Welcome to the podcast! We’re Behind the Wool, a podcast about the stories behind the fiber arts. Today we’re talking about the general fiber types, including animal fibers, plant fibers, and synthetic (or man-made) fibers.
Here are some sources for further reading about fibers:
- The Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook: More Than 200 Fibers, from Animal to Spun Yarn, by Carol Ekarius and Deborah Robson. Find it on Amazon.
- The Spinner’s Book of Fleece: A Breed-by-Breed Guide to Choosing and Spinning the Perfect Fiber for Every Purpose, by Beth Smith and Deborah Robson. Find it on Amazon.
To sum up, fine wools will be soft and wear nicely against the skin, but may wear out more quickly. Longwools can be very hard wearing, but might be itchy or coarse. Down breeds were mainly bred for meat, but some produce a nice fleece that you may be able to find for spinning. Check out your local fiber fests and indie dyers for breed specific yarns and prepped fiber for spinning.
If you can’t or don’t want to wear wools, try some of the camelid fibers such as alpaca or llama. These fibers do not contain lanolin, which is the waxy substance found in sheep wool, and for that reason might not bother people who have a wool allergy. Alpaca is warmer than wool, has great drape and shine, but does not have the “bounce back” and memory that wool fibers do. Be sure to account for the fact that alpaca will stretch, so you might want to make something with seams, work at a tighter gauge, or weight your swatch (measure before and after) to account for growth.
Goats, rabbits, yaks, musk oxen, and various other animals can be spun into yarn, which tend to be expensive and are considered luxury fibers. Here is a video of a handspinner working with angora fiber straight off the rabbit.
Silk is, technically, an animal fiber. It is gathered from the cocoons of silk worms – some of the methods of gathering the fiber do kill the insects. The different types of silk are produced by controlling the diets of the silk worms.
Plant fibers – such as cotton, linen, hemp, nettles, etc. – tend to be very strong and durable. Cotton is the most common, and is great for washable, durable household items and baby items. The wool/nettle blend that I mentioned is Classic Elite Yarns Woodland, which is discontinued, but may be available online or through Ravelry destashing.
Synthetic fibers are very common, especially acrylics. Acrylics are washable, the colors won’t run or fade, and they’re very durable. Synthetic fibers tend to be the most cost effective and can handle all sorts of rough treatment. However, they are a petroleum based product, and may not be as warm as wool. Acrylics may also melt when exposed to heat (which could make them dangerous in a situation such as a house fire).
Nylon is very common in wool blends, because it dyes almost as well as wool and adds durability to the yarn. This is especially common in sock yarns.
Plant based synthetics are produced by chemically treating plant cellulose fibers. They tend to be soft, shiny, and have lots of drape, which makes them something like a “poor man’s silk.” But, the process used to produce them tends to be harmful to the environment. You can read more about synthetic clothing fibers online.
In general, you can make an informed decision about which fiber to use based on the item you’re going to be making, how often and with what method you’re going to wash it, how much you’d like to spend on your fiber, and many other considerations.
Thanks for listening! Join the discussion on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Ravelry, and on our website. Please let us know what sorts of things you’d like to hear about. Have a great week, and we’ll see you next time when we go Behind the Wool.