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Published on September 23rd, 2014 | by Elizabeth Bagwell

17 comments

What’s in a yarn? Animal fibres explained

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In a special three week series, we explore yarn content:  what’s the difference between angora and alpaca? Merino and mohair? Can you call it all wool? Elizabeth Bagwell talks you through fibre that comes from animals.

Communities around the world have domesticated dozens of types of animals other than sheep for their woolly coats. Here are the most common used in yarn today.

Angora
Super-soft and delicate, angora may come from goats or rabbits. It’s typically blended with wool and expensive.

Alpaca
A South American domestic animal, alpacas look something like llamas. They’re known for their soft coats which makes lovely yarn. Alpacas naturally come in a wide range of shades, from pure white through browns and greys to black so their wool is often undyed. Baby alpaca, from an animal’s first shearing, is the softest.

Camel
Strange but true: you can buy yarn made with camel hair. You’d be forgiven for doubting the manufacturer as camels are notoriously tough but the yarn is typically very soft. It typically comes from Mongolia, and baby camel is the softest.

Cashmere
The soft hair of this breed of goats is prized around the world.

Llama
A South American animal similar to an alpaca (see above).

Merino
The most common breed of wool sheep found in Australia and New Zealand. Known for producing a fine and consistent coat.

Mohair
Another yarn from goats, not sheep. Mohair goats have relatively short hair, and the ends typically escape from the yarn creating a soft, fuzzy halo. Kid mohair is the finer yarn from young goats.

Possum
Primarily seen in yarn from New Zealand, where these animals an invasive species and a major pest. The fibre is collected when the animals are culled and is surprisingly soft. It’s typically blended with merino.

Qiviut
Very rare and expensive. Qiviut is a type of Arctic musk ox, and its fur is prized by knitters.

Silk
Spun by insects and collected by hand, natural silk has been prized for centuries. Known for its sheen and unique texture.
Noil silk uses the shorter fibres. It has a nubbly texture and is less shiny.
Tussah silk is made from wild (instead of cultivated) silk worms. Cocoons are collected after the insect has left them.

Wool
While people call most animal fibres wool (e.g. ‘this is lovely alpaca wool’), if you see it alone on a label it refers to the fleece from a sheep. Wool is the most common animal fibre, and is used as a base in many blends. There are hundreds of breeds of sheep. A few common and rare breeds used for wool are: Blue-faced Leicester, Border Leicester, Corriedale, Icelandic, Karakul, Lincoln, Merino, North Ronaldsey, Rambouillet, Romney, Shetland, Suffolk and Teeswater.

Yak
By this point, your yarn stash might be starting to resemble a zoo, but it’s true: you can knit with yak yarn too.

Other animals
A hand spinner can typically make a usable yarn from the fur of any animal. As a result, people have experimented with all sorts of yarns, from wild bear hair (collected where the animals come regularly to eat) to the fur of pet cats and dogs. If your pet covers the sofa in fur every time they take a nap, you might be tempted to go into business!

Do the animals get hurt to make yarn?
In most cases, the answer is no. Most fibre animals are shorn by skilled shearers using safety razors similar to those used to give a human a buzz cut or trim a beard. However, there are a few notable exceptions: domesticated silkworms are killed during fibre collection, and possum yarn is only harvested from dead animals.

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About the Author

Elizabeth is a keen knitter, occasional designer, enthusiastic traveler and a professional freelance writer. She spent three years working for British knitting magazine, Simply Knitting, and has also written for The Knitter and other craft titles. She blogs at: www.elizabethbagwell.me.uk


Last updated: September 29th, 2014.

17 Responses to What’s in a yarn? Animal fibres explained

  1. Savannagal says:

    Mink yarn has been popular lately too.

  2. wendy leigh-bell says:

    One point I wanted to add to your piece on fibres is that Angora from rabbits is harvested in a cruel way in large scale operations. I have read that the hair is yanked out of the live restrained creatures as opposed to gentle, careful combing. Folk should be aware of this and will naturally avoid buying the fibre unless it is from a small, local producer.

    The photos of the sadly unused WWI trousseau are fascinating. Cheerio

  3. Wendy says:

    Just to say… Angora comes from the Angora rabbit only, mohair comes from the Angora goat. It’s confusing, but there isn’t a ‘Mohair goat’.

  4. Paula says:

    I would just like to echo the comment already made by Wendy Leigh-Bell concerning the brutal method by which Angora fibres are collected from live rabbits. Details of the intense cruelty involved in this process has been recently exposed by several British newspapers; and in fact a number of ‘high street’ stores no longer stock Angora garments as a result of this publicity. So I am disappointed that Elizabeth Bagwell has missed (or perhaps avoided?) the opportunity to highlight the barbaric practice.

  5. Jeanett says:

    Thank you Elizabeth, for the informative article. And thank you for keeping it, simply, informative, on the explanations of the fibers themselves, without any commentary/opinions, as this is not necessarily the forum for that.

  6. Juliet Morley says:

    I would like to hear what Elizabeth says about the comments saying that rabbits can be brutally treated to get the Angora fibres, as I certainly wouldn’t want to knit using this yarn.

  7. Annie Mouse says:

    I and I am sure others too would like to know which of the major brands sell yarns with silk in.
    With so many shops closing down even in a town this size (N……) and not being mobile, I have to order online.
    I enquired about the treatment of silkworms and received no response but please can you recommend any websites where I can sure of cruelty-free siky yarn.
    I am not so young and crafts are no longer taught in schools so many knitters are senior, like myself and the computer is my “window on the world” which sounds better than my “limited social life” . Please check for typos.
    Thank you.
    Annie Mouse (Mrs, BA OU hon etc)
    (anonymous) but my real name is in the email address
    retired

  8. Janice says:

    Thank you for the information without social stigmas… yes some fiber producers are cruel, and some people kick their dog and throw their cat. that doesn’t mean my dog sheds less or the fiber is no good as fabric. Just pick who you buy from and quit trying to make everyone a carbon copy of someone else.

  9. Sue says:

    This is a great series! Thank you. For one, I will never buy or use angora. I am glad to know about it. There is no place for cruelty in the background of my knitting. I like to enjoy my knitting.

    • The_L says:

      I’ve only ever bought some from a small-scale producer who brought her fibers (and the rabbits themselves!) to the local Renaissance Faire. Because we could see the rabbits, and they were in a pen all day where visitors could see and pet them, it was easier to tell that she wasn’t engaging in any inhumane practices. Her angoras are beloved pets that also happen to produce soft fibers and yarns–not the other way around like a big factory, where they’re a walking yarn source that you have to feed.

      Plus, it’s more fun to be able to see and interact with the same animal whose fluff goes into that sweater!

  10. Christina Mutch says:

    Angora fur can be harvested humanely from rabbits by being clipped. The rabbits need to have their fur clipped periodically just as certain sheep need to shorn to prevent their coats from becoming too long which would be extremely uncomfortable for them.
    Some disreputable commercial companies pluck the fur from angora rabbits which is extremely cruel and deplorable.

  11. Myriam says:

    Does someone know of a humane source for angora yarn? I read that it helps arthritis sufferers to wear angora, and I’d like to make mitts for my dear Dad.

    • Wendy says:

      Orkney Angora say that they have high welfare standards:

      http://orkneyangora.co.uk/mainsite/?page_id=343

      Rowan have discontinued their Angora Haze because of the bad press, but they also say that their Angora was responsibly sourced using humane methods.

    • Anna says:

      There is nothing particular about angora that helps with arthritis pain. Keeping warm does. My grandmother (dearly departed) used to wear cat skins and swore they helped and I think we can all agree that is not okay (unless you want to skin your pet after they die of natural causes. My grandmother never had cats…)

  12. Yvonne says:

    All of this, very interesting. Thank you.

  13. Anna says:

    Elizabeth, How do you write a post like this, with this many mistakes in it, if you have been around yarn professionally?

    1.As previously noted, angora only comes from rabbits not Angora goats (which are the ones who you get Mohair from).

    2.Cashmere is the undercoat from any breed goat that happens to fall within a certain micron range. There is no Cashmere breed.

    3.Mohair comes from Angora goats who have a LONG (not short) staple hair, not wool.

    As for the question if animals get hurt… Most of the time, yes. As mentioned before most Angora rabbits are mishandled and tortured getting their wool but that is also true of any animal who have the misfortune of being born into large scale operations. The most well known abuse of merino sheep is mulesing but the blatant disregard for any animal that has something humans can make money from, in this case wool, is well documented. Here is only one link out of many: http://www.unleashed.org.au/animals/sheep.php

  14. Ruth Spooner says:

    I re-read this article this morning and was astounded to find that LoveKnitting had not rectified the many mistakes within it or, at least, acknowledged the mistakes. I really feel this is not good enough.

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