Imagine 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
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.
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).
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! 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.
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! 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.
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.