Friday, November 8, 2013

Funky Fibers, Part 1: Animal Fiber

Fiber weaving has been a known art to humans since the Neolithic era (some say quite possibly the Paleolithic), with textiles discovered in ancient dwellings in Switzerland. In Egypt, flax was used, and in other parts of the world, the wool from animals was taken and turned into clothing, rugs and other much needed objects.

If you are anything like me though, you're curious about fibers that come from something other than a sheep (the most obvious source), so I took the liberty of looking it up. Turns out that if you are a weaving hobbyist, you have a lot of choices!

I'd like to thank my friend Nichole for suggesting this topic to me, and this post and the next (about using sheep fleece) are dedicated to her.

Common Fiber Animals

Merino Sheep

Sheep wool is quite possibly the most common weaving or yarn crafting material that I know of. It's distinguishable from hair or fur because its crimped, elastic and grows in clusters (called staples). Thanks to the characteristic crimp in sheep wool, spinning is easier, because the fibers "grab on" to each other much more easily to create a stronger yarn. Wool fabrics tend to be bulkier, and because the wool traps air, it makes a great insulating layer. Felting of the wool (when it is mechanically agitated in some way) causes the little hooks on the fibers to latch on, created the felted product.

Not all wool is created equal though. The fineness of the wool is determined by the number of crimps in the fibers. Merino wool (a very fine, excellent quality, and expensive wool, I might add) may have as much as 100 crimps per fiber, whereas other, coarser wools may only have 1 or 2.

Long and short hair wool
Wool working project quality (wow, I really know how to make up phrases) is determined by the amount of kemp (sheep hair) to wool. Since kemp is hair, has little scaling and no crimp, it's a poor fiber for turning into yarn as the fibers won't bind together. A wool worker should be aware of the kemp to wool ratio in regards to which craft it might suit best (spinning, felting or carding into batts).

There are long wool, medium wool, fine wool, and hair sheep breeds, each with their own use and quality of fiber. This website is very informative (don't you love it when people find these things for you?) Sheep 101: Wool Production

Cashmere Goat

There are two types of goat fiber: Angora and Cashmere.

Angora goats grow long, wavy coats, usually of a white color, but there are some colored breeds. The fiber is called mohair. The entire coat of the angora goat is mohair; there are no guard hairs as typical of other breeds (the guard hairs are very coarse, hard to spin and won't dye very easily, making them much less desirable). Both adults and kids (baby goats, obviously) produce wool, with the young goats fiber being much longer and finer.

Cashmere goats aren't a breed, they are a type of goat that produces fiber of a certain thickness (less than 19 microns thick which is... really thin I guess.) They are bred to achieve this fineness of coat. Most goats have softer down close to the skin (for insulation) and longer guard hairs. Since the most desired for the industry is the down, the cashmere goat was bred to create it commercially. If the Angora breed can be shorn twice a year with a 10 pound average yield per year, then you know why Cashmere wool is so expensive: they are shorn once a year, with just a 9 ounce yield for the entire animal for that year!

There are also two experimental breeds too: Pygora (a cross between a Pygmy and an Angora) and the Nigora  (a cross between the Nigerian Dwarf and the Angora). They work to create animals that are small, easy to manage, that grow colored wool, and are dual purpose.

Angora Rabbits

Angora rabbits are one of the oldest breeds of domestic rabbit. They originated in Turkey (much like the Angora goat and, apparently, the Angora cat). They are bred for their wool (duh) which can be obtained by shearing, plucking or combing.

English Angora Rabbit
Four breeds are recognized by the American Rabbit Breeders Association (ARBA), the English, French, Giant, and Satin, but there are other breeds too: the German, Chinese Swiss, Finnish, Korean and St. Lucian.

Angora rabbit hair is super soft and silky and, at 11 microns in thickness, is finer even than cashmere wool. It is much warmer and lighter than wool due to the hollow core of the fibers, and can come in a variety of colors: white, tan, grey, brown and black. The fiber felts very easily, and can be excessively warm. It is usually blended with wool to add elasticity, as the angora fibers are not naturally elastic.

The rabbits are usually docile creatures, but should be handled with care, and they need to be groomed regularly to prevent matting of their hair and wool block (an intestinal blockage caused by excessive hair in the digestive tract due to the rabbit grooming itself; plenty of hay, pellets with high fiber, a salt lick and water should be provided to keep the animals healthy.)

Angora rabbits usually moult every 4 months or so and are plucked, resulting in a fairly high quality of wool. Some, however, do not; those that don't must be sheared every 3-4 months instead (resulting in a slightly lower quality of fiber, due to the inclusion of the guard hairs).

Rabbits do not seem to cause allergy reactions, can live 7-10 years if well cared for, and can be raised indoors.

Bison,Yak and Qiviut (Muskox)

Bison bull.
Bison/Buffalo wool is actually quite rare, as most of it is sheared from slaughtered animals (although some is collected from the wild). There are five distinct types of fiber on the bison, but the most prized is the downy undercoat. The down hairs are solid, don't shrink or felt, and are usually used to make carpets and outer wear. It's strong, soft and warm; so warm in fact, you should spin it thinly, otherwise it will be excessively warm to wear. And at the price it goes, a thinner yarn will definitely go a long way.

Tibetan yak cow (a nak)

The yak is a shaggy bovine that was domesticated in Tibet. Like many other fiber animals, it has a coarse outer coat and a softer downy under layer. The coarse outer hair was used for items such as blankets, tents, bags and ropes. Yak down is actually a much more recent addition to the fiber market. It is soft, with a good crimp, and felts well.

A muskox; producer of quiviut.

Quiviut is not another name for the muskox, but is the name of the downy under layer of their heavy coats. It is a fine and exotic wool for weaving, but takes some skill to work with, because unlike sheep wool, it has no scales to assist in adhesion, making it very "slippery". It's a very short fiber. it is reputed to be very soft against the skin. It comes in grey-brown, dyes easily, and is often blended with other fibers to make it easier to spin.


The camel family includes camels (duh), alpaca, llamas, vicuña, and guanaco. For the sake of simplicity, I'll stick to camels, alpacas and llamas (more readily available fibers, both in your local shops and online).

Bactrian camel
There are, of course, two types of camel: the one humped dromedaries (found in the Middle East and Australia), and the two humped bactrians (native to China and Mongolia). The bactrian camels provide the soft, fine down that associated with quality camel products. The dromedaries also provide down, but much less of it, due to living in warmer climes. When they shed their coats, it is collected and the coarse fibers and down are separated, the former used for rugs and outer garments, and the latter can be spun very thinly into a fine yarn that makes warm clothing. It is very soft, but does not felt well.

Alpacas and llamas are camelids that evolved in South America. Alpaca fiber ranges in thickness, but anything under 22 microns is considered luxury. They were bred to have little to no guard hair, so their wool is almost all undercoat, whereas a llama has more guard hair, and a coarser coat all together. Their wool is still very soft though, and is comparable to a much finer wool, such as Merino. They are very good spinning fibers, and clean easily if you are working with raw fleece. Alapaca fleece comes in 22 recognized colors, but you can dye it as well to create some very lovely colors.

Other Animal Fibers

If you are looking for other animal fibers to play with, think outside the pile of sheep fleece, and try these options:


Horse fiber (or horse hair, to be more precise) is used for making upholstery brushes, the bows of musical instruments, a hard-wearing fabric called haircloth, and for horse hair plastering (in case you felt you needed to plaster some walls). It can range in texture, from very stiff to fine and flexible. Mane hair is often softer than tail hair, and the breed and care of the horse can influence the state of the hair. It can be dyed or colored with the correct colorants, and it can be felted, but not very easily. It is often woven with cotton or silk to make fabric, and are very durable.


Chiengora is dog hair. Spinning dog hair into yarn isn't a new art form, with examples existing from pre-historic Scandinavia, and in Navajo textiles. In fact, it was the most commonly used fiber in North America before the Spaniards introduced sheep. It is not a very popular or well known fiber now though, and it usual spun by hobbyists who have a dog as a pet. It is much warmer than wool, but it's not elastic, so it's often blended with other wool to make it more workable. The best breeds to use for chiengora are the "Northern" breeds, such as Newfoundlands, Chow Chows, Samoyeds, etc.
A silkworm caterpillar and cocoon.

Silk is a natural fiber, but you might not know the origin of it. For those of you squeamish about bugs, it could be your worst nightmare: cultivated silk is most commonly harvested from mulberry silkworms (Bombyx mori). Actually, I can say from experience that they make interesting pets. They are silky white caterpillars with some darker markings around their head, and they eat the leaves of the mulberry tree (this is the advantage of having a science teacher for a parent). When they are ready to metamorphose, they spin a cocoon of white silk around themselves, and finally turn into a large, chubby, furry white flightless moth, whose sole purpose in life is to breed, lay eggs, and then die. Unfortunately, when the moth chews it's way out of its cocoon, it breaks the silk fibers (when silkworms begin spinning their cocoons, they don't stop, and use a single long thread. To prevent this, they usually drop the sealed cocoons into boiling water to kill the occupants, and then unwind the thread in one long piece.

Textile silk is usually from the silkworm above, but other insects also make silk, such as other species of larvae, webspinners, and the raspy cricket, as well as bees, wasps, ants, silverfish, mayflies, thrips, leafhoppers, lacewings, beetles, flies, fleas and midges, and of course, the shudders inducing spiders.

If you are interested in taking your fiber obsession even further, keep your eyes peeled for Funky Fibers, Part 2: Plant Fiber, which will be written and posted in the near future.

I hope this bit of fiber porn has satisfied your curiosity for the normal and the exotic. Have fun, experiment, don't go broke (you people know what I mean) and enjoy exploring the world of natural fiber!


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