A detailed review of the precious vicuña yarn. Is it worth buying, what does it feel like knitting with, and why is it so expensive?
Are you dreaming of buying some vicuña wool? Have you heard that it is both the softest and most expensive commercially available yarn and now you are wondering what the fuss is all about? Then you came to the right place because in this article I will explore the wonders of this precious fiber together with you.
First, where does it come from? Vicuña (engl. vicuna) wool is obtained by the South American camelid (Lama vicugna) with the selfsame name. These elusive and very shy animals live in the Andes at altitudes of 3,200 meters (10,500 ft) and above between Peru and northern Chile.
The small mammals with a shoulder height of only 75 – 85 cm produce extremely fine wool that has been valued since the times of the Inca and before (even today, the Vicuna is the national animal of Peru). The highest quality vicuna wool has a thickness of 12-14 microns and the highest comfort factor of all naturally obtained fibers. The comfort factor is 99 (out of 100) and one could say it’s the benchmark for all other fibers.
Compared to that, cashmere (15-19 microns) and Baby Alpaca (~22.5 microns) almost seem coarse – especially as the quality is less controlled/standardized and shows a much wider range of diameters (the mean variation of vicuna fiber is only 19.5%!). The staple length is considerably short (the mean length is only 30.9mm; source) making it considerably hard to spin.
The fibers are also extremely delicate and that’s why most vicuna yarn and products are sold undyed. Still, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to break. In fact, the average tensile strength varies between 40 and 64 N/ktex, which is considered “very resistant” (source).
In its natural form, it has a very creamy and smooth golden brown color reminiscent of cinnamon that I personally feel is to die for. It’s such a pleasant color that you may find in lighter and richer hues depending on the manufacturer (and possibly portion of the body it has been obtained).
Knitting with vicuna wool
Now, this is a knitting blog and the most important portion of this article is certainly the knitting qualities of vicuna yarn. How soft is it? What about the stitch definition? And ultimately, is it worth it? Let’s take a look.
1. (Perceived) Softness and Comfort factor
I have knitted with many a rare fiber in my 30 years of knitting. One could say it’s sort of my specialty and main interest. Cashmere, angora, qiviut, yak, you name it. And it’s my honest conviction that none of these aforementioned fibers come close to vicuna wool. It’s outstandingly soft.
And unlike Cashmere, where a lot of the perceived softness is created by the famous halo (which ironically is an effect you can achieve with brushed merino wool as well), vicuna yarn has a more solid softness. It’s more of a softness you come to appreciate after wearing it for an extended time than on first touch (even though it is certainly incredibly soft to the first touch as well).
The knitting yarn I had the pleasure of touching and using also was very light-weighted – what most people would call lace yarn. As a result, the knitting I produced was outstandingly light.
A couple of months ago, I read a report about Dhaka muslin and how Marie Antoinette favored it. The fabric was so thin, that a whole gown was said to fit through a ring. An attribution I thought sounded a bit too much like a fairy tale at that time. But now, having knit with vicuna, that is actually exactly how the knitted fabric I produced feels like.
It’s very difficult to pin-point but it almost feels like what I produced with vicuna yarn is weightlessly soft. Sure, the fine gauge (1.75mm needles) certainly helped. But I frequently knit with such small needles (and most commercial knitting machines use similar-sized hooks) and that fabric doesn’t even remotely feel like this.
So, I would definitely say that the yarns I sampled so far delivered on their promise of luxurious softness.
2. Knitting Qualitites
I also want to talk about the knitting qualities as this is certainly equally as interesting for most of my readers. Sure enough, feeling this ultra-soft thread gliding effortlessly across my fingers – almost without noticing – and touching the working progress is pure joy. I would be lying if I said anything to the contrary.
At the same time, the thread is dangerously thin. Not that it would break at any time (on a side note: a problem you might experience with lace cashmere yarn). No. Still, because it is so thin and soft, it’s quite difficult to handle. A lot of (my) knitting techniques factor in the resistance the yarn has to offer, its weight, its friction, etc. And that is almost entirely missing with vicuna yarn. There is no resistance. You barely notice it at all. As a result, it’s quite difficult to knit with.
Of course, there’s the thought accompanying your knitting that every stitch probably costs you 5 cents or so. And there’s no denying that might be a factor why I knit so carefully as well. But the yarn itself is a major reason as well. And talking about price: Knitting a swatch to get gauge felt like the most glorious waste of money and it took some major convincing to do so (but of course, with such an expensive yarn, swatching is even more important).
And here’s one more peculiar thing I noticed: Vicuna are shy “flight animals” and their coat perfectly blends with their surroundings in the Peruvian Andes. But I do have to say that the effect is similar on your needles and I personally had a hard time seeing the stitches. Not only because they were so small, but because this brownish greyish tone offers little contrast against your fingers.
On top of that, the yarn I used for my sample knit (by Pascuali) was a 4-ply woven spun thread. And that makes it very “splitty” – despite using somewhat blunt Knitter’s Pride Karbonz dpns (and certainly not my HiyaHiyas). Even fixing a mistake, normally a simple matter of using a crochet hook, became an act that required tremendous concentration.
Now, certainly, I have not sampled every vicuna yarn on this planet and neither do I have the money for that. But then again, there are not a lot of companies selling this precious fiber in a hand-knitting quality, so I feel my observation is very valid nonetheless.
3. Is buying vicuna yarn worth it?
The elephant in the room, is of course, the question if buying vicuna yarn is worth it. And that is indeed a very difficult question. Yes, it’s outstandingly soft and the color is just lovely. At the same time, it’s not 10 times as soft as cashmere or baby yak, yet it has 10 times the price tag.
The knitting difficulties I faced, and mind you, I call myself an experienced knitter, are certainly nothing you should discount either. Nothing an experienced knitter, like myself, cannot handle but still something worth noting.
At the end of the day, I would say it is a novelty thing and not so much of a holy grail. I enjoyed having knitted with it so far, but it’s nothing that has me excited to save up money for the next 10 years until I can buy sweater quantities of vicuna yarn. It is a loooot of money for a little bit of yarn. Still, for a knitter who has everything, it’s certainly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Even just touching it is.
How much does vicuna wool cost?
Vicuna is the most expensive commercially available fiber in the world. For a long time, it was even more expensive than gold (a fact that changed due to the dramatic rise of the gold price in the past 2 decades and the increased production of vicuna wool). There are only a very selected few producers who sell vicuna yarn to retail customers.
Pascuali, AR Königstein (both based in Germany), and Windy Valley Muskox are currently the only companies I know of that sell vicuna yarn to crafters. A one-ounce skein of vicuna yarn currently costs between 250 and 300 US-Dollar (as of January 2022).
In recent years, a cross-breed between alpaca and vicuna, the so-called paco vicuna, has been introduced. A selected few farms in Peru and the U.S. hold these animals and some of them sell their fibers. Paco Vicuna wool is almost as soft and delicate. Currently, prices for a one-ounce skein of the highest quality paco vicuna wool range between 150 and 200 US-Dollar.
And then, of course, there is also guanaco yarn. Guanaco and vicuna are closely related and the Guanaco produces a similar yarn. As they live typically in lower altitudes, the yarn is a tiny bit less soft. It is even harder to source as, at least so far, the yarn is not really harvested in a large-scale commercial way.
Why is vicuna wool so expensive?
When you look at the price of vicuna yarn – if you can find it for sale at all – then the average knitter will get a shock. As I just said, it often sells for 250 – 300 USD per ounce. For the same price, you’d get sweater quantities of the finest hand-dyed merino yarn. So why is vicuna wool so expensive?
By the 1960s, the population of vicuna was reduced to a mere 6,000 animals (mainly due to poaching) and thus it was declared an endangered animal. Due to the immense conservative efforts, the population has increased in the subsequent decades to above 350,000 across the altiplano (source). Still, the animals remain elusive.
The fact that each vicuna only produces about 500 grams of wool per year and wool can only be obtained from the wild and free-ranging animals after massive large-scale hearding activities (called chaccu), together with its scarcity, is a large factor in determining the astronomical price. In 2017, only around 9.6 tons of vicuna wool were produced in Peru according to SERFOR.
On top of that, producing vicuna wool is very labor-intensive. The natural fiber is pre-dehaired manually to maintain the quality of the precious fiber. A worker requires one month working eight hours a day (30g per day) to dehair 1 kilogram of vicuna fiber (source).
It has to be noted, however, that the simple worker in Peru is only a small part of the total value chain and the biggest chunk goes to the yarn processors in Italy which create the final luxury goods, especially Loro Piana. A single scarf (200 x70 cm) will set you back by 3,500 to 4,200 Euro (as for January 2022) if you buy it from this Italian luxury manufacturer.
Here at the end, I wanted to answer a couple of frequently asked questions. But feel free to comment below if there’s something else you would like to know.
Where does vicuna wool come from?
Most of the commercially available vicuna wool comes from Peru, with much smaller quantities from Argentina and Chile. In recent years, animals have also been introduced to Eucador. Most of the yarn, however, is being processed in Italy, where luxury manufacturers like Loro Piana specialized in the rare fiber.
Is vicuna wool always brown?
By general acceptance, vicuna wool is deemed to be too delicate for any harsh dyeing (which typically involves pretreatment with acids) and is thus sold in its natural cinnamon-brown state. Loro Piana also offers vicuna products for sale in black, grey, dark brown, and blue tones. I have not seen the raw yarn being sold in any other colors but brown (and only once in black).
Paco vicuna yarn is, however, available in a lighter hue as well.
Vicuna vs alpaca wool
Vicuna are said to be the ancestors of the now domesticated alpaca. So, the fibers share a lot of the characteristics. At the same time, alpaca yarn has typically a much longer staple length, is much thicker (up to 18-30 microns on average), and comes in many different natural hues.
When compared to a good royal/baby alpaca yarn, one will definitely notice a difference, but it’s not like vicuna wool was twice as soft – maybe 20-30% softer. Baby camel yarn will be very similar to it as well and could be a “budget” option for someone who likes the natural brown tone and softness but cannot afford the astronomical price tag of the so-called “gold of the andes”.