Found in a vast array of natural colors from white to black and most everything in between (beiges, fawns, browns, and greys), the fiber of the alpaca is the byproduct for which the animals were originally first domesticated some 6,000 years ago. Modern textile grade alpaca fleece is blessed with amazing fineness, very good insulation qualities, and high luster, making alpaca a near perfect fiber from which to make luxurious garments. Because of those qualities, clothing made from it is both light weight yet extremely warm at the same time, while being more durable than cashmere.
Alpaca fiber, like the animals it comes from, comes in two types: Huacaya (wa-KA-ya) and Suri (SUE-ry). The huacaya is the more common of the two and possesses crimp from the skin of the animal all the way to the tips of the fiber, reminiscent of merino. It is the crimp which serves to create elasticity in garments that have been knit or woven from huacaya fiber. The suri fiber is made up of long thin pencil locks and possesses no crimp. Garments made from the luxurious fiber of the Suri alpaca generally have a drape to them not found in the huacaya. Suri fiber and anything made from it also tends to have a very high luster, which it retains, even when dyed.
The average alpaca produces 5 to 7 pounds of fiber every year. There are many ways to market this fiber. Many alpaca owners will spin and knit the fiber themselves into yarn and hand-knit items that they can then turn around and sell for a premium. Others will sell their raw fiber to handspinners with the demand for the softness and the vast array of natural colors found in alpaca fiber growing every day. Many fiber artists have never worked with alpaca before. It often takes just one touch or a free sample to create a convert for life. The bottom line on selling alpaca fiber "off the farm" is that the further you take it down the line the more value is added (cleaning, carding, spinning, knitting or weaving).
Though the home/farm-based cottage alpaca fiber industry is already alive and well, there is also great potential for alpaca (the fiber not the animal in this case) to make inroads on a more industrial scale here in North America. Though the alpaca fiber industry in North America is in its relative infancy, the potential for growth is almost limitless. From several national groups and cooperatives producing finished textiles for their members, to a vast array of fiber mills of all sizes, the market for alpaca products in unquestionably on the rise as the public becomes more and more acquainted with this amazing natural fiber.