Week 3: Fiber Content- Thinking Outside the Flock

Greetings again, friends in fiber!

Thanks for returning to Week 3 of our blog series. Last week we “weighed in” on yarn weight– how we evaluate it and why it’s important. This week we’ll be “yakking” about fiber content.

Fair warning: there will be puns today. I do not abaahlogize for this.


In this knitter’s opinion, fiber content can be one of the most fun and exciting aspects of any yarn. There are just so many fibers out there to try, each with their own gifts and challenges waiting to be discovered. And of course we all find our favorites, but the unique needs of each project offer plenty of opportunities to experiment.

It’s really not possible to overstate the important of a yarn’s fiber content in determining its properties and in turn its uses. Fibers are categorized by their sources and tend to have similar properties within their categories. Fibers derived from animals are called protein fibers; fibers derived from plants are called cellulose fibers; and man-made fibers are called synthetics.

Protein (Animal) Fibers

The oldest and perhaps still the most popular source of fiber for yarns is the animal kingdom. Obvious members of this group are sheep’s wool, alpaca, and cashmere and mohair (both from specialized breeds of goat). But did you know that silk is also considered a protein fiber, since it is created by silk worms? Fiber from other animals include angora (rabbit), qiviut (muskox), llama, camel, bison, possum, and even dog (sometimes referred to as chiengora).

Protein fibers tend to be very warm, soft, and highly absorbent- which makes perfect sense when you consider that their natural purpose is to keep animals healthy and comfortable.  They accept and retain dye very well, making them excellent candidates for producing the beautifully colored yarns prized by needlecrafters. Many animals fibers can be felted by moisture and agitation, so they may require special care.

Other properties can vary widely and are influenced by the structure of the fiber itself. Sheep’s wool, for example, is celebrated as the quintessential fiber of knitting and crochet, but sometimes has a coarser, more prickly hand. This is because each individual fiber has an uneven, crimped shape and is covered with microscopic scales. Alpaca wool is very drapey and has a wonderfully soft hand because its long, smooth fibers are more relaxed. Silk is highly lustrous and also very strong because its fibers are almost perfectly even and straight, and incredibly long.

Cellulose (Plant) Fibers

Plants have been harvested for fiber throughout most of human history. The most common cellulose fiber is cotton, which has been so widely used for so long that its cultivation and trade has had a major impact on world history. Linen (from the flax plant), hemp (from the non-psychoactive varieties of cannabis plants), jute, nettles, and many more are also cellulose fibers. Some fibers are derived from plants but require extensive processing to yield a usable yarn, including rayon (from wood pulp), bamboo, pineapple, or coconut.

Cellulose fibers are generally strong and highly absorbent, making them ideal for producing sturdy yet comfortable yarns. Dishcloth diehards, for example, are very familiar with cotton’s durability and absorption! Because of their structure- usually long, smooth, and not highly textured- they provide less insulation and elasticity, but are wonderfully breathable and have excellent drape. These fibers are summertime favorites!

Synthetic Fibers

During the last century, the availability and popularity of man-made fibers has exploded. Early attempts at producing synthetic fibers sought to imitate the properties of natural fibers such as silk and wool, and their results- rayon and acrylic- are still widely used in many yarns. More recently developed synthetic fibers, including nylon, polyester, and a vast number of specialty fibers, have introduced fantastic new properties to the world of yarn. Fibers are now available that are metallic, waterproof, antibiotic, glow in the dark, react to ultraviolet light, and more. Synthetic fibers will never replace the beauty of natural fibers, of course, but they do create exciting possibilities for knitters and crocheters!


So there are protein (animal), cellulose (plant), and synthetic fibers. They all have their own properties, for better or for worse. Does that mean you always have to compromise when you choose a yarn? Of course not! That’s why we started blending fibers- so crafters could enjoy the best of all worlds.

For example, a good quality acrylic-wool blend is a staple of any knitter’s stash; the softness, warmth, and beauty of wool combined with the affordability and easy care of acrylic is a match made in heaven. Another popular blend is wool and nylon- sock knitters know that a small amount of nylon will give a cozy wool the strength it needs to withstand wear and tear. Silk is often added in small amounts to a blend of other fibers to lend its incomparable luster. A percentage of mohair in a yarn creates a fuzzy halo. A dose of cashmere adds luxurious softness instantly. In short, the right blend of fibers can be your recipe for success.


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Gail
    Sep 07, 2016 @ 17:44:53

    Another great blog, I have visions of winter knitting projects dancing in my head with all those luscious yarns and their descriptions. Thanks for the inspiration!



  2. Susan
    Sep 07, 2016 @ 17:48:18

    I am enjoying your blogs…learning and looking forward to many more!



  3. Gloria
    Sep 08, 2016 @ 06:02:12

    Thanks so much for the fascinating baaaaalog! When I started knitting I never used wool, because my Mom hated wool for knitting. Back then it was scratchy and somewhat unrefined. But it was warm. I remember Linsey woolsie blankets, very scratchy, kept me warm many a winter’s night as a child. But then I came to the Yarn Patch and met THE most amazing wools! I have spent many a day grazing among the vast array of awesome wools and wool blends. One of my favorite books is The Knitters Book of Wool by Clara Parkes. Wool isn’t just wool, as the sheep breeds make all kinds of differences in the wool itself. Again thanks for sharing your knowledge with your flock of knitters, we really appreciate it. And like Gail in the previous post, I am ready for some cool nights, a warm fire and cozy knitting.



  4. Trackback: Week 6: Putting It All Together- How to Read a Yarn Label | The Yarn Patch

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