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About Alpaca

The Alpaca (Vicugna pacos) is one of two domesticated breeds of South American camel-like ungulates, derived from the wild guanaco. It resembles a sheep in appearance, but is larger in size, and has a long erect neck with a handsome head.

Alpacas are kept in large flocks that graze on the level heights of the Andes of southern Peru, northern Bolivia, and northern Chile at an altitude of between 3500 and 5000 meters above sea-level, throughout the year. They are not used as beasts of burden like llamas, but are valued only for their fiber, of which Indian blankets and ponchos are made. The alpaca comes in 22 natural colours. In stature, the alpaca is considerably inferior to the llama, but has the same unpleasant habit of spitting.

In the textile industry, "alpaca" is a name given to two distinct things. It is primarily a term applied to the wool, or rather hair, obtained from the Peruvian alpaca. It is, however, more broadly applied to a style of fabric originally made from alpaca fiber but now frequently made from a similar type of fiber, such as mohair, Icelandic sheep wool, or even some high-quality English wool. In trade, distinctions are made between alpacas and the several styles of mohairs and lustres. However, as far as the general purchaser is concerned, little or no distinction is made.


Alpacas have been domesticated for thousands of years, and originate from Peru, Chile and Bolivia. There are no wild alpacas; it is believed that they are descended from the vicuna, which is also native to South America. They are closely related to llamas, which are descended from the guanaco. These four species of animals are collectively called camelids.

Of the four, the alpaca and the vicuña are the most valuable wool-bearing animals: the alpaca because of the quality and quantity of its wool, and the vicuña because of the softness, fineness and quality of its coat.

Alpacas and llamas can (and do) successfully cross breed, the resulting offspring are called huarizo.

There are two types of alpaca – huacaya (with crimpy sheep-like “wool”) and suri (with silky dreadlocks). Suris are much rarer than huacaya, estimated to make up between 6 and 10% of the alpaca population. The suri is probably rarer because it is less hardy in the harsh South American mountain climates, as the style of its fleece offers less insulation against the cold (the suri fleece parts along the spine, exposing the animal to the cold unlike the huacaya fleece which provides excellent cover over the backbone).

Alpaca fleece is a luxurious fibre, similar to sheep’s wool in some respects, although it is lighter in weight, silkier to the touch, warmer and not as prickly. A big trade of alpace fleece exists in the countries where alpacas live, from very simple and not so expensive garments made by the aboriginal communities, to sophisticated products industrially made, that can have significantly high prices.

White is the predominant colour of alpacas, both suri and huacaya. This is because selective breeding has favoured white – bulk white fleece is easier to market and can be dyed any colour. However, alpacas come in 22 natural colours, from a true blue black through browns and fawns to white, and there are silver greys and rose greys as well.

Traditionally, alpaca meat has been eaten fresh, fried or in stews, by Andean inhabitants. There is a resurgent interest in alpaca meat in countries like Peru, where it is relatively easy to find it at upscale restaurants.



Alpacas are social herd animals and should always be kept with others of their kind. They are gentle and elegant, inquisitive and observant. As they are a prey animal, rather than a predator, they are cautious and will understandably be nervous if they feel threatened. They like their own space and don’t appreciate another alpaca (or human) getting too close, especially from behind. They will warn the intruder away by threatening to spit, or by spitting, or by kicking. Some alpacas kick, some don’t – but yes, they all spit.

Spitting is reserved for other alpacas, not for humans, but sometimes the human can get in the line of fire, or the alpaca aims badly and misses the intended target. The spit is not pleasant: it is the contents of the stomach – green (regurgitated grass) – and smells foul.

Alpacas don’t like their heads being touched. Once they know their owners, and feel confident around them, they will probably allow their backs and necks to be touched, but they won’t appreciate being grabbed, especially by boisterous children. If an owner need to catch an alpaca, the neck offers a good handle – and holding the neck firmly between the arms is the best way to restrain the animal.

To help alpacas control their internal parasites they have a communal dung pile, which they do not graze. Generally, males have much tidier dung piles than females who tend to stand in a line and all go at once!

Sheep baa, cows moo and alpacas hum. Different animals have different voices, but basically it is a "mmm" sound. However, they make other sounds as well as humming. When danger is present they sound the alarm call, a high pitched shriek, for instance. Some breeds are known to make a sound similar to a "Wark" noise when excited, and they stand proud with their tails sticking out and their ears in a very alert position. Strange dogs – and even cats – can trigger this reaction. (They recognise domestic cats for what they are – a relation of the puma, a natural predator of the alpaca in South America.)

When males fight they also scream, a warbling bird-like cry, presumably intended to terrify the other combatant. Fighting is to determine dominance, and therefore the right to mate the females in the herd, and it is triggered by testosterone. This is why males are often kept in separate paddocks – when two dominant males get together war breaks out!

A male in the act of mating, or hoping for a chance to mate, will “orgle.” This orgling will help to put the female in the mood, and it is believed that it also helps her to ovulate after the act of mating – very necessary for a pregnancy to take place!

Pregnancies last eleven and a half months and the young are called crias. Soon after the cria is born the female will be ready to mate again, babies are therefore an annual event. A female is usually ready to mate for the first time at a year of age, but a male can often not work until he is two or even three years old.

Alpacas generally live for more than 20 years – we think! Conditions and nutrition are better in the USA, Australia, New Zealand and Europe than in South America, so animals live longer and are healthier. One of the oldest alpacas in New Zealand (fondly known as Vomiting Violet) died at the end of 2005 at the ripe old age of 29.


History of the scientific name

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the four South American camelid species were assigned scientific names. At that time, the alpaca was assumed to be descended from the llama, ignoring similarities in size, fleece and dentition between the alpaca and the vicuña. Classification was complicated by the fact that all four species of South American camelid can interbreed and produce fertile offspring. It was not until the advent of DNA technology that a more accurate classification was possible.

In 2001 the alpaca genus classification changed from Lama pacos to Vicugna pacos following the presentation of a paper Genetic analysis reveals the wild ancestors of the llama and the alpaca on work by Dr Jane Wheeler et al on alpaca DNA to the Royal Society showing that the alpaca is descended from the vicuña, not the guanaco.

The relationship between alpacas and vicuñas was disputed for many years, but Wheeler's DNA work proved it. However many academic sites have not caught up with this, so it is something well known to alpaca breeders who have read Dr Hoffman's book, and to Royal Society members who have access to the current classification data, but not more widely known.



Alpaca fiber is warmer than sheeps' wool and lighter in weight. It is soft and luxurious and lacks the "prickle" factor. However, as with all fleece producing animals, quality varies from animal to animal, and some alpaca produce fibre which is less than ideal.

Alpaca have been bred in South America for hundreds of years (mainly Peru, but also Chile and Bolivia), but in recent years have been exported to other countries. In countries such as the USA, Australia and New Zealand breeders shear their animals annually, weigh the fleeces and test them for fineness. With the resulting knowledge they are able to breed heavier fleeced animals with finer fibre. Fleece weights vary, with the top stud males reaching annual shear weights up to 6kg.

Two types of fleece are produced: huacaya and suri. It has been proposed that in fact these are two different breeds of animal, and that camelids come in five types - guanaco, vicuna, llama, huacaya (alpaca) and suri. This view is not commonly accepted however.

In physical structure, alpaca is somewhat akin to (human?) hair, being very glossy, but its softness and fineness enable the spinner to produce satisfactory yarn with comparative ease.


Alpaca fiber industry


The history of the manufacture of this fiber into cloth is one of the romances of commerce. The Indians of Peru used this fibre in the manufacture of many styles of fabrics for centuries before its introduction into Europe as a commercial product. The first European importations were into Spain. Spain transferred the fibre to Germany and France. Apparently alpaca yarn was spun in England for the first time about the year 1808. It does not appear to have made any headway, however, and alpaca fiber was condemned as an unworkable material. In 1830 Benjamin Outram, of Greetland, near Halifax, appears to have reattempted the spinning of this fibre, and, for the second time, alpaca was condemned. These two attempts to use alpaca were failures owing to the style of fabric into which the yarn was woven — a species of camlet. It was not until the introduction of cotton warps into the Bradford trade about 1836 that the true qualities of alpaca could be developed in the fabric. Where the cotton warp and mohair or alpaca weft plain-cloth came from is not known, but it was this simple yet ingenious structure which enabled Titus Salt, then a young Bradford manufacturer, to use alpaca successfully. Bradford is still the great spinning and manufacturing centre for alpaca, large quantities of yarns and cloths being exported annually to the continent and to the United States, although the quantities naturally vary in accordance with the fashions in vogue, the typical "alpaca-fabric" being a very characteristic "dress-fabric."

Owing to the success in the manufacture of the various styles of alpaca cloths attained by Sir Titus Salt and other Bradford manufacturers, a great demand for alpaca wool arose, and this demand could not be met by the native product, for there seems to never have been any appreciable increase in the number of alpacas available. Unsuccessful attempts were made to acclimatize the alpaca in England, on the European continent and in Australia, and even to cross certain English breeds of sheep with the alpaca. There is, however, a cross between the alpaca and the llama — a true hybrid in every sense — producing a material placed upon the Liverpool market under the name "Huarizo". Crosses between the alpaca and vicuña have not proved satisfactory. Current attempts to cross these two breeds are underway at farms in the United States. According to the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association, alpacas are now being bred in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, UK, and numerous other places.

The preparing, combing, spinning, weaving and finishing process of alpaca and mohair are similar to that of wool.

Farmers commonly quote the alpaca with the phrase 'love is in the fleece', which describes their love for the animal.



The price for alpacas can range from $200 to $360,000, depending on breeding history, sex, and color. One can raise up to 10 alpacas on one acre (4,047 m²) as they have a designated area for waste products and keep their eating area away from their waste area to avoid diseases.



  • Major league baseball player Billy Wagner owns 38 Alpacas.
  • An Alpaca has three stomaches.


  • This article incorporates text from the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, a publication in the public domain.
  • Genetic analysis reveals the wild ancestors of the llama and the alpaca paper by Dr Jane Wheeler presented to the Royal Society in 2001.
  • The Complete Alpaca Book, Dr Eric Hoffman, Bonny Doon Press, California, 2003