Fibre Facts
FIBRE FACTS

Fibre Facts

Fibre content is one of the most important considerations in choosing the best yarn for your project. Every yarn listed at the elann.com website shows fibre content information, and using our Yarn Search Engine , you can search for yarns by fibre. A yarn's fibre content determines not just its care, but its appearance, its drape, and its feel - commonly referred to by knitters and crocheters as the yarn's 'hand'.

Although all yarns are spun from fibre, the fibre content alone does not determine how the yarn will look. The methods by which fibres are spun into yarn and the treatments the fibres receive also affect the final product. Yarns are available in different thicknesses, commonly referred to as weights or gauges, from very fine (lace weight) to very thick (polar weight). For every yarn listed at the elann.com website, there is information about the yarn's gauge and a brief description of its appearance and feel.



 

Animal Fibres

Alpaca, Llama, and Camel

Alpaca, llama, and camel-hair yarns are all spun from the fleeces of animals which are members of the camel family. These fibres are luxurious, soft and warm, and also very lightweight -- their inner cores are actually hollow, which also adds significantly to their insulating properties. The softness of 100% alpaca is incredible -- you won't be able to resist putting this yarn next to your cheek!

Angora

Angora is an extremely soft, fluffy, and warm fiber that comes from the Angora rabbit. The highest quality angora is combed from the rabbit, not shorn. Each rabbit can only provide a small amount of fibre, so expensive angora is often combined with other fibres. This process also helps to alleviate some of the shedding that occurs with angora due to the shortness of its fibres.

 

 

 

Cashmere

While somewhat weaker than wool, cashmere is luxurious--extraordinarily soft, resilient, and receptive to dyes. This rare and expensive fibre is combed once a year from the bellies of the cashmere goat.

Mohair

Mohair, spun from the fleece of the angora goat, shares wool's insulating properties and is extremely lightweight. The softest and finest mohair is spun from the fleece of kid angora goats, creating a luxury yarn beyond compare.






Silk

While silk is not spun from animal hair, it is considered an animal fibre because it has a protein structure. Like animal hair fibres, silk does not conduct heat, and is therefore also a good insulator, keeping you warm in winter, and cool in summer. Silk yarn is made from the thread-like filaments the silkworm spins around itself to form its cocoon. When unwound, a single filament can be as long as 1,600 yards, which explains silk's beautiful lustre, drape and strength. There are basically three grades of silk, each a different end product of the three different stages of silk processing, and each has its own beauty.

The finest quality silk is the unwound filament, and this grade is referred to as reeled silk, identifiable by its unrivaled satiny smoothness and its pure white color. Silk remaining from the reeling process, as well as the discarded cocoons, will become the raw material for carded or combed, spun silk yarn. Undyed, this yarn is just slightly honey-colored, and its finish is slightly more matte than that of reeled silk. Short fibres left behind after the carding or combing process are used to make silk noil yarn, a richly textured nubbly silk. None of this precious fibre is wasted!

Tussah silk, or wild silk, produced from undomesticated silkworms, resists dyeing and bleaching, so it is often used in its natural brown or beige color.

 













Wool

Wool, spun from the fleece of sheep, is versatile, durable and elastic. A single wool fibre can be twisted and turned 20,000 times without breaking and can be stretched 30 to 50 percent beyond its original length and rebound without damage, which is why a garment made of wool retains its original shape and naturally resists wrinkles. Air spaces between the elastic crimps in wool fibres create an insulating barrier which shields the body from cold or hot air, regulating the body's natural temperature. Its ability to absorb up to one-third its weight before it feels wet to the touch allows wool to absorb perspiration and release it gradually, preventing chills under a variety of weather conditions, and making it comfortable to wear year-round -- the desert-dwelling Bedouins weave their traditional robes from wool! By applying a combination of heat, moisture and friction to the thin, scaly overlapping cells that form the surface of a wool fibre, superwarm felt can also be formed, making wool the fibre of choice for nomadic tribes in Northern Asia as well.

 

And contrary to what some people believe, wool is also easy to wash. It can be simply soaked in a woolwash, spun, and laid flat to dry, or if it has been treated with a microfine resin that coats the cells of the fibre's surface (the 'superwash' process), it can even be gently machine washed and, in some cases, even dried! The finest grade of wool is from the Merino breed of sheep (pictured at left).




 

Other Animal Fibres

Specialty yarns are produced from the hair of other animals, and also from milk protein, spun either alone or in combination with other fibres. Qiviut, a very warm and delicate wool, is produced from the hair of Alaskan musk oxen. The vicuna, cousin to the alpaca, is a nearly extinct animal, and vicuna wool is scarce. Yak, mink, chinchilla, reindeer, beaver, fox, and even pet dog and cat hair have been spun into yarns.

Organic Yarns

In order to be called organic, the animals and plants, which produce the fibres, have to be grown or raised, as well as processed, without the use of chemicals. Organic wool, alpaca, angora, cashmere, mohair, silk, cotton, hemp, and others are available, mostly in natural shades or dyed with plant-based colors. Standards for organic products have been developed by the Organic Trade Association and the US Department of Agriculture.

Plant Fibres

 

Bamboo and Soy

The grass of bamboo plants is harvested, distilled into cellulose, and then spun into yarn. Bamboo fibre is used alone or in combination with other fibres in yarns. It is known for having a good lustre - similar to mercerized cotton - a silky softness and drape, as well as beautiful colors. Bamboo is naturally antibacterial, non-allergenic, and is a renewable resource.

Soy fibre is spun from a by-product of soybeans. Soy protein is liquefied and then extruded into long, continuous fibers that are then cut and processed. Soy yarn has been described as feeling like a cross between cotton and linen, with a lofty but cool feel that makes it perfect for warm-weather climates. Soy fibre is used alone or in combination with other fibres in yarns. It is a renewable resource.

 

Cotton

Cotton is a vegetable fibre grown widely in hot climates the world over. It is non-allergenic, and absorbs moisture and dries quickly, giving it a cooling effect. Since it is even stronger wet than dry, it is also very easy to wash. Cottons treated with caustic soda and then stretched to make them smoother, more polished in appearance, stronger, and less prone to shrinkage than untreated cotton yarns are referred to as 'mercerized' or 'fil d'ecosse' (Scottish thread), since the man who invented the process was John Mercer, a Scotsman. The finest and smoothest grade of cotton is referred to as Egyptian cotton.

Gassed cotton is mercerized cotton that has had all or most of the excess lint and/or fuzz burned off to bring the color to the surface. Gassed cotton often gives the illusion of iridescence.

Linen

Linen fibre is derived from the stem of the flax plant and spun into a lustrous and strong yarn which, like cotton, is both extremely washable and comfortable to wear in hot weather, as it draws moisture quickly away from the body. While woven linen wrinkles easily, knitted or crocheted linen has wonderful elasticity.

 

Modal

Modal is a generic name in its own right for man-made cellulose fibers. It is manufactured using high quality wooden pulps. It is strong and stable, and at the same time soft, retaining its softness and brilliance even after repeated washings. Modal is ideal for clothing, as it can breathe. It absorbs up to 50% more humidity than cotton, and does so much faster, keeping skin dry and comfortable.

Ramie

A linen-like fibre commonly used in Japan and China, ramie is strong, lustrous, and washes well. It is a little stiff and not particularly resilient, so is often combined with other fibres in knitting and crochet yarns.

Rayon

Although rayon is man-made, it is not a synthetic fibre. It is spun, either as a long filament or a shorter staple fibre, from cellulose obtained from cotton lint and wood chips. Two types of rayon are viscose rayon, commonly called viscose, and cuprammonium rayon, the variety that most closely resembles silk. Rayon has a higher lustre and softer hand than cotton, and can be dyed to brilliant colors. Viscose rayon is commonly found combined with other fibres. This lustrous fibre is known for its good draping qualities, but it requires care in washing in cool temperatures only.

SeaCell

SeaCell is the result of incorporating powdered seaweed into highly absorbent cellulose-based lycocell fibres. Seaweed has long been known to possess high concentrations of trace elements, vitamins, and seawater minerals. The porous, open structure of SeaCell fibers have natural antifungal and antibacterial properties, promoting a healthy interaction between the fibre and the skin - the fibre absorbs what your skin expels, while your skin absorbs the healthful elements carried in the fibre. Even after numerous washings, the health-promoting, beneficial effects of the fiber remain unaffected.

Sisal, Hemp, Jute, and Raffia

Hemp, jute and sisal are three vegetable fibres that are heavier and coarser than either linen or ramie. They are often used to make twines and sacking. Hemp and jute come from the stems of the hemp and jute plants, while sisal is produced from the leaves of the agave plant. Hemp is a durable fibre, which might feel hard on your hands initially, but it softens considerably with each washing. Raffia, which is a type of straw, has been traditionally used in basket making. However, synthetic raffia, made from rayon, can be knit or crocheted into decorative items.

Tencel

Tencel is a brand name for the generic fibre lyocell, and is man-made from wood pulp. It is a trademark of Courtaulds, the original producer of rayon, who in the mid-1980s revised the rayon process to produce Tencel. The manufacture of Tencel is extraordinarily clean - no poisonous chemical waste is created in its production. It combines the breathability and absorbency of a natural fibre, the durability and easy-care performance of a man-made fibre, and a smoothness, resilience and drape that is unique. The fibre's innate structure produces a sensual, suede-like, peach touch, and as an enhanced cellulosic fibre, it readily accepts dyes deep down into the fibre, achieving dramatic color vibrancy. It can be machine washed and dried, and retains its shape, color and appearance after washing, with minimal shrinkage.

Other Plant Fibres

Spinners of yarn are trying out new fibres all the time. There are interesting yarns produced from corn, banana fibre, nettle, and even extracted from the shells of shrimp and crab (called chitin).

Synthetics

 

Acrylic

Frequently found in combination with natural fibres, acrylics are synthetics that mimic wool, but without wool's insulating properties. Acrylics tend to be softer and bulkier than the polyamides, and some brands have even been compared to cashmere for softness.




 

Polyamide (Nylon)

Polyamide fibre is now commonly referred to as nylon, after the original Du Pont brand name for the polyamide produced by that company. Nylon is very strong, durable, lightweight, easy to care for (can be machine washed and dried), and elastic, which makes it perfect for blending with other fibres to produce hard-wearing sock yarns. Tactel is a brand name for a very soft nylon fibre.

 

Polyester

Polyesters are very easy to care for. They are extraordinarily wrinkle resistant even when wet and hold their shape well. The fibres' strength is useful when combined with other fibres to add strength and stability to the end result.

 



Other Synthetics

Many yarns are now available which are made from unconventional materials and processes, such as novelty eyelash and pigtail, paper-like yarns, string, ribbon, and shoelace-type yarns.

Elastic fibre is sometimes spun with another yarn to help less resilient yarns keep their shape. Yarns with elastic content are excellent for making fitted garments. Elite is a brand name of a polyester elastic fibre. Elastic thread is used as a carry-along with yarn while knitting or crocheting, or woven into the fabric when the garment is complete, usually along the edges.

Metallic fibres add a special touch in yarns and are often blended with other fibres for strength. The type of metallic fibre commonly used in yarns is a form of polyester treated with vaporized metal and then bonded on both sides with a film. Another type of metallic fibre is made from very thin metallic foil, coated with plastic film, and cut into narrow strips for spinning. Fine metal wire can be used for knitted or crocheted jewelry and other accessories.

Polypropylene, like other synthetics, is spun into yarn to resemble the texture of natural fibres. It is inexpensive to produce, lightweight, and has good insulating properties. It can easily be spun into yarns that mimic wool.

Vinyl yarn is durable, with a glossy appearance. It is ideal for accessories.

 

Sources and Suggested Further Reading:

Vogue Knitting, ed., Vogue Knitting : The Ultimate Knitting Book, Sixth&Spring Books, 2002.

Vogue Knitting Magazine, Spring/Summer 2003, and Winter 2006/07, www.vogueknitting.com

Foster, Viv, ed., Knitting Handbook, Thunder Bay Press, 2004.

www.knittersreview.com

www.knitting.about.com