Alpaca: The Ancient Fiber You Should Know About

What alpaca mummies taught one designer might change what's in your home.

(Photo: Mágenes del Perú/Getty Images)

May 13, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Maile Pingel is a Los Angeles-based design historian.

There are those people, childhood prodigies and the like, who are born knowing their purpose. From the get-go, they delve into their passion and devote their entire lives to it. Sometimes it takes a journey to make a discovery, and though it’s slower-going, it’s not a bad thing.

Such was the case for Northern California–based designer Sandra Jordan. She spent her childhood in Peru and traveled extensively with her family (her stepfather worked in the diplomatic corps) before studying international affairs, education, and business administration. For some 20 years, she worked as a teacher and ran a translation services firm—rewarding work but lacking a creative component, something that was planted in Jordan's psyche as a little girl in Peru, where she was exposed to the country’s rich tradition of handcrafts. “There were no stores as we know them today,” she says. “We went to dressmakers for our clothes, to embroiderers for embroidery, to silversmiths for silver items, and to carpenters for furniture.”

In the early 1990s, Jordan, then wife of winemaker Tom Jordan, took on the role of creative director for Jordan Winery, which allowed her the chance to delve fully into her artistic side. She revamped the facilities and packaging designs, published several books, and in the process had an epiphany. Visitors wanted to bring home the look and feel of what she’d created. Jordan saw an opportunity to embark on a line of high-end items that would appeal to the winery’s clientele while supporting the people and traditions of her native Peru. It began with silver wine accessories, but what really took off were her supersoft alpaca furnishing fabrics, a textile more commonly used for clothing.

Sandra Jordan at home in Northern California.

(Photo: Courtesy Sandra Jordan)

“I had known alpaca to be a rough, not too pleasant fabric growing up, which was a disconnect with what I was taught—it was described as being ‘clouds on earth’ and revered by Inca royalty,” she continues. “It was not until I read an article about the excavation of alpaca mummies from the 14th century that I found the answers. The archaeologists found the fiber to be finer than the finest cashmere. With DNA evidence, it was discovered that after the conquest of Peru by the Spaniards there was much interbreeding between alpacas and llamas that produced this inferior fiber.”

Alpacas, those adorable fuzz factories indigenous to the Andes, are an especially fascinating creature. They’re a very calm animal, at once curious and shy. They have bottom teeth that cut the grass (rather than pulling it up by the root) and padded feet that make them gentle on the landscape. And the fiber of their coats is particularly unusual: It’s stronger and warmer than wool; it has flatter scales and contains no lanolin, making it resistant to breaking and pilling; it’s static-free, water-repellent, hypoallergenic, easy to dye, and silky to the touch. All told, there are about 3.5 million alpacas in Peru, providing some 90 percent of the world’s supply. It’s a demand that’s growing.

“The alpacas are raised by individual herdsmen and their families in remote areas of the Andes,” Jordan says. It’s a region roughly the size of Germany, and each herdsman can raise around 100 animals. Only the fiber from the first shearing of the baby alpaca is suitable for producing Jordan's textiles. It’s the finest grade of fiber and what fetches a herdsman the highest price. “Shearing is done once a year and involves training in order to obtain the best fibers from each animal,” she says. “Fibers are sorted, cleaned, spun into tops, and then into yarn.” The yarns are then woven to Jordan's designs: From start to finish, her textiles are made in Peru, which she visits throughout the year.

(Photo: Alonso Burgos)

Why does this matter? In an era of cheaply produced and sometimes toxic fabrics (loaded with pesticides, flame retardants, and the like), the work of someone like Jordan keeps traditional crafts alive, funds families, raises awareness, and expands the study of history and science, as she works directly with the Pacomarca Research Institute, a facility that supports the development of improved and sustainable alpaca raising. “With improved breeding, the fiber is increasingly being purchased for quality instead of quantity, as it was in the past, which provides a higher income and better standard of living for the herdsmen.

“In addition, there is continual research and training conducted at the facility, as well as dedication to improving the living conditions of these families,” she says. It’s something Jordan has chosen to sponsor, and the first of these homes is slated to be completed this year.

“It has only been since the eradication of terrorism and the return to a healthier economy in the middle 1990s that the Peruvian fiber trade, once devastated, has been restored,” she notes. “The quality of the fiber, with the help of modern technology and the confidence in the democratic principle in place, is regaining the glory that it had over 500 years ago when the Incas ruled Peru.

“Simply spreading the word and educating the public about the fiber and what it means for the Andean people is so important,” Jordan says, proving that you don’t have to be at the front of a classroom to teach valuable lessons.