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Fibers are divided into two basic categories: Natural fibers & Synthetic fibers.

Natural fibers are then divided into: 1.Animal fibers & 2.Plant fibers.

Animal fiber- Animal fibers are formed of proteins. Animal fibers come from the coat of animals such as sheep, goats and rabbits. Animal fibers provide good insulation, which helps keep you warm in cold weather and cool in warm weather.  Animal fibers are also soft, lightweight, absorbent and stretch resistant. Animal fibers are vulnerable to moth larvae, as the larvae eat the protein-based fiber.
Examples are alpaca, angora, camel hair, cashmere, mohair, silk and wool.

Alpaca fiber comes from the coat of a llama-like animal of the same name that lives in South America. Alpaca yarn is soft, silky, lightweight and very warm.  Since the natural color of alpaca ranges from beige to brown, alpaca fibers must be bleached before being dyed another color. Suri alpaca is considered to be the finest.
Alpaca is often used to knit sweaters, scarves and gloves.

The angora rabbit provides an extremely soft, fluffy and warm fiber.  Angora is difficult to spin by itself because some of the hairs are so short, so it is often combined with other fibers. This softness also accounts for angora’s tendency to shed. The highest quality angora is combed from the rabbit, not shorn, and is less likely to shed. Since each animal can only produce a small amount of fiber, angora is extremely expensive. For this reason, it is often blended with other fibers to lower the cost and increase the strength of the resulting yarn.
Angora is often used to knitting items such as hats and sweaters.

camel hair is spun from the hair of the Asian or Bactrian camel. It is not shorn, but collected as it falls off the camel.  It is both strong and warm, hence it’s use in camel hair coats. One hundred percent camel hair yarn is usually only available in natural shades because this fiber is not very receptive to dye.

Cashmere yarn is synonymous with luxury.  Cashmere fibers are not shorn but combed once a year from the bellies of the cashmere goat, which lives only in the mountains of China a Tibet.  The yarn spun from this fiber has extraordinary softness, resilience and receptivity to dye.  Cashmere is very expensive, so it is often blended with wool to create a stronger yarn at a  lower price.
Cashmere is often used to knit sweaters, scarves and other accessory items.

Milk cotton is an extraordinarily soft yarn, which is so-called because it contains 30% milk protein. To produce the yarn, milk is dehydrated and skimmed, after which the milk protein casein is extracted. Once the protein is fluidized, it can then be spun and blended with other fibers, such as cotton. The result is an extremely smooth and fluid yarn that drapes and takes color well. Milk Cotton is a lovely yarn for baby items.

Mohair an extremely lightweight and warm fiber, is spun from the fleece of the angora goat. Kid mohair is spun from the fleece of kid angora goats, an is softer and finer than the fleece of the adult goat. Mohair tends to shed and can feel scratchy against the skin so it is often blended with wool or nylon to create a less itchy yarn. This also helps the mohair fibers cling together. Mohair has many of wool’s properties, such as insulation, receptivity to dyes, and ease of care, but is somewhat less resilient.
Mohair is often used for knitting items such as sweaters, hats and mittens.

Although silk is not a hair, it is grouped among the animal fibers since it has a protein structure. Silk yarn is produced from silkworm cocoons that have been unraveled to form long, lustrous fibers. Like wool, silk does not conduct heat, and is therefore a good insulator. It takes dye well,but is more susceptible to fading.  It is quite strong and can be spun into very fine yarns. Silk yarns used in knitting are not resilient and tend to stretch as they are worn. Because the silkworm requires a great deal of care, silk is expensive and is frequently blended with other fibers.
Silk is often used to knit just very special projects, due to the special care required to clean silk.

wool spun from the fleece of sheep, is warm, elastic, durable and very receptive to dye.  Wool has excellent insulating properties.  It provides warmth when the temperature is cold and coolness when the temperature is warm.  Each variety of sheep produces wool with different properties.  Lambswool, from the first shearing of the sheep, is the warmest, softest hair.  Shetland wool was once spun from the fleece of sheep bred on the Shetland Islands, whose hair was never shorn but combed throughout the year. The name is now used to describe a loosely twisted, two-ply wool yarn, usually used in Fair Isle-type patterns. Merino wool is spun from the fleece of Merino sheep, which have exceptionally long and soft coats. Icelandic wool is a medium weight, fuzzy yarn traditionally used for Icelandic round-yoked sweaters.
Wool is often used for knitting items such as sweaters, hats, scarves, mittens, and afghans.

Plant fiber- Plant fibers are formed of cellulose, which is the main component of plant tissue. Plant fibers produce fabrics that are durable, breathable, and absorb moisture extremely well. Plant fibers are also hyper-allergenic, which makes them an excellent choice for people who are allergic to animal fibers such as wool. When choosing yarn for a project, you should keep in mind that yarn produced from plant fibers does not provide as much insulation as yarn derived from animal fibers.
Examples are cotton, hemp and linen.

Bamboo yarn is derived from a grass that is harvested and distilled into cellulose, which is then spun into a yarn. It is harvested without killing the plant, and it only is a few months before it is ready to be harvested again. All this makes bamboo a very eco-friendly yarn. Pure bamboo fiber is biodegradable and naturally antibacterial. It is cool to wear, taking moisture away from the skin and allowing it to breathe. Bamboo yarn has a wonderful drape and natural sheen; next to your skin, it feels similar to silk. Garments made from bamboo are luxuriously soft, smooth, and comfortable.

Cotton is available in many grades, the finest and smoothest of which are Egyptian and Sea Island, and a cross between them called Pima. Egyptian cotton is known for its soft, luxurious texture. Sea Island cotton is prized for its silky feel and lustrous appearance. Pima cotton is valued for its strength. All cotton is non-allergenic. It absorbs moisture quickly and dries quickly, which gives it a cooling effect. Since it is stronger wet than dry, cotton is also easy to wash, needing none of the care necessary for animal fiber yarns. However, cotton is not as elastic as wool, and especially in heavy garments can tend to stretch out. Because of its lack of resilience it shows flaws in knitting tension. Mercerized cottons are treated with caustic soda and then stretched, which makes them smoother, more lustrous, stronger and less prone to shrink than untreated cotton yarns. Unlike protein fiber yarns, cotton has no attraction for moths, but it can mildew. Some cotton yarns are mixed with small amounts of synthetic fiber to increase elasticity and decrease weight. cotton is also blended with wool for a softer and warmer yarn.
Cotton yarn is an ideal yarn for knitting items such as dish cloths, tea towels, and baby items.

Hemp is derived from the hemp plant. Hemp is cool in the summer, repelling 90% of UVA rays, and warm in the winter. This fiber gets softer each time it is washed. Traditional methods of blocking and steaming, however, enhance the appearance and softness of the finished fabric and create a timeless piece. Hemp yarn is increasing in popularity among knitters and is often used to make tops, tunics and clothing items. Hemp can also be used to knit decorative items.

Linen fiber is derived from the stem of the flax plant, which grows in temperate climates. It requires a great deal of processing before it can be spun into yarn. Once spun it forms a lustrous, strong yarn. Like cotton, linen is both extremely washable and comfortable to wear in hot weather, as it draws moisture quickly away from the body. Since linen fabric tends to be stiff and wrinkles easily, linen fiber is often blended with cotton to add softness.
Linen is commonly used for knitting garments such as lightweight sweaters and cardigans.

Milk cotton is an extraordinarily soft yarn, which is so-called because it contains 30% milk protein. To produce the yarn, milk is dehydrated and skimmed, after which the milk protein casein is extracted. Once the protein is fluidized, it can then be spun and blended with other fibers, such as cotton. The result is an extremely smooth and fluid yarn that drapes and takes color well. Milk Cotton is a lovely yarn for baby items.

Synthetic fibers are derived from chemical sources. Synthetic fibers are generally easy to care for, which makes them ideal for knitting items that are frequently washed.  You should be careful when ironing an item make from a synthetic fiber, as these types of fibers can lose their shape and even melt if excess heat is applied. Synthetic fibers do not offer the warmth, absorbency or elasticity of natural fibers. Synthetic fibers are often blended with natural fibers to obtain some of these properties and produce a higher quality yarn.
Examples are acrylic, nylon/polyamide, polyester and rayon.

Yarn made from acrylic is lightweight and strong. Although acrylic lacks insulating properties and tends to pill, this fiber remains very popular with knitters because of its low price, availability and washability. When blended with wool, acrylic is more enjoyable to work with and wear.
Acrylic is used for knitting sweaters, hats, mittens, blankets and many other items.

Nylon or Polyamide, is the strongest synthetic (man-made) fiber and is often added to other fibers to provide durability and prevent pilling. When blended with other fibers, Nylon is useful for knitting frequently used items, such as mittens. Fabrics made predominantly from Nylon do not breath well and are prone to static cling, but are water resistant.

Polyesters are generally found in combination with other fibers. Polyester has outstanding wrinkle resistance even when wet, so that polyester blends hold their shape well. When used in combination with other fibers, polyesters provide strength and stability to the yarn. Polyester is also commonly found in novelty yarns.

Although Rayon is man-made, it is not a synthetic fiber. Rayon is the oldest man-made fiber and is considered the most versatile. It is spun from cellulose obtained from cotton lint and wood chips. Two types of rayon are on the market viscose rayon, commonly called viscose and cuprammonium rayon, referred to as rayon. Their properties are the same, but their chemical and manufacturing techniques differ. Rayon has a higher luster and softer hand than cotton, and can be dyed to brilliant colors. Rayon yarns are not resilient, so that ribbing knit in 100% ray yarn will not hold, and heavier garments may stretch from their own weight. Rayon ribbons are widely available in many brilliant colors, and rayon/cotton blends are common. This fiber creates a soft, lustrous and absorbent yarn that is popular with knitters.

Two or more fibers can be combined and spun into one yarn; these yarns are called blends. The combinations are limitless, and certain characteristics of a fiber can be altered by combining it with another fiber. For example, cotton can be improved in body elasticity by being combined with acrylic; combining wool with alpaca or cashmere can soften it.

Furry, metallic, and bumpy yarns are called novelty yarns. These yarns work well for trims and dressy garments, and they are often doubled with another yarn for added texture and color. Novelty yarns are not recommended for beginners, as it is difficult to see stitches and mistakes in a fabric knit it novelty yarns. I have had lots of fun knitting many scarves with some fun novelty yarns. So, after you feel comfortable with the knit and purl stitches grab some fun yarn that catches your eye along with your knitting needles and have some fun. The ideas are endless.

*** I must give credit where credit is due.  I want to thank Vogue Knitting- The Ultimate Knitting Book, Natural Nursery Knits by Erika Knight and Maran Illustrated Knitting & Crocheting books for the above referenced definitions.












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  1. Kathy says:

    I have a question concerning knitting with 100% rayon. I want to knit a Swagger Coat but am concerned it may grow with the weight of the garment. Do you have a suggestion for another fiber that I can knit along with the rayon to give less drape? I did swatch for the garment and had to drop down two needle sizes. I like the idea of the carry along yarn so I can also use the needle closer to size for the pattern. Thank you.

    • Joanie says:

      Hi Kathy,
      Sorry I have not able to get back with you sooner regarding your question. I have been on vacation. :)
      I would suggest you use a good solid cotton, like maybe a Pima cotton, because it has a solid twist to the yarn. I think also a wool or a mercerized cotton would do the trick.
      I hope this helps. Let me know what you decide and I would love to see photos of your work.
      Have a fabulous day!

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