Everything you need to know about the fiber, how to knit with alpaca yarn, and helpful tips.
I have a confession to make: I’m an incredibly sensitive person and I can’t stand the (perceived) itchiness of standard wool. And in all my years of knitting, one fiber became my favorite alternative. So, this post is all about knitting with alpaca yarn and why I like it so much.
Setting allergies and sensitivity aside, alpaca yarn has a lot of amazing properties that make it a worthy fiber to knit with either way. So, I’ll talk you through all the advantages of the South American yarn but I won’t keep the few disadvantages from you either. I will also try to do away with quite a couple of myths that have been floating around the internet for the longest time.
I’ll start with a general introduction of this amazing fiber and its properties, and then we’ll dive into the knitting specifics. This will be a very long post that really goes down into the (k)nitty-gritty. Feel free to scroll down if you just want a specific question answered.
Let’s dive right into it, eh?
Note: I spiced up this post with lots of pictures from my trips to South America, I hope you enjoy them.
Alpacas are basically a smaller and fluffier version of the lama. Both are members of the camelids (on that note, read my post about camel hair yarn) but the coat of the alpaca is much thicker and finer.
While lamas have always been used as beasts of burden in the Andean regions, alpacas have been bred to improve the characteristics of their luxurious fleece (and to a lesser extent for their meat) for over 5,000 years in the Andean highlands by the Inca and their predecessors.
Called “The fiber of the gods“, Alpaca yarn was used to weave the clothing of the Inca royalty. The animals are shorn once a year in spring. Typically, no extensive pre-sorting or combining is required (like with yak yarn or cashmere), though parts (or all) of the guard hair are removed during the carding process.
You should also be aware that there are two types of breeds: Suri alpaca with a very long dreadlock kind of coat that can be kept at lower altitudes and warmer climates. And the more common Huacaya alpaca (with shorter hair and a poodle-like appearance) you will see all across the Altiplano at altitudes of 4,000 meters and beyond. Both are descendants of the wild and much, much rarer Vicuña.
1. Soft and lightweight
High-quality alpaca yarn is very soft. Much softer than normal sheep wool. Depending on the age and breed, the fibers of the processed fleece range between 15 and 30 microns in diameter. That’s a very wide range and is an important reminder of why knitters should invest in quality over quantity.
Still, I always try to remind people that the physical thinness of a fiber should not be confused with the perceived softness of a ball of yarn or the finished product. Alpaca yarn is incredibly light-weighted. It almost feels like it has some kind of innate buoyancy like the garment was hovering over your body, and this effect makes it feel much softer.
Contrary to what you might read in some reports online, the yarn isn’t physically much lighter than sheep yarn (something you can easily confirm yourself by looking at the yardage of two 50 gram balls of DK yarn).
The main difference between sheep wool and alpaca is how far the cuticle cells protrude. If you look at a single hair under a microscope, you will see that the outer layer looks scaled. And in sheep wool, these scales typically protrude around 0.8 to 1.0 microns, while in alpaca yarn, it’s only approximately 0.3 – 0.4 of a micron (source).
Thus, alpaca yarn feels a lot smoother and doesn’t prickle the skin as much. Another factor here is the spinning method. Alpaca is often spun at a much slower speed and thus less of the broader fibers are thrown on the outside (think of it as a centrifuge).
2. Excellent insulation properties
The fibers have hollow cores and this creates thousands of microscopic air pockets – the perfect insulation for the harsh winters (and nights) on the Peruvian altiplano. And this fine fleece works the other way around during warmer days where the alpaca yarn shows good breathability.
Now, I’ve read some reports saying this makes it a nice yarn for summer knits. I would like to contest that view, but I’ll talk about this a bit further down below. Suffice to say that only the thicker fibers (above 20 microns actually) are hallow. Below this size, they are quite solid and with that, all perceived advantages of that special build vanish. Contrary to what some people will claim, neither ceratin nor air conducts heat very well.
Often, alpaca fibers are spun in a much airier (slower) way. Together with the low crimp, this creates a puffier yarn that often develops a halo. And this, and no so much the actual properties are probably responsible for the perceived warmness and lightness of the yarn. This is not to say the yarn doesn’t have lovely insulation properties. It’s just saying that in and by itself it is NOT warmer than sheep wool.
3. Alpaca yarn is incredibly strong, or is it?
One quite surprising fact about alpaca yarn is its sturdiness. In fact, you will read about it around every corner. It is even often repeated that it is 7 times stronger than sheep wool, usually followed by some archeological evidence of 2,000-year-old fabric found in Peruvian tombs. These people seem to forget that the Paracas Textiles, etc. were discovered in an excellent conservatory environment where it never rains.
Now, beyond the anecdotal myth-making, I could not find any hard evidence to support that claim. One study suggests that there is indeed a difference, but we are talking about a single-digit difference. This is to be expected of fibers that basically share the same general physical traits (as opposed to say linen or cotton). The experiments did show, however, that alpaca is quite a bit more resilient to wear & tear.
Nevertheless, it is important to understand that the durability of knitting yarn is by and large determined by the spinning, the crimp, and the staple length. And here it has to be said that sheep wool is quite a bit more versatile. Still, alpaca has a really nice staple length of 3-7 inches and allows for spinning lovely light DK and worsted yarn and also some higher twist socks and even lace yarns.
You will have a hard time tearing a strand of good quality yarn apart with your hand. And, for all practical reasons, that’s all knitters should care about.
4. It’s Water-Absorbant
Apparently, some people maintain that alpaca yarn was water-resistant and would somehow magically wick away moisture. I am not sure who started this myth but it really needs to disappear. Dipping your yarn into a glass of water should be evidence enough.
It is, however, true that alpaca can absorb up to 30 percent of its own dry weight until the wearer feels it. In this, it behaves pretty much like wool and this is certainly a really lovely characteristic.
5. THere are Over 22 natural colors
One of the main advantages of alpaca yarn, in my opinion, is the wide array of natural colors and shades. You can find anything from a pure, almost white, cream color up to a dark chestnut kind of dark brown, grey, and even black. So if you love undyed natural yarns, then you probably won’t find a more suitable fiber.
Using the light natural tones as a base, you can achieve pretty pastel colors, while darker rich deep hues are easily achieved by dying the greyer bases. It pretty much behaves like sheep wool in that regard, though most commercially available yarn will stick to a more natural-looking color range.
6. It’s very Sustainable
Alpaca yarn can be produced quite sustainably. The herds can graze in regions where agriculture is not possible anymore. Their soft hooves are kind to the landscape and their grazing methods do not overly tax their large pastures either.
So, far so good. These days, alpacas are increasingly also held in Europe, the USA, and even Australia where these principles may not apply anymore. Instead of close to free-range, they are penned up, etc. Plus, you do have to consider that the shearing process is very stressful for the animals.
Alpaca may seem fluffy, and you frequently will see tourists petting them but the reality is that the animals actually hate being touched. Unlike many other mammals, their natural behavior does not involve any regular physical contact at all. Not even the mother will lick its young. Touching each other is not part of their behavior. Due to the many natural predators in the region, they are also very easy to scare.
Of course, they are also a domesticated breed, and they do need to be shorn. Unlike their vincuna-ancestors, they don’t lose their winter coat anymore. So, what I am trying to say is that you need to look closer. Ethical farming also means harvesting the fibers with the well-being of the animals in mind. It will always be very stressful for them, but they do not need to be hurt in the process either, eh?
Alpaca yarn is supposedly hypoallergenic because the animals don’t produce any lanolin/grease. And that is completely wrong. Alpaca is not lanolin free! Like almost every other mammal, their follicles have wax glands – they just produce much less of it than sheep. If you dig your hands deep into the coat of a sheep before shearing, your hands will come out quite a bit greasy.
The same will not happen with huacaya alpaca (with only about 1-3 percent of grease on average). The fleece of Suri alpaca can have up to 20%, though!
As a matter of fact, both sheep and alpaca fleece is scoured clean before spinning (though you will need less water & detergents in the case of the latter). That being said, I did already mention the much smoother surface of the fibers and I’ve read some research that hinted that this could possibly be a reason why some people show less of a reaction.
8. Considerably affordable
In recent years, alpaca farms started popping up like mushrooms after a summer rain all over North America and central Europe. As a result, alpaca yarn became one of the most affordable luxury fibers currently available to knitters. Speaking from personal experience, the premium (compared to a ball of good merino wool) is often only in the range of 20 to 30 percent.
This is not to say it’s inexpensive or the best knitting yarn for beginners – far from it in fact. But it’s not as outrageously expensive as quite a lot of other luxury yarn and I feel an affordable alternative for a special project.
Important: One very important thing you should know. Alpaca is a very wide field and there’s a big difference between a huacaya animal raised on 4.000+ meters near Cusco and the average Suri alpaca from Nebraska. So, all general information about this amazing fiber should always be viewed as a range of characteristics and not so much as a set that applies in every instance.
Alpaca shows a moderately good stitch definition. It’s probably not the best idea for intense knitting stitch patterns that benefit from crisp stitches. Voluminous stitches, like brioche stitch, can be a fabulous and very warm option, in my opinion.
One factor is certainly also the finer awn hairs that resist the dye a bit – so you rarely get a 100% solid color – except it’s baby alpaca yarn (see below). Plus, these (still very fine) hairs will stand out a bit like (soft!!) bristles.
On top of that, you need to consider that your finished project will develop quite a halo after washing (or even before), so you will have a harder time making intricate design elements pop. That being said, it can still look very interesting and cozy, and there are certainly quite a lot of patterns that use exactly this to great effect.
On a more positive note, this makes it quite a good choice for colorwork techniques (like intarsia) where all the fuzziness hides joins, and floats. The float of Fair Isle will be able to add structural support to the otherwise stretchy fiber.
Alpaca will eventually felt (but not nearly as good sheep wool) but pilling and shedding can be a problem. Usually, alpaca produce quite the uniform staples. But low-quality yarn will have a wide mix of fiber lengths and those behave differently. Through normal wear & tear the shorter (or broken) fibers will migrate out of the twist and will eventually be released. This process is typically called shedding or pilling and can be avoided to a certain extent by finding a trusted yarn producer.
Due to the fact that a lot of alpaca yarn is only lightly spun, it can often be a bit harder to get neat and uniform ribbings and the like.
Best things to knit with alpaca yarn
There is one question that seems to surface quite often: “What to knit with alpaca yarn”? And I guess it boils down to the fact that a lot of knitters receive a skein or two as a gift or just had to buy a particularly beautiful hank from their local yarn shop.
Now, let’s talk about knitting with this fiber, and what you need to be aware of. Most commercially available alpaca knitting yarn is somewhere in between DK and light-worsted. So, that’s needle sizes 3-5mm. This makes it perfect for shawls, tunics, hats, and those kinds of patterns. Here on my blog, there is also a pattern from some really simple fingerless gloves for beginners.
But there is a caveat: I already mentioned spinning methods. Now, obviously, this is a generalization and you will find exceptions in both directions. But as a rule of thumb, knitting with alpaca results in a very drapey and somewhat loose fabric (the crimp of the fiber, or often the lack thereof, also plays an important role here).
As a start, this means you probably should go down a full needle size compared to what you would normally use if you want to get the same kind of gauge/drape you are used to when knitting with merino yarn. But that might actually be the wrong approach. In fact, it should be worth considering going UP with your needle size to enhance the drapey effect.
As a general rule, I would stay away from tailored patterns (like a seamed sweater) and rather pick something slouchy with a more casual fit – like a tunic. Then it will look quite stunning. Or you pick an alpaca blend.
And then, of course, you need to consider, the warmth of alpaca. Due to the numerous characteristics the spun yarn shows, knitted alpaca fabric will feel incredibly warm. Depending on how cold (or warm) your winter is, you definitely should consider picking a lighter yarn than you usually would. Instead of an Aran weight, a sport weight, etc or a nice blend.
And I really wouldn’t consider knitting any summer apparel with it. A nice drapey shawl for a cool summer evening could be an option, but the idea of a light summer t-shirt in alpaca is quite preposterous in my opinion. Due to its breathability and ability to retain moisture, it’s certainly not the worst idea but it will still be very warm.
Linen, silk, or cotton are probably the much better idea nevertheless. All recommendations I found for alpaca as a summer yarn were based on the (false) fact that the fine fibers were hollow.
How to knit with alpaca yarn
Now, there are a couple of tips for knitting with alpaca yarn I need to share with you. 100% pure alpaca can be a very lovely yarn but it’s certainly not like your standard sock yarn which you could possibly use to knit anything.
1. Factor in the stretchiness
Most fitted garments knit with alpaca yarn will stretch out quite a bit after the first wear. Knitting a good swatch, washing it, and blocking it hanging with a bit of weight is the only way to find out if knitting a sweater or hat with that specific yarn is a good idea or not.
Please bear in mind that you will be able to adjust to a certain extent but stretched stitches will look and behave quite differently as well. So, be very cautious.
2. There is no memory effect
A woolen sweater may stretch out a bit as you wear it over the day. But wash it and it will spring right back. That’s because most sheep breeds produce fibers with quite a lot of crimp. Most (but certainly not all) alpaca breeds don’t show a lot of crimp and thus that sweater will not spring back.
The only way to truly fight that is using blends or knitting with two strands held together (like a nice merino lace yarn, etc).
3. Avoid creating dense areas
And on that note, you should also try to avoid creating fabrics that feature significantly different characteristics in different portions like a cable pattern in the middle and lace on the sides. Imbalances like these are bound to encourage parts of your finished project to stretch out differently.
Other than that, there’s not much else you need to observe when knitting with alpaca yarn. For all practical reasons, the difference to other common yarns is not all that noticeable anyway if you are buying quality products. It will feel incredibly soft and lovely on your hand.
I will have to say, however, that much of the difference will only be visible after the first washing/wearing. And hence I would be careful to judge an alpaca yarn based on knitting 10 rows with it.
How to wash alpaca wool
Generally speaking, knitted alpaca products need to be cared for in the same way as most other knitted fabrics to ensure a long life:
- Wash gently in warm water using a mild (liquid) wool detergent or soap and then rinse thoroughly. Avoid intense rubbing, wringing, twisting, or fast changes in temperature to prevent the fabric from felting.
- Support the fabric carefully when removing it from your tub/sink (especially if it’s a throw or sweater). Wet fabric can be quite heavy and this could stretch out the item beyond repair. Instead, ease it down on a towel, bring it back into shape, and roll it up to press out the excess water. You may want to do this twice.
- Then lay it on a flat surface until thoroughly dry.
- Don’t put sweaters, etc. on a hanger. Instead lay them flat in a drawer so they don’t get stretched out of shape.
If you observe these rules, you will find out that alpaca yarn is washable and will be able to last a long time.
Can you wash alpaca wool in the washing machine?
Some modern washing machines have special programs for really sensitive wool fabrics and adjustable settings without intense tumble drying or an outright drying function. But even if you set the temperature to cold and the spin is low, I personally cannot recommend it – except it’s a blended yarn. On a more positive, most alpaca wool will not shrink a lot (the way sheep wool does). In fact, you are more likely to stretch it out.
What is baby alpaca yarn?
Baby alpaca yarn is used to classify particularly fine fibers with a diameter of 19-20 microns and has little to do with the age of the animal that was shorn. Strictly speaking, it says nothing about the age of the animal that produced the fibers – only about its diameter. Typically the much coarser awn hairs have been sorted out. It’s basically the pure fine hair of the undercoat. Any close-up picture will instantly show you the difference.
As a result, baby alpaca is both softer and usually quite a bit more expensive. That being said, the hairs of the adult animals grow thicker as years go by (they share that trait with cashmere goats and their undercoat). This is called the balloon effect.
The absolute number of follicles doesn’t change but as the skin stretches with maturity, they are able to produce thicker hair. Alpaca yarn with a diameter of 18 microns or below is called “Royal Alpaca” (or sometimes super baby alpaca), while beyond 21 you’ll read “superfine alpaca yarn”.