At the inaugural Chocolate Fountain creative seminar in Lenzerheide, Switzerland earlier this year, designer Satoru Inoue introduced a short film talking about the “Gold of the Andes” as if referring to some mythical treasure chest. “For years, we have been hearing about this supreme fibre but due to its scarcity, nobody could show us any,” he continued. The “we”, being himself and sibling, Kiyoshi who are The Inoue Brothers, a partnership that engages in artistic projects and operate a successful knitwear line working with indigenous communities in the Andes. The yarn is the incredibly rarified vicuña, a superfine wool that barely measures 12 micrometers in diameter. The more ubiquitous cashmere feels positively coarse compared to this.
The story here is one of species preservation and carefully regulated distribution. Vicuña are a local camelid that the Incas originally nominated as holy creatures. They were allowed to roam freely and only royalty could benefit from their fleece. That changed once the Spanish conquistadores arrived, and by the mid-’60s, the population had dwindled to a mere 6,000, before they were declared an endangered breed. Shearing was subsequently prohibited, eventually being reinstated in 1993 with the population back up to a healthier 75,000.
Bi-annually, the wool is harvested during a Chaccu, a one-day event in which hundreds of volunteers form a ring covering almost 10km sq of open ground. As the human fence shrinks, only males with 2.5cm of fur can be shorn before being released back to the wild – females are untouched in order to preserve the bloodline. For each vicuña, it is all over in 10 minutes. Kiyoshi Inoue remarks that, “of the 5 hours, we managed to collect 30 animals, and only 4 were shorn. The idea is to allow them their freedom. Less stress means improved fibres.” Once shorn, the animal is marked so that it can be left for at least two years to regrow its coat. Local women then sort the fleece by hand, utilising a technique handed down through generations. An international body labels each produced garment to verify its provenance.
Understandably, the finished yarn is made available to a very small circle of garment manufacturers. Through their earlier working relationship with Pacomarca, a local research facility dedicated to improving farming methods, and supporting the communities by donating machinery to improve production output, TIB were invited to participate in the Chaccu. They also secured funding to make a film of it, highlighting the traditional methods and integrity of the vicuña yarn. Produced by Present Plus in Amsterdam, the video short sensitively portrays the pre-mechanical farming techniques of a rare animal breed and underscores the specialist nature of the finished product.