Written by Alonso Burgos and published in Quipu Virtual magazine.
Around six thousand years ago, a decisive phenomenon was to mark the joint destiny of the inhabitants of the Andes and their inseparable companions: the alpaca and the llama. While the former travelled towards the route of civilization from its original enclaves on coasts and mountains, the latter were domesticated from their wild ancestors, the vicuña and the guanaco, and evolved into the docile animals, draped in a wonderful hair, that we know today.
The early cultures of ancient Peru first managed to domesticate and then reproduce two magnificent raw materials for making textiles: cotton and the fiber of South American camelids. Among the four camelids, alpacas are the ones that ended up being, due to its abundant hair and its incomparable variety of colours, which range from white to black with all shades of brown and grey in between, the most used for the creation of all kinds of clothing, blankets, tapestries and a variety of everyday items.
Upon the arrival of the Spanish, textile production in Peru was impressive, both for its quantity and its quality. Much of it was made with camelid fibre, especially alpaca. However, when the new settlers established themselves in the pasturelands of the highlands, the best areas and climates began, little by little, to be used for new animals, like cattle, horses and sheep, relegating alpacas to higher and higher, and more remote regions above 4,000 meters, where the climate is extreme, food is scarce and where temperatures, during the day around 20º Celsius, can give way to a freezing dawn of minus 20º.
Alpaca herders and their precious animals live in these conditions to this day. In the midst of the
21st century, the inhabitants of alpaca ranches, which number in the tens of thousands, are direct heirs of many customs, legends and myths deeply rooted in the Andean worldview. They are, in addition, the main depositories of the roots of ancestral populations and, at the same time, are among the people with the fewest resources in contemporary Peruvian society. The low prices of this raw material, the inefficiencies of scale and the genetic deterioration of alpacas conspire against them. Currently, their average life expectancy is around 60 years.
In 1836, a fortuitous event would again change the fate of alpacas. It happened in the port of Liverpool, when a wealthy and important textile businessman of the time, the Englishman Sir Titus Salt, stumbled upon some abandoned fibre wool bales. Upon discovering them, he was surprised that they contained some wonderful fibres that were neither sheep nor goat nor any other known animal. He transferred the bales to his factory and, since then, alpaca began its captivating story in the international markets for fine textile fibres.
Until well into the first half of the twentieth century, alpaca fibre was exported raw from Peru to England, so much so that in Europe alpaca was considered a product of English origin. According to data from an old exporter, only a quarter of the fibre was white and light beige, while the rest was made up of fibre of all other natural colours: brown, grey and black. It was in the fifties that, again, another fortuitous event would change the composition of the colours of the alpaca. By the end of the 1970s, the bleaching of alpaca fibre had continued: 80% of this became white and only the remaining 20% with other natural colours. It is said that the culprit of this phenomenon was the famous Frank Sinatra who, in those years at the height of his popularity, appeared dressed in one of his films with a colourful alpaca sweater, playing golf. The American textile industrialists of the time, based in Boston, then began to order larger quantities of alpaca, as long as it was white, easier to dye to American tastes. This is how, in a very short time, the natural colours of alpaca began to fade.
Around the same time, another event, this time of a political nature, would end up profoundly altering not only the possession of the animals but also their quality. The agrarian reform promoted by the military dictatorship that ruled Peru in the seventies, led to the atomization of the ownership of alpacas, leaving them in the hands of small family production units with an average of one hundred animals per farm. The few farms or livestock companies that until then had raised alpacas applying some degree of selection, gave way to a precarious subsistence exploitation, with the consequent deterioration in the quality of the fibre. Those were also the years when the first modern textile companies, specialized in the production of alpaca articles, were created in the city of Arequipa.
Initially, fibre was exported simply grouped in basic colours; then by categories of quality. Subsequently, the fibre was washed, carded and combed before being exported in the form of “tops”. In the eighties, the industrial transformation would go through the production of yarns and with them the manufacture of fabrics and knitwear of excellent workmanship. By the turn of the century, the Peruvian alpaca textile industry had achieved very high standards of quality and design, which has allowed it to reach the most sophisticated markets in the world.
Paradoxically, however, the new century would find the alpaca plunged into a kind of genetic debacle. On the one hand, natural colours had been drastically reduced to constitute, for example, in the case of black alpacas, only a small part of the total wool fibre produced in the country. And on the other hand, the quality of white fibre had decreased to the point that only less than a tenth was fine; the so-called baby quality, which is twenty-two microns thick on average compared to the seventeen microns of the famous cashmere. That small part of fine fibre of alpacas is not enough to compete in international markets with such a lofty opponent, even more so if it is considered to be entirely of fine quality and free of thick fibres or bristles, which cause itching. The consequent difference in the prices of both fibres can be, on average, up to ten times more than the other.
The turn of the century coincided with the birth of a singular, private crusade, which at the experimental station Pacomarca in Puno, under the scientific direction of the Complutense University of Madrid, and in particular of geneticist Juan Pablo Gutiérrez García, has since toppled myths and exposed remarkable possibilities for the genetic improvement of alpacas. It should be kept in mind that of all the domestic animal species, alpacas are probably one of the least studied from a genetic point of view. Based on a sophisticated selection program founded on quantitative genetics, Dr. Gutiérrez’s work has shown that alpaca could produce up to five times more extra fine fibre than it does today. Furthermore, with the use of the best linear unbiased prediction method, or BLUP for its acronym in English, and with a unique device created and manufactured in Peru, capable of identifying and measuring the types of bristle or marrow fibre that is found in alpaca hair, it is hoped to be able to remove medulated fibres that cause itching. This would mean a significant increase in the value of the fibre in international markets. It is estimated that in a couple of generations of these camelids, about fourteen years, such a goal would be achieved. The problem lies in the scale required to achieve that goal. To replicate what has been experimentally achieved, it would be necessary to involve several tens of thousands of animals, which represents a considerable logistical and financial challenge.
Additionally, work has also been done on the recovery of pure black animals. A few years ago, the Pacomarca study group went out to acquire all the black-wooled animals they could find. Today they manage the largest herd in the country and for the first time have collected enough to undertake an intensive genetic selection program designed to reproduce only those animals that carry the genes of this classic colour and replicate them in future generations. Natural pure black alpaca fibre is destined to become the star of the contemporary history of this animal and presents a real business opportunity for thousands of high Andean families.
In recent years, the concepts of “traceability” and “sustainability” have made their way into many markets, including textiles. In the case of alpacas, it seems that the only way to adapt to new demands and continue to take advantage of this magnificent fibre is to significantly increase its value, so that young shepherds can once again look at the raising of these animals as a profitable activity with a hopeful future. The key to this is undoubtedly found in genetic improvement programs such as the one outlined above. Science has already validated the proposal. Now it is a question of finding the financial mechanisms for its promising application.