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In Defense of Our Friend the Alpaca

LBHandknits

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Lately it seems that I keep coming across discussions about the 'problematic nature' of working with Alpaca yarn - to the point that some knitters downright advise avoiding knitting garments out of 100% Alpaca. The idea is, that while Alpaca fibre is lovely and soft, it needs to be blended with some linen, cotton, or silk content to give it structure and stop it from overheating the wearer. 

While I get where this reasoning is coming from, I also feel it is based on some degree of misunderstanding of the material. And because I happen to love Alpaca, I wanted to chime in with my perspective. 

Alpaca yarn indeed has some very particular characteristics. It is not suitable for every type of garment. But it is exceptionally suitable for some types of garments, in a way that no other yarn is. I will try to go through some points here and explain why the two main ‘problems’ attributed to knitting with pure-alpaca yarn, are in fact features which can be used to your advantage.

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Do Alpaca garments lose their shape?

The idea that Alpaca looses its shape is repeated as if it were fact. But the more useful and accurate way to look at it, I feel, is that Alpaca garments never have ’shape’ to begin with (and so we mustn’t expect them to!). 

Alpaca yarn is extremely drapey. A swathe of knitted Alpaca does not so much sit on the body as skims it caressingly. Accepting this as an inherent characteristic of the material, and choosing what we knit out of it accordingly, can result in some beautiful, flattering clothing.  

The types of garments Alpaca is most suited for, are flowing, body-skimming pieces that are knitted seamlessly and designed with a slouchy, drapey effect in mind. The types of garments Alpaca is not suited for, are structured pieces that are seamed, and designed for a crisp, tailored look.  

Because of its drapey nature, you also want to make sure your Alpaca yarn isn’t too heavy. When knitting a garment with pure Alpaca, it is best to work at a looser gauge, going up .25-.50mm in needle size from what you would normally use with wool yarn of the same weight. I once talked to a knitter who chose Alpaca for a sweater-coat pattern that called for bulky weight yarn. She took aran-weight Alpaca, then held it double to meet gauge! Unsurprisingly, the result proved unwearably saggy. With the exception of things like hats, mittens and blankets, Alpaca yarn is not meant to be held double. Because of this fibre’s amazing drape you want to make sure your yarn is buoyant.

In summary, if you want to knit a garment out of 100% Alpaca yarn, I suggest the following:
. choose a seamless design,
. go for a pullover, cardigan, tunic, or dress, with at least 3cm of ease, and
. work at a looser gauge than you would with wool. 
The result will drape your figure flatteringly, and will be a tactile delight. 

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Is Alpaca unbearably warm? 

It is true that Alpaca fibre is warmer than wool fibre. Therefore, a garment knitted with Alpaca yarn will be warmer than a garment knitted with wool yarn of the same weight. Being aware of this, and selecting your yarn accordingly, will eliminate the possibility of overheating.  

As I see it, the main benefit of Alpaca here, is that it keeps you as warm as wool, with less bulk. This means that, for the colder season, you can knit an alpaca sweater out of sport-weight yarn, and get the same warmth as you would out of an aran-weight wool sweater. The advantage of choosing Alpaca in this scenario, is that the sport weight garment will be more versatile. The thinner yarn lends itself to dressier/ more elegant designs, suitable for work and parties and not just casual wear. You can fit the sport-weight Alpaca sweater under a tailored overcoat or blazer. You can pack it easier into a suitcase for travel. It will even take up less space in your closet. And finally, the meterage makes it more cost-effective to knit with. 

If you want a rough translation chart of what level of warmth to expect from Alpaca compared to wool, in my experience it is something like this:

fingering weight Alpaca => DK wool
sport weight Alpaca => aran weight wool
aran weight Alpaca => bulky wool
bulky Alpaca => super duper bulky wool!

With this in mind, make sure to choose the Alpaca yarn appropriate for your season and climate, and overheating should not be an issue.

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Can some Alpaca yarns be itchy?

An additional thing I have heard recently - and this is a new one to me - is that 'cheap' Alpaca yarn can be itchy. Now, I cannot attest to all makes of yarn out there. But I have used Drops Alpaca in various weights, which I believe is as budget as it gets. I would not describe it as even remotely itchy, and I am pretty sensitive to that sort of thing. Then again, I always wear sweaters (even cashmere) over a base layer. So when I say 'not itchy' I mean, not itchy against my bare neck, face, or lower arms; I am the wrong person to ask about direct contact with the torso. 

Thinking on it, it is actually not impossible that there exist 'itchy' Alpaca yarns. The way this could happen, is if fibre from the animal's rougher outer coat (not normally used for yarn) gets mixed in with the soft undercoat fibre. Happily, I have not personally encountered this problem with any of the Alpaca yarns I have used, including handspun from locally sourced fleeces.  

No doubt it is because I've always lived in cold climates, that I appreciate Alpaca the way I do. I started out knitting hats out of it, having discovered that a hat made of Alpaca kept my ears warmer than a woolen hat. But it was knitting my first Alpaca pullover that made me truly fall in love with the material. Over the years that pullover has seen me, unflinchingly, through kilos of weight fluctuation. It has fitted effortlessly under every jacket and coat I’ve owned. It has been my low maintenance travel companion. And on days when I’ve felt yucky, it has comforted with its gentle silky caress. It has kept me warm without insisting upon itself. And lucky for me, now that I live in Ireland I can even wear it in summer!

As for blending Alpaca with other fibres, there is of course nothing wrong with that either. Just be aware that blending Alpaca with plant-based fibres will reduce its moisture-wicking and temperature-regulairng properties - which for me personally is not a good thing, since I spend a lot of time being active in the cold. If I’m going to go for a blend, I would go for Alpaca-wool or Alpaca-silk. But of course, to each their own. The main thing is to be informed; then we can make choices based on our individual use case scenarios.

In its pure form, Alpaca yarn is exceptionally soft, warm, drapey, and pleasant to knit with. I hope I have given you some food for thought, as to its potential for garments.