Technique Tuesday: Fiber … it’s not just for breakfast anymore

tips tricks and techniques

fibersToday I thought I’d bring you an overview of the fibers most often used to create knitting yarn.

First, the TYPE of fiber can be broken down into four general categories:
1. Protein – hair that grows on animals including sheep, goats, camelids (including alpaca and llamas), rabbits, bison, dogs, etc. All of these fibers contain carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and sulfur. Silk, altho considered a protein fiber, is actually a hybrid since it is the fiber from the silkworm after eating plants and spinning its cocoon.

2. Cellulose – chemical within a plant that allows a fiber to be produced from the plant naturally. Cotton has the highest level of cellulose and comes from the seed pod of the cotton plant. Linen and hemp are called “bast fibers” since the fibers are made from the stalks of the plant.

3. Cellulosic – fibers produced by extracting the cellulose from the plant, processing it chemically and then creating a spinnable fiber. Bamboo, corn, lyocell, rayon and soy are some cellulosic fibers.

4. Synthetic – fibers that are completely generated in a laboratory such as polyester, rayon and acrylic. These man-made fibers are increasingly higher quality and imitate the look of the natural fibers but don’t breathe or have the elasticity, memory and breathable-warmth that the natural fibers have.

Here are a few of the fibers you’ll find with the benefits (or detriments) of knitting with them:
Wool – the classic fiber-choice; manufacture of this commodity has changed to make wool not only more accessible economically but also much more versatile with superwash options as well as plying to create the spectrum of yarn weights.
Wool-blends – you’ll find wool blended with just about any fiber; each has it’s own benefits to add washability, stability and breathability.
Cotton – light-weight to heavy-weight depending on type; pure cotton can have a heaviness and lack of elasticity
Cotton-acrylic blends – yarn manufacturers have solved the cotton weightiness problem by mixing various acrylics with cotton to improve its drape and elasticity.
Cotton-wool blends – wool gives you elasticity while cotton gives you breathability and comfort. Because wool and cotton takes dyes differently, the blends tend to have a depth of color that is well-shown in heavy cabling or knit-purl combinations.
Cotton-silk blends – the sheen of silk with the simple elegance of cotton is a wonderful combination; the cotton helps avoid the pilling of silk while the silk dresses up the cotton for a sophistication hard to beat.
Silk – 100 percent silk is a luxurious fiber that can be prohibitively expensive. Silk takes detailed lace or knit-purl patterns well but does have a tendency to pill.
Cashmere – 100 percent cashmere is soft, lightweight and takes every range of dying imaginable. It’s a perfect year-round fiber, but its time-consuming production of the fiber makes it one of the most expensive yarns available.
Cashmere blends – blends are a good option for economic and production reasons.
Linen – this is one of those odd fibers that feels stiff and horrible when knitting, but then once it’s washed, the linen has a tough softness that makes it wonderful summer option. Knit best with a loose gauge for most wearables, linen can also be done at a tight gauge to imitate a woven fabric.
Linen blends – blended with cotton or an acrylic (like viscose), can help avoid the stiffness or scratchy nature of pure linen. As with cotton-wool blends, the linen-blend yarns taken dyes differently, giving a wonderful range of color shading to the yarn.
Rayon tapes – created as a cheaper alternative to silk, tapes knit up well and the fraying and pilling attributed to silk is gone with the rayon. Be careful not to steam rayon tape items as this will permanently flatter the fiber. Also, rayon can stretch if not given a good foundation or stability in the stitch choice.
Chenille – a lovely choice yarn that can create some beautiful hand-knits. The biggest worry is “worming” when the yarn twists on itself as you knit. For me, it’s more trouble than its worth.
Lycra Blends – with lycra added, you get maximum stretch and shape memory but can be slightly harsh to knit up. Wonderful yarn choice for a close-fitting silhouette.
Metallic, fur and other novelty yarns – can be extremely expensive so you might want to use these for trims or highlight bits throughout an overall design. The technology has allowed these yarns to avoid the scratchiness of the old days. I rarely use novelty yarns as they can be hard to un-knit and often shed.

The important thing to remember is to check the label — just because the yarn is soft and cushy does NOT mean that it is a good choice for your project. A sweater done in a soft and cushy acrylic will be uber warm since acrylic doesn’t breathe and has the less expensive acrylics have a tendency to pill (altho it is completely washable); the same sweater done in a soft and cushy wool or wool-blend will be warm, but not too hot, breathe and be wonderful for years to come.
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One Response to “Technique Tuesday: Fiber … it’s not just for breakfast anymore”
  1. Elizabeth says:

    this was really helpful to read, thank you! 🙂

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