Weave of the Gods: The Real-Life Golden Fleece|
29 August 2005
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.
|Vicuña © Matthias
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. As you can see from the table, 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 amimal’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 of the chinchilla family; but in
any case by law only their royalty could wear such exquisite
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 impoverished 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.
© Peter Blinn 2005