This morning I started knitting a shawl in an intriguing blend of alpaca and linen. It makes a fabric that is somehow simultaneously plush and cool, sort of like very, very nice sheets on a freshly made bed.
Alpacas (scientific name Lama pacos) are most excellent fiber animals. Native to the Andes, where they thrive at altitudes of 13,000 to 16,000 feet, they're members of the Camelid family. In an odd paleontological irony, the fossil record shows that New World camelids--alpacas, llamas, vicunas, guanacos--were around long before the Old World dromedary (one hump) and bactrian (two hump) camels. All of these creatures produce wonderfully useful fibers, but the alpaca holds a special place of honor in my heart.
They're adorable animals, with improbably long eyelashes, comical ears, and sweet faces. Their fleece is fabulously soft, and since alpacas don't produce secretions like the lanolin of sheep, the fiber is relatively hypoallergenic. Even people who are quite sensitive to wool can often wear alpaca fabrics with no difficulty. Alpacas also come in a an array of nearly two dozen natural colors, from pale cream to rich chestnuts to a minky brown so deep it's almost black.
Pure alpaca yarn makes a luxuriously warm knitted fabric, with great drape. And alpaca plays well with others, too: alpaca and wool, alpaca and silk, and--as I'm discovering today--alpaca and linen are all felicitous matches.
I've also found alpaca fiber a treat to spin. As with yarn, the pure stuff is great, and the blend possibilities are most excellent, too. I'm in the midst of spinning a couple of pounds of a blend of alpaca, angora rabbit, and silk. All the fibers are in natural colors, so the blend looks like what you have in the bowl a few minutes after you start eating a butterscotch sundae. And the texture quite exceeds my poor power to describe. If you can imagine holding a handful of the most perfect summer breeze you ever felt, then you have a hint of how soft and lofty this fluff is.
The Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival is coming up this weekend. There are always alpacas on display. I'm sure I'll linger by the pens, as I always do, fantasizing about the fibery delights I could harvest from a modest group of backyard alpacas. It's what Virginia Woolf might have yearned for, if she'd ever knitted with alpaca: five hundred pounds a year, and a herd of one's own.
[Alpaca photograph by Tony Richards, from www.visitcumbria.com]