When it comes to cozy winter warmers, be it thick socks or a blanket to curl up with on the sofa, wool has long been considered the king of fabrics. But, for many people, wool clothing means a full day of itching and irritation.
Alpaca wool is highly sought after for a number of reasons. Firstly, because of the feel and appearance, which offers a higher quality material than traditional wool. But also because of its hypoallergenic properties.
If you’re allergic to sheep’s wool and are wondering if you can wear alpaca, the answer is, yes! Let’s take a look at what makes alpaca a safe choice for those with a sheep wool allergy.
What Is An Alpaca?
An Alpaca is a type of camelid from South America, similar to llamas, but much smaller. Alpacas date back to ancient tribes in the Andes, where the first-ever domesticated alpacas, the vicuna, originate. Alpacas were not only bread for their fiber, which was an innate part of the survival for Inca tribes, but also for their meat.
There are two kinds of domesticated alpaca, suri and huacaya, both of which produce different qualities of fiber in over twenty natural shades.
Alpaca fiber is the hair of the alpaca after being removed from the animal. Native to Peru, the alpaca offers one of the finest natural fibers known to man and was originally reserved for royalty. Big brands love the hypoallergenic nature and natural colors offered by alpaca yarn and produce garments made from alpaca wool such as a royal alpaca sweater, alpaca socks, and other garments. Alpaca fleece has an extremely fine fiber that is loved by luxury clothing brands and hobby knitters alike.
Alpaca fiber is extremely soft and often likened to cashmere. This softness is due to the fine diameter of the fiber of alpaca wool and is one reason why alpaca fibers feel less itchy than sheep’s wool against sensitive skin.
But don’t let its soft coziness fool you into thinking alpaca fiber can’t withstand the daily wear and tear, as although it may be much softer than sheep’s wool, it is also incredibly strong and much warmer than sheep fibers.
There are two types of alpaca wools that are available and have slightly different characteristics.
Huacaya alpacas are the main type of alpaca you will find all over the world. Their wool is naturally more spongy and crimped. This makes the fiber more elastic which works well for knitting clothing.
What Both Fibers Have In Common
Both types of alpaca fiber offer a number of mutual benefits including:
Alpaca wool is incredibly warm, more so than merino wool. The best thing about this is alpaca wool traps air to retain warmth, therefore, despite being toasty, it still manages to remain lightweight.
With a low water retention rate, alpaca fiber is naturally water-resistant.
The alpaca has what is considered a hypoallergenic fleece because it does not contain as much lanolin as merino wool. Huacaya alpaca has a very minimal percentage of lanolin making it the most hypoallergenic.
Alpaca wool fiber is incredibly soft which not only offers a luxurious feel but is a great option for most people with sensitive skin.
The main reason people can have an allergic reaction to merino wool is down to the lanolin found within the fibers. Sheep naturally produce lanolin in their skin which helps to moisturize their body and keep their wool soft. When the sheep’s wool is shorn, the lanolin remains within the fibers. Unless extremely harsh chemicals are used to remove the lanolin from sheep’s wool, it will remain within the fiber.
Most wool-based allergies, including anything from an itchy feeling to hives and more severe allergic reactions, are down to the lanolin itself or a secondary reaction from microscopic allergens, as, for example, lanolin holds dust and therefore can set off a secondary reaction for dust allergy sufferers.
For those who want to wear wool sweaters without base layers to avoid constantly feeling itchy, alpaca wool could be the answer. Alpaca wool fibers are considered hypoallergenic as alpacas only produce lanolin in small amounts which are removed during the shearing process and so their fiber is, therefore, lanolin-free for the most part.
It was thought for many years that alpacas did not produce lanolin at all, however, according to Cameron Holt, this is untrue. He states that all wool-bearing animals secrete lanolin, however, it is minimal in alpacas, especially huacaya alpacas whose wool only contains around 1-3% lanolin compared to up to 25% found in merino wool.
Some wearers may still feel irritation from the wool from adult animals, which is where baby alpaca or royal alpaca wool fibers can save the day. Baby alpaca is incredibly soft, which is another reason people may not feel itchy when wearing it. But also, as baby alpaca wool (which contrary to the name suggests, does not come from baby alpacas) comes from the back of the animal which has less dirt and contaminants, it is more hypoallergenic.
Asides from the supreme quality of the fiber itself, its warmth, strength, and lightweight nature all making it ideal for your beautiful winter sweater, alpacas are also a valued part of South American culture.
Although alpacas can now be found in many parts of the world, including the US, UK, and Australia, South American alpaca fiber is still the most sought after.
With that, the alpacas in South America are well cared for and are in no way ever harmed for their fleece. In fact, removing the heavy, thick fleece of an alpaca during warm weather is actually beneficial for its health. Not only does it mean they don’t need to carry around pounds of heavy fleece during the hottest months of the year, but it also allows farmers to see their bodies in full view and make assessments of their health and diet.
Alpacas tend to only be sheered annually, meaning their fleece can grow throughout the year keeping them warm in cool weather.
Yes. As alpaca wool contains significantly less lanolin than sheep’s wool, 100% alpaca wool is considered hypoallergenic.
Alpaca wool is both lightweight and breathable without sacrificing warmth.
Compared to merino wool, alpaca is stronger, warmer, softer, and holds less water. Alpaca is also more environmentally sustainable and therefore, often the overall winner for most people.
While both materials are considered luxurious, there are two main differences between alpaca and cashmere. Cashmere is softer overall, however, alpaca retains more warmth. Therefore, for many people, the choice between the two comes down to the season as alpaca is often a better choice for colder weather.
According to Bud Synhorst, executive director of The Alpaca Owners Association or AOA, raw alpaca wool has modest antimicrobial properties similar to those found in scoured sheep’s wool.
When it comes to alpaca, there is significantly less chance of spending the entire winter itching if the feel of wool makes your skin irritated. Wearing alpaca has a number of benefits, but avoiding the effects of a wool allergy is certainly one of them.
We love hearing from other alpaca lovers! Do you have a comment about this article? Do you find alpaca wool less itchy than sheep’s wool? If so, let us know in the comments below.