In 2015, 18-year-old Kris Cody went to hike in the Andes during a gap year before college. Six months later, he came back with a new sweater—and the seed of a business idea.
The rainy season had arrived in Cusco and Cody was freezing, the polyester layers he’d brought to Peru woefully inadequate at 11,000 feet of elevation. So he went sweater shopping, to a half-dozen tiny craft stores scattered around the high-altitude city. Most of the sweaters he tried fit poorly, until he found a small shop down a narrow stairwell, and inside it a gray sweater with thin brown stripes at the shoulders and a nifty pyramid pattern. It was unlike anything he’d seen or touched: soft but sturdy, warm but light. Cody returned the next day and bought eight more, shipping them to family members back home. The sweater was knitted by Gregoria Yucra Chamb from the Peruvian Quechuan tribe, who crafted it from alpaca fur, just like hundreds of artisans across Peru.
Alpacas’ relationship with farmers goes back centuries. When sheared, the animals produce different ranges of fiber; the roughest parts are spun into carpets and rugs, the softest into socks and baby clothes. Because the camelids evolved in South America—3.5 million of them roaming the Andes in herds of 60 to 90, in temperatures that can go from freezing to 80F in a day—their coats are considered more sustainable than cashmere and other wool, and the fiber that comes from their fur requires fewer chemicals to treat for wear.
“They weren’t pushed into this climate like cashmere goats,” Cody says. “They’ve evolved here for thousands of years.”
Alpacas are light on the land: They only nibble at the tops of the grasses and plants, rarely ripping anything out of the ground. And they move around on paws, not sharp hooves like goats or sheep, so their herds can grow without trampling the environment. While alpaca is arguably less cozy than down, no geese or ducks are sacrificed to make the fur, which in South America is known as the “fiber of the gods.”
What first appealed to Cody was his new sweater’s warmth and soft feel, but the more he learned about alpacas, the more he saw an opportunity in sustainability. One alpaca produces enough wool for four sweaters, while cashmere requires shearing four goats to make one sweater and synthetic performance apparel is usually crafted from a plastic derivative. Any amount or consistency of alpaca fur can also be used for insulation, which means even small scraps don’t have to go to waste.
After his first year studying neuroimmunology at the University of Virginia, Cody came back to Peru. Gregoria didn’t recognize him, but she was willing to entertain a blur of questions about sourcing alpaca fur and building relationships with regional alpaquieros, whom Cody visited by bus.
Gregoria was skeptical, but Cody built trust, returning day after day with smoothies for her children. He soon moved into Gregoria’s son-in-law’s place and created a prototype for the American market: an odor-resistant sweater that weighs less than 10 ounces and sells for $139.
“I just wanted to make something together,” Cody says.
He went back to college with a side hustle. While Cody’s friends spent their Fridays partying, he bought a shelf from Ikea and set up a display of sweaters in his dorm room. As word got out, he set up a website and started taking mail orders, boxing up sweaters with handwritten thank-you notes tucked inside. He snuck backstage at concerts to convince artists to wear the sweaters. His classmates mocked him, but in 2017 Cody raised $350,000 on Kickstarter and dropped out of college to focus on the fledgling company full-time.
Seven years later, Paka is a certified B Corp with 35 different products, from shirts to sweaters to socks, working with more than 100 Quechuan weavers who now earn more than four times the living wage in Peru. Cody says sales have doubled every year since the company launched and will hit eight figures this year. Two percent of the company’s proceeds go to an NGO called Peruvian Hearts, which provides scholarships to local women.
There are US other companies in the alpaca-fur business, some with years on Cody. James Budd launched Alpacas of Montana in 2006 after a career in orthopedics. He found an alpaca expert in Kalispell, Montana, invested $100,000 in his first herd of animals, and was profitable selling their offspring and fiber nine months later. Around 2008, Budd transitioned from breeding and selling into making products from alpaca fleece, starting with hats. Then he went to textile production school to learn how to turn the fiber into high-performance clothing. Sixteen years later, Budd’s company sells more than 60 different products, too many to source his fiber domestically, and he’s focused on reducing its carbon footprint—in part by making use of all the fleece, not just the softest fibers.
Alpaca’s key advantage above merino wool, Budd says, is that merino requires the heavy chemicals involved in “super washing” the wool, so it doesn’t “scratch the bejeezus out of you. They put the fiber into big vats of acetone, peroxides and other chemicals to remove the barbs, then another vat of peroxide to take out the lanolin. It’s all flushed right back into the environment, which to us is not cool.”
Alpaca fiber requires only a biodegradable natural detergent to process the fleece and prepare it for textile production. Alpaca poop also makes an excellent, environmentally friendly fertilizer. “They have three stomachs, so by the time they poop out their food, 90% of the seeds are killed,” Budd says. “They’re not spreading weeds all over your pasture.”
John Gage came to alpaca products from the textile industry, and a quest to find a better backpacking apparel than merino wool. While the raw materials are more expensive, Gage says alpaca fiber doesn’t “run like a stocking” the way merino can, and it doesn’t get “funky” after weeks on the trail, as synthetics like polyester do while also leaving microplastics scattered across the ecosystem.
“Alpaca does all the things merino wool does but better,” Gage says. It’s softer, stronger, and more lightweight. After launching primarily as a hoodie retailer, Gage’s Appalachian Gear Company grew from five employees in 2019 to 19 today. Its products range from T-shirts and neck gaiters to an alpaca-fleece sleeping bag called the “Ugly Bag.”
In October, Paka’s Cody, now 26, returned to the Andes to summit the Yanapaccha Mountain, and to field-test his next product: a jacket insulated with alpaca fiber. Paka will launch the jacket later this year, but Cody also hopes the insulation will one day line the products of other companies.