My stories of jewelry making, spinning, knitting, and all things fibery.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Do You Know Where Your Fiber Comes From?

Greetings!  Today I'm going to tell you a little bit about the animals that provide the wonderful fiber that we wear.  Natural fibers are sustainable, versatile, and very warm.  The animals are not harmed in the gathering and shearing of their fleeces. 

image courtesy of Jomphong/
Wool is by far the most widely used protein (animal) fiber as opposed to cellulose fiber which is fiber from plants. Cellulose fiber would include linen, cotton, hemp and bamboo.  Wool is generally sheared twice a year from a multitudinous variety of sheep.  There are hundreds of breeds of sheep, each having specific fiber characteristics about their fleece that produce different types of yarn.  Wool is not considered hair or fur.  It is "crimped"(wavy or curly), grows in clusters called staple and it is elastic.  Most wool contains a greasy, waxy substance called lanolin which protects the sheep's skin making it kind of waterproof.  Much of this is removed when the fleece is scoured or washed.  Lanolin is an ingredient in many hand and skin creams that acts as a softening agent.  Wool fiber holds heat making it a perfect choice for cold weather clothing. Sheep come is a variety of natural colors or white wool can take dye easily. Wool varieties range in softness to coarseness, and can be itchy or rough.  Merino wool is just about the softest you can get and garments made from it can be worn directly next to the skin.  Other varieties such as Karakul and Icelandic are perfect for house slippers and rugs.  The world's leading wool producers are Austrailia and New Zealand.

One of the oldest yarn and textile fibers used is mohair, from the angora goat.  It has basically the same characteristics as wool and in addition it has a high luster and is considered a luxury fiber.  Mohair is most often blended with wool and is warm in winter and cool to wear in the warmer months.  South Africa is the source for most of the world's mohair.  Another luxury fiber and probably the most well known is cashmere.  Produced mainly in India, this fine textured, very soft and lightweight fiber is also very expensive.

image courtesy of anankkml/
Topping off the luxury fiber list is qiviut (KIV-ee-ut) given to us by the musk ox(seen above).  Hard to believe such a costly and fine fiber comes from such a primitive animal.  This amazingly soft fiber comes mainly from Canada, and is not sheared from the animal like a sheep's fleece but is combed off and collected during the shedding season.  Time consuming and expensive!

Those soft and fluffy sweaters that we all love can attribute their qualities to angora fiber from the angora rabbit.  This lightweight , warm fiber is almost always blended with wool.  Although the majority of the world's commercial angora comes from China, many home spinners have their own small herds of these sweet animals.  They can be plucked during molting season but are often carefully sheared.

The camelid family provides many fiber animals. The 
three most popular are vicuna, llama and alpaca.  These interesting creatures live in great herds in the Andes Mountain regions of South America.  Generally they are raised as fiber animals.  Alpacas are becoming a popular animal for local farms here in the U.S. as they are relatively easy to care for.  Their fiber is warmer, finer and lighter than sheep's wool.  Alpaca is a good choice for garments that are to be worn next to the skin.
So as you can see there is a wide variety of warm and fuzzy fibers to choose from whether you are spinning, knitting or shopping.  A great place to see these animals and their offerings is your local sheep and wool festival or event.  If you are in or around New York state in October check out the New York Sheep and Wool Festival in Rhinebeck.  This is an amazing place for a day trip or weekend getaway!

Best Wishes 'Till Next Time,

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