6 Reasons Why Luxury Fibers Are Expensive (and Worth it!)
Updated: Oct 4
Have you ever heard of Vicuña? The fiber that is more expensive than gold? Or qiviut down, from the-almost-gone-extinct-200-years-ago-musk-ox? Some fibers are INCREDIBLY expensive and you might wonder why that is.
Luxury fibers are expensive because they have unique characteristics - often more than one! - such as being extremely warm or soft, water repellent, fire resistant, or antibacterial. Some will never shrink, shred, or pill, and many luxury fibers don’t need chemical treatment in the production process.
If you’re interested in finding out how much luxury fibers cost, read another article I wrote i which I compare the price of alpaca wool with other luxury fibers, such as qiviut, vicuña, mohair, angora and merino:
Is Alpaca the Most Expensive Fabric? (Compared to Vicuña, Qiviut, Cashmere, Bison Down, Yak, Angora, Mohair, Silk, Llama, Merino, Lleyn, Corriedale, Cotton, and Polyester)
Luxury fibers are extremely rare and only limited available. Many fibers exist because the animals that produce these fibers live in extreme weather conditions, such as the musk ox in freezing temperatures; the vicuña in an unbearable altiplano; and the silkworm in its tiny cocoon!
Mother Nature provided us with all the materials we need, all the resources necessary for survival. All her secrets are hidden in the outskirts of our beautiful planet. Worth the price? TOTALLY! Let’s find out more!
1. Luxury Fibers Are Expensive Because They Have Special Qualities
A luxury fiber wouldn’t be called a luxury fiber if it weren’t for its luxurious qualities! Many luxury fibers are unique and have unique characteristics that are only attributed to a special, limited type of fiber.
For example, qiviut down doesn’t shrink! No matter the temperature that you wash it in, it will not shrink (according to Qiveut). Most wool fibers are actually highly prone to shrinking, which is considered one of the downsides of luxury fibers. So the fact that qiviut doesn’t shrink is super special! (And makes washing wool fun again!)
Most luxury fibers are super warm since they come from animals that live in extreme environments. Take the vicuña, this cute little animal roams the Andean highlands at an altitude of 3500 to 5000 meters (11500 to 16400 feet) above sea level! As you can imagine, living at such a high altitude is not a joke, and the vicuña needs a special type of fur to protect it from rain, wind, cold, and sun.
Most luxury fibers are SUPER soft: cashmere is probably the most “standard” example of a soft luxury fiber. Generally lower than 19 microns, cashmere is guaranteed to be soft to the touch and prickle-free (generally, fibers below 20 microns are considered itch-free!). Musk ox is even softer: 14 microns! And vicuña is the winner with 12.5 microns.
Many luxury fibers are prepared for extreme weather like rain and wind, making them wind resistant and water repellent. Take merino wool, which is pretty water-repellent (not waterproof!) because its fiber scales are tightly interlaced and greasy (with lanolin), which makes them repel water (you can normally just “shake it off”).
Alpaca wool is also wind-resistant, which is necessary in a windy environment like the Andes! While it is not 100% windproof, alpaca woolen garments can give you a lot of protection!
Another cool feature of luxury fibers is that some of them are fire retardant and self-extinguishing. This means that it can provide some protection when you are close to fire (think bonfire on a camping site, or candles at dinner kinda fire). Again, alpaca wool is one of those. While it is not 100% fireproof, alpaca woolen products will not melt to the skin or catch fire easily.
Most types of wool are also antibacterial, making them perfect for (thermal) underwear, socks and sweaters. Woolen items only get smelly when there are bacteria inside the fiber that cause a chemical reaction (with sweat for example). Alpaca, camel, merino and cashmere are a few of the examples with antibacterial properties.
Another important feature of luxury wools is that they (often) don’t cause any allergic reactions. Alpaca wool is known to lack lanolin (which is the greasy substance that you can find on most wool types). Lanolin can attract dust and mites and cause people real problems ranging from itchy skin and rashes to a runny nose and irritated eyes.
Read more about alpaca wool in this article I wrote: Is Alpaca Wool Hypoallergenic?
2. Luxury Fibers Are Expensive Because They Are LUXURIOUS
What’s in a name, right? It almost sounds too obvious, but luxury fibers are pretty… LUXURIOUS!
Luxury fibers are often shiny. Shiny fibers give a luxurious impression, take silk for example. Silk is a great example of luxury fiber that looks just beautiful. Alpaca wool, cashmere, camel and vicuña are also known to be super silky and shiny. They look just beautiful exactly the way they are.
Another great benefit of silky and shiny fibers is that they drape well. When a clothing item drapes well, it means that it fits well or falls naturally. Sometimes, garments can crawl up, fit too tight, too loose, etc. When you wear a silky fiber this won’t be the case. The secret behind this is the smooth fiber: when a fiber is smooth, it will literally fall naturally into shape.
Silky fibers have this great benefit of also being wrinkle free. The same secret applies here: because of the smooth fiber texture, wrinkles don’t stand a chance and you could say that they basically just “fall out”. Compared to other natural fibers like cotton or linen, all types of wool are wrinkle-free. This means:
Another fantastic characteristic of luxury fibers is that they are often odor and stain resistant. Not all wool fibers have the same degree of odor and stain resistance, but most wool types that have lanolin will repel grease just like they repel water (merino). Lanolin also helps wear off bacteria that otherwise could settle down in the fiber. This means:
Other fibers, like alpaca, are stain and odor repellent because they actually are hair (not wool) and therefore have keratin. Keratin is a special protein that has antibacterial properties. Hair, feathers and wool have it, although hair seems to have a stronger antibacterial effect than wool, according to the article “Synthesis, structure and antimicrobial property of green composites from cellulose, wool, hair and chicken feather.” (SCORE for alpaca). This means:
NO STINKY GARMENTS!
Luxury fibers often have beautiful natural colors. Vicuña and camel come in a shade of brown that is typical for these fibers. Alpaca wool is available in 22 (!!!!!!!!!!!!!) natural colors. Silk, wool, mohair and cashmere are all very receptive to dyes. This is an advantage for you as a wearer, because you will be wearing a radiant item. On the other hand, it is a benefit for mother nature, since less water and less chemicals are needed for the dyeing process.
In short, people pay a lot of money to buy fabrics that look fancy. Many garments nowadays are treated with chemicals to make them odor-repellent, wrinkle-free, shiny… You name it. Luxury fibers are NATURALLY luxurious already. The lack of need for chemicals makes the items mre special, hence the increase in price.
But really, think about the price our planet pays for garments that have been treated chemically. If you ask me, I think it is worth the price tag to opt for natural luxury fibers.
3. Luxury Fibers Are Expensive Because They Are Rare
Luxury fibers are unique because they come from animals that are often native (and restricted) to certain areas. In these areas, circumstances are often harsh, or unique, or at least not your standard grassland where you can graze peacefully.
Take alpaca wool, for example. Alpacas live in the Andean highlands. The highland is beautiful, but also extremely flat at an incredibly high altitude. The high altitude makes it hot and cold at the same: closer to the sun, yet less molecules in the air. Because it is flat, there is often an icy wind, without any natural hideouts. And because it is a mountainous area bordering a rainforest (the Amazon), there can be so much rain.
So, the alpaca needs a special fur to protect itself from the harsh living circumstances, hence alpaca woolen products give protection from rain, wind, and sun, while being breathable in hot and cold climates at the same time. On top of that, 87% of the alpacas live in Peru, 9% in Bolivia (leaving 4% for the rest of the world). Meaning that most alpaca wool also comes from Peru.
The qiviut is another, even rarer example. Qiviut comes from the musk ox, a beautiful animal that was once very close to being extinct. Nowadays, there are between 80,000 and 125,000 musk oxen, which can be found between Canada, Alaska, Greenland and Scandinavia. Musk oxen live in extremely cold environments, so of course, they have developed an incredibly warm coat for themselves.
Then, there is also the vicuña: a far relative from the alpaca. Vicuñas, with their incredibly valuable fur, were also VERY close to extinction. Today, there are about 350,000 vicuñas, although they still rely on conservation programs to protect them from poaching and habitat loss.
Yaks are also SUPER rare: according to the Wildlife Conservation Society, there are roughly 20,000 yaks, most of which live in the Tibetan plateau. While the vicuña and the musk ox have undergone pretty successful reintegration, this will be less likely for yaks to happen: the Tibetan Plateau is one of the most obvious victims of climate change. Sadly, it is the environment where yaks are happiest because of its SUPER high elevation far away from heat (which they cannot bear).
Long story short, luxury fibers are in fact a luxury because they are only limitedly available: there just aren’t as many musk oxen and vicuñas as there are sheep. And since you can’t really plant animals like you would with flax or cotton, there is no fast way to recover the numbers.
And really, if you see the animal abuse in large animals farms, you shouldn’t really want to either. The price tag on luxury fibers is the outcome of a simple supply-and-demand mechanism.
4. Luxury Fibers Are Expensive Because They Are (Manual) Labor Intense
Luxury fibers are labor intensive, which causes the production to move slower, the demand to decrease and the price to go up. What I love about this, is that many of the manual labor originates from indigenous, or local customs. More than often totally in line with Mother Nature and the animal’s best sake.
Qiviut is one of those fibers that is hand combed. This means that the fiber is not shorn (or pulled!!!), but combed from the fleece whenever the season is ready for it. Sometimes, qiviut farmers even only pick up the fleece that gets stuck on bushes or small trees! Now, this brings a huge limit to the number of fleeces available, it is also pretty labor intensive AND seasonal.
Angora wool is another example of a hand combed fleece. While there are some terrible practises regarding the angora industry, you should be able to find actual hand combed, happy bunny’s fleeces. Well-sourced angora wool comes from hand combing the rabbits, one by one.
Other animals are shorn, and again, while there are machines that do this, in my opinion they should be avoided. For the animals it is much better if they are shorn manually, one by one, under the supervision of a caretaker. While the animals are restrained, they are not hurt.
After obtaining the fiber, more parts of the process require manual work, like sorting the fiber. Many fibers are often hand sorted to make sure there are no vegetable matters or dirt plaques left behind in the fur. Given that these live outside in their natural habitat, this is an important part of the production process. While there are machines that do this work, too, many (indigenous) people believe that there is no better precision than the precision of the human eye.
Then, there is the spinning. Wool needs to be spun into nice little threads that can be used for knitting, weaving, crocheting, embroidery… Spinning is the process of turning wool-fluff into yarn. Sounds so easy (but it isn’t!)
In Peru and Bolivia this is often an activity that women do while they come together and talk about women’s stuff.
When I lived in Bolivia, I used to visit a group of indigenous women who came together for women’s meetings in church once a week. They would sit on sheepskins, spinning wool, while they would talk to each other in Aymara (one of the indigenous languages in Bolivia), sing in Aymara, pray in Aymara and laugh at me (in a universal language) when I tried to spin wool with them.
Well, just that I couldn’t spin wool magically, doesn’t mean it is super hard to do, I mean, I’ve seen them do it even while walking down the street. WALKING! So… One way or another, it can be done, manually. The benefit of manual spinning is that it is less harsh on the fiber: less fibers break when the spinning process is done manually.
Another part of the process that can be done manually is the dying. This will depend on the producer of the wool. You will find larger fabrics dye chemically and using machines. Small wool producers (or at-home producers), will often dye their own wool by simply boiling it in a large pot with wool-dye.
5. Luxury Fibers Are Expensive Because They Are Durable
Many luxury fibers have amazing durability. Strong fibers make garments very sustainable, as they can last for several lifetimes!
If you buy a sweater, scarf, or hat made with a material that doesn’t start to form fuzz balls, doesn’t shed everywhere you go, or doesn’t lose form over time, it means that you can wear it over an extended period of time without needing to worry about the quality.
Durable items are the future if we want to move towards a more sustainable fashion industry. Why focus on 30 different sweaters every year, if you can have one that will last you thirty years?
Most animals that produce luxury fibers are also eco-friendly themselves. Alpacas, for example, have soft hooves with which they do not damage the grasslands that they roam. Musk oxen live in areas where otherwise not many animals dare to venture - the little food they eat doesn’t impact the environment at all.
Similarly, every animal can help the environment as long as they are kept on natural, outside, green areas. Animals eat the grass they walk on, they feed themselves and only need shelter from rain. Kept in small herds, there is on impact on the Earth and the grass, although it is important to rotate their grazing land. Small herds are less prone to attract disease and parasites, too.
Animals that produce luxury fibers should not be kept for mass production. While mass production is always bad for the animals to begin with, it also leaves an even bigger impact on the environment. 18% of the global greenhouse gases comes from livestock farming and large scale farming also contributes to water, air, and land pollution.
Luxury fibers are produced in a more natural way than synthetic or semi-synthetic fibers. As you have seen before, many luxury fibers require manual labor, which means that it uses much less energy during the production process. The bigger the part of the production process that can be done manually, the better it is to save energy, water and reduce waste.
On top of that, the fact that luxury fibers have natural benefits, means that they don’t need to undergo any processes in order to “please the people”. While no natural fiber is 100% waterproof or naturally bright pink, the more we can decrease the amount of chemicals that need to be added to produce fabrics, the better.
While no fiber is perfect, luxury fibers can help us make more sustainable choices, naturally.
When I say that luxury fibers have amazing durability, you probably don’t think about what will happen when an item reaches the end of its life. Well, although unimaginable and probably far away, luxury fibers might also need to be disposed of at some point. Here’s the good news, though: luxury fibers are often biodegradable!
When a luxury fiber reaches the end of its lifecycle, it can be disposed of and nature will break it down naturally. There is one condition; only undyed or naturally dyed garments can be 100% biodegradable. Still, though, compare this to polyester, which is A) what most of our oh-so-fashionable-for-a-week-or-two items are made of, and B) that don’t decompose for another 200 years!
And then the best part of luxury fibers: given that many luxury fibers are antibacterial, stain-resistant, odor-repellent and wrinkle-free, they need very little washing or ironing. This again leads to saving water and energy. Not only the Earth’s, but yours, too!
6. Luxury Fibers Are Expensive Because They Have Disadvantages, Too! Lastly, there is another simple reason for why luxury fibers are more expensive than regular fibers: because they have disadvantages.
Generally, luxury fibers have limited availability or yield.
Alpacas for example, can only be shorn once a year, in spring to be exact. Baby alpaca is even rarer, as it refers to the softest part of an animal (sometimes the first cut of an animal, even!). Given that alpaca fibers grow coarser as they age, you can imagine the limited availability.
I wrote an entire article about the disadvantages of alpaca wool, and of course, the solutions to avoid them! :)
Qiviut, as we have seen, is only hand combed or even picked up from the bushes! This means that the farmers or producers have to wait for the musk oxen to shed naturally, also in spring.
Merinos might produce a lot of wool when shorn, but what is left after washing, sorting and carding is much, much less.
Angora rabbits are tiny little animals that yield very little wool! Can you imagine the amount of rabbits you need to create a big, chunky sweater? The things that you can make from angora wool might be limited, although you could easily blend it with other fibers.
Blending wool fibers is often done anyways with luxury fibers to increase the volume, but it might take away some of the benefits of the luxury fiber. However, it would also decrease the price a little bit and take away the pressure of producing more and more of the limited luxury fiber.
Another downside of some fibers, like angora and bison down, is the limited staple length. A minimum staple length is needed to produce a high quality wool. Generally, the longer the fiber, the stronger the fabric. When you have short fibers, the fabric can lose strength and lose its durability. And you don’t want an expensive luxury item to be made of a weak fiber!
Other animals have their soft, valuable fiber mixed with the outer, coarser fibers of their fleece. This means that they need to be hand-sorted in order to separate the usable fleece from the unusable. You really don’t want any coarse hair in your soft garment! Examples are: camel, yak, cashmere and llama.
On a quick side note, this isn’t necessarily a disadvantage, as many of the coarser hairs are still used for other purposes, like carpets, coats, tents (yak!), rope and interior design, but it does require extra work and a smaller yield for the producers!
Another disadvantage of luxury fibers is that there is a tendency of mass production. Cashmere, angora and merino are currently being mass produced, and this is more than often very, very bad for the animals and the environment. Organizations like PETA have repeatedly shown the terrible conditions of mass production. I think we can all agree that we don’t want to contribute to that.
Another thing to take into consideration is the fact that many fibers are collected and or produced far away where there is little control on what is happening exactly. While there are strict laws in Peru and Bolivia to protect the animals and the environment, isolated indigenous villages might never be checked upon. While their native ideas and practises do protect and respect animals, you can never really know how they are treated.
On a similar note, people might get underpaid or not be given the workers rights or benefits that they are entitled to. I have seen this happen first hand while living in Peru, and I can only imagine that this is similar in other parts of the world.
Let’s end on a brighter note, though: there are many, many, many beautiful initiatives out there that breed and herd animals in an animal friendly and sustainable way. Many other brands also work hard to guarantee a good income and positive working conditions for their workers. Investigate the brand of the garment you are interested in and you should be able to find products made with love.