One of the great eye-candies of Peru and Bolivia are their marvelous textiles, and at the top of that list are Peruvian alpaca sweaters. Alpaca cardigans, pullovers and accessories are in store windows, stacked up in gigantic open markets in Lima and La Paz, and even sold on the street by indigenous women with bowler hats and huge ruffled skirts. They range from shaggy Indian Market sweaters to sophisticated garments made with 20 colors and costing hundreds of dollars.
When I first traveled to Peru in 1984, things were very different. Alpaca sweaters were nearly always rustic pullovers in natural tones, decorated with llamas or with Scandinavian yoke designs. Then, as now, the words “Pura alpaca,” greeted you at every stop, and then, as now, they were often fiction. Rustic alpaca sweaters tended to be made of alpaca and llama mixed together, or just llama, or synthetic fibers closer to the oil well than the high Andes.
Fortunately, there’s an old textile dealer’s trick for knowing if a sweater is pure natural fiber, and I have used this successfully many times. First, scrape or pinch off some hairs and twist them into a tiny piece of yarn slightly less than an inch long. Your vendor will look anxious. Now, light it on fire and let it burn for a few seconds. Blow it out, let it cool, and then rub the ash between your fingers. If it crumbles to nothingness: congratulations, your sweater is either wool, alpaca or llama. If it leaves a little bead of plastic it’s partly synthetic. You’ll want to hand it back and make a timely exit, ignoring the vendor’s sour expression.
To successfully buy a quality alpaca wool sweater in Peru or Bolivia, I suggest the following. First, educate yourself by shopping around and really looking at things. Do not buy the first sweater you see, no matter how nice the salesperson is. Make sure you go into the expensive stores so you have a standard of comparison. Alpaca clothing will vary in how the yarn is spun. Some alpaca is fine and woven on computerized looms. Other spins may be curly and light. Baby alpaca, a finer grade of alpaca, is especially soft. In general, pure alpaca garments have a certain silky luster and feel that you’ll learn to recognize. By looking at the best stores, particularly the retail arms of the big spinning factories, you’ll acquaint yourself with the full range of possibilities. These sweaters cost roughly the same as in the United States, but they are still a good bargain due to their quality and the longevity of alpaca fiber.
Touch them, look at the seams to see how they’re made, examine the finishing on the embroidery, buttons or zipper. This will help set the standards for all the types of sweaters that you'll see. After a while, you’ll recognize well-done embroidery and correctly finished buttonholes. Now, you’re ready to expand your horizons.
There are many small boutiques with high-quality Peruvian alpaca pullovers and cardigans made by hand or in small quantities. While most exporters don’t dare sell their wares in domestic market for fear of being copied, some good producers also have retail stores with top-quality sweaters, hats and scarves. However, you have to beware. Unscrupulous vendors, and there are many, will tell you that everything is baby alpaca. After more thirty years of looking at alpaca apparel, I would estimate that one out of ten of these claims are true. If you’ve done your homework, you can recognize real baby alpaca by its soft silky handfeel. Compare it to other alpaca garments in the same store. If you have any doubt, it’s probably regular alpaca, or worse. Never pay a premium for “baby alpaca” if you don’t feel the difference.
While a high price is not an indication of high quality, a low price is generally an indication of low quality. Woven alpaca ponchos, capes, ruanas and the alpaca sweater are often made of half-alpaca, half-acrylic.
Look for the shiny fibers (and, before you buy, do the burn test). If a Bolivian or Peruvian alpaca sweater feels a little bit rough, but doesn’t have shiny fibers, it’s probably mixed with sheep’s wool.
I also look for color. Some sophisticated sweaters will have as many as thirty colors in them. If a colorful sweater is well-combined, it’s probably also going to be good quality. If it has a good design but some of the colors are “off,” it’s probably been copied from someone else’s design that used custom-dyed colors, and you’d better take a hard look at the rest of the sweater.
As to price: everyone is looking for a bargain. When friends come to me in the states and want to show me the great alpaca sweater they got at a great price in Peru, my response is “Do you like your sweater? Because if you do, don’t show it to me!” There are great bargains on middle range or rustic sweaters, but when you get into the world of sophisticated high-quality designs, expect to pay 70-100% of what you would pay in the United States, depending on what retail outlet you shop at.
At Invisible World, we pride ourselves on finding or developing top-quality alpaca sweaters and accessories and selling them at excellent prices. Our relationships with many of our suppliers go back decades. If you can’t get to Peru or Bolivia yourself, rest assured that we’ve already done the burn test for you.