Who doesn’t crave the softness of the finest wool in the world on their skin? More extraordinary than cashmere, the softest wool in the world comes from Vicuna, the national animal of Peru.
A Vicuna is a more elegant relative of Llama, a 1.8 metre tall domesticated animal of South America. It is covered with a fluffy, insulated, cinnamon-coloured coat that is made up of individual fibres measuring just 12 to 14 microns in diameter.
Chaccu: The shearing process
In the past, the avid and indiscriminate hunting of the animal for its prized wool had nearly brought the species to extinction. When pre-Columbia America was ruled by the mighty Inca empire, the precious fleece was harvested every four years. Since the Incas considered the Vicuna as an animal with special powers, the harvesting process was an elaborate and humane one. Called as chaccu, great herds of Vicuna were rounded up, sheared and then released. The killing of the animal was forbidden and only the richest of the richest could luxuriate in clothes woven from Vicuna wool.
However, the Spanish conquerors when they came in 1532 were not as generous. After discovering the gossamer fleece, they began hunting the animals with guns and the slaughter lasted for centuries.
Vicuna on the brink of extinction
As the demand for the wool began to soar, the numbers of Vicuna began to plummet. Around mid 20th-century, when Vicuna coats were considered the height of luxury in the US and Europe, Vicuna population was down to 10,000.
To save the dwindling population, the Peru government came up with the brilliant plan to involve people. The Vicuna wool could be sold and fetch high prices to the poor households and would give them a reason to protect the endangered animal from being hunted. Also, there was hardly any profit in killing a sheared Vicuna.
A successful comeback
Thankfully, the animal populated the Andes Altiplano once again and in 2008, it was named as ‘least-concern’ on the list of threatened species. Today, 200,000 Vicunas abound in Peru.
Chaccu ceremonies are still prevalent in Peru and are done by rural communities. They are also open to tourists. Chaccu is carried out under the strict eyes of rangers who make sure the Vicunas are not harmed in any way. They are sheared every two years and about 200g of wool can be expected from every animal.
Vicuna products ranging from scarves to jackets are sold as low as $3,195 and as high as $18,595.