What’s in a yarn? Animal fibres explained
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.
A beautifully fluffy Angora rabbit.
Super-soft and delicate, angora comes from rabbits. It’s beautifully gentle on the skin, and deliciously warm, but in the past, the harvesting has been controversial. These days there are plenty of angora producers who put their rabbits’ welfare before demand. Explore our angora yarns…
The alpaca’s fleece was saved for royalty in days gone by, but we can all wear it now!
A South American domestic camelid, alpacas have always been prized for their deliciously soft coats. The first shearing of the coat is known as baby alpaca, and yarns that use this first shearing are absolutely kitten-soft. Alpacas naturally come in a wide range of shades, from pure white through browns and greys to black, so you can find alpaca in natural shades as well as dyed. Explore our alpaca yarns …
The two humped Bactrian Camel produces the best fibre for yarn…
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, and combed out to harvest. It typically comes from Mongolia, and baby camel is the softest.
Cashmere goats in Mongolia.
The llama is bigger than the alpaca, and more independent.
A South American animal similar to an alpaca (see above). Llamas are generally much bigger than than their alpaca cousins, and their fleece is not as soft – but still soft enough to be spun into a luxurious yarn! Explore our llama yarns…
The fibres of the merino coat are springy and crinkly, producing a super warm yarn that keeps its shape!
The most common breed of wool sheep found in Australia and New Zealand. Known for producing a fine and consistent coat, which in turn produces the most fabulously soft, squishy yarn. A huge favourite with knitters, it is both luxurious and affordable. Explore our merino wool yarns...
An angora goat, whose coat is used to make mohair.
Another yarn from goats, not sheep. Mohair is made from the coat of the Angora goat (not to be confused with angora rabbits!) and kid mohair comes from the coats of young goats. Both are beautifully soft with a gentle, fuzzy halo. Mohair yarn can be knitted on its own or held together with another fibre. Explore our mohair yarns…
Super soft, super warm – the opossum (or possum) has a beautiful coat.
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 incredibly soft. It’s typically blended with merino – and its hollow fibres retain warmth, making it cosier than cashmere. Explore our possum yarns…
Rare and so exquisitely soft – the fur of the musk ox is deliciously warm.
Very rare and expensive, but incredibly warm and very soft indeed. Qiviut is a type of Arctic musk ox and survivor of the Ice Age. Its downy under fur enables it to withstand the harshest cold, making it one of the warmest fibres to wear on earth in places like Siberia and Alaska – no surprise then, that it is rather hard to find and harvest, although there are some suppliers emerging.
Silk worms busy eating mulberry leaves.
It’s hard to believe that these rather unattractive worms munching on mulberry leaves create one of the most soft, exotic fibres on earth! Spun by insects and collected by hand, natural silk has been prized for centuries. It is known for its sheen and unique texture, and it is surprisingly warm to wear. 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. Explore our silk yarns...
A beautiful Blue Faced Leicester sheep.
Whilst some 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. Explore our wool yarns…
The domestic Yak is treasured in Tibet for its milk, butter and fibre.
By this point, your yarn stash might be starting to resemble a zoo, but it’s true: you can knit with yak yarn too. The super soft downy fur is combed from the under belly, and spun into yarn, and as with other animals that are able to survive in harsh temperatures, yak fibre is very warm to wear. Explore our Yak yarns…
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 culled animals.
Do you have a favourite animal fibre?
Last updated: June 12th, 2018.