One question that is frequently asked is where does yarn come from?
On average, most people assume that yarn is wool, cotton or acrylic when in fact it comes from a wide variety of sources. The following list will give you a better understanding of where most of our yarns come from and what makes each fiber unique.
Wool is the product of sheep and the quality of fleece depends on the breed of sheep it comes from. Merino sheep produce the finest and softest wool of all. Wool sheep are raised throughout the world but the U.S. primarily raises Como Sheep. Virgin wool is wool that has been spun for the first time and the yarn is labeled accordingly. Wool that is spun with other fibers is known as wool blends. The downside of wool is that many people are allergic to the lanolin it contains.
Acrylic is a synthetic fiber. The advantage of this fiber is that it can be easily laundered in the wash machine. It’s also very strong but its downside is that it is known to pill. Blending it with wool often alleviates this problem and also gives the yarn a nicer feel.
Cotton is the product of a plant that is grown throughout the world with most of it being used for yarn and thread. Organic cotton, as the name implies, is just that, cotton grown without the use of dangerous pesticides. Many knitters prefer organic cotton when knitting garments for babies and small children. Knitting with cotton can be more difficult on your hands as it has very little give as opposed to other fibers such as wool.
Like cotton, linen is also a product of a plant. It is spun from the long fibers found in the bark of a flax or linseed plant with the seed being the source of linseed oil. It is believed that linen is one of the oldest woven fibers in the world, dating back to ancient Egyptian times. Flax is grown in many parts of the world, but top quality flax is primarily grown in Western Europe. It’s much stronger than cotton but less elastic. Once knitted, washing actually improves the feel of the product.
Bamboo is a fiber derived from the pulp of the bamboo plant. It is naturally organic, grown without pesticides or fertilizers. Its drape is that of more expensive fibers such as silk but is far less expensive. It creates a soft, breathable, hypoallergenic fabric.
Silk fiber is the protein excretion of the mulberry silkworm and is used by them to build their cocoons. The greatest producer of wild silk is India whereas domesticated silkworms are mostly produced in Asian countries, primarily China and Japan. The physical properties of silk are second to none in its soft sheen and texture. Silk is one of the strongest natural fibers in the world. You will often find silk blended with other fibers such as wool.
Alpaca fleece is a soft yet durable, luxurious fiber. Depending on how it is spun, it can be either light or heavy in weight. It has similarities to sheep’s wool; however, it is warmer and has no lanolin, which makes it hypoallergenic. Alpacas are native to South America but in recent years they have been exported to the USA, Australia and New Zealand. Like so many other fibers, alpaca can be spun alone or with other fibers.
Llama is often confused with alpaca and vice versa but they are completely different animals. Whereas the alpaca is a smaller animal that produces a soft single coat, the llama is a much larger animal whose outer coat is very course and inner coat is soft.
It is also worth noting that even though the llama is much larger, it produces far less fleece than the alpaca. This is because of breeding. The llama has long been considered a “beast of burden” as its primary purpose is that of a pack animal and meat source. On the other hand, alpacas have been bred solely for their fiber. Llamas are native to South America.
Bison fiber is relatively new to the yarn industry. Like the llama, bison have an extremely course outer coat known as guard hair. Beneath it lies a beautiful coat of down and is considered to be one of the most luxurious fibers in the world. The process of separating the down from the course hairs is extremely challenging which is one reason why the price of bison yarn is comparable to the highest quality cashmere. Bison fiber is free of lanolin.
Cashmere goats, like bison and llamas also have a course outer coat (guard hair).
What lies beneath is the luxurious down from which cashmere is spun. China is one of the largest producers of cashmere but few in the industry would disagree that the finest cashmere in the world comes from Mongolian goats. The goats thrive in the harsh, dry, mountainous climates the region provides. The more extreme the conditions, the better the cashmere. Cashmere is one the softest, warmest and longest lasting materials on the market today. In fact, cashmere fibers actually become softer as it is worn more. It’s also considered to be several times warmer than sheep’s wool.
ANGORA (MOHAIR) GOATS:
Mohair is shorn from the goat twice a year, spring and fall. Unlike the Cashmere goat, angora goats produce a single coat. Mohair is not a soft yarn and is often used with other yarns to produce texture, luster and added warmth. The fibers from young goats are by far the finest whereas the fibers from older goats would be used to produce rugs and carpets. Mohair has an exceptional ability of absorbing dye, which adds to its overall appeal. Although they originate from Turkey, South Africa is the largest producer of mohair and the USA (Texas) is the second.
Angora Rabbits are raised solely for their beautiful soft coat. Raising angora rabbits for their hair requires a great deal of skill. Because the fiber is so fine, delicate and smooth it is difficult to spin. This is why the angora is usually blended with other fibers such as fine wools. Angora rabbits also make good pets as they are very social and enjoy the attention of their owners. Like angora goats and cats, angora rabbits originate from Turkey, but today China is the primary breeder.
Camelhair is the soft, warm inner down of a Bactrian (2 hump) camel. Like many other animals, the camel has a soft inner coat and a long, hairy outer coat. During late spring the camel molts its hair in a process that can take up to 6 weeks. One camel produces about 5 pounds annually. Fiber from the animal can either be collected from the clumps or from combing and/or sheering. Camelhair is very often spun with fine wool. Because of its beauty, camelhair is usually left in its natural color. Camelhair is collected from Turkey, China and Siberia. Other significant supplier countries include Mongolia, Iran, Afghanistan, Russian and Australia.
The yaks’ habitats are the Himalayas, China, Mongolia and Russia and are well adapted to harsh mountain life. Their down is harvested during molting season by combing and pulling the fibers. Although they are very large, shaggy animals, they only produce about one pound of usable undercoat per year. A yak is part of the bovine family.
Musk oxen reside in the Northwest Territories. The down they produce is called Qiviuk. It is an Eskimo word pronounced ki-vee-ook. It is probably the most rare and expensive fiber in the world. In fact, it typically sells for three times the price of the finest cashmere. Supply is extremely limited as the musk ox shed their undercoats just once a year. In May, the tundra will be covered with the fleece the musk ox has rubbed off on trees and shrubs. It is then collected by hand. A pair of mittens can cost upward of $300. Not only is it soft and luxurious, it is eight times warmer than wool, it is hypoallergenic, and will not shrink.
This is just some of the many fibers available to knitters. As technology improves so do the textiles that are introduced into the marketplace. Yarns have already been introduced using soy, sugarcane, and milk fiber.