Since the reign of Queen Victoria, alpaca has been one of the aristocracy's best-kept secrets, with knitted garments coveted and passed down over multiple generations. There is a reason for this: for babies and young children especially, alpaca is superior to cashmere in several different ways.
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When we set out to create the softest, most gentle knitwear in the world, we studied and experimented with every natural fibre we could find — including, of course, cashmere.
Although cashmere is a wonderful and luxurious fibre, especially for adult clothing, we chose pure alpaca for our Baby, Girl and Boy collections. Why? Because of the following five reasons.
Alpaca is just as soft (and kind) as cashmere
Alpaca fibre is hypoallergenic, which means that, unlike wool and other harsh fibres, it is especially kind to your baby's delicate skin. This is for two reasons. First, alpaca fibres are extremely fine, soft to the touch, and smooth, giving it a deep lustre and a silky handle. Second, unlike wool, alpaca fibres are free of lanolin.
Wool (including merino wool and some mass-market cashmere) can feel itchy, sometimes even scratchy. However, when you brush alpaca against your baby's face, it's like the gentle breath of a warm breeze.
Alpaca is warmer than cashmere, and breathable too
Unlike wool and most other animal fibres, alpaca fibre has a hollow core. Combined with its unique crimp, this hollow core gives alpaca several interesting — and surprising — qualities.
On one hand, it is warmer than cashmere, because the hallow fibres trap body heat more efficiently. However, alpaca is also cooler, because the crimp of the fibres make it more breathable.
When your baby is sitting in her pram, an alpaca cardigan protects her little body from the cold and keeps her warm and snug. Yet, when she runs around and plays, that same garment allows her body to breathe.
Alpaca is more durable than cashmere
Due to the length of its staple, alpaca fibre is stronger, more durable, and more hard-wearing than the weaker and more delicate fibres from sheep and goats (which includes, of course, cashmere).
We love cashmere. Who doesn't? But who wants to invest in luxury knitwear for their baby — only to keep it locked away in her wardrobe, for "special occasions", because you're afraid to let her crawl and roll around in it?
Every Clara London garment is made to be used. It's made for real life. Your baby can wear it as she chases pigeons through the autumn leaves and plays tag with her friends. Like children are supposed to do.
Alpaca is also more sustainable than cashmere
Before the 1990s, cashmere was authentically a luxury product. It was rare, expensive, and exclusive — because its fibre had to be carried down on donkeys from the foothills of the Kashmir mountains and the high plains of the Himalayas. These days, it is an entire industry, and cashmere has become a mass-market product.
Demand for cashmere has skyrocketed over the last few decades. Virtually every small town in Britain, Europe, and North America has at least a handful of retailers stocking cheap cashmere garments.
The majority of these garments are made in China and Mongolia. Grassland and forest is literally being burned down to make way for open expanses of arid plains for goats to graze. (This is why snow leopards are now critically endangered.) What's more, such high volumes of raw cashmere cannot be washed by hand. They are instead chemically treated, and waste chemicals are routinely dumped into rivers and waterways.
There are no two ways about it: the cashmere industry is harmful to the planet.
Unless a woollen mill or producer of cashmere clothing can guarantee that it sources its fibre both ethically and sustainably, then you are unwittingly contributing to this problem. It's not a nice thought. But it's the truth.
Alpaca is more sustainable for two main reasons.
Fist, although it has been coveted by the upper classes for more than 5,000 years — the Inca Empire valued alpaca fibre more than gold — it does not have the same mass-market appeal as cashmere.
Second, alpacas are simply more "productive" than cashmere goats. (According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, it takes four cashmere goats to produce a single adult jumper. Just one alpaca can produce four or five.)
Alpaca is rarer and more exclusive
Demand for alpaca has increased dramatically over the last few years, just like it did for cashmere in the 1990s.
However, supply has barely changed at all.
For whatever reason, alpaca breeders in South America have not responded to this increase in demand in the same way that Chinese and Mongolian "battery breeders" of cashmere did. Because of this, even if an increasing number of people covet alpaca, unlike cashmere, it will always remain rare and exclusive.
Where does Alpaca come from?
Alpacas are a type of camelid — a close cousin of the camel, the llama, and, of course, the vicuña — native to the Altiplano, which is a plateau high up in the Andes that spans parts of Peru, Bolivia, and Chile.
During the year, temperatures on the Altiplano can swing from highs of 24 °C in the summer to lows of -20 °C in the winter. It seems that, over the course of 45 million years, camelids have naturally evolved to grow a fleece that can protect them from both the harsh cold of the winter and the relentless heat of summer.
Although alpacas are naturally shy, they are also very curious. (The alpacas on our family’s farm in Shropshire are especially fascinated with babies and young children, as you can see in the photo below.)