|South American Camelids|
The vicuña, whose scientific name is Vicugna vicugna, is a small, graceful animal with a long neck and is the smaller, rarer and more delicate of the South American camelids and its hair is considered the finest animal fiber in the world. It inhabits the higher regions of the Andes at altitudes close to 3800m above sea level.
The vicuña may weigh between 35kg and 50kg and can live for up to 20 years. The females give birth to a single young animal - between December and April, but especially in February - after a gestation period of 11 months.
The vicuña lives in three types of groups:
Family groups consisting of one male, five or six females, and the babies.
Young males of reproductive age which gather to form groups of up to 200; these animals cooperate with one another and are in a constant state of conflict with the family males for their territory and females.
Solitary animals, generally family males whose territory and family have been expropriated.
After eight or nine months, the young are expelled form the family group so that inbreeding is avoided. If they are females, they become part of another family group; if they are males, they associate with other males and, from the age of three years, challenge the family males with a view to capturing their females and territory.
The vicuña feeds on the grasses to be found in the puna, which are hard and contain silica, so there is rapid attrition of the animal's incisor teeth. To compensate for this, the incisors grow continuously until the animal reaches about five years of age; after that time, those teeth become worn down to the point that the animal is no longer able to graze and it wastes away and dies.
The hair of the vicuña, with fiber diameters of 10 to 12 microns, is the finest and most sought after in the world. During the Inca Empire, its use was permitted only for making garments to be worn by members of the government. Nowadays, owing to its softness, luster and extreme fineness, this fiber has an extraordinary value in textiles.
During a two-year period, the vicuña produces approximately 200g of fiber which, apart from its fineness, is remarkable for its providing a very high degree of thermal insulation.
During the 1960s, the vicuña was in danger of becoming extinct. Thus in 1975, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) added the vicuña to the list of internationally protected species, immediately making it illegal to trade in any product derived from this animal. Almost 20 years later, CITES granted permission for the use of vicuña fiber, but in restricted quantities and with certification regarding the way in which the fiber has been obtained.
The vicuñas have to be caught alive so they can be shorn, and then set free in their habitat. It has been possible to achieve this by employing an ancient Inca traditional practice known as Chaccu, where people are deployed in a large circle to surround the vicuñas; the circle is tightened and the vicuñas are driven into corrals where they are shorn and then marked.
The Chaccu festival takes place between November and May, retaining many of its original characteristics, with the exception of sacrificing the animal. Before the Chaccu commences, an advance payment is made to the Pachamama, Mother Earth, giving thanks for the fleeces. The Chaccu starts when the community surrounds the animals and, alarming them, drives them across the plain down a kind of corridor toward the corral.
The current vicuña population in Perú comprises some 140 000 specimens, to be found mainly on the state-protected Nature Reserves in central and southern Perú. This figure represents 85% of the world's population of vicuñas.
ALPACA (lama pacos)
Peruvian Alpaca Fiber - once reserved for Inca royalty - are often called the "Gold of the Andes" because their extraordinary fiber is internationally recognized as the one of the most luxurious fibers in the world. The resilient fiber is not only strong, but is incredibly soft, warm, lightweight, and durable. It is excellent for travel as it is comfortable, water resistant and retains its shape without stretching.
Alpaca Fiber is second only to silk for strength. The Alpaca Fiber is most like human hair in its cellular composition - it has a core made up of air-filled cells that contributes significantly to its insulating properties and its strength. The number of individual fibers is considerably reduced compared to sheep's wool which helps to explain why most people who are allergic to sheep's wool are not allergic to Alpaca.
The alpaca is usually 1,20m to 1,50m in height, and weighs between 45kg and 79kg. It has a smaller and more curved profile than the llama and has a distinguishing fringe of hair on its forehead.
Up at elevations of more than 4000m above sea level among impressive landscapes where daily temperature ranges can be as much as 30 Celsius degrees, thousands of rural families raise flocks of alpacas, as has been done for thousands of years, shearing the animals and selling their fiber every year, to provide those families with their principal income.
There are two varieties of the alpaca: the Huacayo and the Suri. The Huacayo is the more numerous type in Perú, representing 93% of the population, and has relatively short fiber which is dense, curly and voluminous. The hair covers almost all the body, only the face and lower parts of the legs having a covering of short fibers. The Suri has long, straight hair which is silky and exceptionally lustrous.
Alpacas are shorn with knives or shears, usually once a year between November and April. The yield per animal is very variable, but a general average is about five pounds (2,3kg). There are specimens, however, which can yield fleeces weighing up to 15 pounds (6,9kg).
The color of the fiber is variable, up to 22 colors having been defined, but is more uniform than that of the llama. Alpaca colors range from white to black through grays, fawns and browns. This characteristic is not to be found among other natural fibers, the 'noble' fibers, used in textile production.
The fiber is classified manually according to its fineness and sorted into qualities such as Royal Alpaca (less than 19 microns), Baby Alpaca (22,5 microns), Super Fine Alpaca (25,5 microns), Huarizo (29 microns), Coarse (32 microns) and Mixed Pieces (short fibers generally coarser than 32 microns).
The names of these qualities do not necessarily reflect the age of the animals or other phenotypic characteristics. The appellation 'Baby', for example, is applied to products (sweaters, scarves, shawls, etc.) where the average fiber diameter is 22,5 microns. The fiber used to obtain this quality does not necessarily come from baby animals; it could easily come from an adult animal with a very fine coat.
Each quality is employed to create different products such as cloth, scarves, sweaters, blankets, carpets and so on. The alpaca may also be blended with other fibers, generally of natural origin.
Alpaca fibers are extraordinarily tough and strong, even in the finest qualities, thus making it ideal for industrial processing. It is furthermore easily dyed to any color and always retains its natural luster.
It is also possible to process alpaca on the woolen or worsted systems, so that it can be used to produce a range of cloths from coarse tweeds to fine gabardine. Alpaca fiber does not easily break, fray, stain or accumulate charges of static electricity; it is easy to launder.
Alpaca provides a relatively high yield of fiber after processing (between 87% and 95% compared with 43% to 76% for sheep's wool). Furthermore, it is easy and economical to process owing to the lack of grease or lanolin in the fiber and, unlike cashmere, does not need to be de-haired.
Some of the factors which affect the value of alpaca are:
Fineness: This is a genetic hereditary factor. The finer the fiber, the higher the price.
The following are some of the textile properties of alpaca:
Non-flammability: The fiber will not burn unless in direct contact with a flame.
The Huarizo: A cross between an alpaca and a llama is generally known in Perú as a Huarizo. This hybrid has rather coarse fiber and phenotypic characteristics of both the alpaca and the llama. In the upper Andean zone, where alpacas are raised by families of herders whose resources are limited, it is not uncommon to find mixed herds of alpacas and llamas, and this can give rise to the procreation of huarizos.
For industrial purposes, the term 'huarizo' denotes a fiber quality which does not necessarily come from the hybrid animal; it is used to describe a product (top or yarn) in which the average fiber diameter is between 28 and 29 microns and may indeed come entirely from a pure alpaca.
The guanaco, whose scientific name is Lama guanicoe, is the toughest of the South American camelids. It is to be found mainly in the extreme south of the continent, where some 500 000 specimens live wild among the mountains of Argentina and Chile. It does, however, inhabit a wide range of environments, ranging from warm deserts to cold, wet zones and from sea level up to an altitude of 4000m. In Perú, the guanaco is now almost extinct and the population cannot be more than 5000 specimens.
For thousands of years, the guanaco provided meat and furs for the tribes who used to inhabit Patagonia, a region of extreme climatic conditions.
The guanaco has a small head and pointed ears, a long, curved neck and long, slim legs. It may measure from 1,20m to 2,00m in height and can weigh from 120kg to 150kg.
They live in groups comprising one male and five to ten females with their young. The mating season is between November and February, and a female gives birth to a single baby after an eleven-month gestation period.
The guanaco is a very swift animal and a good swimmer, able to cross from one island to another in areas like the Tierra del Fuego. It is, however, an excessively curious animal. On many occasions this curiosity allows it to become a victim to its predators; even when being shot at, the animals will not take fright and run away.
Its coat consists of a double layer of fibers. One layer is made of relatively short fibers (3,0cm to 4,5cm) which are fine and soft, and the other layer is formed of long, coarse hairs. The animal has a shaggy appearance, mainly light brown in color with black areas on the head and white around the lips, ears, the underside of the body and the inner parts of the legs.
The guanaco's fiber, of approximately 16 microns average diameter, is not legally traded on international markets unless there is express authorization from CITES. Each animal can provide up to 500g of fiber annually.
As the strongest of the South American camelids, guanacos are hard to capture and shear. Many are hunted even to this day and they are thus threatened with extinction. It is therefore necessary to find a way of capturing these animals alive so their fiber can be used, but without engendering detriment to the species.
According to recent investigations, the llama (Lama glama), the largest of the South American camelids, was first domesticated, like the alpaca, some six thousand years ago. Llamas played a very important role in the Inca Empire as they were used for transportation as well as for providing meat, fiber and skins - as indeed they do nowadays in some Andean regions.
Although the llama is unable to carry very heavy loads (30kg to 75kg), this animal provided the sole means of transport in the Andes before the Spanish introduced horses and mules in the sixteenth century. They are also an important mystic symbol in Andean culture and form part of many rituals practiced to this day.
Llamas are versatile, gentle, docile and timid animals which thrive in rural environments. They are easily able to recognize their owners. The llama can measure between 1,50m and 2,00m in height and normally weighs between 108kg and 155kg.
There are some 900 000 llamas in Peru, and the total world population is thought to be about 2,5 million.
The hair of the llama is used on only a small scale by the textile industry, generally for the coarser products. Very fine llama fiber does exist, but a de-hairing process must be carried out if high-quality products are to be made. Each animal yields an average of six pounds of fiber. In Peru, llamas are not necessarily shorn every year.
The color of the fiber is variable and ranges through white to black through a series of grays and all the tones of brown.
There are two types of llamas: the chaku, which has abundant, long hair; and the ccara, with very short fiber and features which strongly resemble those of the camel especially in the sparse hair on the face, neck and legs.
In recent times in countries outside South America, such as the United States of America, Canada and Australia, an interest has grown in the breeding of llamas for pets.