Here we will explore the qualities of fiber, and what makes each unique to the animal it comes from.
A one-stop spot for learning all about fiber, what qualities make for great spinning, some of the attributes of different fibers, and how those factors should be taken into consideration when planning a spinning project. I will also give pointers on how different factors can affect a finished product.
We’re going to start with the most basic aspects and work our way up. If you are already knowledgeable about a particular subject, feel free to skip around! Please let me know via the suggestion form at the bottom if you have anything you think I should add!
Softness is the first thing that I think of when selecting a fiber for a spinning project. If I’m making a shawl that I want to be light and airy for summer evenings, I’m not going to want to use the same kind of fiber I would use for a rug, for example.
There are many different components that make for the softness of fiber, including micron count, cuticle structure, source, and of course each animal is an individual within a range of all these factors.
Let’s start with the micron count, as this can be one of the first indicators of how soft a fiber will be. The micron count is an actual measurement of the fineness of an individual fiber. This fineness is an average when referring to any kind of unit of fiber for sale. The smaller the number, the finer the average fiber is. The best fiber on most animals is the prime cut or blanket, which is usually from the back and sides of the animal. The best harvest from any animal is going to be their very first shearing as the baby coats are always the best!
The next big factor in softness has to do with the cuticle structure. The cuticle of each individual hair will vary in size, shape, quantity, and frequency along the hair shaft. Coarse sheep wool has a cuticle that sticks out further from the shaft of the hair, and almost resembles the way a snake’s scales overlap each other. Merino sheep wool, on the other hand, has a much finer micron count that course wool, has a cuticle that doesn’t extend as far out, is more uniformly dispersed along the shaft, closer together, and the scales encircle the shaft of the hair instead of overlapping. This makes each individual strand of the fiber smoother, and therefore softer to the touch. Alpaca is even smoother than Merino, and Angora Rabbit is smoother than Alpaca, with Silk being the absolute smoothest as there is no cuticle structure.
Yet another aspect of softness is the halo that will be an end result on the yarn itself. The two primary methods of spinning are called woolen and worsted. The woolen method traps more air in the yarn and is loftier and lighter due to the more random nature of the alignment of the fibers as they’re being drafted. Worsted is exactly the opposite. The fibers are prepared in such a way as to run parallel to each other as you are drafting, thereby minimizing the amount of air in between the fibers. Each have their purpose, and neither is right or wrong! The end result of a worsted yarn will be fluffier and will also have a greater halo effect as the ends of the fibers stick out sort of willy-nilly (Picture A). A woolen yarn will have less halo and be much denser than a worsted because of the way the fibers smooth out and interlock parallel to each other (picture B). The contrast between the two can give a very different yarn from the exact same fiber so must be considered when determining the end use of the yarn you are creating.
Crimp, or the springiness of a fiber, has to do with how well your end product will hold it’s shape. Alpaca fiber, for example, has almost no true curliness, just crimp. This means that it doesn’t have enough of a spring structure to bring it back to an original state. Once it stretches, it’s stretched, and that’s that! Take Rambouillet, on the other hand. The individual fibers of Rambouillet are super curly (see picture comparison below – Alpaca on the left, Rambouillet on the right) structure, which allows it to return to it’s original dimensions after being stretched.
In a nutshell the take away here is to keep in mind exactly what qualities you want in your end project. Are you making an item with a distinct shape? Don’t use 100% alpaca! at least work with a 50% wool/50% alpaca blend. Making a drapey shawl? Less wool, more alpaca, or even 100% alpaca will do just fine! Below is a picture representing some of the different fibers that shows some of their characteristics as an example of cuticle and crimp.
In the yarn world is a term you’ll probably see a lot – Superwash. I have items in my shop where you’ll have a choice between superwash and regular yarn bases, for example. But what the heck is supersash, why is it done, what does it do and how do they do it!? Well, here’s where you can find all that out. I’m going to go over the basics, so there’s a lot more information out there that you can find, but not being a scientist or chemist, some of it’s a bit beyond me.
Firstly, if you have had any experience with wool and have had it go through a wash cycle on accident with the laundry (Thanks, Kiddo lol) You’ll know how frustrating, heart-breaking and downright enraging it is to have something you’ve spent countless hours choosing yarn for, picking a pattern for, and then knitting up; be shrunken to a tiny parody of what was. I’ll give you a moment to dry your eyes and calm the anxiety.
Okay, everyone back? Good! So superwash yarns are treated (more on that in a sec) to avoid just those kinds of accidents. First of all the little barbs we discussed in the Structure section that hold the fibers together are stripped off of them, making them tangle less easily. This makes it so that if the fibers are exposed to heat, moisture and agitation – the ingredients for successful felting – they will not be able to do so. This means that you get a machine washable yarn that you don’t have to worry about felting or shrinking on. The next part of the process is that the fibers are then coated in something (this is where I’m not enough of a scientist to really explain!! This makes the fibers themselves stay the way they are more than the non-treated yarn. It will not pill like non-superwash yarns, and it makes them much more durable in my experience. Most fingering or sock weight yarns are available in regular yarn and superwash. In fact, when I choose yarn for knitting socks, the only thing I use is Superwash. I love the fact that I can toss them in the washer and dryer like any other laundry without concern. Especially because, well, eww – they’re on your feet, on the floor, in your shoes ALL DAY!!
One of the other super amazing things about superwash is that because of the process of dying, and how the colors are applied and set in the fibers and the greater ability to take some abuse, Superwash almost always comes out more vibrantly colored than non-superwash when hand-dyed. Because I don’t have to be as gentle while dying, and the yarn can be handled more without damaging or felting it, I can get the dyes to take in a different way than non-superwash. This is why you’ll probably notice a huge difference in the vibrancy my hand-dyed fibers and my hand-dyed yarns (most, if not all of the yarn I dye will be Superwash)
Now, all of this sounds well and good! But of course nothing is ever as good as it sounds, right? Well, in this case it all just depends on the project you’re using it for!
Here are a few of the pros and cons of each type of yarn!
The pros for superwash are pretty well summarized above, so to keep things briefer here, I’ll stick to the “cons”.
This has been treated, so if you’re really looking for that “critter to wearable item” ideal, you’ll need to keep in mind that this has been altered in some pretty drastic ways to change the end qualities of the fabric’s behavior.
If you’re looking for a yarn that will “bloom” – that is poof up a bit and fill in it’s own gaps, so to speak – superwash is not the way to go.
If you’re going to be doing any steeking – beware. Because the individual fibers have been descaled and coated they will not felt, but this also means that they aren’t going to grab onto each other and stick the way typical wool does, so steeking is a bit more tricky, and will likely need to be more reinforced.
Felting – ok, this should probably be a little obvious, but if you want to make a felted project, Superwash is NOT the right stuff!!
Okay, so besides what we’ve already broken down above, there are a few things that are pros and cons about non-superwash as well!
Non-Superwash – will grab to itself and felt if washed improperly – duh right? Well, yes, but, sometimes that’s not necessarily a bad thing! If you are someone that doesn’t mind going to extra mile to properly care for and properly wash your woolen garments, kudos!! (that’s not me, lol) And here comes that steeking thing again. When you cut a steek obviously the last outcome you want is for the darn thing to fall apart. This makes regular wool more ideal for these kinds of projects.
Another aspect of non-superwash fibers is their ability to bloom. When your finished object is washed and blocked the yarn will open up, giving it a squishier, loftier, more full look than superwash. This is desirable for many reasons. It will make the item a bit softer in not just the surface texture, but the internal texture as well. It will be less dense in other words.
Okay…. I’ve probably numbed your brain a little bit now, and I know this is just scratching the surface – but please, if you have any other questions about this please don’t hesitate to reach out to me. I’m glad to continue the discussion!