Vicuña wool: Fabric fit for Inca royalty
Most people have heard of the prized baby alpaca wool woven to make elegant scarves and warm sweaters, but probably less well-known is the luxurious wool of the vicuña, the smaller camelid cousin of the alpaca that roams wild exclusively in the Andes Mountains. The natural fibers of the vicuña are considered the rarest in the world due to the strict conservation restrictions on the shearing process. One yard of natural vicuña fabric sells for more than $1800!
Vicuña wool: The rarest in the world
The legend: A coat of gold
According to Inca legend, the vicuña was thought to be the reincarnation of a lovely maiden who received a coat made of gold once she married an old, ugly king. Therefore it was prohibited for the people to kill vicuña or wear its fur, a privilege reserved for royalty. Since the time of the Inca, vicuña have unfortunately been victims of poaching, thus decreasing their numbers to near extinction in the 1970s. Thankfully, today there are strict rules and national protection measures that have preserved the vicuña population in the central Andes between Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina.
Vicuña: Living wild and free
Oddly enough, vicuña are not domesticated animals, mainly because they are master escape artists and exceptionally quick. They are shy, easily startled creatures that can run about 30 miles per hour, making them difficult to herd. Roaming freely in their natural habitat in the altiplanos of the Andes Mountains, vicuña have a high hemoglobin count and a very large heart in order to survive in the high altitudes about 3,200 to 4,800 meters (about 10,498 to 15,748 feet) above sea level with little breathable air. It stands only about 1.5 meters tall (5 feet) and typically weighs less than 150 pounds. Vicuña have an unusually fine and warm coat that protects them from the freezing nights of their natural habitat.
Wrapped in luxury
Vicuña wool is the finest and rarest natural fiber in the world. One strand of vicuña wool measures between 12 microns, which is 12 thousandths of a millimeter. That is about 7 microns finer that the best cashmere! But this isn’t the only reason apparel made from vicuña wool is so coveted and expensive. One vicuña will only produce about half a kilo (about 1.1 pounds) of wool a year, and the fibers are so fragile that they cannot be dyed or treated with any chemicals typically used in the textile industry.
Protecting the Vicuña
During Inca rule, the localities practiced the shearing ritual known as chaccu, which involved the herding of wild vicuña once every four years into stone corrals, a practice still performed in present day in Peru. Further regulations have been enacted by the governments in Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile which limit shearing of vicuña as well as require an official certification from the governments to prove its ethical production. The increased regulation aims to promote the sustainable production of the prized fibers for the economic welfare of local herders as well as protect the animal in its natural habitat. Governments have also established special wildlife reserves to further protect and monitor the vicuña.
While significant efforts have been made to protect the vicuña, poaching still remains a serious concern. Conservationists hope that increased awareness of the ethical production of vicuña along with increased government regulation will preserve the wild vicuña as well as the ancient traditions of the people of the Central Andes.