Thursday, September 1, 2011

Worldbuilding: alpaca

Maybe you read my Worldbuilding: wool post but you're itching to do things a little differently in your fantasy world. Sheep are a distinctly European critter and you want something more exotic to stock your background pastures with but still provide warm fiber for your characters to wear.

May I suggest the alpaca?

Alpacas are native to South America, specifically the Andes. Their close cousins include the llama (which are a bit larger,) the vicuna and guanaco (both smaller.) Alpacas (and llamas) were domesticated long ago by the Andean natives. They can be shorn and the fiber processed in a similar manner as wool is. Natural colors range from ivory white to natural black, as well as many shades of brown. They are bigger than sheep -- the top of their head is going to be about shoulder-high on a medium-sized person.

I bet they are edible, too, but you don't hear much about that. 

Undyed alpaca yarn by Cascade Yarns
Alpaca as a fiber is similar to wool in many ways. It's a little stronger than wool once it's spun and it's noticeably warmer. It can insulate when wet. It's softer and has much of the same elasticity and memory advantages of wool. Alpaca has more of a "halo" and the resulting fabric will tend to look fuzzier than wool.

What's the down side? In my experience, it pills pretty fiercely, probably because of that fuzziness. You spend $80 on the yarn, a hundred hours knitting the sweater, and by the time you've worn it a few hours it's covered in pills under the arms and on the sleeves where they rub against each other. Frustrating. 

So if you put alpaca on your royalty, count on some chambermaid spending time shaving off the pills...

However, bear in mind that (European) royalty in our world were not wearing alpaca. The Spanish brought it back from Peru, but it didn't catch on as a fiber until much later. Apparently weaving with straight alpaca doesn't work so well and it took a while to figure out what to blend it with.

Alpaca can be knit and blocked into lace, though it comes out fuzzier than wool.

Alpacas are raised in many parts of the USA, these days, and if you look online you might find a ranch near you. You will not believe how soft these critters are until you pet one. And with that long neck, they're just... fascinating. In general, they're mild-mannered and make all kinds of interesting noises. They'd make an intriguing replacement for sheep and maybe small beasts of burden in a fantasy world, I think. I'd be curious to hear what you come up with!


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I haven't found the need to put llamas in space yet, but I bet they are like camels - very hardy.

The Golden Eagle said...

I love alpacas. :) They're sweet animals.

There are actually several ranches in our area--and they seem to come up at every public festival/event!

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