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Fiber artists have the world at their fingertips. Historically, textile makers relied upon regional materials to create functional clothing and everyday necessities. Today, rather than being bound to a local resource, artisans can choose fibers depending on project, vision and budget.
Natural fibers are making a comeback, as more people understand their environmentally friendly qualities, especially with reports of polyester microfibers from synthetic fleece finding their way into our drinking water. Natural fibers are also a sustainable resource that can be raised organically and one that will decompose—or can be easily repurposed—when their intended use ends.
Consumers also appreciate wool and similar fibers for their superior characteristics, such as moisture-wicking abilities that keep skin dry and insulating qualities that keep it warm. Such fibers let skin breathe and are bacteria-resistant, so they’re used for a diverse array of garments that includes coats as well as underwear. Natural fibers represent a growing favorite for consumers looking for high-quality, functional clothing.
Gretchen Wilson of Highwood, Montana, is a longtime fiber artist who once owned a processing mill in Washington. She continues to raise sheep and points out that hand-woven fiber has historically had a wide array of uses, including durable rugs as well as the finest cloth designed to be near a baby’s skin. What fiber you use is a personal decision based upon the material available, your skill level and what you want to make. The options are practically limitless.
A Glossary of Fiber Terms
Choosing a fiber can be a subjective task, yet having a grasp on the various properties helps you pick the best cellulose or animal fiber for your project.
- Staple Length: One of the easiest features to notice in any type of fiber is how long the fibers are when they are not stretched out. Known as staple length, most natural textiles are from 1 inch to more than 14 inches in length. Typically, the shorter the length, the more difficult the fiber will be to handle and spin, at least for beginners.
- Crimp: This characteristic describes the waviness and, subsequently, the bounce of the fiber. A fiber with high crimping has a distinct zigzag appearance, reminiscent of the unfortunate hairstyle of the 1980s. High crimping often means the fleece is easier to spin. It also allows the material to return to its original (or close to original) shape. Understanding the elasticity of your chosen fiber is important when you’re making items, such as socks, that need to retain their shape. The crimp also adds to the overall insulating properties of the fiber because it traps more air between each of the fibers. This loft is what helps hold in the heat.
- Fineness: This is basically the diameter of the fiber, and the smaller the size, the softer the end product is. The measure of this softness is deduced on a tiny level: A microscope is required to measure the microns of the particular fleece, which determines the comfort and wearability of the garment. “The difference between 19 microns and 14 microns is the difference between a Brillo pad and cotton,” says Linda Cortright of Wild Fibers magazine. Striving for fewer microns makes an enormous difference in finer clothing. Keep in mind that a typical human hair is between 30 to 100 microns, and most garments that a person can wear on the skin should be less than 24 microns to be the most comfortable.
- Strength: We might not think of it, but fibers do have different levels of strength. For instance, cotton tends to be a weaker fiber that wears out, so it would not be an ideal choice for rugs in a high-traffic area.
- Luster: This is the shine of the fiber. While it’s more of a personal preference than a functional one, considering the luster of the particular fleece or plant fiber makes sense when you desire to make a more refined garment.
- Hollowness: Alpaca fleece is renowned for it lightweight yet exceptionally warm properties. This is mostly because of the hollow nature of the fiber. The space within each one traps air, creating naturally insulating textiles. “Some of the warmest clothes are from camelids [such as alpacas],” says fiber artist Gretchen Wilson of Highwood, Montana.
- Scale Structure: This feature is also determined on a microscopic level. The exterior of wool fiber is covered in overlapping cuticles that makes spinning and felting wool easier because these scales hook onto each other in the process. The absence of scales, such as in the fur of angora rabbits or a plant fiber, can result in exceptionally soft material, but it makes working with it more difficult. The scales can also sometimes bother people with sensitive skin, although there are ways to remove them through the washing process. If you are new to spinning, or if felting is in your future, look for animals that exhibit a decent scale structure in order to make the process easier.
Wool is considered the queen of fiber. Sheep were domesticated roughly 10,000 years ago, having been used for milk, meat and ultimately for their skins. Once people developed the skills to turn fiber into fabric, they looked to sheep as their main source of textiles in many parts of the world.
Ultimately, sheep were crossbred to create certain characteristics, particularly when it came to wool production.
“We’ve had breeds only for about 300 years,” Wilson says, and now shearing is a necessity, something unheard of in wild populations.
With a staple length of 3 to 6 inches, a micron count of 24 to 28, good luster with a nice drape, this dual-purpose breed (also raised for meat production) is an excellent choice for hand-spinners and artists who make clothes that they want to hang nicely. Wilson, who raises Bluefaced Leicesters, says that Englishman Robert Bakewell initially developed them as long-wool breeds in the 1700s.
This is a smaller, horned breed that resembles a goat more than a sheep. Jacobs are easy to raise and lamb, which was a positive point (in addition to the beautiful wool they produce) for Jennifer LittleBear of Jacob’s Heritage Farm in Copley, Ohio.
“The quality of fiber from Jacob sheep can vary,” LittleBear says. “We have some with super nice fleece, and some that is pretty scruffy. But overall, it’s a soft, medium fleece with low grease. Perhaps the best part is the color. The black, white and gray spots make really pretty variegated yarn.”
With a staple ranging from 3 to 7 inches, crimping can vary widely between animals, but LittleBear believes it’s durable wool, making it suitable for outerwear that needs to hold up with regular use.
This superfine wool with less than a 24-micron count, and sometimes as low as 12 microns, is one of the best fibers for exceptional clothing. But, because of the wool’s fineness, it’s also not terribly strong, which is why it’s often blended with another wool or fiber. Blending is equally helpful because of Merino’s shorter staple, averaging
2 1⁄2 to 4 inches in length, so incorporating it within another fiber makes it easier
Another long-wool breed out of England, the Romney is renowned for fine, lustrous wool that is uniform and easy to spin with a 4- to 7-inch staple length. It’s also considered low-grease wool, which means it won’t shrink as much as other wools. Blankets made with Romney wool last for decades.
If you want a fleece that is a joy to work with because of its ease of spinning and felting, consider Targhee wool. Running 3 to 5 inches long and finely crimped, it’s relatively simple to spin, and with a 21- to 25-micron count, it’s well suited for items that are close to the skin.
While sheep often take center stage, goats are also worth consideration.
“There’s a fine line between sheep people and goat people,” jokes Linda Cortright of Maine, “with sheep people being the prompt individuals known for their predictability and finishing tasks, versus the goat people who stand out for all sorts of reasons.”
Cortright has made the study of fiber from throughout the world her life’s work, taking people on tours and sharing her experiences in her annual publication, Wild Fibers.
After extensive research, Cortright opted for cashmere goats because these hardy animals from the Himalayas are a perfect fit for her. Beyond the notable qualities of cashmere being an exceptionally fine fleece, Cortright wanted an animal that is easier to maintain without the disadvantages of centuries of specialized breeding. Instead of shearing, cashmere goats shed, and the fleece is harvested by brushing. “When it comes time to comb it out, you can use a dog slicker brush,” she says. “You’ll comb the same goat two to three times in a week.”
Cortright notes that for cashmere, the minimum length of the staple is 11⁄4 inches, and it must be less than 19 microns. The result is an incredibly silky fleece that is warm and lustrous.
Coming from the angora breed, mohair is another fine fiber from goats. But unlike the cashmere goats, these fuzzy creatures are shorn like sheep, producing a fine (from 23 to 38 micron) fleece with
4 1⁄2- to 6-inch staple lengths. It’s a strong fiber with lots of elasticity, but unlike wool, it lacks the scale structure on the fibers, making it difficult to felt.
Native to the high elevations of the Andes Mountains of Peru, alpacas and their fiber are well suited to colder regions. With naturally hollow fiber, alpaca fleece is warmer than wool with a third less weight. Plus, it’s renowned for its softness with some of the higher quality fleece, boasting less than a 20-micron count, competing with cashmere for use in the finest clothing.
Two distinct types of alpacas exist. The Huacaya is the most prevalent breed with its teddy bear-like appearance and unmistakable crimping, while the Suris have a longer, dreadlocked fleece sometimes growing more than a foot long. Both breeds come in a wide range of natural colors, and their fleece is often blended with wool or other fibers to make handling easier because of its smooth scale structure.
The other advantage of alpaca fleece: It contains no lanolin, which can be a skin irritant and often a reason particular individuals cannot wear wool. For items such as socks and baby clothes, alpaca fleece is highly desirable.
Rabbit fur is undoubtedly one of the softest materials around, and the Angora breeds are known for producing this coveted fiber. Plus, unlike sheep, goats, and many of the other fiber breeds, rabbits require far less space. Because each rabbit produces only about 2 pounds of fur each year, you need to calculate the number of rabbits you’ll need to make a yearly sweater. Even so, it’s still an excellent small-scale fiber animal.
“Rabbits are one of the most high-maintenance fibers in the world,” Cortright says.
The fur has to be harvested, whether by brushing or gently plucking the loose hair from rabbits when they molt several times a year. You can also shear some, such as with the German angora, which is no easy task on a small, squirmy animal with delicate skin.
The fur is about 4 inches long and hollow, which is why it feels incredibly light. It’s a very fine fur at 14 microns and has very little scale structure, making it very smooth.
“Rabbit fur is very fine,” Wilson says. “I have to blend it with wool.”
But once worked into yarn, it is wonderful for any garment worn where softness is paramount.
Bison, the iconic symbol of the American West, is a surprising addition to the fiber world. Course guard hairs protect it from the harsh elements, yet the downy undercoat has fineness comparable to cashmere.
The bison’s native climate includes temperatures of minus-40 degrees Fahrenheit that can last for extended periods, so it’s no surprise that the animal’s fleece is superior for cold-weather clothing, reportedly warmer than wool with exceptional water-wicking capabilities. Without lanolin, like alpacas, allergies are less of an issue.
With a relatively short staple length of 1 1⁄2 inches, bison fleece is often blended into wool for easier handling, but it’s ideal for any garment, whether you need a durable sweater or a fine piece close to your skin. These hardy creatures offer a fiber with extensive durability.
It seems the more massive the animal and harsher the conditions, the finer the fleece. In this realm, the downy underwool of the musk ox, known as qiviut, is among the most desired fibers available. The musk ox can live on frozen tundra in unimaginable conditions only because of its exceptionally warm undercoat beneath the guard hairs. It’s no surprise that this fleece is eight times warmer than sheep wool, yet because it’s so breathable, it can be worn at any time of the year.
“It’s actually some of the newest fiber on the fiber scene,” says Cortright, who takes tours of fiber aficionados each year to the Musk Ox Farm in Palmer, Alaska, around the start of the Iditarod sled dog race.
The farm, originally called the Musk Ox Project, was created in 1954 by John Teal, who researched a way to help save the then-endangered musk ox as well as sustain the native people along the coast with a uniquely indigenous product.
With just more than 11⁄4 to 3 inches in staple length, qiviut is short, but boasting 12 to 14 microns, it rivals the finest fibers in the world. It is often mixed with silk, cashmere or a fine merino to make it easier to handle. It doesn’t shrink like many other natural fibers, but it also doesn’t felt well.
Musk ox shed, so the qiviut is harvested in April and May. At the Musk Ox Farm, the harvest is facilitated by habituating the animals to a routine.
“In order to monitor the animals’ health, they weigh them every week,” Cortright says.
To accomplish this task, the musk ox are trained to go into a chute every week, so when it’s time to brush them, they have no issues entering the combing pen where they can enjoy grain and a grooming.
Qiviut’s unique nature—not only in its origin, but also in the exceptional qualities—also brings an impressive price. Raw fleece can sell for more than $30 an ounce.
You don’t need livestock for fiber. Check out plants and worms.
Linen Originating from the flax plant, linen is one of the oldest fibers in the world and is known to be lightweight, strong and breathable, making it an ideal option for clothing in hot climates. Because of its durability, it’s also a favorite for tablecloths, curtains and other everyday items.
Nettle Anyone who has ever picked stinging nettles might be hesitant to wear clothes made from them. As with the flax, nettle fibers are found inside the outer bark of the plant so it’s not quite as easy as peeling a stem and having an available product. It also requires retting, which in essence is a controlled rotting before the fibers can be pulled or combed out of the plant material. The result is a durable fiber that is more ecofriendly than cotton.
Silk Made from the cocoon of the silkworm (Bombyx mori moth), silk is the epitome of softness and luxury. Lightweight and smooth, silk is a favorite for clothing, particularly because it is also one of the strongest natural fibers. It’s also naturally shiny and dyes very well.
With so many fibers, it might seem impossible to pick a favorite. Narrow your choices based on what you make and how you want it to look, but don’t stop there. We are privileged to have the fibers of the world available to us; enjoy them all.
This story originally appeared in the July/August 2018 issue of Hobby Farms.