The alpaca (Lama pacos) is somewhat similar in appearance to the guanaco and llama, but significantly smaller at around 55 to 65 kg, with body hairs up to 500 mm long. The alpaca was apparently domesticated in Peru thousands of years ago, having been selectively bred for its fine wool, which still has great commercial value. (Nowak 1991 and references therein)
The alpaca is one of four South American camelids (mammals in the camel family) recognized today, two of which are wild species, the guanaco (Lama guanicoe) and the vicuña (Vicugna vicugna), and two of which are domesticated forms, the alpaca (Lama pacos) and the llama (Lama glama). Wild vicuña and guanaco diverged from a shared ancestor two to three million years ago. (Wheeler 1995). At one time it was widely believed that both the alpaca and the llama were derived from guanacos. However, in light of new archaeozoological evidence from 6000 to 7000 years ago in the central Peruvian Andes linking alpaca origins to the vicuña, Kadwell et al. (2001) investigated the origins of these domesticated forms using mitochondrial and nuclear DNA markers. Their results supported the hypothesis that the alpaca is derived from the vicuña (and confirmed the hypothesis that the llama is derived from the guanaco), although this work also revealed genetic evidence of historical hybridization and gene flow (at least among domesticated forms). Chromosomal analyses have also indicated that the llama was derived from the guanaco and the alpaca from the vicuña (Marín et al. 2007). Given the well established divergence between the guanaco and vicuña, many authors suggest that the correct name for the alpaca is therefore Vicugna pacos (Kadwell et al. 2001; Marín et al. 2007).
Like the vicuña, the alpaca is strictly a grazer (the guanaco and llama both graze and browse) (Nowak 1991 and references therein).
The native range of Lama pacos includes the central and southern Andes from Peru to Argentina at elevations of up to 4800 meters. Remains of alpaca found at elevations closer to sea levels suggest that alpaca once had a wider geographical distribution and that the reduction of its range started with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores and their introduced livestock. In the 1980s alpacas started to be exported to other countries for farming purposes. Nowadays, alpacas can be found in countries such as the United States, New Zealand, Australia, and the Netherlands, among others. In spite of the increase in alpaca farming outside its native territory, it has been estimated that 99% of the world population of alpacas is found in South America.
Biogeographic Regions: nearctic (Introduced ); palearctic (Introduced ); neotropical (Native ); australian (Introduced )
Alpacas are the smallest of the domesticated camelid species. The weight of an adult alpaca ranges from 55 to 65 kg. Head and body length ranges from 1200 to 2250 mm, tail length ranges from 150 to 250 mm, and shoulder height from 900 to 1300 mm. Lama pacos has a slender body and neck. The head is small and the ears are big and pointed. The coat is either uniform or multicolor. According to “The Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association” alpaca coats have up to 22 colors, from white to black and brown. In adult males the upper and lower incisors and the lower canines develop into fighting teeth or fangs that can be more than 3 cm long. In females these teeth do not develop as much as in males. Other than the difference in tooth morphology, sexual dimorphism in alpacas is minor.
There are two breeds of Lama pacos: Huacaya and Suri. Huacaya are the most abundant. The body, legs, and neck of Huacaya are covered by long, crimpy hair, whereas the head and feet are covered by short hair. In Suris the hair is silkier and grows faster than in Huacayas. Additionally, in Suris the hair grows parallel to the body and has no crimp.
Range mass: 55 to 65 kg.
Range length: 1200 to 2250 mm.
Other Physical Features: endothermic ; homoiothermic; bilateral symmetry
Sexual Dimorphism: sexes alike; ornamentation
Alpacas inhabit the Andean Altiplano, i.e. the Andean high plateau, preferably near wet areas. The climate of the Altiplano is severe, reaching temperatures of below 0°C during the night and 16°C during the day. Annual precipitation ranges from 400 to 700 mm. In this semi-arid region, grasses prevail. Alpacas are dependent on humans. There are reports of feral populations of llamas in South America; however, that does not seem to be the case for alpacas.
Range elevation: 1000 to 4800 m.
Habitat Regions: temperate ; tropical ; terrestrial
Terrestrial Biomes: savanna or grassland ; mountains
Other Habitat Features: agricultural
Lama pacos is a strict grazer. In a highland region of Chile, Castellano et al. (2004) reported that the alpaca diet was dominated by grasses such as Festuca nardifolia, Deschampsia caespitosa, and Agrostis tolucensis, cushion plants Oxychloe andina, bunch grasses Festuca orthophylla, and the woody shrub Parastrephia lucida.
Plant Foods: leaves; wood, bark, or stems
Primary Diet: herbivore (Folivore )
Due to some of their morphological characteristics such as padded soles and light weight, South American camelids do not compact the soil or destroy the vegetation in their habitat. Moreover, they feed on the natural forbs and grasses in the ecosystem. In brief, these animals are ideal livestock for low impact grazing.
There are no reports on specific alpaca predators in their native range. Alpacas, however, could potentially be eaten by the same carnivores that attack their wild close relatives, i.e. guanacos and vicugnas. These predators are domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris), Andean foxes (Lycalopex culpaeus), Andean condors (Vultur gryphus), pumas (Puma concolor), and wild cats (Leopardus colocolo and Leopardus jacobitus). Breeders in areas outside the alpaca native range identify coyotes (Canis latrans), wolves (Canis lupus), large cats, and dogs as predators. Most predation will be on young, sick, or old animals, as alpacas are vigilant and will defend themselves with their hooves and spitting their foul stomach contents into the face of a predator.
- domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris)
- Andean foxes (Lycalopex culpaeus)
- Andean condors (Vultur gryphus)
- pumas (Puma concolor)
- colocolos (Leopardus colocolo)
- Andean mountain cats (Leopardus jacobitus)
- coyotes (Canis latrans)
- wolves (Canis lupus)
Life History and Behavior
According to their breeders, alpacas use most of their body parts for communication. A pose described as broadside is ascribed to males defending their territory. It is characterized by standing sideways, arched neck, rigid tail pointing up, and ears pulled back. A sign of danger in the environment elicits an alert posture. In this posture the alpaca erects its body and directs the ears to the potential source of danger. If the animal feels threatened, it will elicit an alarm call and either flee or go to investigate the source of danger. A stand off posture is taken to show dominance. It is seen when two alpacas are standing extremely close to each other. Their bodies take a rigid position, ears are pulled back, and tail and neck are held high. This posture may be accompanied by spitting, pushing, and more aggressive behaviors. Lastly, a posture called submissive crouch is seen in youngsters and low-rank individuals. In this posture, the neck is lowered to the ground and the tail is pushed onto the back. Alpacas engage in spitting when they are in distress, fearful, or to show dominance.
Alpacas produce a broad range of vocalizations. The most common is the humming vocalization, which is produced under a variety of circumstances, such as distress or a change in the environment. A snortling vocalization is a warning signal among alpacas. Clucking is a sound mothers use with crias. Grumbling is produced to indicate food territoriality. Screeching is produced when animals become frustrated over food. Stressful situations cause the animals to elicit a loud scream. Danger causes alpacas to elicit high-pitched vocalizations known as alarm calls. Finally, orgling is produced when males are mating.
Alpacas use communal dung piles to deposit urine and feces. As has been argued for other South American camelids, these piles may be a source for chemical communication among alpacas.
Communication Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical
Perception Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical
The longevity of Lama pacos in the wild is 5 to 10 years, whereas in captivity it is approximately 20 years.
Status: captivity: 20 years.
Status: wild: 5 to 10 years.
Status: captivity: 20 years.
Status: captivity: 25.8 years.
Lifespan, longevity, and ageing
Lama pacos is a polygynous species. Some breeders report that dominant males form harems of 5 to 10 females.
Mating System: polygynous
Alpacas are induced ovulators. They can breed year round. If the female is ready to mate, she will allow mounting and then copulation by assuming sternal recumbency shortly after intromission. The male produces a vocalization known as "orgling" during copulation. A chemical signal in the semen seems to trigger the preovulatory LH (luteinizing hormone) surge. Ovulation occurs 24 hours after mating. Once a female is pregnant, she will refuse any attempts by the male to mount her.
Gestation takes between 242 and 345 days. If both sexes are kept together year round, parturition occurs during the rainy season from December to March. Females can become pregnant approximately 10 days after parturition. Alpacas commonly have a single young, with birth occurring between late morning and midafternoon. At birth, alpaca weights range from 8 to 9 kg. Alpacas are precocial. Crias is the term used to designate alpaca offspring up to 6 months of age. Alpacas are weaned at 6 to 8 months. Females reach sexual maturity at 12 to 15 months, whereas males reach it around 30 to 36 months.
All South American camelids can crossbreed and produce fertile offspring. However, crosses between domestic and wild South American camelids, do not normally occur in nature. The product of crossing a llama and an alpaca is a Huarizo, which shows intermediate physical characteristics. The product of crossing a vicugna and an alpaca is a Pacovicuna, which shows resemblance to the vicugna. The latter has received considerable attention due to the high quality of the fiber that it produces.
Breeding interval: Breeding occurs once a year.
Breeding season: Breeding may occur throughout the year.
Range number of offspring: 1 to 1.
Range gestation period: 242 to 345 days.
Average gestation period: 190.5 days.
Range weaning age: 6 to 8 months.
Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 12 to 15 months.
Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male): 30 to 36 months.
Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; year-round breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; induced ovulation ; fertilization ; viviparous
Average birth mass: 7210 g.
Average number of offspring: 1.04.
After parturition, alpacas neither lick their young nor touch the placenta. Males stay far away from females during parturtion. Mothers watch their newborns closely but do not approach their young until they finally stand up. Then, mothers readily approach their young so that the newborns can get their first milk, or colostrum, which contains antibodies and nutrients. If newborns have problems finding the udder, mothers help them by changing their own posture. Some young approach unrelated females for milk; these unrelated females typically react by allowing them to nurse, by walking away, or by spitting. If a stranger gets close to a mother and her young, the mother spits or lunges and may refuse to leave her young.
Parental Investment: precocial ; pre-fertilization (Provisioning, Protecting: Female); pre-hatching/birth (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Female); pre-weaning/fledging (Provisioning: Female)
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Lama pacos
Below is a sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species.
See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen and other sequences.
-- end --
Download FASTA File
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Lama pacos
Public Records: 3
Specimens with Barcodes: 6
Species With Barcodes: 1
Barcode data: Vicugna pacos
Below is the sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species.
See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen.
Other sequences that do not yet meet barcode criteria may also be available.
-- end --
Download FASTA File
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Vicugna pacos
Public Records: 1
Specimens with Barcodes: 1
Species With Barcodes: 1
After the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores to South America, alpaca populations were extremely reduced and displaced to the highest regions of the Andes. Thus, alpacas and llamas were replaced by sheep and goat brought from Europe. Nowadays, populations of alpacas are not endangered but are still relegated to the highest regions of the Andes. It has been estimated that the world population of alpacas is approximately 3.5 millions. Peru holds 87% of the alpaca population, followed by Bolivia with 9.5%. Most of the alpacas reared in South America are under the control of traditional pastoralists who in most cases keep llamas and alpacas together. This situation is problematic since alpacas and llamas can crossbreed. Wheeler (2005) touches on that problem and states that the hybridization between llamas and alpacas, which started after the conquest and continues today, is making alpacas an endangered species since its genetic make-up is being compromised by crossbreeds with the llama.
US Federal List: no special status
CITES: no special status
State of Michigan List: no special status
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
There is no report of a negative impact of this species on human economy.
Fiber is the main product obtained from alpacas. The coat is clipped once a year and the fiber has been described as the finest. The fiber is soft and can absorb up to 15% of ambient humidity without altering it. Additionally, the fiber is warmer and stronger than wool. Other products that can be obtained from alpacas are meat, skin, and dung. The meat has as higher protein content and lower fat content than cow or sheep meat. The meat of South American camelids does not transmit diseases such as Trichinosis or Cysticercosis that are commonly caused by eating pork or wild game products. In spite of the benefits of alpaca meat, its commercialization is extremely rare. Another product obtained from alpacas is their skin, which is used for the manufacturing of rugs, wall hangings, purses, shoes, toys, and apparel. Dung is used either as a fertilizer or as fuel. The alpaca is of extreme importance for the economy of South American herders. The Peruvian Ministry of Agriculture reports that Peru and Bolivia have 99% of the alpaca population. Breeding occurs primarily in poor farm communities.
Positive Impacts: pet trade ; food ; body parts are source of valuable material; produces fertilizer
Alpacas are kept in herds that graze on the level heights of the Andes of southern Peru, northern Bolivia, Ecuador, and northern Chile at an altitude of 3,500 m (11,500 ft) to 5,000 m (16,000 ft) above sea level, throughout the year. Alpacas are considerably smaller than llamas, and unlike llamas, they were not bred to be beasts of burden, but were bred specifically for their fiber. Alpaca fiber is used for making knitted and woven items, similar to wool. These items include blankets, sweaters, hats, gloves, scarves, a wide variety of textiles and ponchos in South America, and sweaters, socks, coats and bedding in other parts of the world. The fiber comes in more than 52 natural colors as classified in Peru, 12 as classified in Australia and 16 as classified in the United States.
In the textile industry, "alpaca" primarily refers to the hair of Peruvian alpacas, but more broadly it refers to a style of fabric originally made from alpaca hair, but now often made from similar fibers, such as mohair, Icelandic sheep wool, or even high-quality English wool. In trade, distinctions are made between alpacas and the several styles of mohair and luster.
An adult alpaca generally is between 81 and 99 cm in height at the withers. They usually weigh between 48 and 84 kg (106 and 185 lbs).
Alpacas have been domesticated for thousands of years. The Moche people of northern Peru often used alpaca images in their art. There are no known wild alpacas, though its closest living relative, the vicuña (also native to South America), are believed to be the wild ancestor of the alpaca. The alpaca is larger than the vicuña, but smaller than the other camelid species.
Along with camels and llamas, alpacas are classified as camelids. Of the various camelid species, the alpaca and vicuña are the most valuable fiber-bearing animals: the alpaca because of the quality and quantity of its fiber, and the vicuña because of the softness, fineness and quality of its coat.
Alpacas are too small to be used as pack animals. Instead, they are bred exclusively for their fiber and meat. Alpaca meat was once considered a delicacy by Andean inhabitants. Because of the high price commanded by alpaca on the growing North American alpaca market, illegal alpaca smuggling has become a growing problem. In 2014, a company was formed claiming to be the first to export US-derived alpaca products to China.
Alpacas and llamas can successfully cross-breed. The resulting offspring are called huarizo, which are valued for their unique fleece and gentle dispositions.
Alpacas are social herd animals that live in family groups consisting of a territorial alpha male, females and their young. Alpacas warn the herd about intruders by making sharp, noisy inhalations that sound like a high-pitched bray. The herd may attack smaller predators with their front feet, and can spit and kick.
Not all alpacas spit, but all are capable of doing so. "Spit" is somewhat euphemistic; occasionally the projectile contains only air and a little saliva, although alpacas commonly bring up acidic stomach contents (generally a green, grassy mix) and project it onto their chosen targets. Spitting is mostly reserved for other alpacas, but an alpaca will occasionally spit at a human.
For alpacas, spitting results in what is called "sour mouth". Sour mouth is characterized by a loose-hanging lower lip and a gaping mouth. This is caused by the stomach acids and unpleasant taste of the contents as they pass out of the mouth.
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Most alpacas do not like being grabbed. Some alpacas tolerate being stroked or petted anywhere on their bodies, although many do not like their feet, lower legs, and especially their abdomen touched or handled.
Alpacas use a communal dung pile, where they do not graze. This behaviour tends to limit the spread of internal parasites. Generally, males have much tidier, and fewer dung piles than females, which tend to stand in a line and all go at once. One female approaches the dung pile and begins to urinate and/or defecate, and the rest of the herd often follows.
Because of their preference for using a dung pile, some alpacas have been successfully house-trained.
Alpacas make a variety of sounds. When they are in danger, they make a high-pitched, shrieking whine. Some breeds are known to make a "wark" noise when excited. Strange dogs – and even cats – can trigger this reaction. To signal friendly or submissive behavior, alpacas "cluck," or "click" a sound possibly generated by suction on the soft palate, or possibly in the nasal cavity.
Individuals vary, but most alpacas generally make a humming sound. Hums are often comfort noises, letting the other alpacas know they are present and content. The humming can take on many inflections and meanings.
When males fight, they scream a warbling, bird-like cry, presumably intended to terrify the opponent.
Females are induced ovulators; the act of mating and the presence of semen causes them to ovulate. Females usually conceive after just one breeding, but occasionally do have troubles conceiving. Artificial insemination is technically difficult, but it can be accomplished. Alpacas conceived from artificial insemination are not registerable with the Alpaca Registry.
A male is usually ready to mate for the first time between two and three years of age. A female alpaca may fully mature (physically and mentally) between 10 and 24 months. It is not advisable to allow a young female to be bred until she is mature, and has reached two-thirds of her mature weight. Over-breeding a young female before conception is possible is a common cause of uterine infections. As the age of maturation varies greatly between individuals, it is usually recommended that novice breeders wait until females are 18 months of age or older before initiating breeding.
The gestation period is, on average, 11.5 months, and usually results in a single offspring, or cria. Twins are rare, occurring about once per 1000 deliveries. Cria are generally between 15 and 19 pounds, and are standing 30 to 90 minutes after birth. After a female gives birth, she is generally receptive to breeding again after about two weeks. Crias may be weaned through human intervention at about six months old and 60 pounds, but many breeders prefer to allow the female to decide when to wean her offspring; they can be weaned earlier or later depending on their size and emotional maturity.
Alpacas can live for up to 20 years.
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Alpacas require much less food than most animals of their size. They generally eat hay or grasses, but can eat some other plants (e.g. some leaves), and will normally try to chew on almost anything (e.g. empty bottle). Most alpaca ranchers rotate their feeding grounds so the grass can regrow and fecal parasites may die before reusing the area.
Alpacas can eat natural unfertilized grass; however, ranchers can also supplement grass with low-protein grass hay. To provide selenium and other necessary vitamins, ranchers will feed their domestic alpacas a daily dose of grain. Free-range alpacas may obtain the necessary vitamins in their native grazing ranges.
Alpacas are pseudoruminants and, like other camelids, have a three-chambered stomach; combined with chewing cud, this three-chambered system allows maximum extraction of nutrients from low-quality forages.
Alpacas will chew their food in a figure eight motion, swallow the food, and then pass it into one of the stomach's chambers. The first and second chambers (called C1 and C2) are where the fermentation process begins digestion. The alpaca will further absorb nutrients and water in the first part of the third chamber. The end of the third chamber (called C3) is where the stomach secretes acids to digest food, and is the likely place where an alpaca will have ulcers, if stressed. The alpaca digestive system is very sensitive and must be kept healthy and balanced.
Many plants are poisonous to the alpaca, including the bracken fern, fireweed, oleander, and some azaleas. In common with similar livestock, others include: acorns, African rue, agave, amaryllis, autumn crocus, bear grass, broom snakeweed, buckwheat, ragweed, buttercups, calla lily, orange tree foliage, carnations, castor beans, and many others.
History of the scientific name
The relationship between alpacas and vicuñas was disputed for many years. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the four South American lamoid species were assigned scientific names. At that time, the alpaca was assumed to be descended from the llama, ignoring similarities in size, fleece and dentition between the alpaca and the vicuña. Classification was complicated by the fact that all four species of South American camelid can interbreed and produce fertile offspring. The advent of DNA technology made a more accurate classification possible.
In 2001, the alpaca genus classification changed from Lama pacos to Vicugna pacos, following the presentation of a paper on work by Dr. Jane Wheeler et al. on alpaca DNA to the Royal Society showing the alpaca is descended from the vicuña, not the guanaco.
Alpaca fleece is a lustrous and silky natural fiber. While similar to sheep’s wool, it is warmer, not prickly, and bears no lanolin, which makes it hypoallergenic. Without lanolin, it does not repel water. It is also soft and luxurious. In physical structure, alpaca fiber is somewhat akin to hair, being very glossy. The preparing, carding, spinning, weaving and finishing process of alpaca is very similar to the process used for wool. Alpaca fiber is also flame-resistant, and meets the US Consumer Product Safety Commission's standards.
Alpacas are typically sheared once per year in the spring. Each shearing produces approximately five to ten pounds (2.2–4.5 kilograms) of fibre per alpaca. An adult alpaca might produce 50 to 90 ounces (1420–2550 grams) of first-quality fibre as well as 50 to 100 ounces (1420–2840 grams) of second- and third-quality fibre.
The price for American alpacas can range from US$50 for a castrated male (gelding) to US$500,000 for the highest of champions in the world, depending on breeding history, sex, and color. According to an academic study, though, the higher prices sought for alpaca breeding stock are largely speculative and not supported by market fundamentals, given the low inherent returns per head from the main end product, alpaca fiber, and prices into the $100s per head rather than $10,000s would be required for a commercially viable fiber production herd. Breeding stock prices in Australia have fallen from A$10,000–30,000 head in 1997 to an average of A$3,000–4,000 today.
It is possible to raise up to 25 alpacas per hectare (10 alpacas per acre). as they have a designated area for waste products and keep their eating area away from their waste area, but this ratio differs from country to country and is highly dependent on the quality of pasture available (in many desert locations it is generally only possible to run one to three animals per acre due to lack of suitable vegetation). Fiber quality is the primary variant in the price achieved for alpaca wool; in Australia, it is common to classify the fiber by the thickness of the individual hairs and by the amount of vegetable matter contained in the supplied shearings.
Alpacas need to eat 1–2% of body weight per day, so about two 60 lb (27 kg) bales of grass hay per month per animal. When formulating a proper diet for alpacas, water and hay analysis should be performed to determine the proper vitamin and mineral supplementation program. Two options are to provide free choice salt/mineral powder, or feed a specially formulated ration. Indigenous to the highest regions of the Andes, this harsh environment has created an extremely hardy animal, so only minimal housing and predator fencing are needed. The alpaca’s three-chambered stomachs allow for extremely efficient digestion. There are no viable seeds in the manure, because alpacas prefer to only eat tender plant leaves, and will not consume thick plant stems; therefore, alpaca manure does not need composting to enrich pastures or ornamental landscaping. Nail and teeth trimming is needed every six to twelve months, along with annual shearing.
Similar to ruminants, such as cattle and sheep, alpacas have only lower teeth at the front of their mouths; therefore, they do not pull grass up by the roots. Rotating pastures is still important, though, as alpacas have a tendency to regraze an area repeatedly. Alpacas are fiber-producing animals; they do not need to be slaughtered to reap their product, and their fiber is a renewable resource that grows yearly.
- "Harvesting of textile animal fibres". UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
- Berrin, Katherine & Larco Museum. The Spirit of Ancient Peru:Treasures from the Museo Arqueológico Rafael Larco Herrera. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1997.
- Wheeler, Dr Jane; Miranda Kadwell; Matilde Fernandez; Helen F. Stanley; Ricardo Baldi; Raul Rosadio; Michael W. Bruford (December 2001). "Genetic analysis reveals the wild ancestors of the llama and the alpaca". Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 268 (1485): 2575–2584. doi:10.1098/rspb.2001.1774. PMC 1088918. PMID 11749713. 0962-8452 (Paper) 1471-2954 (Online).
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- "Harvard students seek meaty profits from alpaca". China Daily. 24 December 2014.
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- International Alpaca Registry (IAR)
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- Plants that are poisonous to alpacas
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- Stoller, Debbie, Stitch 'N Bitch Crochet, New York: Workman, 2006, p. 18.
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