

The alpaca is a native of the Andes Mountains of South America. Although it is often confused with the llama, it is a descendant of the vicuna. Just like llamas, alpacas have a thick coat of fleece, but are smaller than llamas. Alpacas grow to 32-39 inches tall at the shoulders and weigh between 100-200 pounds. Llamas can weigh up to 450 pounds and are taller. Perhaps the easiest way, though, to tell the difference between llamas and alpacas, especially if you don’t have both an alpaca and a llama to compare to each other, are by their ears: llamas have banana-shaped ears while alpacas have straight ears.

The range of the llama and the alpaca in South America overlap. Alpacas were bred specifically for their fiber, unlike llamas, who were bred to be working animals. There are two breeds of alpacas: the Suri alpaca and the Huacaya alpaca. Fiber from the alpaca is used to make knitted and woven clothing items such as hats, gloves, and sweaters, among plenty of other items. Huacaya alpacas have thick fleece and Suri alpacas have thinner fleece than Huacaya alpacas. Huacaya alpacas account for roughly 90% of alpacas in South America and Suri alpacas for the other 10%. One theory for this disparity is that fiber mills will only process the fleece from Huacaya alpacas so Huacaya alpacas were preferred over Suri alpacas. An alpaca’s lifespan generally is between 15-20 years, so that’s 15-20 years of fleece production.

Alpacas originally were found in several parts of the world but became extinct in North America around 3 million years ago. They were reintroduced to North America in 1984. The majority of alpacas still are found in the Andes Mountains of South America, where they can live in the higher altitudes. There, as in North America, they are kept in herds for their fibers. There are no wild alpacas.

As livestock go, alpacas are easy to keep and care for. They only need between 1-2 pounds of food a day and therefore can be raised on small amounts of acreage, depending on the part of the country where they are being raised. They also acclimate easily to various environments in the U.S. and need minimal shelter. They are trainable and intelligent, and some have been trained to go through obstacle-like courses. And back to the part about how gentle they are, they have no real way to inflict harm – they have no horns, hard hooves, teeth that can bite or other way to cause much pain. They can kick if they are spooked, like if they are surprised from behind. Having alpacas is like having the ideal outdoor pets.

Fleece quality will form the foundation of the future.