Alpacas are members of the cameloid family, more commonly referred to as camelids. They are believed to be descended from the first camelids which lived in North America millions of years ago and migrated to Asia and then to South America. For a long time, there has been debate about whether alpacas descended from llamas, guanaco or vicunas, the other camel descendants. But DNA research done by Dr. Jane Wheeler for the Royal Society of London in 2001 resolved that debate, showing that they are more closely related to vicuna.
There are two kinds of alpacas: Huacaya and Suri. Huacayas have an almost ‘teddy bear’ look. Their fiber grows perpendicular to the skin. Huacaya fiber grows in small, dense sections, which are called staples, that stand straight up and give them the fuzzy look. One of the specific characteristics of Huacaya is a tight wave called crimp. In Huacaya alpacas, one would also look for a quality of brightness, as in the opposite of dullness. Huacaya alpacas make up about 97 per cent of the world’s alpaca population.
The fiber of Suri alpacas hangs down parallel to the skin and looks very different from Huacaya. Suri fiber has individual twisted locks that look like miniature ringlets. Suri is known for its shininess, called luster, which also makes it feel cool and slick or slippery in your hand.
Both types of alpaca should, ideally, have fiber that is very fine and soft to the touch and dense, continuous coverage from the forelock, or topknot, to the cheeks, beard, neck and body all the way down the legs.
Alpacas come in 22 colors in solid color coats and many patterns. It is not considered desirable to breed Huacaya & Suri alpacas to each other since this would make the type and fiber of future offspring unpredictable. Vicuna, guanaco, llamas and alpacas can also interbreed and they can produce fertile offspring.
There is much to learn about fiber and it is best done in person, so the desirable characteristics can be pointed out by someone knowledgeable. Most alpaca breeders will happily give you a farm tour and teach you all about these wonderful animals.