Weave of the Gods: The Real-Life Golden Fleece
Paleontologists tell us the camel family arose in the North American Great Plains about 45 million years ago. One group took the Bering land bridge into Asia to establish the populations of Bactrian camels and dromedaries, while the other chose the southern route through Panama when that land bridge rose from the sea about 3 million years ago. Several of those species prospered in South America, including the guanaco, vicuña, Lama owenii, and Lama gracilis. Ancient humans likely witnessed the extinctions of the latter two but, according to prevailing wisdom, bred the domesticated alpaca from the vicuña and the llama from the guanaco. They prized the fleeces of all four, but to them the most precious and magical was that of the vicuña.
- Type Microns
- Vicuña 6-13
- Chiru 7-9
- Alpaca 10-28
- Merino 12-20
- Cashmere 15-19
- Guanaco 16-18
- Llama 20-40
- Chinchilla 21
- Human 15-200
As you can see from the list, only the chiru, a gravely endangered Asian antelope which is legally off-limits, rivals the fineness of its cinnamon-colored wool. Beyond that, vicuña is exceedingly rare due to the animal’s small size (about 90 lbs, yielding only 6-8 ounces of fleece every two or three years), its obstinacy (supremely evasive and disinclined to eat or reproduce in captivity), its death-defying habitat (greatly surpassing 14,000 feet or 4300 meters) and the cashmere-like fragility of its fiber. If you were to own, say, a pair of trousers made of pure vicuña, they’d look and feel heavenly but unless you resolved never to sit down in them you would quickly wear through the seat. To strengthen it or make it go further, the Incas would often blend their vicuña fiber with that of the viscacha, an Andean rabbit-like animal; but in any case by law only their royalty could wear such exquisite fabric.
In 1958 vicuña was on everybody’s lips. President Eisenhower’s favorite golfing buddy and Chief of Staff Sherman Adams got the boot after reporters learned that he had accepted various sumptuous finery, most famously a vicuña coat, from a certain Boston textile magnate named Bernie Goldfine in exchange for some extra lenient treatment by federal regulators. The scandal even engulfed future columnist Jack Anderson, who was caught bugging Goldfine’s hotel room.
Since as far back as the Spanish conquest, hunting and poaching has been stressing the vicuña to the brink of extinction. By the 1970s there were only a few thousand left. But thanks to vigorous conservation measures undertaken toward the end of the 20th century, most significantly on the part of the Peruvian government, their populations have recovered. In 2002 the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service reclassified the vicuñas of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and Peru from endangered to threatened and legalized exports from those four countries, subject to stringent documentation, for the first time in decades.
To the poverty-stricken paisanos in the high Andes this new industry shows great promise. They’ve revived an ancient tradition called the chaccu that involves much singing, dancing, and feasting. Hundreds link hands and create a living human fence to gradually encircle the vicuñas and herd them into pens. There they shear the animals, sometimes tag them, and then turn them loose. The per-ounce price of this ethereal fiber spans a wide range from $10.00 wholesale (raw) to $250.00 or so retail. A coat like Sherman Adams’s might cost $20,000.00 nowadays. The firms Loro Piana, Lanificio Agnona, and Incalpaca handle this sort of highflying yet eco-friendly couture and market it through outlets like Nieman Marcus. But mercifully you can also find such things as scarves and shawls, using vicuña blended with other fibers, for $200.00 or less. So far there are very few legitimate sources for this species beyond those mentioned above, but among them the Gaucho Shop (www.gauchoshop.com) stands ready to take your order. And besides llama, vicuña blends, and other wearables they also carry yerba maté — a relaxing tea-like drink that has practically become a way of life in much of Latin America.