The Allure Of Luxurious Vicuna Fiber

By Jayne Rutledge

Vicuna fiber is one of the most silky and soft fibers on earth. This is because vicunas live at freezing altitudes and their coats have adapted to these conditions, being light and soft but very warm. It was the Incas who first extracted fibers which were woven into cloth and worn only by royalty. They regarded these animals as sacred.

While the Incas reigned, the vicunas roamed the Andes in large numbers. Unfortunately, subsequent civilizations, from the time of the Spanish conquistadors, slaughtered them for their precious fleece. By 1966 they were nearly extinct and drastic measures needed to be taken. Governments stepped in and thanks to conservation efforts, careful management and strict anti-poaching efforts by various parties, numbers have increased once again.

A chacu was a ceremony instituted by the Incas whereby Vicunas were captured for shearing. They were surrounded by a human chain and slowly closed in one. They were then sheared and released back into the wild. Carefully managed, modern-day chacus are allowed today. A large portion of the profits return to the locals, giving them a sustainable source of income.

Cousins to alpacas and llamas, vicunas are the smallest member of the camelid family. Their coats are not only extremely soft and light but very warm too. The fleece is more like a down than either hair or wool and it is this downy covering on the back and the neck that is sheared.

The fleece consists of two layers. The underneath layer is formed from densely packed fibers with tiny scales that lock together forming pockets filled with air for insulation. The outer layer is silky and long, varying in shade from dark fawn and golden brown to the color of wheat.

In 1994 the Peruvian government formed a consortium of companies who were allowed to export fibers and finished products. The strategy of these companies has been to establish reserves for these animals. Vicunas are not domestic animals and do not adjust to living in captivity. They starve themselves and die. This is why it is important for them to live in reserves where they can have their freedom but receive protection at the same time.

The scarcity of these fibers is also due to the fact that adults can only be sheared every two years. Yield is not that high either with an adult providing only about 120 grams after coarser fibers are removed. The fleece from more than one adult is required to make even a scarf. The fibers are about 12 microns in diameter as compared with cashmere which is about 15 microns. Besides being as soft as a cloud, they are very resilient.

The qualities of vicuna fiber make it highly desirable. It is not only extremely soft, fine and warm but also extremely resilient due to the conditions in which vicunas live. As soft as a cloud it conforms to the shape of the body, reacting to its movements. No wonder demand is growing worldwide as more and more individuals are becoming aware of its extraordinary qualities.

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