Section 1.5: Alpaca Fiber – the Magic and the Myth

Alpaca are renowned for producing the world’s most sustainable luxury fiber. Alpaca Fiber can be eco-friendly, softer than cashmere, and warm as polar bear fleece.

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Alpaca Fiber – The Magic & the Myth

How do we assign value to this fiber? Is it something the North American consumer would be interested in? Why? What kind of demand can we expect?

It is true that Alpaca products are still relatively unknown in North America. With over 200,000 animals on North American soil – it’s still fair to say that supply and demand are both minimal (for now!). Recent demand from China is rapidly changing that assertion, but given the mass marketing of competing products such as sheep wool and nylon, it’s safe to say that the alpaca industry is small for now, but there is tremendous room for growth.

One thing we can state confidently is that there will always be a market for any fiber suitable for clothing. Clothing is necessary, and always will be. However, culture and fashion are ever changing and the demand for specific styles continually fluctuates. The textile marketplace is constantly re-inventing itself, and to succeed, its suppliers should be ready to adapt. There may always be a market for alpaca fiber but suppliers will have to work for it.

Alpaca as a Luxury Fiber

Alpaca is known for being more than just a run of the mill fiber. It's known for being a luxury item. That luxury status definitely impacts pricing potential. The value of alpaca fiber could be inferred by considering the values of other luxury items.

Diamonds, for example, have been given their value arguably arbitrarily by their sheen, rarity and symbolism. In reality, diamonds are very hard crystals, their value as cutting gems in the industry is apparent.

However, it is now possible to manufacture diamonds manually, instead of just mining for them. That means they're no longer rare. But because of the traditions involving romance, high-class perceptions and engagements, diamonds are still coveted and expensive objects.

In the same vein, gold is given its value due to its rarity and resilience. Gold does not rust or easily tarnish. Like diamonds, gold is given its value because of its sheen and cultural significance, its use as a gift being a staple of high-class society and romantic intention.

Meanwhile, the practical applications of diamond and gold are arguable. They don’t keep you warm, they aren’t edible or have any superior practical purpose to justify the expense. Animal coats such as mink or fox pelts, are equally seen as a staple of the upper class, but serve a limited practical purpose as clothing.

The value of these luxury items are subject to social conscience. The ideology of ‘fur is murder’ has exposed scandalous and morally unacceptable practices involved in procuring these products. Brutal savaging in fox hunts and the clubbing of baby seals are well known to the public now, and more socially conscious individuals will shy away from such clothes nowadays in favor of wool, nylon and more eco-friendly produced clothing.

Alpaca on the other hand is not just a luxury item, but it also has superior practical applications:

  1. Alpaca is softer than cashmere: Alpaca and cashmere have an equivalent range of fiber fineness. However, each goat produces about 4 oz of cashmere (on average) per year, while alpacas are bred for 10+ lbs of fleece with 3x the fiber length of cashmere. Consequently, for any given garment there is a greater variation in cashmere fibers than in alpaca fibers. That variation causes the resulting cashmere products to have a handle (feel) that is not as soft as the comparable alpaca product.
  2. Alpaca is warm as polar bear fleece: Adapting to the harsh climates of the Andes mountains, alpacas developed a hollow fiber that is uniquely thermo-regulating. Their medullated fiber has hollow air pockets to trap heat or keep cool. Alpaca fleece is designed to keep the alpaca warm in sub-zero evenings and 80 degree noon-time weather, often in the same day. The alpaca fiber is also excellent at wicking moisture, with a water retention rate of 8% vs. most other wool at 16%-20%.
  3. Alpaca is the most eco-friendly livestock: Alpacas could be the greenest animals on the planet. They are renowned for producing the world’s most sustainable luxury fiber. Through adaptation to one of the most extreme climates on the planet, alpacas need less food and water than other grazing animals. Their padded feet are not destructive to vegetation, and unlike other livestock, don’t rip it out of the ground. It takes 4 goat shearing’s to make one cashmere sweater, but one alpaca shearing can make 4 sweaters.
  4. Alpaca has the greatest color choice: Alpaca fiber is naturally produced in a greater variety of natural colors than any other natural fiber. This allows for greater variety in color styles while using all-natural fibers.

The Eco-Friendly Opportunity

Our current socio-economic conscience rings with dozens of “buzz words:” natural, organic, ecofriendly, carbon-neutral, no kill clothing, conservation, and green, to name a few. This social consciousness presents a unique opportunity for alpaca producers and for the marketing of alpaca fiber in these newly evolving markets. Americans have already evidenced a willingness to pay a premium for organic food. Most Americans also readily accept that we need to wean ourselves off ever diminishing oil products. This will translate into higher prices for petroleum-based synthetics like nylon and Gore-Tex. This ever-growing socially conscious American movement toward “Going Green” provides a perfect niche for the American alpaca grower.

Alpacas are easily established as eco-friendly, green, and carbon-neutral, along with any number of other “organic” or “natural” adjectives we wish to employ. Given the facts about alpacas and their minimal impact on the earth, it seems likely that many Americans will be willing to pay a premium for ”Made in America.,” “green” alpaca clothing. Alpaca fiber, therefore, presents a unique combination of benefits for textile producers. Alpaca fiber has the ability to meet the demands for both warmth and fashion, while dovetailing beautifully with the consumer’s increased awareness of and appreciation for “green” products. Integrating the concept of “green” alpaca fiber into America’s consciousness will bolster fiber marketing initiatives, add perceived value to alpaca products, and, ultimately, raise producer profits as demand continues to grow. 

In the name of serving fashion and responsible global conservation, let’s investigate how ”green” alpacas really are. In a nutshell, alpaca fiber hits the bull’s eye in its ability to help meet the growing demand for environmentally responsible textiles. 

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