Alpaca fiber is a natural renewable fiber with a wide range of applications. It is classified as an animal protein fiber like sheep's wool, mohair, cashmere, llama, vicuna, camel, qiviut, and yak. There are, however, special characteristics in alpaca fiber that set it apart from all the other animal protein fibers.
At the microscopic level, all animal protein fiber has scales around the shaft of the individual fibers. Alpaca fiber scales are at a lower angle from the main shaft, which reduces the prickle or itchy feel often encountered with sheep wool. The individual fiber diameter of alpaca ranges from 15 – 36 microns depending on the grade of fiber. When properly sorted, alpaca can feel softer than other animal protein fibers of the same grade because of the uniformity of micron and the lower scale structure.
Alpaca is a single coated animal, and the fiber generally does not have to be dehaired like cashmere, llama, camel, qiviut, and yak. This leads to greater yields of fiber after processing.
Alpaca fiber comes in two types, huacaya and suri. There are differences in the two: huacaya fiber has crimpy waves and grows in bundles, while suri fiber is straight and grows in locks. Huacaya reflects light as brightness, suri reflects light as luster.
Alpacas come in over 16 different natural earth tone colors, and can be blended into even more! Even with all those color choices available, alpaca is easily dyed to wonderfully beautiful colors from pale pastels on white or beige to rich jewel tones on fawns, greys, and even browns using natural or organic dyes.
In 2009 – 2012, special tests were conducted on huacaya and suri alpaca fiber to determine some intrinsic characteristics of alpaca fiber. In these tests, no differences were found between huacaya and suri fiber.
- Alpaca is flame resistant, meeting the standards of the US Consumer Product Safety Commission's rigid testing specifications as a Class 1 fiber, the safest level of flame resistance for use in clothing and furnishings.
- Alpaca is resistant to external water penetration like wool, but can slowly wick away perspiration because of its unique ability to act like cotton in moisture regain. These factors are what makes alpaca feel lighter than wool, but warmer than cotton in cool, damp conditions.
- Alpaca is water resistant, making spills easy to clean up before water saturates the fiber allowing stains to develop. It is also adsorbent to oils, meaning that the oils do not penetrate the fibers, but merely cling to the fiber for easy cleaning without harsh chemicals.
- Alpaca is free of lanolin, and thus can be processed without the need for high temperatures or harsh chemicals in washing. The lack of lanolin also minimizes the likelihood of allergic reactions to those who are sensitive to wool, which contains lanolin.
- While the type of fabric dictates the level of thermal insulating properties, alpaca fiber has a high natural thermal conductivity level, but also can "breathe" due to its lighter weight by volume.