Scottish mill wins right to weave the wool of kings

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Vicuña fibre is typically 10 times more expensive than cashmere and was once renowned as the cloth of kings because of its unique silky touch and heat-insulating properties.

Once there were tens of thousands of the animals in the mountains of Peru, Chile, Argentina and Bolivia until they were almost wiped out as a result of unregulated hunting practices.

As a result, the shearing of vicuña fleece was banned in the early 1970s and a major conservation programme instigated to rebuild stocks for a sustainable future.

"The animals are wild and roam at very high altitudes," said James Sugden, managing director of Johnston. "They don't take to domestication and it used to be much easier and quicker to kill the animals and that's what the poachers did. When the numbers dropped to a couple of thousand or so, the Peruvian government stepped in."

Now the species has recovered and the ban has been lifted, only three small companies in the world have won the right to obtain the fibres, and then only on condition that they do not mix it with any other material.

New techniques for gathering vicuña fibre depend on shearing the fleece from wild animals captured in corrals. In the past 10 years, Johnstons has invested £100,000 in helping to preserve the breed, including buying motorbikes to help farmers round up the animals and paying for corrals.

"It is highly labour-intensive but allows the animals to return to the wild after harvesting," Mr Sugden said. The company has secured 1,000 kg of vicuña wool. Johnstons, established in 1797, was the first company in Europe to use vicuña wool. In 1851, the company won a medal at the Great Exhibition in London for its vicuña shawls.

Mr Sugden added: "This will not be a product for the mass market. It will only be for exclusive shops but we are sure it will be much sought-after." A limited-edition range of scarves and shawls, at about £500 each, should be available early next year.

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