Alpacas may just be the cutest of all the Camelidae family, which includes llamas, guanacos and vicunas from South America, and Bactrian and Dromedary camels from Asia and Africa. With their floppy furry tufts, slender necks, ingénue eyes and coy Clara Bow grins, they are the "it" girls and boys of the ungulate world.
But beyond their charming, quirky good looks, these creatures are responsible for bearing some of the silkiest, most versatile fiber found in nature, for which they are shorn annually. Alpaca is a specialty fiber that has been described as stronger than mohair, finer than cashmere, smoother than silk, softer than cotton, warmer than goose down and better-breathing than thermal knits. Along with that, alpacas themselves possess some pretty remarkable personality traits.
In honor of all things Vicugna pacos, we're filling you in on everything you never knew about these captivating camelids.
1. They're ancient
Alpacas were domesticated by the Incas more than 6,000 years ago and raised for their exquisite fleece. Due to its quality and all of its superhero characteristics, alpaca fiber was reserved exclusively for the elite and nobility.
2. They're trendy
In 1984, a small group of importers brought the first of a carefully selected herd to the United States and Canada, and they’ve been dotting the bucolic landscape ever since. The North American herd has grown from a few alpacas in zoos and private farms to about 20,000.
3. They're therapeutic
When most people think of therapy animals they imagine dogs, but therapy alpacas are growing in popularity at hospitals, healthcare facilities and retirement homes around the world. For example, one couple in Australia has been providing therapy alpacas for 15 years. "They're very sensitive and they're very intuitive animals," alpaca owner Nils Lantzke told The Canberra Times. "We find that after people have a talk and a pat with the alpaca, they become more relaxed and it makes the environment a lot happier for everyone."
4. They grow superlative, hypoallergenic fleece
Alpaca fiber is much like sheep’s wool, but warmer and not itchy. It is lacking in lanolin, which makes it hypoallergenic and also allows it to be processed without the need for high temperatures or harsh chemicals in washing.
5. They're flame-resistant!
Well, technically their fiber is flame-resistant, meeting the standards of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission's rigid testing specifications as a Class 1 fiber for use in clothing and furnishings.
6. They're water-resistant
Like wool, alpaca fiber is water-resistant, but it can wick away moisture because of its unique ability to mimic cotton in moisture regain. These attributes are what make alpaca feel lighter than wool but warmer than cotton in cool and damp climates.
7. They come in a rainbow of hues
Alpaca fiber comes in 22 colors and hundreds of shades, from white to light rose gray to dark fawn, in addition to the blends that can be made from those, thus minimizing the need for pollution-intensive dying.
The huacaya (left) and Suri are the two different breeds of alpaca. (Photo: Aaron Logan/flickr)
8. There are two types of alpacas in this world...
Alpacas come in two types: Suri and the huacaya. The suri has fiber that grows long and forms silky dreadlocks. The huacaya has a wooly, dense, crimped fleece — like a teddy bear — giving it a very wooly appearance. About 90 percent of all alpacas in the North America are huacayas.
9. They can mix and match
Alpacas and llamas can successfully cross-breed. The offspring they create are known as huarizo, which are valued for their longer fleece.
10. They share a bathroom
Alpacas use a communal dung pile (where they do not graze, thankfully). Because of their predisposition for using a dung pile, some alpacas have been successfully house-trained.
11. They hum and haw ... and orgle
Humming is the most common sound that alpacas make. Alpacas hum when they are curious, content, worried, bored, fearful, distressed or cautious. When startled or in danger, a staccato braying is started by one animal, then followed by the rest of the herd in the direction of the potential threat. During breeding, the male alpaca Romeo emits a unique throaty vocalization called “orgling.”
During the National Alpaca Farm Days (which occur during the last weekend in September), alpaca farms across the country will open their gates to visitors of all ages to meet the wooly loves.
Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in September 2012.