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.
Super-soft and delicate, angora may come from goats or rabbits. It’s typically blended with wool and expensive.
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.
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.
The soft hair of this breed of goats is prized around the world.
A South American animal similar to an alpaca (see above).
The most common breed of wool sheep found in Australia and New Zealand. Known for producing a fine and consistent coat.
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.
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.
Very rare and expensive. Qiviut is a type of Arctic musk ox, and its fur is prized by knitters.
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.
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.
By this point, your yarn stash might be starting to resemble a zoo, but it’s true: you can knit with yak yarn too.
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.
Last updated: September 29th, 2014.