The Finest Fleece
In the long history and human use of animal fiber, Vicuña is recognized as one of the finest fleeces in the world, fiber so incredibly fine and soft that only Incan Royalty were permitted to wear it. But wild Vicuña fiber is slow growing, so slow that it typically is only shorn every three years. Meanwhile, the earliest alpacas were domesticated from the Vicuna by the native South American societies roughly 6000 years ago. In the early to mid-1500’s, Spanish Conquistadores invaded and conquered Peru. In an effort to further subdue the Incans, the Conquistadors slaughtered most large alpaca herds, and replaced these early alpacas with sheep. As a result, much of the exquisitely fine fleece produced by the indigenous population was lost. The few remaining animals often cross-bred with the remaining high-plains llama populations before the major herds could be recovered and controlled breeding was reintroduced.
Wild Vicuña on Chile’s Altiplano plateau
Source: FreeIMG.net Credit: pvdberg / pixabay.com
Introduction to the United States
On their travels and through work as alpaca screeners, Phil and Chris Switzer began noticing naturally occurring South American camelids in the late 1980’s that were much finer than other alpacas, and more delicate in their structure. Knowing that the alpacas in the remote Altiplano region hadn’t been highly linebred, let alone bred in controlled settings, Phil Switzer found that many of these unique camelids had fleeces that exhibited more Vicuña-like characteristics such as greater density, sometimes shorter fiber, and evidence of more guard hair. Ironically, these are traits that would exclude them from breed standards of alpacas imported into the United States. Physical characteristics of the more primitive alpaca the Switzers observed varied, such as the absence of a longer fleece length of modern alpacas. However, these animals maintained a delicate bone structure, exceptionally fine fleeces, larger eyes, and more guard hair than most standard imported alpacas, particularly in the chest area and bib and generally across the entire body.
Due to his fascination with the finer micron fleeces, Phil Switzer began to import the more primitive looking alpacas he found on Chile’s Altiplano plateau. These imported animals – believed to the result of breeding between alpaca and Vicuña – represented the birth of the North American Paco-Vicuna. Since their introduction to the United States in 2002, more than 900 animals have been registered. The North American Paco-Vicuña Association salutes out Paco-Vicuña Pioneers, without whom the Paco-Vicuña’s success in North America would not have been possible. Once imported, these early Paco-Vicuñas were bred with a laser focus on maintaining a low micron value throughout each animal’s life span and establishing a longer and more reliable fiber staple length. Many of the current North American Paco-Vicuña in the United States are offspring of the original camelids found on the Altiplano in west-central South America.
The current American North American Paco-Vicuña breed has a distinctly different physical appearance from the standard alpaca. Alpacas have nearly as much fiber on their necks and legs as they do across the blanket. Conversely, North American Paco-Vicuña have particularly little fiber growth on the neck (on average, only about 1” long) and lack the prominent leg and belly fiber as well as topknots of domestic alpaca. This gives Paco-Vicuña unusually clean faces and well exposed eyes. As such, their fiber production is virtually 100% blanket or prime. But the extreme density of their fiber, along with the crinkle rather than organized crimp make their fleeces highly insulating and warm.
Paco-Vicuñas at Jefferson Farms
Photo: Thomas Victor