Alpacas are small gentle creatures, native to South America. Domesticated alpacas have been raised in the Andes for over 5,000 years. Alpacas are closely related to the larger llama and the wild guanacos and vicunas and more distantly related to the old world camels. Like its larger cousins, the alpaca can be trained as a pack animal, but its small size limits the load to around 25 pounds. An adult alpaca will stand about 36 inches tall at the withers and weigh between 125 and 200 pounds. They have soft padded feet which are very easy on the terrain. They have a sensitive lip and can pick up a single grain of wheat without disturbing the surrounding materials. The life span of the alpaca is 15 to 25 years. Individual alpacas usually come in solid colors, but that can be anywhere in the full range from white to black.
At birth a cria (baby alpaca) weighs around 15 to 20 pounds. Between 30 and 60 minutes the cria is standing and nursing and then exploring the world within hours. Infant mortality is very low among domestic alpacas. The gestation period is 335 days. Some Hembras (females) are known to bear on the same day year after year.
There are 2 breeds of alpacas. The Huacaya is more common and its fleece has a crimp or natural wave that enhances spinning qualities. The Suri only represents 10% of the world population and less than that in North America. It has a fine lustrous fiber with no crimp.
The fiber is one of the finest and most luxurious fibers known and its use was restricted to nobility under the Incas. The Spanish colonists in Peru used the lower grazing lands for their familiar Merino sheep but the alpacas thrived in the higher altitudes where sheep could not even survive. Several English breeders and wool merchants discovered the delights of alpaca fiber in the mid 1800s, starting the international alpaca fiber trade. Protecting the alpaca industry became a priority in South America, but a few head of breeding stock were released in the early 1980s. Alpacas are now being raised in both the US and Canada and are established in Australia and New Zealand.