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Tartan Ferret
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Alpacas and other Queer Beasts


November 1945

Once upon a time in Scotland there was a Farmers' Club that held a show of livestock every year. It was a great place for Sheep and Cattle. Farmers came from far and near to compete for the cups and prizes, to gossip with their friends and neighbours, and to celebrate all the news of the farms round about. In the same district there also lived a Public Spirited Merchant of Woollen Cloth, who said to himself, " These farmers do not know the best kind of wool for cloth making. I shall give a prize for the best fleece of wool for this purpose on any sheep in the show. By that I shall add to the prosperity of our Farmers and to the fame of our Show,"


The Farmers' Club accepted this good offer and the Committee invited a real Wool Man to be the judge. This real Wool Man had never looked at wool growing on a sheep and he was rather doubtful about his ability to judge a growing fleece. So he asked a friend of his who was a Manufacturer of Cloth to go with him to the Show Yard. Neither of them had ever been to a cattle show before and they felt rather lost amongst the crowd of resetted judges. There was a vast crowd of sheep, all baaing and being pushed about and debated by the judges. The Wool Man and the Manufacturer were completely terrified and did not see how they could hope to disentangle this muddle of noisy woolly beasts. They were given one of the penmen who looked after the sheep, to guide them and to protect them from danger. However, they put a bold face on the matter and set about their job. It did not appear so impossible when looked straight in the face, like so many other problems that beset us in this life.


Almost at once they saw they would have to divide the prize into one for fine wool and one for coarse wool. The sheep space was divided into three parts, lambs, ewes, and rams, so they decided to pick the best of each lot first and then to compare their three selections. They started with the Iambs of the fine group.
After a while they got them down to two lambs, both busy keeping the quality up like our Association, but there they stuck. They could not make one better than the other, try as they would. Despairing, they said to their guide that the two were as like as two peas. " Nayther wonder," said the penman, " they're twinnies." So the two lambs were marked as first equal.


Next they started on the ewes, selected one and said to the penman the beast was as near as nothing to the lambs. " Weel," said he, " that's nat'ral; she's their mither." And just in case you may think it very unlikely that the penman would know all this, you must understand that at a country show every countryman knows the family history of every beast on the field. He knows the beasts as individuals just the same as he knows his own friends and neighbours.


Much heartened and steadily growing in respect for their own knowledge our Two proceeded to the rams' stockade, selected one and once more made the same remark to the penman. " Aye, aye," says he, " yon's the lambies' farther."
That's the first part of the story. The second part we shall shorten. Of the coarse-woolled sheep our Two - feeling much less inferior to the other judges now - picked five separate beasts and there stuck. Not one was better than another. The penman's comment was " They're a' frae the same flock." " But," objected the Two, "we were told there was only one competitor allowed from one flock." "Aye," said he, " that's richt. There's but ae competitor, but for the Butchers' Prize, there mun be five beasts on the ground and ye've picked the five.''


This tale has a moral. Moreover, it is strictly true. If out of such a collection of one part of one race of animals such a selection was inevitable, how much more must the characteristics of totally different races count ? Remember, being in Scotland, there were not even any Merino sheep concerned. Just think of the value and variety of texture to be got by the knowledgeable use of camels or goats, or vicunas, or rabbits, or alpacas, or any of the rarer wools.


And so we come to Alpacas. They are cousins of the Camels, and this number of "Scottish Woollens" should be considered as a continuation of No. 16, which dealt with Vicuna. In that article the Editor was wrong in writing of the introduction of Vicuna to this country, and to Europe, as very probably 1847. Messrs Ronald & Rodger of Liverpool have traced transactions there to 1844, and Walton, in his book on Peruvian Sheep published in 1811, quotes Vicuna as better known in France and Germany than in England. He also quotes "fine cassimere shawls" of Vicuna being worn at the trial of Lord Melville in 1809 - e was tried by the House of Lords for embezzling Admiralty funds but was acquitted.


Walton records that the colour "was not satisfactory" which prevented the material from becoming popular. He does not say where these shawls were made nor why they were "unsatisfactory." There were four entries of Vicuna in the catalogue of the Great Exhibition of 1851. There were three from Yorkshire besides our own.
There are four South American camels - Llama, Alpaca, Guanaco, and Vicuna. More strictly speaking, these are the four representatives of the Camelidai. They are almost like four assorted sizes of the same animal. They are all the same shape - light, neatly made like deer but with long necks and heads that proclaim them for small relatives of the camels of Asia, as does their nasty habit of spitting at you if they don't like your looks. The hair of them all is distinguished by softness of touch.


Of the four, the Llama is the biggest and its wool the coarsest. It stands about four feet high at the shoulder and its upright neck raises its head another two feet. The Alpaca is only a little smaller and for general purposes its wool can hardly be distinguished from that of the Llama; in fact, the finest of the Llama is finer than the coarsest of the Alpaca. The beautifully soft touch of these wools is, unfortunately, offset by its coarse and wiry appearance. It is like a straight and strong Cheviot in its rougher samples and comes down to the fibre of a fine Cheviot at its best. Like Cashmere and some types of sheep's wool, as, for example, Scotch Blackface, Alpaca and Llama have a finer, shorter, and more curled under-down that may be removed in the process of combing for worsted spinning. This becomes "noil," and is much more easily dealt with in the Woollen or Scotch process, for the fleece is often as much as twelve inches long. Both by itself and as part of a blend it gives a lovely soft yet good- wearing finish in coatings.


Both Alpacas and Llamas are used as beasts of burden. Before the coming of the Spaniards, there were neither horses nor donkeys on the Pacific Coast, and the Llama and the Alpaca did all the carrying. The Llama was the more prized. Both these animals are of mixed colour, most of them are piebald, and they vary from black - which is really a very dark brown like " black " sheep - to white through a great variety of colours - grey, russet, and fawn, both solid colours and mixtures. Walton in his " Historical and Descriptive Account of the Peruvian Sheep," which we have already quoted, gives the proportion of black as nine-tenths. The Indians preferred black. One of the principal importers gives the figures of the present day as more or less constant at 10 per cent. White, 12 per cent. Black, 10 per cent. Light Brown, 22 per cent. Dark Brown, 22 per cent. Grey, 12 per cent. Piebald, and 12 per cent. Fawn. These are the seven standard colours into which the wool is classed for marketing. It seems improbable that before Walton's time all that was not " white " could be reckoned as " black," because about half the total quantity of these colours is nearer white than black.


It is particularly interesting to see how so important a feature as the colouring of these great herds could be modified in so short a time as 130 years, even in a market so ill-organised as that of Chile and Peru. The modern manufacturers, like gentlemen, prefer blondes. The lighter the colour of the wool, the more general its application for dyeing. Of course, Walton's figures must be taken with caution. At that time it is not possible that his figures could be based on any really accurate statistics, but the difference between then and now cannot be altogether wrong.
Now natural colours are not fast enough for most modern requirements, even though these South American Camels are faster than coloured sheep's wool. Beyond question, undyed natural colours have a peculiar and beautiful quality not to be achieved by any dyer. Moreover, even under modern processes, any dyeing tends to take the fine edge off the touch of wool. Traders also fight shy of these undyed colours because natural colours cannot be matched accurately to any standards. It is not possible to run counter to general trade prejudice which demands a standard of matching with little relationship to utility so natural colours remain for the connoisseur and for the buyer of craft products.


One of the smaller sacrifices we have made to the Allied Cause has been the complete abandonment of all this careful, specialised trade. Why, we cannot really say, for as is the habit of diplomacy the " reasons " shift and change from day to day like the fragments of coloured glass in a kaleidoscope. We always hope there is a good foundation for these ministerial decisions, but the reasons given to the miserable victims would rarely pass muster in a first year class for apprentices. Perhaps it was really one of our contributions to Lease-Lend, but the fact remains that in the War Years all these rarer wools of South America have gone to the United States. If this is the reason we need not grudge this small return for such a vast and friendly service as Lease-Lend.


Authorities differ a good deal about the total quantity of Llama and Alpaca produced each year. Estimates vary from 4,500,000 pounds to 8,000,000 pounds. This variation may, in fact, be real because the beasts are usually only clipped on alternate years and various matters such as prices and weather might easily cause the total numbers clipped each year to vary quite a lot. After all the total quantities of these Rarer Wools is really too small to guarantee a constant average. In the primitive markets of China in a season of bad prices the innumerable little farmers just did not sell their Cashmere wool but kept it for a better day, or possibly used it up themselves, and so probably it may be with Alpaca.


Whatever the total quantity may be, we in these islands were by far the principal users. Our imports varied round 5,000.000lb. a year, rising at times to 7,000,000lb. and falling as low as 2,000,000lb. Although in the figures of the World's wool consumption these quantities do not sound very important, as the whole of a highly specialised trade they do represent a very real sacrifice to the Allied Cause, for Vicuna, Alpaca, and Llama have all gone - lock, stock, and barrel - to the United States during the later stages of the War.


The real pioneer of the trade in Europe was the young man who afterwards became Sir Titus Salt, one of the creators of Bradford and one of the earliest builders of a model village - Saltaire. The story is one of the romances of industry, celebrated or mocked at by Dickens in "Household Words." It was in 1836. A quantity of over 300 bales had accumulated in the stores of Messrs Hegan & Co. of Liverpool. Some say it had been used to prevent cargo from shifting - anyhow it was unsaleable. Before this, experiments on a small scale had already been made in England so that, of course, our young man was not literally the first to use Alpaca. Titus greatly daring, and against the unanimous advice of his friends and family, who were all in the wool trade at one stage or another, bought the lot for 8d. per pound. He overcame the considerable technical difficulties of dealing with a material so unlike the sheep's wool which Bradford knew. By 1844 his cloths were established and the price of Alpaca had advanced to over two shillings. It was for ladies these cloths were made. Fortune lay before him and fame. So out of this individualist's energy and love of adventure rose the great firm that bore his name. Sir Titus Salt, Bart., Sons & Co., now Salts (Saltaire) Ltd., and England became established as the almost sole user of Alpaca, a position we have held ever since.


No lasting success has ever been made of introducing any of these South American camels to other parts of the world. They live in such high country that this is not very surprising. Where the borders of Peru, Bolivia, and Chile meet, the land ranges from 10,000 to 16,000 feet, and it is fairly obvious that an animal evolved in such an atmosphere is unlikely to enjoy itself in the low and luxuriant pastures beloved by cows. This high land is not so very dry. The rainfall is round about 25 inches, which is much the same as the driest parts of the east coast of Scotland. In 1926 a small collection of Llamas, Alpacas, and Vicunas was sent to the Edinburgh Zoo where as visitors they lived quite comfortably, but there seems no greater prospect than there ever was of establishing any of these beasts on a commercial scale outside their native land. An earlier experiment found its precarious way across the Napoleonic wars. A choice little caravan of twenty-five arrived in La Plata in 1805. Next year they were " interned " at Buenos Aires where some of the animals were killed by the guns of the British Fleet. What was left of them went on not to England but to Seville in Spain, and when in time Seville was captured by the French they somehow arrived in the park of Malmaison, the home of the Empress Josephine. In 1800 she already had two Llamas, so we suppose they all lived happily ever after. Sir Titus Salt tried them in Yorkshire, but his flock just faded out by 1877. His flock had been bought from Lord Derby; parts of it were sent to Australia and the Cape but with no better luck.


It is surprising how little is known about so important a pair as the Llama and the Alpaca, or perhaps it is more correct to say how little information is ordinarily accessible. Quite a lot has been written, but it is nearly all buried in the Transactions of various learned Societies or in private or semiprivate publications.
The country of the Alpaca is round Lake Titicaca and the great tableland of the Funa. From the collecting centres of Cuzco, Sicuani, Checacupe, Santa Rosa, Juliaca, and Ayravire the fleeces go to Arequipa where they are sorted and packed for shipment through Mollendo Tacna and other Peruvian Ports. From there, most is sent to Liverpool Wool Sales.


Now the new Science of Salesmanship seems to be a quaint mixture of psychology and humbug, and one of its most important achievements is the evolution of " selling points." One of these most important" points " is the word " pure." So we are forced to make " pure " Alpaca or " pure " Mohair, or anything else even when a much better and more serviceable article may be made from a blend. For many purposes the lustrous and silky nature of these fibres makes slipping at the seams of a garment a marked danger. This can be overcome quite satisfactorily by blending with sheep's wool. This would abolish the definitely bad reputation of both of these beautiful wools. But sad to say the reign of Humbug is by no means over!


Colonel Stordy, who is one of the greatest authorities on Peruvian Wools of all kinds, says the natives of Peru looked upon the Llama and Alpaca as a present from Heaven, and so may we. Some day we may look forward to the development of these luxurious and beautiful wools till not only Captains of Industry but even " other ranks " may hope to shelter under their genial warmth.


Our illustrations are from photographs by Col. R. J. Stordy, C.B.E., D.S.O. The little landscape is typical Alpaca country at La Raya, 14,153 feet above sea level. The head in the initial letter is from Mr Stroock's " Llamas and Llamaland."

 

Today there are about 3.5 million alpacas in the Andean highlands, most of which can be found in Peru. Since the major first importation into the U.S. in 1984, the North American herd has increased from a few alpacas in zoos and private collections to about 20,000. Alpacas are popular internationally for their luxury fibre and as pet, show, and investment animals in Canada, England, Australia, New Zealand, Poland, France, and Israel, as well as the United States. www.bonnydoonalpacas.org/vicunas Eric Hoffman of Boony Doon Alpacas.

 

 

 

 

E.S. Harrison

 

 

One of a series of fascinating articles written over the decades  by Edward Harrison who ran Johnstons of Elgin for 46 years from 1920 - 1966.

Commencing with the first in November 1931, the essays were published anonymously by the National Association of Scottish Woollen Manufacturers.

All these essays - and a host of other articles - are freely available in our Archives to Members of the Scottish Tartans Authority.

Interested in joining? Just click here to see all the benefits.

 

 





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