Last Fall these fine fellows were on the courthouse lawn for the Covered Bridge Festival. These docile beasts stood quietly, leaning against one another, humming deep in their chests.
We stood next to the pen for over 15 minutes and they never stopped humming. They live nearby on a local farm, but came to town for the festival.
The individual hairs in an alpaca coat grow at a 90° angle to the body, which is why the fur looks so fluffy and dense. Originating in South America, the fiber from this camel relative is so luxurious it was once reserved for royalty. Alpaca fiber is incredibly lightweight and strong. Its hollow construction makes it 2-3 times as warm as sheep’s wool. Lace-weight alpaca yarns make elegant scarves and shawls.
I recently finished knitting a sweater with an alpaca/merino wool blend yarn. I can verify the warm of this fiber. My sweater has been a great Polar Vortex garment this winter.
The unique characteristics of alpaca yarn create a very drapey fabric and require some special handling. For instance, the scales of alpaca hair are much larger and lay much closer to the shaft than sheep’s wool. This contributes to the soft drapiness of the fabric, but it also means the knitted fabric can easily pull out of shape when wet or stretch if too loosely knit. The smoother hair shaft simply doesn’t cling to its neighbors as securely as wool.
- Look for 3-4 ply yarns. Fabric knit from multi-plied yarns will hold its shape better than those knit from 2-ply yarns.
- Knit with a smaller needle and at a tighter gauge than recommended on the yarn wrapper. Knitting a slightly denser fabric will yield a better behaved fabric.
- Wet blocking will soften and loosen the fabric, so be sure to block your swatch before beginning your project.
- Alpaca is hand-washable, but carefully support knitted fabric when wet to prevent distortion.
- Garments knit in pieces, and seamed together, will tend to hold their shape better than those knit in one piece.
Understanding the nature of the yarn you’re using will help you achieve the best results with your knitted projects. Clara parks wrote a book that’s helped me with this task. The Knitter’s Book of Yarn: The ultimate Guide to Choosing, Using, and Enjoying Yarn has been a great help when substituting yarn for a pattern. Although the book includes several patterns, its real value is in the reference sections where the characteristics of various yarns and fibers are explored. Clara gives tips about using various fibers, explains how yarns are made, and compares synthetic, cellulose based, and protein based yarns. It’s a valuable resource for any knitter.