A skein of Chunky Baby Alpaca
Chunky Baby Alpaca knit up
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Yarn Profile: Catalina Chunky Baby Alpaca

First Impressions
At first glance, this yarn reminded me of those brightly colored yarns I used for ribbons and bows when I was a kid. But the minute I touched it, I knew I wasn't dealing in giftwrap anymore.

Baby alpaca fiber typically comes from the first shearing of an alpaca, giving you the softest, most beautiful fiber the animal may ever produce. Each skein of Chunky Baby Alpaca contains a hefty 100 grams of that precious fiber in the form of two loosely spun plies that, in turn, have been loosely plied together. The result is a lofty yarn with buttery softness and the well-defined twists of rope candy.

Chunky Baby Alpaca is one of five new alpaca-based yarns offered by Catalina Yarns, a yarn company launched in January 2005. Owners Renee and Shaun Koch are based in Illinois and import all their yarns from Peru's largest alpaca producer.

For those who like bulk but find pure alpaca too hot, Catalina Yarns also offers this same yarn in a 60% baby alpaca/40% superfine merino wool blend. And for those who appreciate knitting a few more stitches per inch, Catalina offers worsted-weight four-ply alpaca, alpaca/silk, and alpaca/cotton blends—all of which are lovely.

Knitting Up
Knitting with Chunky Baby Alpaca is a breeze. Even the simple task of winding my hanks into balls—a relaxing task I like to do by hand—was fast and trouble-free.

I found the lofty yarn had little bounce to it, something common in alpaca yarns. Some yarns are so springy and elastic that they hug your hand and require very little work to maintain tension. Not this one.

It was relaxed and fluid, eager to slide through my fingers. After a brief adjustment period, I was able to regain control over my tension.

Although the yarn is loosely plied together, my needles only snagged once—and that was while I was trying to knit by touch alone.

The yarn has beautiful stitch definition, although my stitches looked a little lumpy and uneven right off the needles.

Blocking / Washing
The intense red in my swatches bled faintly in their warm bath, but the water ran clear with the first rinse. After I squeezed the swatches dry and rolled them in a towel, they emerged as smooth, relaxed swatches of fabric.

As my swatches dried, they plumped back up a little, but there was definite relaxation. My previously lumpy stitches evened out into textbook perfect stockinette.

My main worry is that this yarn won't wear as well as its tighter-spun counterparts. This is no fault of Chunky Baby Alpaca in particular—any yarn spun in this loose bulky manner will pose wearability concerns. But the fact that it's alpaca makes it a greater concern for me.

Alpaca fibers behave differently than wool—they are smoother and more relaxed, not clinging to one another as much as wool. When you take the superfine baby alpaca and loosely spin it, and only use two plies to hold your yarn together, it can quickly come apart.

Not that you'll have gigantic holes in your sweater overnight, mind you. But after a few outings you'll find yourself pulling large wisps of fiber from the surface of your garment. If you use this for an accessory, such as a hat or scarf, you'll get years more wear out of it.

Ultimately, Chunky Baby Alpaca's long-term durability may have to take a back seat to its tremendous softness. The other nice surprise is that, unlike the similar-weight wools out there, this yarn offsets its bulk with body-flattering drape and fluidity (a benefit of alpaca).

This yarn falls on the finer side of chunky, knitting up at 4 stitches per inch. Catalina Yarns is currently working on pattern support (designers take note) and hopes to roll out its first line in the fall of 2005.

Until then, simply substitute this yarn for any pattern calling for 4 stitches to the inch. (You can stretch it a little bit and get 3.5 stitches per inch on US 10.5 needles, but beyond that the stitches will look too big and out of place.)

From a price perspective, Chunky Baby Alpaca falls in the mid-range for this kind of yarn. (Plymouth has a slightly bulkier Baby Alpaca Grande that looks nearly identical and retails for $11.99 per 110-yard skein.)

A medium-sized women's cardigan in Chunky Baby Alpaca would require approximately 1125 yards, or 11 skeins—bringing the tab to over $140. A simple pullover for a two-year-old would require six skeins, or a bit over $75. Keep in mind that a full-sized sweater made from this yarn would be extremely warm and heavy (those 11 skeins would weight almost two and a half pounds).

I see this yarn working best in smaller accessories such as a winter hat and matching scarf. The yarn's beautiful stitch definition invites cables and decorative ribbing. (Functional ribbing with alpaca is always questionable, because alpaca doesn't have the elasticity and fiber memory of wool—it won't hug the body as much.)

I'm also inclined to try felting with Chunky Baby Alpaca. If it worked well, this would be the perfect candidate for slippers, hats, or anything that sits next to the skin.

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