Alpaca Wool: a Challenge for Knitters

Ithaca.com
By: Karen Gadiel
Photo: Courtesy of Ithaca.com

Photo Caption: Contrary to popular belief, alpacas don’t spit. These at Cabin View Alpacas have been freshly shorn of their fine, hypoallergenic fleece.

Whether it’s about making something appropriate to the season or expanding the tactile experience of the craft, knitters, crocheters and spinners who appreciate natural fibers generally touch everything they come across before deciding on what they’ll use. In a fiber-universe of ever-expanding choices, a new luxury fiber has emerged as a popular front-runner. Native to the foothills of the Peruvian Andes, alpacas, possibly the cuddliest member of the camelid family, have found a warm welcome in the United States.

Meeting an alpaca can easily make knitting fingers wish to knit with its fiber. They’re exceptionally personable animals with wide, long-eyelashed eyes, faces often resembling an optimistic teddy bear and long, soft fleece.

Their warm wooly fleece, which comes in 23 recognized natural colors ranging from white to tan to brown, gray and black in several gradations for each color family, is sheared annually and highly prized. Its structure is a little different from wool – each individual hair is hollow, giving alpaca fiber wonderful insulating properties; it’s also finer and more slippery to spin than wool.

Despite its challenge, handspinners consider the experience well worth it. Sharon Gombas, president of the Black Sheep Handspinner’s Guild, says she’s frequently spun alpaca. “To me, the biggest thing is that it’s a smooth fiber. I find I’m paying more attention to it, using a shorter draw, aware that it could easily come apart. You could also blend it with other things.”

For several additional reasons, consumers may prefer alpaca fiber to wool. Many feel its softness makes it less allergenic than wool. An alternative theory is alpaca’s lack of lanolin makes it a more easily tolerated next-to-the-skin fiber. Another thought is also related to the lanolin in wool from sheep – some commercial processors subject sheep’s wool fleece to strong chemicals to dissolve the vegetative residue (from feed, bedding and wandering through the pasture) and lanolin to make it easier to process, but the chemicals may provoke an adverse reaction in a few people.

Drawn by alpaca’s softness, knitters think of it as ideal for scarves, shawls, hand-washable baby garments. “If you’re a knitter, a lot is about how the yarn feels in your hands, and alpaca feels wonderful!” says Julie Schroeder, owner of Homespun Boutique in Ithaca. “Generally, alpaca is a longer, smoother fiber, produces a very silky, drapey fabric. Wool is fuzzy so you can knit it on all kinds of needles and gauges. Alpaca is definitely more sleek. It’s important to not knit too loosely or the slippery factor will cause it to ‘grow.’”

Having less resilience than wool, an alpaca garment that’s stretched out of shape due to its weight is not easily returned to its original dimensions.

Knitter Wendy Knott of Elmira has knitted extensively with alpaca. “I think it’s softer, seems to be drapier,” she says. “I tend to be a loose knitter, and I’ve learned the hard way, it doesn’t matter what you’re knitting with, it’s important to do a gauge swatch.” After that, she makes sure anything she knits or crochets is carefully hand-washed with a gentle detergent and allowed to air dry flat, “Because you put all that time into it, so you want to take care of it. One thing I’ve noticed about alpaca over wool, it tends to bloom a bit more when it’s washed, getting a fuzzy halo. And it’s very warm and very, very soft, where sometimes wool can be a little scratchy or heavier.”

“Generally speaking, it’s lovely to work with,” says Jean Gray, owner of Wooly Minded in Corning. It’s the softness, the smoothness, it runs through your fingers nicely. It’s got more of a wow factor [than wool] mostly for the feel of it. People will buy it for chemo hats. I made some for my mom and she liked them. It also makes beautifully warm mittens or gloves. And if you get an alpaca sock yarn with some nylon, it makes great socks because it is so warm. There’s no reason why you can’t use it for anything, but you have to be aware of its properties. It may not hold its shape in a more structured garment.”

Gray also finds that knitters who are themselves allergic to wool, or are knitting for someone with a wool allergy, often find they’re not allergic to alpaca.

In fact, there are only two drawbacks to the fiber, frequently mentioned by knitters and would-be users of alpaca – like other luxury fibers, alpaca can be expensive. Schroeder says it’s now starting to be blended with other fibers, which can make it more affordable. But, she adds, no one has, as yet, found a way of making alpaca machine washable, so it remains necessary to hand-wash anything made of alpaca.

As the number of alpacas raised in the US increases, the expense and care restrictions may ease a little. In the meantime, for knitters and crocheters who want to try something pleasant and a little different, the fun of having this fiber slide through your fingers as you use it – and the end results – make alpaca well worth the challenge.

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