Alpaca or llama, is there a difference?

I have worked with alpaca yarn for many years, having designed numerous sweaters and concluding it’s one of my favorite fibers. In fact, a while back I was inspired to buy two years worth of yarn spun from the fleece of a herd of alpacas that belong to one of my neighbors.

Then recently I encountered llama yarn and thought what’s the big difference? Aren’t they more or less the same animal? Sort of the same animal with alter egos. So, I did a bit of research and discovered that I have good reason to love both creatures.

The alpaca (shown above on the left) was domesticated over 6,000 years ago and bred by the Incas as a luxury fiber-producing animal. It’s ancestors were the Vicuna, which is now rare, endangered and famous as the animal with the finest fleece in the world.

On the other hand, the poor llama’s ancestors were the Guanaco and they were also bred by the Incas, but as pack animals. All four creatures are members of the camel family.

While alpacas are so much smaller than llamas—about half the size—they can produce much more fleece. Consequently, they’re being used exclusively for the fiber they produce, resulting in them living a life of leisure compared to the llama. In fact, the fleece of an alpaca is so dense that the creatures must be shorn before the heat of summer in order to remain healthy. The alpaca’s fiber is almost as strong as silk and highly durable. It is soft, lightweight, lustrous and very thermal efficient. It doesn’t pill, or provoke any kind of skin reaction among people who are allergic to lanolin. They also have the greatest range of colors—22—among all animals used for fleece, ranging from true black to pure white.

The llama, however, has a coarser outer coat and a finer undercoat, which is the part used for spinning yarn. It is a hollow fiber so it is warmer than wool of a similar weight.

I read that both animals are very kind, intelligent, curious and gentle. Alpacas tend to be more skittish and llamas to be mellower and more affectionate, so they tend to become more of a pet.

Having never met a member of either bred I can only say that I love the yarn that both provide us. You can find on my web site an all over cable sweater, called Gabriel, using lace weight alpaca, and I'm currently working on a new design with 5 colors of llama.

So, if you hadn’t figured out the difference between the two fibers and their origins I hope this helps. And I hope you enjoy knitting with both as much as I do. — James