Alpacas are relatively small and easy to handle, weighing anywhere between 100-200 lbs and standing as short at a minimum of 32 inches at the shoulder.
They come in 22 colours, including white, beige, fawn, brown, black, grey, and multi/fancy (a.k.a. spotted), with an almost infinite number of combinations of shades and markings in between.
Alpacas come in two breed variations, "Huacaya" and "Suri". Huacaya alpacas are the most common in Canada, and are noted for their "fluffy" appearance. Their fibre grows outward from the body, similar to a sheep's wool.
Suri alpacas are similar in build, but are recognized for their silkier, pencil-locks, and brighter lustre. Suri's fibre does not grow outwards from the body with a "fluffy" appearance, but rather it grows much like long hair-- making suri's appear to have long, flowing ringlets growing from their coats.
Some interesting characteristics of alpacas include their soft padded feet (much like a dogs paws) with two toes; their muzzle which only has teeth on the bottom jaw, as well as the male alpacas propensity to grow "fighting teeth" which may need to be trimmed.
Unlike their larger llama cousins, alpacas are generally more compact in appearance. They have more facial and leg coverage, and unlike some llamas, they do not shed their coat out during the year.
Alpacas tend to have squarish, but wedge shaped heads with spear-shaped ears. Their backs are not as long nor as straight as llamas. Instead, they have a slightly convex profile, with a more rounded top line and a low set tail.
Alpaca's lack of grease or lanolin means it can be worked with washed or raw. In terms of the environment, this is great because there are no harsh chemicals needed to "scour" the grease from the fleece as with sheep's wool. It also means that those who are normally allergic to lanolin can wear alpaca without problems, because it will not trigger their lanolin sensitivity.
Alpaca fibre is very accepting of dye, making it very easy to dye a new colour without having to use a lot of dye to get it the proper shade. As well, with alpacas coming in such a variety of colours, there are numerous colour combinations that make dyeing the fibre interesting, as different shades of alpaca can be mixed with different dyes to produce earthy tones. With there being 22 natural colours all over the spectrum, many opt to skip the dyeing process altogether and enjoy working with the fibre in its natural colour.
Their fibre is warm and soft to the touch, many animals even feel silk-soft, especially once the fibre is processed. Because of the hollow nature of the fibres, it retains heat better than sheep's wool, and reglates temperature and moisture, wicking it away when it is too much, and maintaining an almost perfect temperature on the wearer. Alpaca garments can keep you both warmer when you need it, and cooler when it is hot than sheep's wool; all without the added weight.
Comparable to the finest of sheep's wools, if not finer in some animals, alpacas produce fibre that can be worn against the skin without irritation. The build of the hair-follicle also provides for a smoother fibre shaft that means alpaca fibre is often times very lustrous and smooth to the touch. It can be spun very thin for lace, as well as thick for other more utilitarian yarns.
When spun and processed into a garment, alpaca is not easily torn or pilled, a testament to how strong and resilient the fibres are. Because of this, alpaca fibre is great for more industrial processing as well, and can withstand the rigours of machine processing quite well.