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Yak Wool Vs Alpaca Wool

What are the similarities and differences between yak wool and alpaca wool?
June 6, 2024
By Oliver Charles

The market for natural fibers is led by cotton and sheep’s wool. Sheep’s wool alone accounts for 95% of all animal fibers used in clothes, amounting to over 1 million tons annually. The rest, comprising just 5%, includes lesser-known fibers like yak wool and alpaca wool, to name a few (Textile Exchange, 2018).

When considering top-performing natural materials, yak wool and alpaca wool are both great choices. They are celebrated for their superior qualities and distinctive properties that make them highly suitable for capsule wardrobes and everyday wear.

In this guide, we'll look into both the similarities and differences between yak wool and alpaca wool to help you decide which might be better for you.

Yak Grazing On A Grassland Up A Hill - Oliver Charles

Where Does Yak Wool Come From?

Yak wool, a luxurious and versatile fiber knit into Oliver Charles sweaters, originates from the domestic yak, predominantly found in the Tibetan Plateau.

Home to about 13 million yaks, the Tibetan Plateau represents the majority of the global yak population. These animals are also raised in surrounding areas such as Mongolia, Central Asia, and various parts of the Himalayas, including Nepal and Bhutan.

The wool is derived from the yak's unique double-layered coat. Their coat consists of an outer layer of coarse hair and an undercoat of soft, fine down fibers known as khullu, which is especially dense and insulating. Oliver Charles sweaters are knit from khullu yarn.

The khullu grows thicker during the autumn and winter months and is naturally shed in the late spring. To harvest this fiber, nomadic herders comb the yaks during the molting period rather than shearing, ensuring a gentle collection process.

The fine khullu fibers typically measure between 16 to 20 microns in thickness and 40-50mm in length, making them highly sought after for their softness and thermal properties. While wild yaks predominantly grow black fibers, domestic yaks often have a mix of dark tones, usually black and brown, with some having white patches.

White yak hair, which represents only about 10% of the population, is particularly valued in the textile industry because it can be easily dyed to produce a variety of vibrant colors.

Soft Yak Fibers Up Close - Oliver Charles
Up Close With An Alpaca - Oliver Charles

Where Does Alpaca Wool Come From?

Alpaca wool is sourced primarily from… alpacas, a species of camelid indigenous to the Andean region of South America, with the highest concentrations found in Peru. These animals are remarkably adapted to the harsh, high-altitude environments of the Andes, where they thrive in conditions ranging from 11,000 to 15,000 feet above sea level and daily temperature fluctuations of around 68°F.

Alpaca wool is distinguished by its variety and quality, stemming from two main strains of the species: the Huacaya and the Suri. Huacaya alpacas, which constitute the majority of the alpaca population, produce a dense fleece that is soft and springy.

On the other hand, the Suri alpaca, which makes up about 10% of the population, offers a more lustrous and silky fiber that falls in long, graceful locks, akin to mohair.

The Suri fiber, like khullu, is known for its smooth feel and is highly sought after for use in high-quality textiles due to its combination of warmth, lightweight, and wicking properties.

Like yak wool, a large majority, 90%, of the alpaca wool industry is supported by small-scale producers, who are typically organized through COOPs.

These groups manage herds that range in size from 10 to 150 animals. Unlike yak that are combed, alpacas are sheared once a year, yielding 3-4 pounds of fiber per animal (Properties, Processing and Performance of Rare and Natural Fibres, 2012).

Alpaca wool is celebrated for its physical qualities and the natural color spectrum it presents, which includes 22 distinct colors ranging from whites and beiges to rich browns, greys and blacks.

These natural colors provide a versatile palette for the textile industry, and alpaca wool also takes dyes exceptionally well, allowing for a broader range of hues in finished products.

A Herd Of Yaks In Tibet - Oliver Charles

What Is Special About Yak Wool?

Yak wool is renowned for its exceptional thermoregulatory properties, making it a highly efficient material for maintaining comfortable body temperatures in both cold and hot weather.

This quality stems from the wool's origin, as it is combed from the undercoat of yaks, animals that are accustomed to the variable, often harsh, high-altitude environments found at elevations as high as 20,000 feet. The adaptation of these animals to such extremes is mirrored in the performance of their wool when used in clothing.

One of the most notable features of yak wool is its warmth-to-weight ratio, which surpasses that of other popular wools like merino. This efficiency is due to the crimped nature of fine khullu fibers, which trap air pockets and provide superior insulation (The Yak Wool, 2017).

These air pockets also act as a tunnel for warm air to exit, giving the fiber a famed breathability. The thermoregulation characteristics make yak wool an excellent choice for lightweight yet warm (when needed) sweaters, making it a versatile option for a range of climates and activities.

Yak wool also offers remarkable antimicrobial properties that make it especially beneficial for clothing. The wool's ability to absorb sweat from the skin and transport it outward to evaporate is a key benefit. During this process, the fibers of yak wool actively bind and isolate bacteria present in the sweat.

This unique characteristic significantly reduces the development of odor. In fact, garments made from yak wool, such as khullu, the fine undercoat of the yak, demonstrate a significantly lower odor intensity when compared to synthetic fibers and even cotton.

Studies have shown that unwashed khullu has 66% less odor intensity than plastic-based fibers and 28% less than cotton fabrics. This makes yak wool an excellent choice for activewear and garments intended for extended wear without frequent washing.

Though domesticated, yaks still roam semi-wild with nomadic herders throughout the high passes of the Himalayas, the Tibetan Plateau, and the interior of Mongolia. Yak wool is still largely sourced from nomadic farmers’ families and many co-operatives.

For example, Oliver Charles yak wool comes from Shokay, a fully traceable Tibetan COOP, where a portion of the revenue goes back to Tibetan community development and grassland conservation.

Shokay empowers herding families with a livelihood, provides healthcare across the Tibetan Plateau, and has regenerated 1,600 football fields of grassland in the last decade.

Alpacas Walking On The Grassland - Oliver Charles

What Is Special About Alpaca Wool?

Alpaca wool is distinguished by several exceptional properties that make it a high-performing wool. Alpaca is notably lighter than sheep's wool, and alpaca boasts superior thermal insulation capabilities, which are estimated to be about 30% more efficient than merino.

This enhanced performance is attributed to the structure of alpaca fibers, which are uniquely hollow. This allows for better air trapping within the fibers, thereby increasing their insulative properties. A Yocum-McCall Testing Laboratories study highlights the superior insulating properties of alpaca wool compared to sheep's wool.

When worn in an environment at 0 degrees Fahrenheit, alpaca wool can provide a comfort range of up to 50 degrees Fahrenheit, indicating its ability to maintain warmth over a broader temperature range. In contrast, sheep's wool offers a 30 degree Fahrenheit comfort range under the same conditions.

The fibers of alpacas are also known for their ability to absorb moisture effectively. Unlike synthetic fibers, which can absorb only 1-2% of their weight in moisture, alpaca fibers can take in up to 30% without feeling wet or clammy (Alpaca, Myths Or Are They, 2016).

This characteristic makes alpaca garments particularly comfortable, as they manage humidity by pushing sweat away from your skin and maintain warmth even when damp, unlike polyester or nylon, which trap sweat next to your skin that turns into odor.

Alpaca fibers are not only hydrophobic, aiding in keeping the clothing dry, but they also possess a high warmth-to-weight ratio, making them ideal for lightweight and warm apparel. This is partly because alpaca fibers are finer for their weight due to their unique cell structure, which includes a larger medulla (hollow pocket) that contributes to their lightness and insulative qualities.

Alpaca wool is beneficial for its tensile strength and softness, which make it durable and comfortable against the skin. The natural fiber is available in a variety of colors, which reduces the need for chemical dyes, and its farming practices are generally considered environmentally friendly.

In addition to its material advantages, alpaca farming plays a crucial socio-economic role in the Andean highlands. It supports at least 50,000 families who rely on alpaca herding for income, contributing not only to their livelihoods but also to the cultural and economic fabric of the region.

How Eco-Friendly Is Yak Wool - Oliver Charles
An Alpaca Walking Alone In The Grassland - Oliver Charles

Similarities And Differences Between Yak Wool And Alpaca Wool

Yak wool and alpaca wool are both esteemed for their unique qualities, making them highly sought-after alternatives to more conventional fibers like sheep's wool. Here's an exploration of their similarities and differences:

Source and Harvesting:
Yak wool comes from the domestic yak, primarily found on the Tibetan Plateau. The wool, specifically the soft undercoat called khullu, is combed from the animals during their molting season in a process that avoids shearing, thus ensuring a gentler approach. In contrast, alpaca wool is sourced from alpacas native to the Andean region of South America, with the animals being sheared annually to collect their fleece.

Fiber Characteristics:
The down fibers from yak wool and alpaca are incredibly insulating, often measuring between 16.5 to 20 microns in thickness, making them comparable in softness to other luxury fibers. Alpaca fibers, available from two main breeds—Huacaya and Suri—offer different textures. Huacaya fibers are dense and crimpy, while Suri fibers are silkier and form long locks. Alpaca fibers are also known for their hollow cores, which enhance their insulating properties.

Thermal Properties And Moisture Management:
Both types of wool excel in thermal regulation, but they achieve this through slightly different means. Yak wool has a high warmth-to-weight ratio, owing to the crimped nature of its fibers that trap air and provide excellent insulation.

Alpaca wool, particularly noted for being lighter than sheep's wool, offers superior thermal insulation due to its fibers' hollow structure. Moreover, alpaca wool can absorb up to 30% of its weight in moisture without feeling wet, making it exceptionally good at managing humidity.

Durability And Strength:
Yak and alpaca wool fibers show a remarkable tensile strength, making them durable and suitable for more rugged uses.

Both wools are known for their softness, suitable for products that come into direct contact with the skin. Premium grades of yak and alpaca wool, with fiber diameters around 17.5 microns, offer a luxurious feel that rivals cashmere.

Yak and alpaca wools are considered environmentally friendly choices. Yaks and alpacas are integrated into their local ecosystems with minimal impact. Their grazing does not damage the terrain, and their fiber production supports sustainable practices in rural communities.

Antimicrobial Properties:
Yak wool has notable antimicrobial properties, which reduce the development of odor, making it particularly beneficial for activewear. Alpaca wool also exhibits characteristics that minimize bacteria growth, due to its ability to repel water and wick moisture.

Each of these wools offers distinctive benefits over sheep’s wool. Both are exemplary in their right, promoting sustainability and comfort in textile applications.

Properties Of Yak Wool - Oliver Charles
Properties Of Alpaca Wool - Oliver Charles

Is Yak Wool Warmer Than Alpaca Wool?

Yak wool and alpaca wool are both renowned for their excellent thermal properties, but there are subtle differences that may make one more suitable than the other for specific needs in terms of warmth. Both fibers boast low bending rigidity (Journal of the Textile Institute, 2010).

Low bending rigidity in down fibers means that the fibers are more flexible and less stiff. This characteristic contributes to higher thermoregulation (the ability to maintain a stable internal temperature) for several reasons:

1. Air Trapping and Insulation

Flexible Fibers:
Low bending rigidity allows down fibers to bend and conform easily, creating a dense and intricate network of fibers.

Air Pockets:
This network can trap a significant amount of air within the fiber assembly. Air is a poor conductor of heat, so trapped air serves as an effective insulating layer.

Thermal Barrier:
The trapped air creates a thermal barrier that minimizes heat transfer, keeping warmth in cold environments and providing a buffer against external temperature changes.

2. Bulkiness and Loft

High Bulkiness:
Low bending rigidity contributes to the high bulkiness and loft of down fiber assemblies. Loft refers to the fluffiness or thickness of the fiber assembly when not compressed.

Maintaining Volume:
Even with slight compression, down fibers can maintain their bulk, continuing to trap air effectively. This ensures that the insulating properties are preserved over time.

3. Compression and Recovery

Down fibers with low bending rigidity can compress easily, which is beneficial for packing and storage. When the fibers are released from compression, their natural resilience helps them return to their original loft, maintaining the insulating air pockets.

Although down fibers may have poor compression recovery ability (struggling to return to their original state without agitation), their inherent flexibility ensures that even partially recovered fibers can still trap air and provide insulation.

4. Soft Handle and Comfort

Low bending rigidity contributes to the softness of down fibers. Soft, flexible fibers create a comfortable and cozy feel, which is desirable for clothing and bedding.

Comfort and Fit:
This softness also allows the fibers to conform to the body's shape, reducing gaps where heat could escape and ensuring a better thermal seal against the skin.

What Is Warmer, Yak Down Or Alpaca Down?

Yak Down:
If yak down exhibits similar low bending rigidity, it would also provide high bulkiness, effective air trapping, and superior thermal insulation, making it a good candidate for insulated clothing and bedding.

Alpaca Down:
While alpaca fibers might have different structural properties, if they possess low bending rigidity, they too, could offer effective thermoregulation through similar mechanisms of air trapping and insulation.

Low bending rigidity in down fibers enhances thermoregulation by enabling the fibers to trap more air, maintain bulk and loft, and provide a soft, comfortable feel, all of which contribute to effective thermal insulation.

Based on the structural differences between yak wool and alpaca wool, each offers unique benefits for thermal insulation.

Yak wool is characterized by a higher crimp, which refers to the natural waves in each fiber.

This increased crimp can enhance the thermoregulatory properties of yak wool by creating more air pockets that trap heat, making it exceptionally good at providing warmth.

On the other hand, alpaca wool typically has larger hollow air pockets within its fibers. These air pockets are key to its insulating properties, as they trap warmth effectively.

However, based on research, fibers below 20 microns in diameter are essentially solid, reducing the insulative benefits (Alpaca, Myths Or Are They, 2016).

Alpaca Grades Of Medullation - Oliver Charles

Photo from Alpaca, Myths Or Are They, 2016

Given this, if comparing fine fibers from both yak and alpaca, yak wool might edge out alpaca in warmth due to its higher crimp. This structure allows yak wool to retain more heat, making it slightly warmer, particularly in looser knit fabrics where the air pockets can play a more significant role in insulation.

However, the overall difference in warmth between tightly knit garments made from fine yak and alpaca wool could be minimal because of the low bending rigidity above, with both providing excellent thermal properties.

Yak Up In The Mountains - Oliver Charles
A Herd of Alpacas Grazing In The Mountains - Oliver Charles

How Much Stronger Is Yak Wool Than Alpaca Wool?

When comparing the tensile strength of yak wool to alpaca wool, yak wool appears to be stronger. The tensile strength of alpaca fibers varies widely, ranging from 22 to 104 N/KTex, with modern processing techniques targeting at least 45 N/KTex to ensure the wool is of good quality (Alpaca, Myths Or Are They, 2016).

On the other hand, studies, have found that fine yak fiber demonstrates a tensile strength of about 92 N/KTex (The Yak Wool, 2017). This figure is within the upper range of the tensile strength for alpaca fibers and suggests that yak wool can consistently offer high durability and resistance to breaking under tension.

Thus, yak wool, with its higher average tensile strength, is likely to be more durable and resilient than alpaca wool, particularly in applications where the fiber's strength is a critical factor. This makes yak wool a suitable choice for more demanding textile applications where longevity and wear resistance are important.

The Luxurious Yak Wool - Oliver Charles
Alpacas Climbing Up The Mountain - Oliver Charles

Is Yak Or Alpaca Softer?

Both yak and alpaca wool are known for their exceptional softness, making them popular choices for high-quality knitwear. The softness of these wools is largely due to the fineness of their fibers, with both yak and alpaca wool typically measuring around 17.5 microns in diameter in premium products. This places them well within the range considered ultra-fine and comparable to cashmere, which ranges from about 14 to 19 microns.

Additionally, the cuticle cells, or scales, on both yak and alpaca fibers are less pronounced than those found on sheep's wool. This results in a smoother surface that feels softer against the skin and is less likely to cause irritation or a pricking sensation. This feature is particularly important for garments intended to be worn directly against the skin, such as sweaters.

Given that both fibers can be equally fine and have similar physical characteristics regarding scale height and diameter, if you compare yak and alpaca wools of similar quality and fineness, they are likely to offer comparable levels of softness.

Thus, choosing between yak and alpaca wool for softness might come down to personal preference or specific brand offerings, as both fibers provide a luxurious feel suitable for high-end textiles.

The Thick Luxurious Locks Of Yaks - Oliver Charles
The Soft Wool Of Alpacas - Oliver Charles

Do Alpaca And Yak Wool Have Lanolin?

Contrary to what is written on many blogs out there, alpaca and yak wool do contain lanolin, although it is present in much lower quantities compared to wools from other fiber-producing animals.

Lanolin is a natural oil found in many types of animal fibers, which helps protect the fibers and supports their growth. While typical wool from animals like sheep may have a lanolin content ranging from 10-20%, alpaca and yak fibers generally contain only about 1-3% lanolin (Alpaca, Myths Or Are They, 2016).

This reduced amount of lanolin in alpaca and yak wool contributes to their hypoallergenic properties, making them suitable for individuals who may experience allergic reactions to the higher lanolin content of sheep's wool.

The lower grease content also simplifies the cleaning and processing of the fibers, making them less cumbersome to handle during textile production.

In reality, though, unless you’re wearing 100% untreated wool, most of the lanolin is washed off the fibers in the early stages of turning fiber into yarn and then into clothing.

A Yak Resting In The Grassland - Oliver Charles
An Alpaca Resting Near Its Herder's Shed - Oliver Charles

Can Bacteria Grow On Alpaca And Yak Wool?

Alpaca and yak wool both exhibit properties that make them less conducive to bacterial growth, primarily due to their low moisture absorbency and water-repellent characteristics.

Yak wool has a relatively low moisture regain of 15.6%, suggesting that yak wool does not readily absorb water but instead transfers water vapor out and away from your skin, minimizing the damp conditions that typically promote bacterial growth (The Yak Wool, 2017).

Similarly, alpaca wool is known for its remarkable water repellence. Testing has shown it to be almost impossible to saturate, which not only helps wick moisture away from the skin but also reduces the likelihood of creating a hospitable environment for bacteria.

The inherent dryness of alpaca fibers, even when worn in wet conditions such as in the case of alpaca socks, helps maintain a less favorable environment for bacterial growth and contributes to its ability to resist odors.

Tests at Gaston College in 2009 showed the clean fiber yield of alpaca is notably higher compared to sheep, typically ranging from 87-95%. This means that a significant portion of the raw alpaca fleece harvested can be processed into usable fiber without the need for extensive cleaning or removal of impurities.

In contrast, sheep wool generally has a clean fiber yield of about 43-76%, indicating a greater proportion of waste or non-usable material that must be removed during processing.

These characteristics of both alpaca and yak wool make them excellent choices for garments where moisture management and odor resistance are desirable, such as activewear and socks.

The fibers' ability to stay dry and resist water absorption plays a significant role in their antimicrobial properties, thereby stopping the potential for bacteria to thrive on these wools.

Yaks Grazing In The Himalayas - Oliver Charles
An Alpaca Walking Alone In The Grassland - Oliver Charles

Are Alpaca And Yak Wool Environmentally And Economically Sustainable?

Alpaca and yak wool are both environmentally and economically sustainable options in the textile industry due largely to the unique grazing behaviors of these animals and their integration into local economies.

Environmental Sustainability:
Alpacas and yaks graze nomadically at high altitudes, consuming vegetation that is not typically eaten by other livestock, which helps maintain biodiversity. Unlike cashmere goats, which are known to damage the land by pulling up plants by the roots, alpacas and yaks gently graze without disturbing the root systems.

This behavior encourages natural grass regeneration and helps prevent soil erosion. Additionally, their soft padded feet are less damaging to the terrain compared to the sharper hooves of other grazing animals, minimizing land degradation.

These characteristics make alpaca and yak herding a more environmentally friendly option.

Economic Sustainability:
Economically, alpacas and yaks contribute significantly to the livelihoods of pastoral communities.

These animals are relatively independent and do not require constant care, allowing herders to engage in other economic activities.

This flexibility is crucial for the economic advancement of pastoral households. Furthermore, alpacas and yaks produce a higher yield (about 5x more) of soft wool compared to cashmere goats, enhancing their economic value to the communities that raise them.

Overall, the sustainable grazing practices of alpacas and yaks, combined with their low maintenance and high wool yield, support not only environmental conservation but also provide a stable and diversified income source for herding communities. This makes their wool a highly sustainable choice both environmentally and economically.

The Anti-Microbial Properties Of Yak Wool - Oliver Charles
The Water-Repellent Properties Of Alpaca Wool - Oliver Charles

What Is Better, Yak Wool Or Alpaca Wool?

Choosing between yak wool and alpaca wool ultimately depends on the specific needs and preferences of the user, as both types of wool offer high performance and unique advantages.

Environmental Impact:
Both yak and alpaca wools are more environmentally sustainable compared to cashmere. Alpacas and yaks have soft pads that do not cause land degradation unlike the sharper hooves of other livestock. They graze gently, consuming only a small portion of their body weight in vegetation daily and allowing for natural plant regeneration.

Alpacas and yaks eat only 1-2% of their body weight each day, compared to cashmere goats 10% (Alpaca, Myths Or Are They, 2016). This, combined with their low water consumption and the utility of their waste as fertilizer, underscores their minimal environmental impact.

Yield and Harvesting:
Alpacas and yaks are both efficient producers of wool, with each animal able to produce enough fiber annually to make multiple sweaters. This is in stark contrast to cashmere goats, which may take several years to produce enough fiber for just one sweater. Alpacas are shorn, while yaks are combed, processes that are generally humane and adjusted to the animals' natural cycles.

Maintenance and Care:
Both fibers are naturally odor-resistant and somewhat stain-resistant, which reduces the need for frequent laundering. They also resist wrinkling and recover well from any creases, minimizing the need for ironing. These characteristics contribute to the longevity and low maintenance of garments made from these fibers.

In terms of performance, both yak and alpaca wool provide excellent thermal insulation and are lightweight. The choice between the two might come down to specific texture preferences or slight differences in warmth and softness. Yak wool typically offers a higher warmth-to-weight ratio and greater durability, while alpaca wool is known for its superior softness and lightness.

Both yak and alpaca wools are excellent, sustainable choices for clothing and textiles, each bringing its own strengths to the table. You can’t go wrong, but of course, we prefer yaks… at least until we make alpaca sweaters too ;)!

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