The British Alpaca Legacy

Alpacas made their appearance in Britain in the 19th century. A few people tried to keep alpacas in Britain at this time but failed as they did not have the knowledge to look after these animals. Alpacas were not accustomed to living in a wet and grey Britain. They did not know that the alpacas that were imported from the high Andean mountains needed UV sunlight and special mineral supplements. The early owners of alpacas did not know the diseases that the alpacas were prone to when living outside of their environment they were accustomed to. Those who realized that it was not easy to breed alpacas successfully exported them to South Africa and Australia.

The importation of alpaca coincided with the development of the worsted textile trade in Bradford Yorkshire which brought people from the countryside and smaller towns who sought employment in the mills. Textile workers which included small children lived and worked in appalling conditions in the mills. Alpaca fibre was spun in England for the first time about 1808 and was condemned as an unworkable material.

The pioneer of alpaca textiles was Sir Titus Salt who discovered a revolutionary cloth processing method enabling him to spin alpaca as a worsetd wool and weave cloth for commercial production. In 1835 alpaca imports from Arequipa Peru was around 84 metric tonnes.The importation of alpaca fibre increased to 601 metric tonnes in 1839.

By 1836 Sir Titus Salt had five large mills producing fabrics of such surpassing quality that they had all the beauty, the density of pik and the rich lustre of fine fibre of alpaca. The cloth produced at these mills was different to the heavy weight cloth made from British sheep. It was light, soft and shiny. It was used for linings, ladies dresses, shirts. This was achieved by blending alpaca with other natural fibres.

At the Great Exhibition held at the Crystal Palace in London in 1851 there is a special mention of the worsted cloths section: "The most remarkable exhibition....is that referring to alpaca and mohair goods, or mixtures of these with cotton or silk; the trade in which has sprung up within a comparatively short period, and progressed with a rapidity and success unparalleled in the history of manufactures. One town alone, Bradford, has risen from the obscurity of a mere manufacturing village to the position of one of the busiest and wealthiest communities in the country yet its operations in trade are almost entirely confined to (this) class of goods"