The History of Alpaca Products in Britain

Back in Victorian days no self respecting artisan would consider not possessing a working coat made from the finest pure alpaca fleece. The coat would have almost certainly been made in the mills of Bradford in Yorkshire or in Sir Titus Salt’s model old alpaca millmill town of Saltaire which he went on to build on the back of his highly successful trade in alpaca products. His mills still stand to this day and on the walls can be seen quite clearly the carvings of a …….. llama! As there were not many photographs available at that time it is not too surprising that the stone masons got the proportions somewhat wrong.

The Victorian working man would treasure his alpaca coat as it provided him with tremendous warmth, it must have been one of the most waterproof materials available, it was very comfortable to wear and above all it lasted forever. So much so that alpaca coats became family heirlooms and were passed on down from father to son. They still appear in some old family wardrobes or hidden in attics.

Gentlemen also wore them on a regular basis. Going through a diary recently, written in 1868 and describing a gentleman’s travels through Europe on the Grand Tour, there was a list of essential items to be taken on tour; almost at the top of the list was ‘An Alpaca Coat’.

The Present Market alpaca shawl

here is currently insufficient supply of alpaca fleece in this country to support an operation on the scale of Sir Titus Salt’s Victorian industry.

Alpaca owners can usually sell their fleeces for very good prices to local spinners and weavers for their hand made products.

There are a number of individual initiatives which have been started up around the country through which the alpaca owner can benefit. There are mini-mills which will take the fibre, process it in relatively small quantities and then produce yarn for the breeder to put into whatever sort of product they may choose. Alternatively there is a mill in Devon which will purchase raw fibre direct.

However until there is sufficient quantity of quality fleece the opportunities to ‘go commercial’ will have to wait until that time when the critical mass is reached in terms of production so that processing can become really efficient and the textile trade can maximise on the availability of really special alpaca fibre on their own doorstep.

The Future Market

The future of the alpaca enterprise in the UK is reliant on a future market for its fibre product. We believe it is essential that growers concentrate on improving the quality of their fibre to ensure that the UK is competitive with the rest of the world. Best quality alpaca fibre is so versatile that the return to the grower who produces it should be considerable. Most people are familiar with alpaca knitwear however it also makes excellent woven material which, because of its lightness, can be used in so many types of garment, both in day to day clothes and in haute couture. There will always be a demand for natural fibres at the top end of the market and alpaca fibre has the qualities to be amongst the most popular