Cashmere vs Alpaca – which is the most luxurious and are either sustainable?

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Cashmere vs Alpaca – which is the most luxurious and are either sustainable?

Baby-Alpaca-vs.-Cashmere

Cashmere vs. Alpaca

In this article about Cashmere vs. Alpaca I will try and honestly answer the above question. When I started my research, I realised many similar variations of this same question have been asked before. The answers and conclusion that people come to, show huge bias one way or the other. In a large amount of the articles, blog posts and website that cover this an variations of this question. So, I have spent days reading and researching a great variety of sources. Now I will try and answer this question as honestly and unbiased as I am able too.

What motivates our choices when we are searching for the right clothing, the right bed linen or the right blanket for ourselves or for our loved ones?
Some deciding factors may be price, convenience or overall appearance. Most often though, we look for items that are comfortable due to natural properties of the fibre they are made from. We search for hypoallergenic products if our skin is sensitive or prone to allergies. Durability is also important as investing in a long-lasting item is in the long term more economical and eco-friendlier.

In a world where we can be overwhelmed by the sheer number of products available, good research is a must. And if luxury is one of our requirements, then the choice often narrows and two of the select few leading fibres are -cashmere and alpaca.

Kashmir Goats

Cashmere has been considered an exceptional material for centuries, having been called the “fibre for kings.” (7) Nowadays, you don’t have to be a king to enjoy the luxury of cashmere. Clothing made of this special material is not the cheapest, especially if it is handmade from the best fibres. Only a limited amount of grade A quality cashmere is gathered each year.

This is the reason for its high price. A cashmere sweater is nevertheless a long-term investment. If well cared for, cashmere clothing retains its qualities for many years without fading or stretching, making it a possible inheritance for the next generation.

The earliest documented use of cashmere dates to the 14th century. Since then cashmere has become more and more widely used as the Chinese population has grown. In the 1990’s China was the global leader of cashmere products and was producing massive amount to satisfy the global demand. It had become increasingly popular because Cashmere was considered for many years to be the most luxurious yarn variety in the world. Due to the huge demand for cashmere, farmers had to compromise on their quality.

To keep up with the production, they had to significantly lower the quality of what once used to be an extremely luxurious product. Global demand for cashmere meant that the number of goats had to rise as well. In Mongolia the second largest supplier of cashmere, the population rose from 5million to 20million in 19 years from 1990 to 2009. This huge rise in the population so quickly had an immense impact on the environment.

Herds of Kashmir goats would inhabit the wide spread steppe of Mongolia, China, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey. They decimated the grass and any greenery growing on the steppe. There was not enough grass and vegetation on the steppe to feed all the hungry goats that had to produce cashmere for now a world population. The goats damaged vegetation on the steppe and made the ground liable to erosion. (2,11)

Alpacas

Alpaca fibre also known as “fibre of the gods”(12) sheered from the animal annually is more economical than their carcass, so it is in the interests of the breeders not to cull them and use them for yarn, only using their carcass for the fur in the case that they die naturally (10). Related to the vicuna, llama and guanaco the alpaca is a rare and precious animal that is a hybrid cross between a guanaco and vicuñas, introduced some 6000 years ago by the Inca civilisation.

Alpacas have had a turbulent history. Treasured by the ancient Inca civilisation, their fine fleeces were reserved for Incan royalty. Together with their close relatives, the llamas, alpacas provided clothing, food, fuel and, no doubt, companionship as domesticated animals high in the altiplano of Peru, Chile and Bolivia.

A thousand years before the Roman Empire, a thriving economy existed, based on selective breeding and the production of alpacas that are thought to have had even better fleeces than the finest and most uniform alpacas today. Alpacas were close to annihilation after the Spanish conquest of the Incas.

The alpaca, prized for almost 5000 years as a source of high-quality fibre, was seen by the Spaniards as a competitor for grazing lands available to their sheep. The alpaca therefore became a source of meat and was slaughtered almost to the point of extinction.

Quality

Introduction to cashmere grades

The purity/fineness of the hairs found on the fibre and the length of hairs are the main elements used to determine the quality of cashmere. Based on these elements, experts have determined three distinctive quality grades.

Quality Grade A

Cashmere fibres that are classified as grade A are the thinnest and longest which means that they come with the best quality. Their diameter is very small, and it can go as low as 14 microns. In addition, they are up to 36 mm long. The cashmere products made from grade A fibre last for a very long period.

Quality Grade B

Grade B – the diameter of the fibre is about 19 microns. This is a good grade, but those who want to wear the best must choose grade A cashmere.

Quality Grade C

As you probably could have guessed by the name, this cashmere fibre has the lowest quality. The fibre is thick – their diameter is around 30 microns. Of course, they are much cheaper than cashmere graded as type B or type A.

Although these cashmere quality grades are often part of the label, there are many products that don’t state the quality and what is even worse – some of them use fake gradations.   (1)

WHAT MAKES ALPACA FIBRE EXCELLENT?

Two things: Fineness and crimp. The goal is to breed alpacas with the fineness of cashmere and the crimp of merino.  Fineness is measured in Microns and finer fibre has a smaller micron count.  As an example, human hair can have a micron count of between 50-120+ while most cashmere is in the 15-30-micron range.  Alpaca fibre can range from 16 -40 microns—depending on their breeding and age—with younger animals having the finest fibre.  The Peruvian standard for alpaca grades is below-

Crimp means zigzags.  It gives alpaca, wool or any animal fibre greater elasticity—which helps the knitted garment spring back into shape after wearing.  The fibre testing labs measure the fleece samples to get a crimps-per-inch measurement.  Merino and cormo wool set the standard for crimps per inch, but alpaca can also be bred for crimpy fibre.

ROYAL, Baby & standard ALPACA FIBER GRADES

A Super Royal <16.9 microns
B Super Royal <17.9 microns
  Royal 18-19.9 microns
  Baby (fine) 20-23 microns
  Standard Alpaca 23-40 microns

(10)

Sustainability

Increased breeding of Kashmir goats has become detrimental to their environment. Their sharp hooves destroy grasses and plants close to the soil. They graze plants close to their roots destroying the native plants. Continuous damage of plants and grasses is a hypothesized contribution to climate change(11). Additionally, survival of other creatures residing in the same area as goats have been affected. Endangered snow leopards, wild horses and Tibetan antelope have been greatly affected by the cashmere industry.

Alpaca’s, on the other hand, do not destroy their native ecosystem. Their soft, padded feet are kind to the soil. They graze without destroying roots of the plants. The sheer number of alpaca’s is not as overwhelming as of Kashmir goats. There are around 430 million Kashmiri goats whereas there are only 4.5 million alpacas. This huge difference in number means that grasses on which alpacas feed can grow back far quicker.

Keeping alpacas is more efficient too. They consume less water than goats and grow enough fibre for yarn that in a year alpacas can have sufficient fibre for four or five alpaca yarn garments, however, 20 goats are needed to produce the same amount of items annually.(8) According to the National Resources Defence Council it takes four goats the same amount of time to produce enough cashmere yarn for a single sweater.

So this shows that alpacas and the yarn that they produce is 20 times more productive than cashmere. However the high quality baby and royal alpaca is only comparable to grade B cashmere with grade A cashmere even having a slightly higher finest of the yarn when compared to the super royal grade A quality alpaca yarn.

Alpaca is a serious competitor to cashmere these days

As cashmere quality has declined alpaca products are measuring up to cashmere. After Mongolia’s cashmere industry was privatized in 1990, breeders began crossbreeding their herds and focusing on quantity over quality. So, goats produced more cashmere by weight, but the fibre became shorter and coarser. The result? A sweater that’s less soft, and more likely to pill.

While an alpaca fibre has an overall larger diameter than a cashmere fibre after animals are shorn, experts’ hand-sort the wool by staple length and diameter, ranging from prime, downy-soft royal and baby alpaca (those finest of under-hairs) to the more robust guard hairs found on animals’ legs and undersides.

Just as certain parts of a cow produce prime cuts, so do specific sections of an alpaca produce prime fibres—and that’s how alpaca yarns are sold. A sweater made of classified “super royal” alpaca can rival its cashmere counterpart when it comes to softness and outdo it when it comes to strength and productivity.

A sweater costing US$200 to US$300—standard for 100% baby alpaca—may seem expensive, but it is a good investment. Royal alpaca fibre clothing is extremely exclusive as it’s supplied on a much smaller scale. Only animals that have been expertly breed have under-hairs at a royal and super royal alpaca grading. So European designers in Italy, France and Germany are some of the few and most exclusive places in the world you are able to find this relatively newly found fibre to the fashion world. Due to its tiny supply chain and its high demand it can cost up to 8 times more than the highest quality Cashmere you could find.

Cashmere fibres over four centimetres in length are considered long, alpaca fibres commonly measure between eight and twelve centimetres—so are far less likely to pill and are longer-lasting. If it is washed and maintained as directed by the instruction on its label. A quality made Baby alpaca or royal alpaca fibre product will last the buyer their whole life. It is a product that will last for many decades if its owner is careful with it and has no accidents that may damage it in any way.

The key to competing with cashmere longer term will undoubtedly be the sustainability question for alpaca. Customers are becoming more and more aware of environmental concerns and damage so it may be easier for many to buy an alpaca sweater with a clear conscience rather than a cashmere one that may be contributing to widespread desertification in Mongolia and northern China as well as the possibility of its contribution to climate change.

Sustainability forms part of the luxury concept and quantity rather than quality fomented by the Asian cashmere industry may have pushed cashmere into the mainstream except for a tiny percentage of the highest quality garments.

What motivates our choices when we are searching for the right clothing, the right bed linen or the right blanket for ourselves or for our loved ones?
Some deciding factors may be price, convenience or overall appearance. Most often though, we look for items that are comfortable due to natural properties of the fibre they are made from. We search for hypoallergenic products if our skin is sensitive or prone to allergies. Durability is also important as investing in a long-lasting item is in the long term more economical and eco-friendlier.

In a world where we can be overwhelmed by the sheer number of products available, good research is a must. And if luxury is one of our requirements, then the choice often narrows and two of the select few leading fibres are -cashmere and alpaca.

Alpaca and Llamas History

Reference list:

1.Cashmere Mania http://www.cashmeremania.com/blog/cashmere-quality-grades-explained/ 2.Quartz, by Jenni Avins , June 8th 2014, https://qz.com/207489/why-your-next-sweater-should-be-alpaca-not-cashmere/

3.Investopidia https://www.investopedia.com/articles/personal-finance/093015/choosing-luxury-yarn-alpaca-vs-cashmere.asp

4.Perilla, Posted 22.02.2018 https://perilla.co.uk/blogs/blog/the-main-differences-between-alpaca-and-cashmere 

5.Tuwi, Posted 6 December 2017 https://tuwi.co.uk/baby-alpaca-vs-cashmere-choosing-right-product/

6.Matriahome https://www.matriahome.com/blogs/matriablog/alpaca-vs-cashmere-learn-why-alpaca-wool-is-the-best-option

7.Cashmere specialist https://www.cashmerespecialist.com/ 

8. Be Alpaca https://bealpaca.com/en/10-reasons-why-alpaca-wool-is-better-and-more-ecological-than-cashmere-wool/

9. Valhalla yarns http://www.valhallayarns.com/fiber-facts/ 

10. Ecocult, By Alden Wicks, Dec 8th 2018  https://ecocult.com/cashmere-is-over-long-live-alpaca/ 

11. Pastoral nomadism in the forest-steppe of the Mongolian Altai under a changing economy and a warming climate

Author links open lD.LkhagvadorjaM.HauckbCh.DulamsurenbJ.Tsogtbaatarc

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0140196312002224

12. Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alpaca_fiber 

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