For millennia, spinners worked with fibers that were locally available from the plants and animals in their area. They didn't need to wonder about a fiber's origins because they probably procured it and prepared it themselves. They dyed it based on what worked traditionally with that particular fiber or perhaps experimented with something new and added to their group's knowledge base. As trade routes developed and the world grew both larger and smaller, figuratively speaking, spinners began to get access to new fibers, some of which were mysterious to them. Spinners now have a dizzying array of fibers to choose from: wools from many different breeds of sheep, mohair, cashmere, silk, cotton, soy, bamboo, rayon, corn, milk, yak, qiviut -- the list goes on and seems to be expanding by the year. So while a lot has changed in the handspinning world during the last few thousand years, it's probably not hard for us to relate to the spinners of long ago who weren't quite sure where a new fiber had come from.
Fiber falls into a couple of basic categories: protein fibers, generally from animal sources; cellulose fibers, from plants; and synthetics created from non-natural materials. But things are never quite that simple, are they? At least not now. These days, we've got lots of protein fibers that are actually plant-based and "natural" fibers that aren't really available in nature. We're no longer limited to what grows on an animal or in the ground. We have whole new categories of fibers: synthetics and manufactured natural fibers. All of this variety adds incredible richness to our craft, but it also means we have to know more to do more. It's useful for us to know what kind of fiber we are working with so that we can know how to care for a fiber, how to set the twist, how to use a fiber to best advantage in a blend or project, and what kind of dyes will work best (or at all!).
This is not meant to be a guide to every fiber ever spun but a brief survey of how to categorize -- for practical and not scientific purposes -- the handspinning fibers that are currently available commercially. Since many spinners today begin their journey with wool, we'll start with protein fibers.
naturally colored merino top
It used to be pretty easy to identify protein fibers: did they come from an animal -- or in the case of silk, something able to wiggle around on its own? If yes, then you were looking at a protein fiber. Traditional protein fibers are made up primarily of keratin (for wool and other animal fibers) or fibroin (for silk). Commonly used protein fibers include sheep's wool; mohair, cashmere, and pygora from goats; camel down, alpaca, llama, vicuña, and guanaco, all from the camelid group; angora from angora rabbits; bison or buffalo; yak; and qiviut from the musk ox.
Silk comes in more than one variety, including bombyx and tussah. Judith MacKenzie also reminds us that spider silk and fan mussel silk are also protein fibers that were used historically (albeit rarely).
bombyx silk cocoons
2-ply sport weight handspun tussah silk yarn, dyed
Now we've got a new category of protein fibers manufactured from natural materials but in a totally artificial way that no handspinner could reproduce on her or his own, and many of these new protein fibers originate with plants, not animals. While most of these fibers seem new even today, scientists figured out how to create a number of them more than a century ago. The proteins in peanut and soybean can be chemically manipulated to make protein-based fibers from plants. Chitin, from the exoskeletons of some shellfish and beetles, falls more into the animal camp, and milk/casein fiber (sometimes sold as "soy latte") blurs the line even more.
Protein fibers tend to have some characteristics in common, many positive and others not so much. On the plus side, protein fibers have a "warm" feel and continue to hold heat when wet. They also tend to be elastic and have good shape retention, but this doesn't apply to the manufactured protein fibers, which behave more like plant-based fibers with a shiny surface, a nice drape, and much less elasticity. Protein fibers are generally easy to dye with synthetic (acid) or natural dyes. On the down side, keratin-based protein fibers can fall prey to moths and carpet beetles and tend not to be as strong as cellulose fibers.
Traditional cellulose fibers have been used since prehistoric times: flax, hemp, ramie, cotton, and countless local plants that spinners discovered by experimenting with what grew in their area. While plant fibers are not as popular among spinners today, some fiber historians believe that ancient spinners worked with plant fibers long before they began to experiment with animal fibers. There are three types of natural cellulose fibers used for yarn and cordage: bast, from the plant's stems; seed, from the plant's seeds; and leaf fibers, from -- you guessed it -- the plant's leaves. The seed fiber we all know and love is cotton, but milkweed seed and kapok seed fibers are others.
naturally colored organic cotton
Bast fibers include flax, hemp, ramie, nettle, jute, and milkweed (the stems have fiber, too). Leaf fibers, though not commonly used by handspinners anymore, are a testament to the cleverness of spinners throughout the world: coir (from coconut husks), yucca, and sisal, to name a few. You won't find most of these plants in spinnable form at your local fiber festival, but adventurous spinners who garden or travel can look out for them. If your curiosity is piqued, check out Rita Buchanan's fascinating chapter on common and uncommon plant fibers in A Weaver's Garden.
We also have a variety ofmanufactured, or regenerated, cellulose fibers available to spinners as well: rayon (also called viscose, named after the manufacturing process), bamboo, lyocell (Tencel®), and Seacell®. Rayon and lyocell are created from wood pulp; likewise, bamboo fiber is not processed like bast fibers but manufactured from a cellulose pulp made from the plants. Seacell® is created from the cellulose in seaweed. According to Judith MacKenzie, all these fibers should be classed as "rayon". The strong chemical process required to break down the fibers and make them smooth and soft removes all the unique properties of the original fiber, so there's really no bamboo-ness left in the bamboo. This also means they're not very eco-friendly, thanks to those chemicals. However, the fiber source is often a waste product (in the case of wood pulp) or a quick-growing plant that requires very little chemical fertilizer to produce a good crop (bamboo), which does help to even out the eco equation.
dyed corn fiber
Some cellulose fibers are sugar based, like corn and (not surprisingly) sugar cane. Other fibers defy classification -- those made from minerals, like crushed pearls or jadeite -- and these fibers are often blended with one of the rayons, like bamboo, to make them more workable.
Cellulose fibers tend to be "cool" to the touch and feel good in warm weather. They are also strong and easy to care for since most of them can be machine washed (cellulose fibers will not felt). If you are looking for drape, cellulose fibers can help you get there. On the negative side, cellulose fibers lack the elasticity of natural protein fibers so you have to compensate by planning your project to prevent droop. They are also more challenging to dye: they can be dyed with fiber reactive dyes and some natural dyes, but they do not absorb dyes easily.
Handspinners don't often work with synthetic fibers, perhaps because we like the connection to natural materials. But synthetic fibers are becoming more readily available. Most synthetic spinning fibers such as faux cashmere, angora, and mohair are nylon. Nylon also shows up blended with superwash wool for spinning yarn for socks and other hard-wearing items. The other synthetics that we see often are metallics such as Firestar (nylon again) and Angelina fibers (mylar). Louet White Icicle top is another nylon that can be added for sparkle.
While I tend to spin my natural fibers straight up most of the time, I find that synthetics and manufactured fibers are often useful in blends. I've tried spinning bamboo, corn, and soy into fine, lace-weight two-ply yarns, but they are very slippery and make a relatively heavy, inelastic yarn that would be best for something like a lace scarf or shawlette. But blended with wool for elasticity and shape retention, these same fibers add shine and softness. For example, soy or milk fibers can stand in for silk as a less expensive alternative in a wool or alpaca blend. The challenge with blending different fibers is to keep in mind their origins -- protein, cellulose, or synthetic -- and properties to create a yarn that does what you want it to do. It might seem that blending protein and cellulose fibers will give you the best of both worlds -- shape retention and drape, warmth and strength -- and some blends do work that way. But sampling is key. If you mix protein and cellulose fibers, keep in mind that they take different kinds of dyes and care. Protein fibers (and nylon) take acid dyes while cellulose fibers require fiber reactive dyes. A flax/corn blend can't be ironed or boiled like a regular linen yarn because the corn will melt. Likewise, the bamboo in a wool/bamboo blend can't be dyed with acid dyes because bamboo is a cellulose fiber.
One way around fibers that take different kinds of dyes is to dye the fiber before it's spun and then blend, or use commercially dyed fiber to make your blends. Yarn can also be dyed twice: once for each component. Another option is to use the incompatibility as a design element: blend a protein fiber and a cellulose fiber, dye the protein component with acid dyes, and the cellulose fibers will stay their natural color, adding a heathery effect. As always, sampling with small amounts before launching into a full-fledged project may be time consuming but can save you frustration and heartache in the long run.
Where can you find out more about the properties and origins of protein, cellulose, and synthetic fibers? For an introduction to spinning bast fibers, click here and here. For info about silk cultivation and spinning, click here and here. Get ready to make some unusual blends after reading this and this.
Lee Juvan learned to spin on a walking wheel
when she was twelve in a summer workshop at
Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts. She
bought her own wheel in 1990, and she's
been at it since then. Lee is the designer
of several patterns published in Knitty, including Shroom and Shelburne.