We know that alpacas naturally produce one fleece a year, with some adult huacaya male fleeces weighing around 8.5 kilograms! And we know that domestic alpacas get a nice haircut once a year. Alpaca wool is hypoallergenic due to it not having lanolin in it.
But how does the fleece become the gorgeous wool used for the cosiest clothes, gloves, blankets, hats and scarves?
1 – Shearing the wool from the animals
Once a year, when their fleece gets long enough, alpacas’ farmers will either shear them or have them sheared. You might have seen sheep shearing in the UK before, in which one skilled person can remove an animal’s fleece sometimes just in a matter of seconds. Well, alpaca-shearing is a little different: due to their much larger stature, two or three strong people are needed to make sure the alpaca in question stays still.
Similarly, to sheep-shearing, it takes quite a lot of strength and a lot of skill to shear the fleece efficiently and without upsetting the alpaca too much. The camelids aren’t particularly fond of the process, but it doesn’t hurt them in any way at all – and they’re so much happier after a quick haircut!
2 – Washing, drying, and dyeing
Once alpaca and fleece have been swiftly and gently parted, it’s time for a thorough wash and dry. The fleeces are always allowed to dry naturally by air (rather than, say, lining up the fleeces under the closest hair salon’s industrial-level dryers) – this means that the flagship supple fibres don’t lose their softness. For the highest-quality wool, it’s recommended to hand-wash the fleeces before the natural drying process rather than using machinery.
Although alpaca wool comes in 22 internationally recognised shades – from a beautiful snow-white to near-black, with all shades of rich brown in between – sometimes we want something a little out-of-the-ordinary when it comes to our fashion choices. So, this is the stage where the wool can be dyed.
3 – Carding the raw wool
Fresh from the laundry, it’s time to for some fine combing! Combing out the fleece is known as ‘carding’: this involves combing through the tangled fleece over and over, until all the fibres run parallel and are smooth. Traditionally, this was done by hand using tools not completely unlike the paddle-style brushes we use for dog-grooming. And, while some places do still do carding by hand, it’s also now possible to do this on a much more industrial level in large factories. These factories have machines that can handle huge amounts of wool at the same time, which have the added bonus of helping to remove dirt (and…other things) that we wouldn’t want in the beautiful products this wool is going to become.
4 – Spinning the wool into yarn
So, now we’ve got the beautiful fleeces all smooth, it’s time to turn them into wool. A bit like with the carding, there are different methods – some more traditional and some more modern. Some smaller-scale alpaca farmers still use a ‘drop spindle’, which is a cylindrical piece of worked wood attached perpendicularly at one end to another, disc-shaped, piece of worked wood. We’re not talking Sleeping Beauty’s spinning wheel, here – drop spindles are hand-held, about as long as the average forearm, and look quite a lot like your granny’s kitchen roll holder. Skilled workers use the drop spindle to twist the alpaca wool fibres together by hand. We highly recommend googling for videos of this – we can’t believe how fast some of these talented folks can work!
More often these days, though, it’s back to a factory for larger-scale spinning, which is done automatically using specially made machinery.
However, the spinning is done, the result is that the fibres twist together and form a long strand of wool (think: Granny’s knitting ragbag). It’s naturally very strong and a bit stretchy and is wonderfully smooth and soft.
5 – Weaving wool into products
And now, we’re almost there: we have dozens and dozens of balls of world-class luxury alpaca wool. They’re clean and dry (and maybe now even a nice subtle neon pink), the carding means that there are no impurities left, and the spinning has transformed the fleeces into perfect yarn.
At this stage, the yarn is transported to be woven. Traditionally, of course, looms were hand-operated but these days we have fantastic large-scale machinery that can turn the yarn into extremely high quality and wonderfully soft items, from suits and outerwear to the world’s cosiest sofa-blankets and more!