Natural fibre knitwear which will never pill, shrink in the wash, won't cause itching when worn next to the skin, and is lighter in weight but four times as warm as equivalent quality wool…that's the promise being made by users of alpaca yarns.

For lovers of luxury fibres there's a further advantage to switching from the more conventional cashmere or wool to alpaca: considerable cost savings. Latest listings put the price of best baby white alpaca, the tactile appeal of which compares very favourably with cashmere, at just US$l5 per kilo. This contrasts with a current price of $85 a kilo for Chinese white cashmere.

In the past, one of the factors inhibiting the more widespread use of alpaca was the, mistaken, belief that the fibre was intrinsically difficult to dye. Raw alpaca hair comes in a variety of shades from the palest creamy white to near black, taking in every variation of brown and beige. But in fact alpaca is no harder to dye than any other fibres deriving from a coloured coat animal species.

What helped to build the myth was that ever since imported alpaca first entered the European fashion scene in the mid l9th Century, there was always a temptation for knitters and weavers to use the fibre undyed, especially in tweedy type fabric. This, in turn, gave rise to another incorrect assumption - that alpaca was only suitable for garments with a tweedy look.

The modern approach looks to a much broader customer base. For instance, because of its super soft handle UK designer Samantha Holmes now offers an alpaca babywear range in addition to scarves and other fashion accessories.

Meanwhile in Ireland, upmarket knitwear producer Castle of Ireland uses alpaca as a blend partner for wool in a line which is currently exported across the EU and into the USA and Japan.

And, if further proof were needed that alpaca is very much on today's international fashion wavelength, the latest Peruvian government statistics covering January to June this year show that the Italians have now displaced the Chinese as Peru's best export customers for ready spun alpaca yarns. Next are the Japanese, with Britain in fourth place.

Britain and Germany, however, remain the market leaders in the purchase of raw alpaca.

Record year for alpaca
Rising worldwide demand makes it look as though 2003 will be a record year for alpaca sales.

Spring 2003 saw the launch of a new brand which will in future distinguish alpaca garments actually made in Peru, as well as those made from locally grown alpaca hair.

Alpaca accessories from Samantha Holmes

Cluster Textil Alpaquero is the name being used on the labels of the 200 or so small producers, mainly knitters, based in the Arequipa region of Peru who are now carrying out on-the-spot garment manufacturing.

One of the most successful of the larger Arequipa-based manufacturers is Textil SRL Arequipa. Operating both as a weaver and a finished garment supplier this company is now reported to be working to capacity to supply export customers at the rate 2,000 pieces a month.

Meanwhile, improving husbandry standards and better grading and quality control of the actual clip will be topics under discussion during the seminar sessions at the six day international Alpaca Fiesta due to take place in Arequipa from 10-16 November this year.

Peru is the obvious site for such an event since it is still the source of 90 per cent of entire global supply of alpaca hair. Delegates, however, reflect the growing interest in alpaca rearing in other parts of the world. Parties are expected Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina, the USA and South Africa, and even the UK where it is estimated there are already 7,000 alpacas.

The UK is also the site of a major alpaca research project involving a scientific team from Cardiff University which is attempting to isolate the gene responsible for creating the fine quality hair that commands premium prices in the textile industry.

Commercially reared
The two main types of alpaca reared commercially are the Suri and the Huacayas. The Suri coat is closer in character to that of its cousin, the vicuna, whose hair is one of the rarest and most expensive luxury fibres used in textile manufacture. Seen under a microscope the fibre structure of Suri hair displays a twisted rope-like form. It is springy and fluffier than Huacaya hair which has no natural crimp and is regarded as the strongest alpaca fibre and therefore the easiest to process.

In Peru, the proportion of fine quality hair from an average alpaca will be around 0.8 to 2.8 kg. Outside their homeland the proportion of top quality hair is often disappointingly low, since once installed on lusher pastures and milder climates the alpaca's coat coarsens because it no longer needs the protection of the specific type of hair essential to its survival in harsh environments.

Ironically, however, the line which separates conditions conducive to the growth of super quality hair and those which are untenable is a very fine one.

By Sonia Roberts.