We have long become accustomed to thinking of Cashmere as being the warmest, most luxurious fabric in the marketplace. Not so! Alpaca, after falling from grace a number of years ago, is making a huge resurgence. Then, who even heard of vicuna? “Is that sort of like nutria?” you might ask. Once you take a look at the price, you understand that Vicuna is the most expensive fabric in the world – for good reason.
Alpaca and vicuna, both related to the llama, live high in the Andes in Peru, Chili, Argentina, and Bolivia. Vicuna is the smallest of these animals and can be used neither as a beast of burden or for its meat. They nearly became extinct in the 1960’s leading to strict laws protecting them. Today there are about 350,000 in existence but continued protection is required against poachers.
Vicuna will starve to death in captivity so they must be allowed to live in the wild. This makes shearing their wool a little tricky. Yield is so small that they can only be sheared every three years. The natives of the region use an old process of creating a human fence around the animals, allowing them to be taken individually and sheared. Strict laws are in place to ensure that the animals have been sheared alive and returned to the wild. Vicuna is the warmest, softest, lightest wool in existence. It sells for $1800 to $3000 a yard with a men’s topcoat costing up to $30,000. The locals who help in the shearing are given a generous share of the profits. Vicuna cannot be dyed so color selection is limited to shades of neutrals.
If vicuna is a little over your budget, enter the resurgence of alpaca! This warm, soft, natural wool offers an alternative to cashmere at a comparable price. Alpaca can be raised domestically so Alpaca farms are appearing in the Unites States – Oregon, Texas and Georgia to mention a few. They are larger animals than vicuna and can be used as pack animals and for food as well as their wool. The wool is in plentiful supply and can be dyed, into a wide range of colors.
Of course, cashmere is our standby. The cashmere goat’s natural habitat is China and neighboring mountainous regions. But now Australia is a large producer of cashmere. If you have a quality cashmere garment, it can be passed down for generations.
Unfortunately, many cashmere products are made from shorter strands of yarn causing pilling. This is difficult to discern and doesn’t seem to be totally related to price. You just discover these nasty little balls after a few wearings! (This is discussed at more length in a previous blog: “Cuddle Your Cashmere” posted on 2-12-14.)
Now may be the perfect time to expand your wardrobe with some of these newer wools. Sales are on and Santa needs ideas for your stocking!