The Fineness And Softness Of Vicuna Fiber

By Jayne Rutledge

Rare and implausibly soft, vicuna fiber has been a well kept secret over the centuries. Vicunas living in the high altitudes and freezing conditions of the Andes were regarded by the Incas as sacred animals. The Incas soon discovered the softness of the fleece of this camelid and the fibers were extracted from their winter coats to weave soft cloth for their royalty to wear. Today these fibers are highly sought after and are regarded by aficionados as the silkiest, finest hair in the world.

In their time, there was no shortage of vicunas roaming the Andes. Unfortunately, due to the high value of the fleece, vicunas were hunted from the time of the Spanish conquistadors through the 1960s. At this point they were near to extinction and urgent measures had to be taken to protect the decimated herd. The Peruvian government placed the remaining animals on a reservation and instituted programs whereby the local communities benefited financially from capturing and shaving the animals.

In 1994, three companies were selected to join a consortium formed by the Peruvian government. They had the right to process and export fabrics and finished products made from the fibers. The strategy of these companies has been to establish reserves where these animals are protected, bred and sheared. They are committed to keeping the quality and increasing the quantities available for export.

The coats of vicunas are not only unusually soft and light but very warm at the same time. This warmth and resilience is due to the extreme conditions in which the animals live. The fleece is much, much finer than a human hair and even finer than cashmere. It is the neck and the back that are sheared for the fleece.

There are two layers of fleece, with the outer layer consisting of long, silky fibers and the inner layer offering insulation. This inner layer consists of fibers densely packed together. Air filled pockets are created by small scales locking together. The coat colors vary from dark fawn to a wheat shade.

In 1994 the Peruvian government formed a consortium of companies who were allowed to export fibers and finished products. The strategy of these companies has been to establish reserves for these animals. Vicunas are not domestic animals and do not adjust to living in captivity. They starve themselves and die. This is why it is important for them to live in reserves where they can have their freedom but receive protection at the same time.

An adult is sheared every two years and after removing the coarser fibers, an amount of a mere 120 grams usually remains. This is not even enough to make one scarf. Fibers measure an average of about 12 microns in diameter. This is about eight times finer than a human hair and the finest cashmere is about 14 or 15 microns. Besides being finer than cashmere, it conforms to the shape of the body and reacts to its movement. It is extremely resilient due to the conditions in which the animals live.

In 1994 the Peruvian government formed a consortium of companies who were allowed to process and export fibers and finished products made from them. Their strategy was to create reserves where the animals could be protected, while still roaming free as these animals do not survive in captivity. Vicuna fiber is still relatively rare and expensive but there is an increasing demand worldwide as its extraordinary qualities are discovered.

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