Meet Eros, something of a star in the Alpaca world and one of the cheekiest and friendliest of the herd of Alpaca that produce the fibre for our dinner suits. With an impeccable bloodline from his native South America, it sounds odd to say that Eros is British, but he was born and raised on England's rolling green hills and is one of the finest examples of British Alpaca, the herd now producing the finest quality fibre in the world.
I met Eros and his fellows in the beautiful countryside of the Exmoor National Park, home to Anila and David, who run Weekfield Farm, where a herd of these South American camelids provide fibre for the finest British grown, British made Alpaca cloths. The growth of the business that now sets the standard for British alpaca cloths has been swift, but how did two highly qualified lawyers become leaders in such a specialist industry?
A very happy birthday
The story starts with an unexpected significant birthday present that David didn’t know he wanted. A piece of paper, face down on the dining room table signified the arrival of Champagne and Truffles, a gift from Anila. At a ‘beginner’s course’ the following week David was introduced to a one day old alpaca and its mother and two became four. A few months later, friends who were moving abroad wanted to sell their herd of twenty-two alpaca. David and Anila were presented with a dilemma that resolved itself fairly easily when they purchased the herd, eleven of which happened to be pregnant. The herd is now at a stable eighty, but has been joined by eleven Guanaco – a story for another day.
The Alpaca (Vicugna pacos) is a domesticated fibre-producing animal that resembles the llama. A native of Peru, Chile, Bolivia and Ecuador, Alpaca are social herd animals that live in family groups. They were domesticated by the Inca and bred primarily for their fibre, which remains the main reason for farming them in South America and elsewhere.
Alpaca are gentle, inquisitive animals and it is quite something to hear them 'cooing' when they surround a new visitor or when something arouses their interest. Males are known as Machos, female are Dams, the babies are Crias and the 6-12 month olds are the undeniably cute-in-every-way Weanlings.
Meeting the herd
At Weekfield farm I met the dams and their young first. We drove into the field with my children in the back of the open vehicle cooing as excitedly as the herd of young Alpaca they were about to meet. We were immediately surrounded by the dams and their young and as David dismounted to catch up a cria (a baby alpaca), we were watched from a few yards away by an elegant trio of Guanaco, who share the field.
It is immediately obvious when watching Alpaca what a social and familial animal they are; they stay close to each other and communicate comfort and alarm with soft sounds. I wouldn't want to lower the tone with toilet matters, but it was fascinating to see that they choose a single spot in the field for their communal latrine, all the animals in the herd using it, leaving the rest of the field clean.
The machos are a gentle group - it occurred to me how very South American it was to give them such a name when they are anything but macho. Perhaps I am being a little unfair to the boys, but seeing them recently shorn, with their mop top haircuts, cooing and sniffing, you couldn't want for a friendlier herd. I think I understand a little of why David and Anila fell in love with them.
Love and care make for a better fleece
Alpaca are highly social animals and do not like being kept alone. Farmed Alpaca are generally segregated for the wellbeing of the animals and to control breeding. Machos are kept in separate fields to the Dams and their young. Alpaca at Weekfield Farm are housed at night in separate barns and when the weather is wet or cold – they have a wicking fibre that attracts moisture, so they really don’t like being out in the rain; they have field shelters so that they can retreat during summer showers and take shelter from the hot sun. This level of care and protection is vital to the production of fibre with a low micron count, but also increases the volume of fibre each animal produces.
Breeding and shearing
Alpaca are ready to breed at 24 months old. They breed through induced ovulation – mating causes the release of an egg from the ovary - a single mating is usually sufficient to produce a pregnancy. They bear a single cria after a gestation period of 350-360 days, usually timed by breeders for the summer months of May, June and July so that the young have the best chance of survival and are able to produce a sufficient fleece to keep them warm in winter.
Shearing generally takes place in June and July giving the alpaca time to grow a full fleece before winter. Alpaca are not usually shorn until they are at least a year old. A one-year-old will produce a 2kg fleece; adults can produce up to 3kg, but 2.5kg is a good average – the best quality fleeces are from animals 2-5 years old.
After shearing, each fleece is kept separate in a named bag and is then cleaned of vegetation and any contamination and graded for quality and colour. Fleece of a consistent colour and quality is sorted for the specific yarns, made into separate bales and then packed into larger bags for scouring.
The quality of the fibre
Although in South America in the quality of Alpaca fibre has remained largely unchanged for many years, herds bred in countries such as the UK, Australia and New Zealand have seen their fibre improve over the years through generations of selective breeding. In the UK, alpaca are often bred for the show scene, which preserves the bloodlines of the animals; with some 60% of marks going to the quality of the fibre, 30% to confirmation and 10% to the general demeanor of the animal, the effect has been a constant improvement of the fleece.
Sorting and grading for quality is an essential part of processing the fibre after shearing and the highest quality cloths come from the finest fibres with the best crimp and lustre. Alpaca hair is hollow; it picks up and refracts light and the finer the fibre, the better the lustre.
The best fibre comes from male Alpaca (macho), perhaps because they are spared the efforts of bearing young, although the females (dams) also produce high quality fibre. Alpaca fibre is softest in young alpaca and grows coarser with age; the term ‘baby alpaca’ refers not necessarily to the fleece of a cria (baby alpaca), but to the softest and finest fleeces.
A wide range of colours
There are around 26 natural colours in alpaca fleece, ranging from various shades of white, fawn and brown to black. A black fleece will sometimes have brown tips have where it has been exposed to the sun; during grading these different colours can either be separated or the colours can be blended to create a natural fabric with individual character; darker fibres such as jet black are often blended with brown fibre to make interesting yarns.
After sorting and grading, the fibre goes for scouring, combing and spinning into yarn and then to be made into cloth – all in England. Through experienced grading and sorting, Anila can define the quality and colour of the resulting yarn, keeping colours pure or blending white, fawn, brown and black to produce the required shade and making a yarn to specification for the cloth that is being woven.
This year will be the first year that Anila, working with one of the leading wool processors in Yorkshire, has managed to secure the first washing after the August holidays so that in the cleanest machines, she can personally control the temperature and speed of the wash throughout. Perhaps this is the new ‘Glorious 12th – the first wash of the year might always now be Alpaca fibre on the first Monday closest to the 12th of August.
British Alpaca Fibre Grading
Fleece exported from Peru, where the genetic programme is rare, will mostly likely be around 26 microns. In contrast Anila and David are confident that their herd will be producing wool in the 14-18 micron range, which is the current A+ rating for producing fine suiting fabrics.
A+ 15-18 microns
A 18-19 microns
B + 20-22 microns
B 23-24 microns
C 25 + microns
There are two types of Alpaca.
Huacaya : The ideal huacaya's fleece should be fine, dense, uniform, and grow perpendicular to the skin. The fleece, which grows from individual follicles in the skin, should be made up of defined staples of crimpy "bundled" fleece. A huacaya can produce fleece as soft and as fine as cashmere.
Suri : The suri's fleece falls close to the body, moves freely, and gives the animal a lustrous, flat-sided appearance. The fibre is fine and has a slippery feel and is denser than huacaya fleece.
Both types of fleece are used for making luxury cloth in various blends depending on the look and handle required.
Cloth Making – the early days – Sir Titus Salt
Alpaca fibre was first exploited commercially in the UK by Sir Titus Salt of Yorkshire, who in 1836 found bales of imported Alpaca wool at Liverpool docks. He was the son of a dry-salter and wool-stapler and when he noticed this unusual wool he tried to get investment to develop its use by the mills; he failed, but having taken over his father’s business, he continued to develop cloths; two in particular, an Alpaca Silk mix and an Alpaca Mohair mix, known as the ‘Lustre Cloths’ were hugely successful, gaining a wide following that included Queen Victoria. It is one of these Salt cloths, rediscovered and remade by Anila (with help from Eros and his chums) that we have chosen for our Richard Anderson bespoke dinner suits.
Salt was a religious man; he was disturbed by the working conditions and over-crowding of Bradford and wanting to expand his business, he built a vast mill near Shipley, and around it the philanthropic workers village of Saltaire. In a similar manner to the more famous village of Cadbury, this was a model Methodist village where workers were given decent housing, healthcare and education.
Anila has carried out a great deal of research into the early cloths made by Titus Salt, buying old samples of garments and deconstructing them to look at the weaving techniques and also the designs. This research is not just so that she can recreate those early cloths, it is so that she can innovate, producing classic suiting and coating cloths to textured cloths using interesting weave patterns to create subtle or striking effects.
A new level of quality
As someone with a natural eye for colour and design and who has been intrigued by weaving techniques and textile design for many years, Anila wants to take British Alpaca to new dimensions, to create the highest quality suit cloths for the finest tailors on Savile Row (us of course). This requires a level of quality far above the norm, where pieces are created without any of the slight imperfections that would be acceptable at a lower level.
This is not to say that the cloth will be characterless or dull, these are cloths for an educated market that understands how fibres work to produce texture, handle and shades of colour. Alpaca not only makes up into beautiful cloths as a pure fibre, with distinctive streaks and lustre, it also blends exceptionally well with linen, cotton and other fibres to make a range of cloths that range from a hard finish through to a super soft knit. Watch this space as we work with Anila to bring you special treats in the future!