Common Natural Fibers & What To Expect From Them
The other day I had the pleasure of helping an excited out-of-towner pick out yarn for her next project, and she struck up a conversation that inspired me to write this blog post. She told me about how she considered herself an intermediate-beginner, because she knew the technical basics of knitting but she felt clueless beyond that. She confessed that she often felt lost in yarn shops because those that she visited were not so informative or helpful. She often found herself in a position where, someone would recommend a specific yarn for a pattern, but she was always left wondering "WHY?"
I know she's not alone. You begin to understand "why" with experience and practice, but there are many beginners out there that end up disappointed with their projects and they're not sure where they went wrong. I definitely remember experiencing this too- when I chose a bulky single ply wool for a shawl when I was wanting the drape and definition of a firmly spun alpaca or cashmere yarn. Sure, that bulky single ply was nice stuff! It wasn't a cheap price tag that led me to that yarn, I simply didn't know any better at the time. I thought, "if it's a nice yarn and a nice pattern, what could go awry?"
1. Awesome Alpaca
I'm going to start with alpaca, because that's where my personal journey into natural fibers began. It's the fiber that converted me. There are a few things about alpaca yarns that makes them unique from other protein fiber yarns. Since these animals need to survive extreme weather in mountainous South American landscapes- it makes sense that their fiber is both naturally water repellant, as well as good protection against solar radiation. Also, since alpaca does not have lanolin like wool, it's hypoallergenic!
Alpaca yarns can be either lightweight or heavy- it mostly depends on how it was spun. When you knit with alpaca, you can expect the fabrics to be silky soft with a lot of drape. This fiber likes to hang and grow. As this fiber relaxes, and you shouldn't be surprised when you find that your project ends up a little longer or wider after some time. It's best to not long-term store alpaca garments on hangers, because that could quicken that growth. Alpaca yarns also like to fluff up, which gives your fabrics a very light fuzzy halo. This halo is lovely, but it can also muddle intricate lace stitchwork. I've found that alpaca works beautifully with colorwork patterns, because that subtle halo reflects colors and can really work to the advantage of the design.
2. Wonderful (Sheep's) Wool
Oh, I love wool. I love the feel, the smell, the warmth, the bounce... There are so many types- and they are all so different and special. Long wools, short wools, crimped wools, fine wools.... they can make a big difference, especially if you're a spinner. Oftentimes yarn labels don't even specify what type of wool is used, unless it's merino, which is the finest and most sought-after.
Ever notice how wool is bouncy? This is one of the special things about the fiber. That bounce makes it really forgiving to work with, and it's a lot easier on the hands- which is important to think about when you've got arthritis or hand/arm injuries. The fiber's natural crimp makes wool fabrics hold more air, which allows them to retain heat. Knitting with wool can yield a huge range of different results, but overall you will end up with bulkier fabrics that don't have much drape (because of all that crimpy bounce!). Wool can be spun with a loose ply, or a nice tight twist, and that can really affect how your stitches stand out. Wools look fantastic with cable patterns, or textural designs.
3. Sweet Silk
Silk is protein fiber, but it shares a lot of qualities with plant fibers. It is certainly in a league of its own. Silks have a lot of natural luster and shine, which is caused by light refracting within the physical structure of the fiber. Cultivated silks tend to be glossier, while wild silks (although still shiny) are duller and tend to have more of an uneven texture. Silk is very absorbent, which is why it's comfortable in warm weather. Alternatively, silk also works well in cold weather because the fiber can hold air close to the skin for insulation.
Silk does not have much "give" or bounce, which makes it much more like knitting with a plant-based fiber. One of my favorite qualities about silk is how it absorbs dyes. Silk just loves color- and the luster makes them all extra vibrant, rich, deep, and reflective. Silk fabrics are known to give a lot of drape, which is why it's such a popular fiber for luxurious garments and home furnishings. Silk's drape also gives it great stitch definition. So when you really want to show off intricate details or lace- reach for the silk.
4. Marvelous Mohair
I often hear a lot of mixed reviews about mohair. Overall, everyone agrees that it can be beautiful- but many people find it harder to work with. Mohair, especially when it has been brushed, tends to be really fuzzy. This makes it harder to see the stitches, which can be a problem for knitters who are not yet totally sure of what they're doing. That fuzz also likes tangle up in itself, which can be no fun. (Quick tip: if you ever need to unravel a mohair project, stick it in the freezer for a while first. You'll be amazed how easily it unravels).
Mohair is sort of like a fuzzy cross between wool and silk. It has some natural elasticity (although not as much as the wool) and some natural luster (although not as much as the silk). It does also absorb dyed beautifully. Often, commercial mohair yarns are very lightweight. You'll mostly see them spun as fingering, lace, or ultrafine lace weights. But don't be fooled, you can knit those fine yarns with larger needles and the fuzz will fill in all the gaps, giving mohair yarns an often surprisingly big gauge. These thin mohair yarns also work really well as carry-alongs to give your fabrics a halo. Mohair is not what I would use for fancy stitch work, although it can be done. I've found that simple stitch patterns, like garter and stockinette, get new life with mohair. The yarn is so nice, let it do the talking instead of your pattern.
5. Comfy Cotton
The woman I mentioned in the beginning of this blog post also said that she has basically only knit with cotton yarns, but her hands were beginning to hurt when working with them. Cotton is strong, durable, and does not have the elasticity of protein fibers- which is why it can be hard on the hands after prolonged periods of time. Like wool, there are many different types of cottons, and they have changed over time from cultivation. Also similar to wool, yarns tend to not specify what type of cotton they used, unless it's pima cotton- which is often considered the next-best-thing to Egyptian cotton.
Cotton creates breathable fabrics, which is why it's so popular in the textile industry for clothing and items like bed sheets. When I'm going to make something that I know will get a lot of use, or something that I know will need to be washed often- I tend to consider a cotton yarn first. Since cotton is a slick fiber, the stitch definition is crisp, however that slick quality can work against you, too. Take socks as an example. You would think cotton would be a good durable choice, but the lack of elasticity would make those socks slippy-slidey, and they tend to just slink down your ankles and feet. If you're concerned about durability, but want protein-fiber characteristics, consider a cotton blend.
6. Lovely Linen
Linen is probably my favorite plant based fiber. I appreciate that it has the strength and durability of cotton, but it can be ultra-soft. However, you might not know that when you feel linen yarns before they've been worked with. They often feel rough, crunchy, and quite frankly the complete opposite of soft. But that's part of the magic! Even as you work with it, you'll see that it gets softer just with you handling the yarn. You'll find that every single time you wear and wash your linen item, it will just continue to get softer, and softer, and softer. Eventually you have that unbeatable handkerchief softness and drape.
Many linen yards are blended with other fibers, and I suspect that is to achieve a soft feel sooner rather than after several washings. Nonetheless, linen blends still have stellar drape and a luxurious natural shine. Sometimes linen can look a little hairy from shorter fibers, but overall, linen makes crisp fabrics that are cool to the touch, and lint free!
I hope this helped shed some light on your fiber choices. But I will end with mentioning that you never know until you try! If you're not sure if a yarn will look good with a certain stitch pattern- swatch it. And don't skimp on the swatches, either. Go ahead and buy a whole extra skein just so you have enough. Make yourself a nice large swatch, and feel it, wash it, and even abuse it a little. In the end, you're making a fabric- and if you don't love the fabric you're making you won't want to wear it. Experiment, and see what your preference is!