Home PagePeruKnow Your Camelid For Spinning

Jun 08

Know Your Camelid For Spinning

The word Camelid may bring to mind the one and two humped camels that reside in Asia and China. But spinners, weavers and textile enthusiasts instead celebrate the humpy camel’s cousins – the alpaca, llama, guanaco and vicuña.

“…being with llamas and alpacas is truly the closest you can come to knowing a unicorn and still stay in this world…”

Science and History
Llama, alpaca, guanaco, vicuña, the Bactrian and Dromedary camels all belong to the same family Camelidae, all have double-padded feet with toenails making them sure-footed. Llama and guanaco belong to the genus Lama; the llama domesticated for thousands of years, the guanaco ranging wild in the Andes. Alpacas belong to a different genus – Vicugna – along with the wild and elusive animals of the royal Inca, vicuñas. Alpacas are all domesticated and there is the wooly version, the long-haired suri alpaca. Llamas and guanacos are much larger than the smaller alpacas and vicunas.

These four camelids are native to South America, found mostly in Peru, Bolivia and Chile for the past 6,000-7,000 years. Most of what we know about these ancient camelids came from a discovery in 1986 in El Yaral, Peru, of twenty-six perfectly preserved 1,000 year-old alpacas and llamas. Being part of an archaeological textile research team studying the Chirabaya culture based in the Atacama Desert area of southern Peru and northern Chile, we confirmed what archaeologists have long known–llama and alpaca herds lived on the north and south coast of Peru in ancient times. Traveling from the high Andes to the coast was typical, but herds also lived in the coastal areas year round in corrals near the ocean.

Fiber Fun
All camelids produce fiber in varying qualities. The fiber is actually hair but usually called wool by textile folks. There is a wide range of colors from natural cream, light, dark and reddish browns, grey, cinnamon, and even a black. Alpacas are bred to produce a fine, soft fiber that spinners and knitters love. ClothRoads has some special alpaca hand spun by the elders of the Cusco highlands. 

Fascinating Camelid Facts

  • The Bactrian camels are two humped natives of Mongolia and live 40-50 years
  • The one humped Dromedary camel lives in northern Africa and the Middle East and produce less usable fiber due to the hot climate they live in
  • Yes camelids really spit but only when scared, stressed or annoyed

A Special Camelid
Vicuñas were nearly wiped out in the past and are still a threatened species. The fiber is rare, expensive and could only be worn by the Inca rulers. Their wool is collected every few years in the Andes in a cooperative round-up called a chachu. Paco–vicuñas  are found in the wild and are an accidental cross between domesticated alpaca and the wild vicuña. The paco-vicuña is bred in the U.S. on a few farms, pioneered by Switzer-Land Alpacas of Estes Park, Colorado. They are alpacas, but very special ones with strong vicuña traits and you have the opportunity to see them at the 27th Annual Wool Market in Estes Park.

Estes Park Wool Market & Fiber Festival
If you want to experience the camelid first hand, the Estes Park Wool Market & Fiber Festival is the place to be this weekend. This celebration of our wooly friends has been going on for 27 years. You can watch border collies guide sheep around a corral, see an alpaca manage an obstacle course, pet camelids and fluffy bunnies, and shop for goodies in the “all things wool” exhibit hall. You will find ClothRoads at the wool festival for the first time, featuring stunning camelid fiber products from Peru.

Good Reads
This lovely little book is a must read for textile and camelid lovers. Llamas and Alpacas as a Metaphor for Life, 2003, Marty McGee Bennett, Raccoon Press, NY and Bend, OR

Everything you could ever want to know about our wooly friends is in The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook, 2009, Deborah Robson and Carol Ekarius, Storey Publishing, MA

The Story of the Weeping Camel is a wonderful movie worth watching.


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