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.