Today we're going on an expedition to find the rarest, most expensive wool in the world. We'll need to head to South America, deep into the heart of the Andes Mountains. What elusive animal are we searching for? It's a relative of the llama known as the vicuña!
It makes its home on the high plains of the Andes Mountains and can be found in Peru, Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile. Peru has the largest population of vicuñas, which explains why it's the national animal of Peru and appears on the Peruvian coat of arms.
Vicuñas are famous for their extremely fine, soft, and warm wool. Unfortunately, they produce only small amounts of it. Since vicuñas can only be shorn about once every three years and they must be captured from the wild to do so, their wool is very rare and thus extremely valuable.
In 1974, the vicuña was declared endangered. At that time, there were only about 6,000 vicuñas left in the wild. Through conservation efforts, the vicuña population has recovered significantly. Today, scientists estimate there are well over 350,000 wild vicuñas throughout the Andes Mountains.
Vicuña wool is famous for being extremely fine, yet quite warm. The small, hollow fibers are filled with air. They also contain tiny scales that cause them to interlock easily, which traps air to form an insulating air below the fibers. Their wool keeps vicuñas warm on the slopes of the Andes Mountains. When used to make clothing, their wool makes soft, warm items known for their luxuriousness.
The average vicuña will only make about one pound of wool each year. Since catching vicuñas in the wild for shearing can be a difficult process, vicuñas are usually only shorn about once every three to five years.
Shearing wild vicuñas has been a communal process since the time of the Incas. Entire communities would come together to perform a ritual called chacu. Many people would herd hundreds of thousands of vicuñas into special funnel traps that allowed them to be shorn and then released back into the wild.
The Incas believed vicuñas represented the reincarnation of beautiful young maidens who had received coats of pure gold. Because of this legend and the rarity and expense of vicuña wool, it's still known as the “gold of the Andes."
Today, the government of Peru officially sanctions chacu, guaranteeing that vicuñas are sheared and returned to the wild. However, because of the value of vicuña wool, poaching and illegal harvesting are still common.
So just how valuable is vicuña wool? Very valuable! Vicuña wool can cost as much as $3,000 per yard. That makes for very expensive garments. A vicuña scarf could cost $1,500, while a coat could exceed $20,000! Can you imagine paying that much for a piece of clothing?