Let’s talk about some of the most popular natural wools there are – Alpaca and cashmere. If you love natural materials as much as we do, you probably have heard of these two materials.
Alpaca and cashmere are two of the best quality natural fibers you can find on the market, known for being soft, luxurious, and hypoallergenic.
When it comes to alpaca and cashmere, what’s the difference? Alpaca fiber comes from alpaca hair, while cashmere comes from kashmir goats. Both animal fibers are known for their luxurious softness and warmth. Alpaca is more durable and an even better insulator; cashmere is considered even finer and is more delicate.
You have probably heard of the names, but do you know where alpaca and cashmere came to be, and the characteristics of each material? If you are wondering what type of wool to use for your next project, this article will help you learn about Alpaca and cashmere.
Alpaca is an animal breed native Andes Mountains in South America. They look like smaller llamas with longer, skinnier faces.
Because of the high altitude and harsh temperatures, alpacas develop a very thick coat that can keep them warm during the below-freezing temperatures in the evening but still let them breathe under the hot direct sunlight of the day.
Because of the conditions of their environments, alpaca hair performs well under almost every weather condition. It is considered “waterproof” much like wool for its ability to keep the wearer warm even in rain. (Although it will eventually get damp and soaked.)
Characteristics of Alpaca
Although not a true wool, alpaca “wool” (as the fiber is often mistakenly called) is light, soft, and luxurious to the touch but still quite strong and durable.
If you placed it under a microscope, you would see the core of the fibers is actually hollow, creating millions of microscopic air pockets. This is what makes alpaca such a great insulator. These pockets make the wool quite light-feeling but still keeps you warm and snuggly.
Alpaca fibers are also excellent at wicking away moisture, so you nearly always feel light and comfortable when wearing alpaca in the winter.
One distinct advantage of Alpaca is its superior strength. Since Alpaca sheep have to endure harsh temperatures, their thick coats need to be able to withstand almost anything. That’s why Alpaca is often used in outdoor gear. Don’t let the fiber’s softness fool you. It is stronger and more durable than almost every other natural fiber there are.
Alpaca is also beloved because it is resistant to pilling and shrinking. This means that if you provide proper care for your Alpaca wool garments, they will stay “new” for years and years.
If you have sensitive skin, then Alpaca is your best friend. Alpaca is considered hypoallergenic, unlike other types of wool that may contain lanolin. It is very kind to the skin and won’t cause any skin irritations.
Cashmere is synonymous with expensive, luxurious wool that is soft to the touch and kind to your skin. Garments made of cashmere are often very light and delicate, requiring special care and attention.
Kind of like mohair, cashmere wool is actually made from the hair of the kashmir goat that is native to Central Asia.
The production and usage of cashmere wool have been recorded in Mongolia and other parts of Central Asia for thousands of years. In modern times, the world’s supplies of cashmere mostly come from China and other Central Asia countries.
Because of the colder climates in these countries, the goats need to develop a coat of fiber under their belly to protect them from the cold. They shed their coats every season when the weather gets warmer, which is then collected and processed to create cashmere wool.
Characteristics of Cashmere
There is a reason why cashmere is beloved by many luxury clothing designers. Its delicate fibers are perfectly light and incredibly soft – you would think that you are touching a cloud. It is relatively warm and comfortable, although it is not as insulated as other types of wool.
Because of its delicate fiber structure, cashmere is not a popular material for heavy-duty garments like outerwear or outdoor gear. However, thanks to its softness and hypoallergenic nature, cashmere would make great pieces for layering during colder seasons.
Cashmere feels amazing against your skin. It is hypoallergenic and wicks away moisture really well, making it a great first layer during the winter months. If you want a cozy sweater to lay around in indoors, cashmere is a luxurious way to treat yourself.
Since cashmere is so light and delicate, this material often requires special care to maintain its softness and appearance for a long time. It will shrink in the wash and may be subjected to wear and tear if you don’t handle it carefully.
However, the result is quite rewarding since you will have a super soft, snuggly layering piece in your closet for a long time to come.
Alpaca Vs Cashmere – Key Differences
Now that you know the origins of Alpaca and cashmere let’s take a look at some common traits of the two materials to see how they compare.
Both Alpaca wool and cashmere are famous for being luxurious and soft to the touch. Cashmere fibers are smaller and more delicate, so you may experience cashmere as softer than Alpaca.
However, the difference is not often a major one. Most people cannot really feel a drastic difference in softness between the two materials. Opting for baby alpaca or especially fine grade Suri alpaca fibers can also make up any difference in softness.
Although cashmere is generally warm and snuggly, it is nothing compared to alpaca.
As mentioned above, thanks to alpaca’s unique fiber structure, it provides added insulation to the material, which makes the material incredibly effective at retaining body heat. This trait is why alpaca is beloved in many regions with colder climates.
Both materials are comparable when it comes to breathability. Alpaca has natural air pockets that allow the material to feel light and warm without being too stuffy. Similarly, cashmere wool has very light and short fibers that allow your skin to breathe.
Pilling creates tiny raised bumps on your garment that make the material look aged and worn out. Pilling is more likely to occur with garments that have shorter fibers. This means that cashmere tends to pill more than alpaca.
If you have both cashmere and alpaca in your closet, you will see that one material is much more durable than the other. Cashmere is known to be quite delicate, so you have to be careful when handling cashmere. Although it is warm, it should not be used as outer layers because of its delicate nature.
On the other hand, alpaca can withstand almost anything. It is strong and durable, resistant to wrinkles as well as wear and tear. That is why alpaca makes great winter coats and outdoor gear. It will protect you against the natural elements fairly well.
Workability & Characteristics
Alpaca yarn is easy to work with and slick. There is little to no natural tooth to it, making alpaca great for even smooth textures (such as a stockinette) and color work.
Alpaca is often worked as a DK or bulky weight yarn, which helps with stitch definition. On the whole, however, alpaca is ideal for garments, scarves, and blankets which don’t need a lot of shaping. Alpaca can stretch a little, and the knitted or woven fabric likes to hang.
Cashmere is also soft and fine, meaning it won’t have great stitch definition. It can also shed a bit more. Like alpaca, it’s a good idea to opt for stockinette and simpler stitch patterns, highlighting the natural softness of the material or the color over the stitch work.
Both alpaca and cashmere take dyes well, so a variety of dyed colors are usually available.
However, alpaca fiber naturally comes in a wide variety of natural colors (some say as many as 22, with even more shades), ranging from whites, creams, tans and browns, grays and blacks.
Sometimes the fibers are left as is, for natural variation, but each shade can also be dyed on top for even more dynamic looks. Black and cream fibers take red dyes differently, for instance, expanding the color and tonal options for alpaca fibers.
Cashmere comes in different colors, but much fewer: white, beige, brown, grey and black, with less variety between than is seen in alpaca fibers.
Although alpaca is much stronger and more durable than cashmere, it is still highly recommended that you hand wash both of these materials to make sure that they can remain soft and luxurious for a long time.
You should always handwash your alpaca and cashmere garments in cold water using a mild laundry detergent. When washing, make sure not to pull or twist the garment too hard – the friction may even create felt! Instead, soak your garment in soapy water and rinse until the water runs clear.
You can remove excess water by lightly pressing on your garment. Do not twist, or you will distort its shape and size. You can also use a dry towel to soak up the excess water. Then, you can lay your garment flat to dry.
Whether it is wet or dry, do not use a hanger to hang your wool garments – it may distort the shape of the garment. Instead, fold it and store it in a dry place in your closet.
If you don’t want to hand wash your garments, dry cleaning is also a good option that is friendly to cashmere and alpaca wool.
For alpaca wool, since the material is more durable, you can also put it in a fine mesh laundry bag and wash it in cold water using the delicate cycle, and lay your garment out to dry. Some cashmere is able to withstand machine washing cold, but not all; it’s safer to handwash it and extend its life.
Sustainability and Ethical Concerns
When it comes to natural materials, sustainability is still an important factor that to consider.
Even when the fiber is natural and biodegradable, it’s still worth questioning whether material is ethically made without causing damage to the surrounding environments.
On this front, alpaca is clearly the superior material.
Cashmere is falling out of favor for environmentally conscious consumers because of the environmental impacts.
Kashmir/cashmere goats also don’t produce as much hair as sheep. So with the rising demand for cashmere, farmers need to breed more goats to meet the demand for wool.
Due to the overpopulation of goats in the region, the breeding and farming of cashmere goats have caused the desertification of grasslands in many regions in Central Asia. This has resulted in harsh weather conditions and affecting other agricultural practices in the region.
Alpaca sheep live more harmoniously with their surrounding habitats. They have evolved to have soft pads that don’t damage the terrain; they drink very little water and eat grass without pulling out the roots. That’s why raising Alpacas does not damage the environment around them.
Alpacas can produce wool throughout their life without being harmed at all – shearing them is like giving them a haircut. Alpaca also is not treated with harsh chemicals. So the process of producing fibers for yarn is also quite friendly to the environment.
Alpacas are also traditionally sheared in spring, just like sheep, giving them plenty of time to grow their warm coats back before winter. Cashmere goats, however, are not always given this same consideration and may be sheared in midwinter, when they still need their wool.
It’s always a good idea to research a cashmere or alpaca brand to ascertain how the animals involved were treated. Neither material has to be unethical or even unsustainable, but practices can vary and affect the kindness factor of your materials.