Alpacas are related to llamas and camels, but unlike their larger cousins, they are not used as beasts of burden. Their value lies instead in the fleece they produce, a unique and highly insulating product that was known thousands of years ago as “the fibre of the gods”.
So treasured was alpaca fleece that it was used as a form of currency in days long gone past, in their native lands of South America. The ancient Incans measured their wealth in cloth made from llama hair and cotton amongst other sources, but it was the fabric made from alpaca fleece that was amongst the most valuable.
Imagine a society which was very much “woven together” by textiles. Far from being used for mere items of clothing, the ancient Andeans used fabrics for an amazing variety of purposes from construction to paying their armies. Men fought and died to take ownership of alpaca cloth, and its weaving was largely controlled by the state.
This was the political situation the Spanish Conquistadors arriving in Peru discovered, and in an effort to disrupt this economy they embarked on the wholesale slaughter of these prized animals. Some estimate that almost 90% of the alpaca and llama population in South America was wiped out during this time, with precious few being saved and secreted in remote Altiplano.
Alpacas largely faded into history for a time, before being ‘rediscovered’ by European colonists to South America in the 19th century. The amazing properties of their fleece enthralled a whole new generation of textile makers, who learned for themselves how to create fabric on a scale not seen for centuries during the Industrial Revolution.
Competition from synthetic fibres during the 20th century played a part in eroding alpaca fleece’s popularity, but now that we are becoming more aware of the importance of being close to nature its allure lives on.