Fast Fiber Facts

I use a lot of knitting lingo in my blog and newsletter, and newer knitters and those new to reading about knitting may not be familiar with all the terms I spew at you.  Here's some help on fibers.  Other help can be found on the glossary page.  (More fibers are coming as I finish their articles.  Thank you for your patience.)

Different fibers behave in different ways.  Some are warm, some wash well, some have natural elasticity, etc.  This page discusses some facts about fiber types and how they are made into yarns.  Headings are alphabetical.  Included are things like Wools, Tape Yarns, Roving, and Twist Characteristics.  Just scroll to the topic of your choice.

Acrylic: Synthetic.  Acrylic is a man made fiber introduced in the US by DuPont as Orlon.  It is a soft and warm fiber with moderate stretch and memory. The fiber has excellent colorfastness, and can be manufactured in nearly any color imaginable.  It does not dye easily after being made into yarn, however, and is a poor fiber choice for dying projects.  Acrylic washes well, and must be heat blocked to finish a garment.  Acrylic will pill.  Acrylic is a good choice for projects requiring moderate warmth and excellent washability.  Acrylic is resistant to chemicals and moths.  Acrylic is known to irritate eczema.

Angora: Natural.  Angora refers to the downy coat produced by the Angora rabbit. Angora fiber is distinct from mohair, which comes from the Angora goat. Angora is known for its softness, thin fiber, and what knitters refer to as a halo (fluffiness). Angora fibers are hollow, which gives them their characteristic floating feel.  It takes color moderately well, and is usually colorfast, but color will suffer in extended periods of direct sunlight.  It is also known for its silky texture. It felts very easily, even on the animal itself if it is not groomed frequently. The fiber is normally blended with wool to give the yarn elasticity and strength, as Angora is not naturally elastic or strong. The blend decreases the softness, halo, and sometimes the feltability of the fiber.  The price of Angora tends to be higher, as it is a labor intensive yarn to produce. Angora is a very warm fiber.  It washes poorly, and should be dry cleaned.  It should be steam blocked to finish a garment.  Do not iron.  Some people who are allergic to wool will be allergic to Angora, and all people allergic to rabbits will be.

Alpaca: Natural.  A fiber that comes from the alpaca animal, a close relative of the camel and the llama.  This fiber comes from the undercoat of the animal, separated from the coarser, longer guard hairs.  Alpaca is very warm for its weight in all yarn weights, and baby alpaca is warmer still.  Alpaca tends to have a furry finish with poor stitch definition. SURI alpaca, a subspecies, has a glossy, silk like finish. Suri is a much rarer fiber, comprising less than 1% of all alpaca fibers made. (see Suri below)  Baby Alpaca  is made from the undercoat of immature animals, and is softer and downier than regular alpaca.  It is the warmest of the alpaca fibers, considered to be 4 times as warm as a wool of the same yarn weight.  Alpaca will felt in a 100% fiber, and is sometimes blended with other fibers to eliminate felting (and pilling). It is a strong fiber when felted, moderately so before felting.  Alpaca doesn't take color as uniformly as wool, but will be color fast in most preparations.  Alpaca has a tendency to "grow", that is to stretch and not spring back.  The fiber will shed moderately for the life of the garment made from it.  Dry cleaning is recommended, or hand washing with minimal agitation.  Air dry flat.  It needs to be steam blocked, as heat blocking will remove its loft.  Do not iron.  Alpaca is naturally hypoallergenic, and is not known to irritate any existing sensitivities.

Camel Hair: Like other luxury fibers, camel hair is extremely soft, durable, lustrous, lightweight, and warm. Manufacturers prefer the fiber in its natural state (a buttery, golden brown), but it is sometimes dyed navy, red, or dark brown. (It will take other color.)  Since it is so highly prized and expensive to harvest, camel hair is usually blended with sheep's wool to make it more economical for the manufacturer to produce.  Camel hair comes from the Bactrian (two hump) camel. The hair is gathered when the camel molts instead of by shearing or clipping. It usually is spun to have minimal yarn memory, making it ideal for tailored items, and a poor choice for anything requiring elasticity. Exhibits excellent stitch definition.  Sheds slightly in most preparations.  It is water and stain resistant. Steam block. Dry clean. Iron as needed. 

Cashmere:  Natural.  Cashmere comes from Cashmere and other breeds of goats.  The fiber is made from the delicate down of the goat which lies under the coarse outer hair that is most visible.  The weight and diameter of American Cashmere is tightly regulated to guard against counterfeit product.  Cashmere is extremely warm for its weight (2 to three times warmer than wool), and can be spun into any weight of yarn.  Cashmere is strong, and takes color well.  It exhibits poor stitch definition, and pills slightly.  It is usually colorfast.  Cashmere will grow slightly - stretch and not spring back.  This fiber will shed slightly for the life of the garment.  Cashmere is a pricey yarn, due to rarity and a lengthy manufacture process.  For this reason it is often presented in blended yarns.  It shows little stitch definition.  Cashmere should be hand washed with minimal agitation and dried flat.  It can be wet blocked or steam blocked.  Cool iron only when necessary. Cashmere rarely provokes an allergic reaction, and rarely irritates skin sensitivities.

Cotton: Natural. Cotton fiber comes from the seed pod of the cotton plant.  It dyes easily but is not completely colorfast - sunlight will sometimes fade or adjust coloration.  Cotton is a stong, soft fiber rarely trigging skin irritation or allergies.  This makes it a favorite fiber for children's garments and garments worn close to the skin.  It is the most widely used garment fiber in the world; it is inexpensive to produce and to buy.  Pima  cotton is an American long staple cotton grown in the Southeast United States. Egyptian  cotton is grown in Egypt and is known for its long staple, exceptonal strength and softness.  Peruvian cotton, developed in the early twentieth century, has a long and wide staple making it softer and stonger than most other cottons.  Cotton has very limited stretch making it a good choice for tailored garments.  Good stitch definition makes cotton a favorite for showing off elaborate stitch patterns in any weight of yarns. Cotton comes in a variety of weights and finishes, from soft to smooth and shiny.  While most cottons are absorbent of liquids and scents, shiny processed cottons have moderate water-shedding properties.  Cotton can be hand washed, machine washed or dry cleaned depending on the ball-band instructions for the particular yarn.  Iron on "cotton" settings as needed.  Cotton will burn and scorch, so iron with care. 

Lambswool: Natural. Sometimes referred to as Virgin Wool.  This is the highest quality of sheep's wool on the market. Lambswool is taken from sheep at their first shearing (usually at around seven months old). It is supremely soft, smooth, resilient, elastic, and has superior spinning properties, making a slightly lustrous, even yarn. It takes color extremely well.  Because of its soft silkiness and warmth, lambswool fibers are used in knitting garments worn close to the skin. It exhibits good stitch definition. Lambswool is the most hypoallergenic of all wools and is resistant to dust mites, making it an ideal choice for bedding and linens. It felts less than other wools, is less waterproof and less stain resistant.  For more characteristics of lambswool, see Wool.

Merino: Natural. The soft curly hair forming the fleece of the Merino sheep. The Merino fibers are very fine and long, making a very soft, strong yarn that can be spun quite thin. Due to these long thin fibers it does not felt as well as lower grades of wool.  Merino is considered the most valuable of the adult sheep wools. It is flame resistant, sheds water well and better than other wools, and is stain resistant. It takes color slowly but evenly.  Due to its high cost, Merino is often presented in blends with other fibers such as silk, cotton, and acrylic.  It is also blended with cashmere to give the cashmere yarn added strength.  Merino is a good choice for garments meant to fit snugly, as they will readily bounce back to shape.  It exhibits excellent stitch definition.  Merino felts poorly in comparison with other wools.  For other characteristics, see Wool.

Mohair:  Natural.  The Angora goat produces mohair wool, known for its silkiness and lustrous sheen. A very good insulator, mohair is also strong, durable, breathable, and lightweight. Although it accepts dyes well it does not accept them uniformly. Natural mohair wool fabric is considered beautiful because of its color variations. Mohair fabrics tend to be non-crushing, non-matting, and non-pilling.  It stretches very little.  Dry clean or hand wash with minimal agitation as it will become misshapen when saturated with water.  Steam block or wet block.  Cool iron as necessary.

Nylon:  Synthetic.  Nylon was developed shortly before the second world war, and its first commercial use was in toothbrush bristles. Very strong for its weight, nylon now represents a large variety of fibers in the synthetic category.  Takes color well, and is frequently blended into other fibers for strength and resilience. Does not pill or fade, and becomes brittle or scorches in high heat.  Do not iron.

Polyester: Synthetic.  Polyester is a fiber made from coal, air, water and petroleum  It was invented in the early twentieth century, and is used for clothing and as a weather-resistant resin which can be molded for a variety of industrial applications.  It is widely available, inexpensive to produce, and inexpensive to purchase.  A strong fiber, polyester takes dye well and is colorfast.  It is flame-resistant, water-resistant, stain-resistant, and wrinkle-resistant, making it a popular all-purpose fiber.  Polyester is a warm insulator, but does not breathe.  It is a hypoallergenic fiber, but does cause skin irritation in some people. It can be made to mimic most fiber finishes, and elasticity and stitch definition vary.  Polyester pills slightly, and sometimes causes static electricity build-up. Washes easily, irons poorly.  Microfiber  is a popular polyester product with fibers half as thick as silk fibers. This version of polyester does wick and breathe.  Both polyester and microfiber are blended with natural fibers to enhance the characteristics of both.

Qiviut: natural, is the fine undercoat of the muskox. Qiviut is naturally a soft grayish-brown color, and is one of the warmest and most luxurious fibers in the world. It takes color slowly, and is usually colorfast as a yarn.  Eight times warmer than wool and finer than cashmere, it is a rare fiber produced by few commercially making it pricey. For this reason it is often found blended with other fibers like silk, merino wool, and cashmere. Qiviut is an elastic fiber, though less so than wool, and has moderate memory making it suitable for most garments that are not designed to fit snugly.  Qiviut is hypoallergenic and will not shrink. Qiviut is soft, non-irritating to the skin, and yet is surprisingly a very durable fiber. Hand wash or dry clean. It does not shed, will not felt, is odorless and retains warmth even when wet.

Rayon: Semi-synthetic. Rayon is derived from plant cellulose chemically re-engineered.  It was invented in the late nineteenth century as an alternative to silk.  It is a naturally shiny fiber with poor tensile strength.  Rayon takes color well and is usually colorfast.  It can be made to mimic the surface properties of silk, wool, cotton and linen. Rayon exhibits excellent stitch definition and very poor elasticity.  It rarely provokes allergic reactions. Rayon is highly absorbent and a poor insulator of heat, making it an excellent choice for cool, breathable garments worn in hot or humid climates. Rayon wrinkles easily and takes ironing well. Dry clean only, unless specified on ball band.

Shetland: Natural. Raised in the Shetland Islands off the northern coast of Scotland, Shetland sheep produce very fine, lustrous wool from the down of their soft undercoat. The warm, lightweight Shetland wool is only available in limited quantities and is mostly used in the production of high-end yarns. For other characteristics, see Wool.

Suri:  Natural. A type of alpaca, it has a glossy, silk like finish. Due to its fine finish, Suri is the best of the alpacas in lace projects, as it has more stitch definition and strength.  Suri is a much rarer fiber, comprising less than 1% of all alpaca fibers made.  Is considered twice as warm as wool.  Suri will felt less than regular alpaca, and is sometimes blended with other fibers to eliminate felting (and pilling). Alpaca doesn't take color as well as wool, but will be color fast in most preparations.  Compared with regular alpaca, Suri has less tendency to "grow", that is to stretch and not spring back.  Suri rarely sheds fibers.  Dry cleaning is recommended, or hand wash with minimal agitation.  Air dry flat.  Alpaca is naturally hypoallergenic, and is not known to irritate any existing sensitivities.

Wool: Natural. Wool is the fine, soft, curly hair that forms the fleece of sheep, characterized by minute, overlapping surface scales that give it its felting property. These surface scales also make the fiber moderately water and dirt repellent.  The qualities of the wool that a sheep produces varies by breed. For example, Merino sheep produce wool that is very fine.  All wools are considered strong fibers: wool fibers are 7 times stronger by weight than cotton.  Excellent memory makes wool a good choice for garments meant to fit snugly, as they will readily bounce back to shape. Wool takes color slowly and is usually considered colorfast.  Wool is a warm fiber, with the characteristic that it still traps heat even when wet. Wool does have a characteristic smell which is stronger when the fibers are wet.  Most wools can be mildly irritating to the skin, and trigger skin allergies in some people.  Wool will shed fibers slightly, though this characteristic decreases with wear.  The felting characteristics of a wool yarn vary with how high a twist count and with the finish on the fiber.  Low twists with a soft finish will felt the best.  Wool will felt easily and shrink easily making dry clean or mild detergent hand-washing the recommended laundering instructions. It should not be scrubbed or heavily agitated as it will cause localized felting to occur.  Air dry flat.  Can be wet, heat or steam blocked. Takes ironing well.  Is somewhat prone to "moth eaten" appearance as moth larvae like to eat the fibers.  Store in cedar (moth resistant) if storing for long periods.  Iron according to ball band instructions, as different spinning techniques change the ironing characteristics.