Discover the World’s Finest Wool – A brief History of Alpaca Fashion

The wearing comfort that alpaca wool and the fabrics made from it offer is almost unique. Alpaca Wool is often compared with cashmere. They have similar properties. Both are light, warming and feel very pleasant on the skin. Alpaca wool does not show any pilling and remains permanently smooth.

What are the most popular Alpaca garments?

Traditional clothes of the Peruvians

Each region of the Andes has its own style and expression of textiles. But they have one thing in common: Traditional textiles are an open book of symbols. The art of weaving resembles a written document, a language with visual metaphors that convey its own values and cultural concepts.

During the colonial period, many Peruvians had to adapt to the European style of dress. Therefore, many Peruvians are now returning to traditional clothing.

Typical for women are the colorful skirts called “Polleras.” They are worn in several layers on top of each other. Depending on the region, the skirt can also be black and is then held by a belt embroidered with flowers. Other skirts are decorated with black and red embroidery.

The Peruvian poncho, which dates from the 17th century and was the typical garment of the plantation workers, is also very famous. Ponchos serve as protection against the rain. Depending on the region, the ponchos vary in length and colours.

In the cinemas, the poncho became famous through the Italo-Western “For a Fistful of Dollars” when Clint Eastwood wore it in the nameless stranger’s role. The poncho gave him an unmistakable look, which clearly distinguished him from the traditional cowboy characters.

Traditional-clothes-of-the-Peruvians

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Textiles and weaving techniques are an important part of Quechua culture in the Andes. With the help of drawings, the old weaving techniques have been passed down through generations. The Quechua Indians include all people who speak this language. But Quechua is so diverse in the different dialects that many people cannot communicate with each other. About ten million Quechua live mainly in Peru and other South American countries.

Quechua was declared one of the two official languages in Peru in 1969. Quechua Indians practice agriculture in the traditional way. They graze their cattle in the higher regions of the Andes and harvest the crops they grow.

In Quechua culture, weaving is the means by which people try to capture their thoughts and feelings about the natural world. Just like stories are told and written down. Woven textiles were an important measure of wealth and played a central role in civil and religious ceremonies. Everything, from the spinning of the yarn and the symbols woven into the textiles to the colors and techniques used, provides a wealth of information about the weaver’s origins and social status. Each piece of fabric is unique.

Woven blankets and scarves are multifunctional – they keep warm but also serve as a means of transport for firewood and corn.  Weaving textiles is like a ritual in Quechua culture. Textiles in the colors orange, red and pink honor Pachamama, the “Mother Earth.”

peruvian weaver - black alpaca fabric
Peruvian Weaver

Why are alpaca scarves so popular?

  • Alpaca scarves are dirt-repellent, soft and very cuddly and they have particularly good thermo-regulating properties.
  • Alpaca scarves do not tend to pill and are very hard-wearing and durable.
  • The molecules of alpaca wool neutralize odors, therefore the scarves do not take on unpleasant scents.
  • Alpaca scarves are available in many beautiful bright colors!
Peru: Textile Weaving in Chinchero - by: Globetrotting Schoolers

Traditional weaving in Peru

The hand-woven fabrics from the highlands of the Andes are also called “Mantas” or “Aguayos“. These are 100% natural, because the wool of the alpacas is manually spun by the communities themselves and dyed in the traditional way with plants and other natural products. 

Flowers, leaves, roots, cactus-lice and minerals are used for coloring, the art of dyeing is an ancient tradition in Chinchero. Even the tools and containers used for dyeing, spinning and weaving are all handmade!

Alpaca wool and the products made from it in the Andes is sustainable in many ways.

The alpacas themselves leave practically no ecological footprint. When herds of alpacas graze in the Andean highlands, they do so with the utmost care. In contrast to many other animals, alpacas do not tear out the entire roots of the plants when eating. They cut the grass with their teeth without pulling on it, and so eat only the tops of the grass in their natural habitat. The plants, therefore, grow back quickly.

The alpaca garments are strong and durable and hardly need to be washed. Furthermore, the fiber is 100% biodegradable and requires no chemical treatment during production.

Chinchero is the Center of Weaving in Peru. As a tourist, you can follow the entire production process of traditionally woven fabrics, from washing and dyeing to hand spinning and weaving.

Chinchero, the "City of the Rainbow," is only a few kilometers away from the former Inca capital Cusco. The rainbow was born in Chinchero according to mythical belief because this colorful natural phenomenon is particularly common in the Sacred Valley of the Incas.

Chinchero has always been an important place because the Inca rulers had their summer residence here. Situated at 3.760 meters with its wonderful view over the snow-covered peaks of the Cordillera Vilcabamba - surrounded by wide fields, a lagoon and an impressive mountain panorama - it is probably the most paradisiacal place for the Inca.

How Peruvians dress today?

If you walk through the streets of Cusco or Arequipa today, you will see that the current clothing of the Peruvians is influenced form “pre-Hispanic” traditions as well as colonial clothing styles.

What today is usually called traditional is a combination of these two influences. Women wear light, embroidered skirts (Polleras), small jackets and cardigans (jobonas), capes or larger scarves (lilicllas) and small Andean hats (monteras), creating a fusion of traditional and modern clothing. Men are very rarely seen in traditional clothing in the big cities, they usually wear modern clothes. In the country or in small pueblos you will more often meet men dressed in traditional knee-high trousers, ponchos and caps.

*An lliklla is a large rectangular, hand-woven shawl. It is worn like an oversized scarf by women in Bolivia and Peru. Traditionally it is fastened at the front with a decorated needle called tupu. A "Q'ipirina" is similar to an lliklla, only slightly larger and more solidly woven. It is often used to carry small children or all kinds of products.

How Alpaca Came Into Europe?

Spain was the first European country to import alpaca before it spread to Germany and France. Even though initial attempts to weave alpaca were unsuccessful, many individuals still recognized it as a useful resource in the 1800s.

In 1836, a young mill owner, Sir Titus Salt, could spin alpaca fiber correctly. This breakthrough in the processing technology shot the “rare” fiber to a status of luxury and higher profitability. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert even wore it.

The popularity of the alpaca spread to fashion houses all over Europe and through literature Thanks to his ingenuity in processing the fiber, Sir Salt built a town factory for processing it from his fortune.

The town – Saltaire, also called Salt Mills, located in Bradford, England. Bradford still keeps a reputation in alpaca production to date. The demand for raw fiber rose in Europe as alpaca became increasingly popular. Unfortunately, there were unsuccessful attempts to raise and interbreed the animals in Europe [1]

How Alpaca Came Into the USA?

The alpaca found its way into the United States in the 1900s. Some South American countries with an abundance of the animals agreed with the UK, Canada, Australia, and the US to allow their easy export.

Before this era, there were failed attempts to raise alpacas in Australia in the 1800s. The period of importing the animals to the United States lasted from 1984 to 1998 until the  US alpaca breeders closed the ARI. This was to preserve the value of the animals already in the US.

The Alpaca Registry Inc. issued a pedigree certificate to qualifying animals after DNA testing, which entails determining their lineage. The mode of transporting the animals to the US was by ship or plane.

Alpaca was initially imported from Peru in 1984 and Chile in 1995. The initial alpaca population of 150 has grown to over 25,000 in the US. The US was the first to import alpaca from Peru, followed by Australia and New Zealand in 1989 [2].

group-of-alpacas-at-a-lake-in-colca-canyon-peru

The Spanish invasion of South America in 1532 resulted in the near-extinction of the alpacas. Invaders wiped off around 90% of the alpaca population during this period.

Besides, they left the surviving animals to fend for themselves with help from the Quechua natives. These animals were under wraps until the industrial revolution of the 1700s - 1800s.

The Farr Alpaca Company

Established in the late 1860s by Herbert M. Farr and two of his uncles, the company started as a small mill in Ontario, Canada. Initially known as Randall Farr Co., it produced alpaca worsted and knitted apparel.

Incorporating the company took place in 1873 before moving to the US in 1874 and setting up in Holyoke Mass. At the time of incorporation, the company was run by Herbert Farr, Jared Beebe, Joseph C. Parsons, Andrew Allyn, Joseph Metcalf, George Randall, and Timothy Merrick. Moreover, Metcalf and Farr were the top leaders.

The company’s alpaca is renowned for its high quality and style. It produced black alpaca and cotton worsted fabrics but soon went out of style. They switched to 100% worsted fabrics and coat lining for suits and overcoats later on. The company also produced uniform and airplane cloth during world war 1. The Farr alpaca company operated on a favorable system, offering health care, high wages, and other benefits to employees.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the company owned the largest alpaca wool factory in the world and was a dominant producer in its industry. At it’s peak the Farr Alpaca Company employed 600 people and operated 360 full automated looms. It produced 7,500 Yards of finest Alpaca and Mohair per day .

For some time, the company owned and sponsored the Farr Alpaca Football Club. The company enjoyed a lot of success.

But it was also affected by the world economic crises in 1929 and liquidated in 1938 because it was not able to recover and could not keep up with the changes in the apparel industry [3].

Alpaca Fashion in the 19th Century - Black Alpaca

The 19th century witnessed a high rise in the popularity of alpaca fashion in England and the United States. They wove alpaca clothing with a mix of other fibers like mohair. One reason for the high demand of the fiber by people of all social classes was its durability.

The most coveted item in women’s fashion in the 1860s was the black alpaca dress. Women, regardless of their social status, owned at least one, with the hem designed with decorative trims of the choice and means.

Black alpaca was often used for ordinary everyday clothing, it was also considered an appropriate dress for governesses, nurses or maids.

Alpaca was also an intrinsic part of men’s clothing such as jackets and for children’s clothing. Designers also made parasols from mixed alpaca fabrics. The popularity of alpaca suffered a significant blow after the government passed a taxing bill on the importation of alpaca wool.

The tax rate was high to persuade garment manufacturers to use more sheep’s wool. The direct result of the tax action made alpaca scarce and unaffordable. This also led consumers to rely on other options. However, this was only a temporary relapse in the affluence of alpaca [4].

In the 20th century, alpaca again rose to elite status among fabrics and regained its importance in the Peru textile industry. Famous golfers like Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen, Jack Nicklaus, and Arnold Palmer endorsed the fiber.

It was also romanticized in the song “The Sweater” by Mery Cadell. It soon suffered another blow when synthetic fibers became widespread. The production of cheap alpaca imitations made from llama fiber and acrylic also posed a challenge to alpaca fashion [5].

Woman wearing a Black Alpaca wool travelling dress, creation by Madame Blanche Limousin
Woman wearing a Black Alpaca wool travelling dress, creation by Madame Blanche Limousin

Modern Alpaca Fashion

In the modern age of sustainable fashion and circular economy, alpaca presents a unique mix of sustainability and luxury. The fiber is eco-friendly and ethically sourced. Combining its luxurious feel, durability, and hypoallergenic quality makes it an excellent choice for consumers.

Pure and mixed alpaca clothing is available today. It can also come in handy to make different apparel styles and household textiles. Scarfs, caps, coats, jackets, sweaters, ponchos, socks, gloves, and other clothing made from alpaca are available online and in stores.

The price of alpaca clothing ranges from $20 to $200, depending on quality and composition. Designers like Ulla Johnson, Yeezy, Steven Alan, Rochambeau, John Varvatos, and Mara Hoffman use alpaca.

The fiber is also valuable for its softness, warmth, and eco-friendliness. Italian designer, Canali has a recent apparel collection of sleek alpaca overcoats. Likewise, luxury fashion stores like Macy’s, Bergdorf Goodman, and Saks Fifth Avenue stock knitwear made from alpaca.

There are knitting and weaving cooperatives in Cusco and Sacred Valley in Peru that work exclusively with alpaca [6].

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In recent years, interest in clothing made from alpaca fibers has increased dramatically, perhaps because alpaca clothing is environmentally friendly and sustainable. Also, alpaca farming has a relatively small impact on the environment.

Sweaters, jackets, coats, ponchos, skirts or even socks made of alpaca wool have become very popular in the North American market over the years because of their impressive softness. Clothing made of alpaca wool adapts very well to the body’s shape and gives a pleasant feeling when worn.

Even people with a wool allergy can wear alpaca because alpaca wool does not contain lanolin – also known as wool wax. Clothing made of alpaca, therefore, does not cause skin irritation.

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Thank you for reading this brief  History of Alpaca Fashion – Alpaca Fashion in the 19th century – Black Alpaca.

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History of Alpaca Fashion - Black Alpaca / References:

[1] 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, Volume 1: Alpaca

[2] Saitone, T. L., & Sexton, R. J. (2005, p. 1, 3-5). Alpaca Lies? Do Alpacas Represent The Latest Speculative Bubble In griculture?

[3] Snac: Farr Alpaca Company.

 [4] Sun Valley Alpaca Company: Alpaca Fashion in the 19th Century America

 [5] Sun Valley Alpaca Company: Alpaca Fashion in the 20th Century America

[6] Forbes: As Sweater Season Approaches, Designers Feel That Luxury Meets Sustainability In Alpaca