Fiber Menagerie – Part I

SophiaImagine it: Gainesville, Monday night, June, 2019, sitting on the Square, a knitter is asked what’s in her yarn by a non-knitting friend. Three natural fibers rolled out of the knitter’s mouth. Now that Sophia Petrillo has set the scene it’s time to get down to business.

There is actually a lot of fiber that can be spun into yarn and there are times the choices can be a little overwhelming.  I’ve not written an educational post for a while so it’s time to put together the mini primer for fiber basics.

Fiber can really be split into two main categories, natural and synthetic. This will be split into several posts over time because we are finding new ways to create fibers not only from natural sources but creating new synthetics ones, but we’ll start with some of the animal sourced fibers first.  I think we can comfortably say, most of the animals that produce a usable fiber that can be used sustainably in yarn production have been discovered.

All of these fibers come from animals that have either all or part of their wool/coat/fur harvested through shearing, combing, or collecting natural sheds during the spring and summer.  If done responsibly it does not injure the animal.  Although many of these animals are now found all over the world, many of these fibers are still harvested closest to the areas where the animal was natively found and domesticated.

The Natural Critter Sourced Fibers

Funny-Sheep-Facts-1200x800
Baaaaaahhhhhh!

Wool! More specifically sheep’s wool is the most common animal sourced fiber spun into yarn.  It’s nature’s first dri-fit material.  Yep, wool will wick moisture away to be evaporated and despite the belief that wool can only be worn during the cold months it can be worn year round because of its wicking and thermogenic properties.  It also has UV resistant properties.  There are a few types of sheep wool fibers to watch out for, other than the generic wool term, you’ll find a couple of specialty sheep provided goodies.  Merino is a specific wool fiber that is less likely to cause allergic reactions and is touted as softer than most wools.  Shetland wool is specific to the Shetland Islands.  Icelandic wool – well you can guess where it comes from.  Regional wool varieties and types can cause this post to go on and on, but overall most sheep wool has similar properties. Sheep wool is harvested all around the world, but most notably the UK, New Zealand, and Australia.

 

 

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Cashmere Goat

Cashmere! Also called Cash Here in some circles is supplied by the Cashmere goat.  It has a silky feel and is great for anything worn close to the skin during the cold months and is more or less the fiber gold standard – for now – cashmere’s supremacy is beginning to be challenged by other animal fibers that are more sustainably produced.  It’s very warm and very soft and incredibly insulating.  It’s pricy because of the time and effort it takes to comb and sort the useable fiber from the undercoat instead of the more coarse protective topcoat. The Cashmere goat is native to Tibet, China, Myanmar, Bhutan, Nepal, Ladakh and Baltistan (Kashmir region).

 

 

 

 

Quebec_angora_goat
Angora Goat

Mohair! This is a fiber produced by Angora goats.  These goats have a curly locks and the yarn spun from this fiber will have a natural “halo” or fine fuzz to it.  It’s another very warm, insulating fiber, where a little goes a long way.  A garment made from lace weight mohair will be just as warm if not more so than an item made from a bulky sheep’s wool.    The Angora goat originated in the district of Angora in Asia Minor, but are now more common in Turkey, Argentina, and the United States. 

 

 

 

alpaca
Emo Alpaca

Alpaca! It’s soft, it’s squishy, it’s warm (okay most animal fibers are) and it’s possibly hypoallergenic.  It has the best silky soft features of cashmere without the price tag.  Alpaca seems to have grown in popularity over the past decade or so.  I can understand why, I could cuddle up and sleep in a mountain of Alpaca yarn.  This is another fiber that is know for its moisture wicking properties making it great for garments and gloves. Alpacas like the higher elevations of Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Northern Chile.

 

 

 

Bunneh
Fluffy Bunneeeeee

Angora! Not all fiber comes from goats and sheep.  This one comes from bunnies.  Angora like cashmere can be a little on the pricy side.  It has the feel of cashmere with the halo of mohair.  The fiber is collected by pulling the loose shedding fibers from the rabbit.  If you happen to wander of to a fiber fair you may see hand spinners with a rabbit sitting quietly in their lap while they pull the fiber and spin it seconds later.  Properly done this does not hurt the rabbit at all as it’s the loose fiber that has to be brushed from it’s fur on a regular if not daily basis.  Angora rabbits originated in Turkey and quickly spread throughout Europe in the 1700s.

 

 

yak_05
Yakkity Yak

Yak!  This may be one of the largest animals fiber is harvested from.  Handlers brush the undercoat out of their longer guard hair.  Yak is gaining in popularity since it has many of the features of cashmere with the soft silky feel, but is considered a more sustainable alternative since yaks are more adaptable than the cashmere goat and produce a greater amount of fiber.  They are native to Tibet, Mongolia and Russia.

 

Ox
Musk Ox

Musk Ox!  I had to toss an odd one in there. If you think cashmere is pricy, let me introduce you to qiviut. Qiviut much like the most of the other fibers is good ole undercoat that will naturally shed from Musk Ox when things start warming up.  Musk Ok are native to Alaska and parts of Canada and the fiber is generally collected from the natural sheds from the ground and whatever the Ox is rubbing up against.  There are some farms that are able to comb their Ox but I’ve been told from a pretty reliable source that Musk Ox can be a little testy and it’s just easier to pick up the fiber. This fiber is warmer than wool and proven to be softer than cashmere.  Qiviut production has deep ties into regional First Nation’s yarn production and knitting culture (sounds like a topic for future blog posts).  Qiviut has become a little more mainstream with blends becoming available.

I’ll touch on this subject again, there are so many usable fibers out there that trying to cram them all into a single post would be exhausting, and quite possibly a novella in length.  Stand by, more fiber education to come.

 

SEX at SAFF

That title got your attention didn’t it?

For anyone about to go into vapor lock, no, there were no shenanigans like that today. SEX in knitting jargon is a Stash Enhancement Experience. Let’s be honest, there’s a large portion of knitters and crocheters that fall deep into the nerd and geek spectrum and we get a kick out of acronyms that raise eyebrows.

SAFF, yep another acronym, is the Southeastern Animal Fiber Fair, and it’s held in Fletcher, NC every year.

I’ve had fiber friends talk about if for a few years now, but I finally was able to make the adventure up today. Yarn Rhapsody (the local yarn store in my neck of the woods) arranged a charter bus to ferry about 30 of us up for a day trip. After a crazy work week this was an absolutely brilliant idea, because the last thing I wanted to do was drive about 6 hours round trip today. Big Bear Cafe (another local Gainesville, GA place) provided us with breakfast biscuits and a brown bag lunch for the trip too. Side note: If you come to Gainesville, first you need to stop at Yarn Rhapsody. Second, you must eat at Big Bear.

Alright. So after 3 hours, and wrapping up a project on the way. The bus pulls into the Western North Carolina Agricultural Center and drops us off at the main building. Then it was off to the races. After walking into the main building and pulling my jaw up off the floor, exploring began. There was fiber vendor on top of fiber vendor through the whole building. Need roving? It was there. Need bison or yak blend yarns? They had you covered.   Need project ideas? Samples galore! Virtually every type of animal fiber was available, AND then there was another building, also spilling over with more vendors. I was on a mission to find yarns that were likely to be hard to find in yarn shops, gorgeous hand spun or brilliant independent dyers for my stash enhancement experience. An attack plan was formed, walk through all the interesting booths, and then go back to the ones I loved the most, and make decisions from there. Impulse buys would have had the budget blown in seconds.

After the first walk through, several of us wandered over to the livestock barns. As much as I wanted to cram a pygmy angora goat into a bag and run with it, I realized this plan wasn’t entirely feasible and the bus driver probably would have been really pissed if I put it on bus. Despite my heavy use of animal fiber, I’m still amazed at how many animals produce beautiful wool or hair that we use, and then amazed a second time when I see how many different varieties of these animals exist.

Sheep and goats had their heads and ears scratched, bunnies were petted and then decisions had to be made. Budgets had to be stuck to. I’m on an alpaca kick lately. It’s soft, it’s warm, it’s squishy! I found two huge and lovely skeins from Taylored Fibers for what felt like was a steal. I huge shawl is in the future. Being a Harry Potter dork, I replaced a good project bag that went AWOL a couple of months ago, and I was more than happy with my haul. Then out of the blue, after disembarking the bus and heading to my car, I was ambushed by a friend who handed me a bag with more gorgeous yarn, including a Game of Thrones themed mini-color set and a pattern to boot. (Since she may read this blog, I’m saying thank you for a third time!)

So what’s the overall take away from SAFF?

SAFF is a three day fair. I know people that leave Thursday evening, and will stay the entire weekend. I know people that like today, go up for a day. I’m going to firmly stay in the one day is enough camp. As much as I love supplying my knitting habit with amazing materials, multiple days may be overkill for most. With good planning, you can visit the entire site, and not feel rushed. I’m sure the Fletcher Chamber of Commerce will not give me a thumbs up for that assessment, by the size of the crowd SAFF does bring in a lot of money locally. Don’t get me wrong though, you can certainly make a weekend of it, Fletcher isn’t far from Asheville, and there seems to be plenty of good food, activities, and shopping within the area if that’s how you enjoy spending a weekend. It’s also fall, and it seems this festival hits autumn leaf change at just about peek, so there’s plenty of leaf peeping that can be done too. Some of us just need a quick change in scenery, this fair and the area is a good fit for that.

Will I be back next year? Of course it’s on the calendar, and it looks like Yarn Rhapsody may turn this bus adventure into a yearly event.

Did any of you folks reading this go? Leave me a comment, tell me your assessment of SAFF and what you added to your stash this weekend.