How It's Made: Alpaca Yarn and Knits

It takes a lot of time, knowledge, work, care and skill to go from cute alpaca to cozy sweater. Heifer project participants in Apahua, Ecuador are mastering all of these necessary steps to turn their camelid herds into sustainable profit.

By Molly Mitchell

December 11, 2019

A hand-knit hat lays on a pile of white, un-dyed alpaca fiber. Both rest on a bright yellow cement surface.

In This Article

  • Learn step-by-step how fiber artisans in Ecuador transform alpaca wool into handknit works of wearable art.
  • This collective of artisans is part of a Heifer project that aims to help indigenous populations overcome poverty through their ancestral art.

Whether you knit, crochet, weave or just enjoy the feel of a handmade item, you'll love learning how alpaca fiber goes from wool to wearable.

Heifer project participants in Apahua, Ecuador are learning the ins and outs of raising alpacas with quality fiber.

Workshops are helping indigenous men and women resurrect traditional fiber arts and are ensuring that older generations are passing on their skills to younger artists.

Watch how alpaca wool is transformed into hand-made knits, and read all about it below.

Two alpacas stand in the midst of their herd and look directly into the camera.

Breed For Success

Selectively breeding alpacas for the best wool, color, and health of the animals is the first step in the journey to luxe alpaca fiber. 

White alpacas are prized because their wool can be dyed in any color. But the animals also come in natural shades of brown, black, grey and beige.  In Peru, 24 natural alpaca fiber colors have been identified. Some alpaca-raising communities specialize in certain colors. In Apahua, their specialty is white alpacas. 

A woman wearing a red hand-knit shawl, a black skirt and black rain boots leads three brown alpacas down a dirt path. She is smiling at the camera.

Care and Keeping

Healthy, happy alpacas make for the softest wool.  Heifer project participant María Humbelina Miñarcaja learned about their special requirements, like, "How to cut their hooves, and they have teeth that get to long, so you have to file them down so that they can eat conveniently.  We give them vitamins, purge them of parasites. Those are some of the things I learned." 

A close-up of a pile of unprocessed, freshly-sheared, white alpaca wool.

Shearing and Sorting

Alpacas are only sheared once a year, so it is key for the fiber artisan to make the absolute most of every shearing.  The shorn fiber can be sorted into seven categories, from the finest to coarsest. The finest, softest classes are used for garments, and coarser wool is made into handicrafts and felted jewelry. 

A woman cards alpaca fiber so that it can be spun into yarn

Carding, Washing and Drying

After the fiber is sorted by category, burs, seeds and other detritus the animals have picked up are carded with a fine-toothed brush or cut out by hand.  Once picked clean, the fiber is washed and dried.  If a batch of wool is going to be dyed, it happens at this point. 


 "I learned to wash the yarn - that was the last workshop," said Miñarcaja. "I washed it and I dyed it with natural plants." Miñarcaja and the other artisans in the Heifer project use natural dyes to color their fiber, like ñachak, a yellow flower that makes a deep blue dye, nettle for green, yucca for yellow, cochineal insects for red and blackberries for pink.

 

A woman spins alpaca fiber into yarn
María Rufina Pilatasig laughs while spinning alpaca fiber into yarn.

Spinning

Hand-spinning wool into yarn is an ancient and highly skilled craft, dating back to the Paleolithic era.  Spinners gather their fiber on the top of a short staff, or "distaff."  The fiber is then gathered and twisted in one hand while being wound onto a spindle with the other hand.  It takes a steady and experienced hand to twist the fiber enough to make yarn without breaking it and keeping the thickness consistent for hundreds of meters. 

The art of hand-spinning was starting to die out in this region of Ecuador.  Old women still remember the technique, but younger generations weren't picking it up.  Trainings that pass this skill from local artisans to young people is part of this Heifer project. 

Maria Micaela Castro Sisa is a master spinner who is teaching others to follow in her footsteps.  "These two fingers," she said, holding out her thumb and forefinger," and then I can feel the thickness that's coming out.  This hand knows how to feel how thick it is." 

Castro and the other women in the project are able to do this skilled work while walking around, tending to animals, household chores and other business. 

 

Knitting, Crochet and Weaving

Spinning, along with knitting, crochet and weaving, are all traditions of indigenous peoples.  In the face of modern poverty and migration, these arts are being forgotten.  The Andean communities that Heifer works with are making sure older members of the community share these traditions with the next generation.