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It is summer. Summersummersummer. Warm breezes, cool beaches, drinks in pineapples with little back scratchers, and something else. Summer means but one thing to strange, scary people like me. Plants. Or more specifically, plant fibers. Cotton, linen, ramie, even raffia, if you’re feeling wild and crazy. For plant freaks, the yarn is almost as much fun as the knitting itself. Ever wondered what the difference was between fibers? What plant does it come from? Why is linen so tough; why is ramie so soft? What the #$*% is pima cotton? Gather ‘round, boys and girls, and the knitting plant freak will tell you.


There are lots of ways to classify plant fibers [just as there are lots of ways to classify plants, but you really, really don’t want me to get started on that], so let’s look at the fibers according to what part of the plant they come from. Then we’ll do the expected “linen-cotton-everything else” analysis.

Bast fibers are some of the strongest fibers in nature. They are also some of the oldest; linen has been used for at least ten thousand years in Europe, and hemp in China for a similar amount of time. They are the fibers from the stems of plants and are literally the connective tissues that hold the plant together. If you remember your biology classes (yeah, I don’t either…keep reading), they talked about xylem, the long plant cells that move water around the plant. That is what bast fibers are -- the xylem, removed and spun into thread, string, or yarn, if you can call something that unforgiving yarn [I’m not sure I can]. Linen and hemp are about the only bast fibers you’ll find available in a knitting yarn. Other plant bast fibers are yucca, agave (the same plant that tequila comes from – have a drink, weave a mat), and New Zealand Flax, which isn’t really a flax but a relative of the agave. This stuff is so strong, the rest of the plant is rotted away from around it as an early processing step. Ramie is similar to a bast fiber, but the plant tissue used is from the leaf, not the stem. That makes the processing easier, but the fibers shorter and more fragile.

Seed hairs are the main type of fiber used today in plant-fiber-based textiles. And there is only one plant that produces seed hairs long enough to be useful: cotton. Over ten thousand years, on three continents, domesticated varieties have been selected and re-selected for long, strong fibers. But the next time you knit with cotton, remember that botanically speaking you’re knitting with a sort of afterthought part of the plant that doesn’t serve a whole lot of purpose other than making the plant attractive enough to humans to get us to spread it over six continents. Hmm. Maybe that’s enough purpose after all.


Raffia, a fiber from an African palm tree, is traditionally woven but lately has been knit into bags, hats, and belts. Does knitting with palm tree fibers say summer knitting, or what? Fronds are shed in long, paper-like strips, and used pretty much as-is. It’s not exactly a bast fiber, but it’s not exactly anything else, either. We’ll put it into the botanical freak category.

So what does all this botany tell us? [It’s not that much botany. Do you see any taxonomic names up there? No. And there’s only one technical term, xylem, and it made more sense than ‘those vascular thingies’. It took a lot of effort on my part to leave them out, and you’re welcome. Plants are cool. Go look it up.] When we look at how the plants create the fibers, we can learn something about the yarn and what to expect from it. There is a point to this, other than my plant freakishness. Honest.

People hate linen, and I’ll tell you why. It’s a bast fiber. The very toughness of the fiber that makes it so sturdy is what makes it such a you-know-what to work with in the first place. The fibers are very, very long, and they are stronger wet than dry. If you want something indestructible in the washing machine, this is your fiber. If you do knit something from linen, make it a classic that you’ll wear forever, because linen is a fiber that needs to age. And age. And age some more. Preferably over a period of decades. The more it is tortured, the softer it gets. At one point in traditional Irish linen manufacture, the linen is pounded with sticks to soften it. So cut the poor fiber some slack and don’t be mad at it for being less than perfect right off the needles.


Same goes for hemp, which is also a bast fiber. Yes, hemp does come from Cannabis sativa [had to get a taxonomic name in there]. The plant has male and female versions. The best hemp fibers are from the male variation of the plant. Those are the ones regularly weeded out of grow rooms world wide. It’s so nice to know that each gender of the plant serves a fine purpose.

At any rate, hemp is, by all accounts, nearly as hard to knit with as linen, and just as indestructible. So again, let the poor fiber age a bit before you decide you hate it.

Knowing what I do about bast fibers, I have considered skeining hemp or linen yarn and running it through the wash ten or fifty times before trying to knit with it, to see if that helps. Can’t hurt; the stuff won’t die.

And this brings us to cotton. Ah, cotton. The mainstay of summer knitting for most of us -- the pretty colors, the coolness, the crispness that shows lace, the fuzziness that will hide mistakes. The totally confusing list of species, cultivars, commercially grown crops, and other corporate hoo-hah.

Do you have any idea how screwed up the natural history of cotton is?


There are four species of cotton that are domesticated. [Five, actually, but the fifth is grown in Hawaii as an ornamental shrub and not used for textiles at all, so it doesn’t count.] Two species of cotton were domesticated in the Old World -- one in India, and one in South Africa. Both those species had very short fibers, which made them difficult to work with. They were almost instantly replaced by new, improved New World variations. [Do you want the taxonomic names? Hah. Didn’t think so.] The upland Central American version is said to be predominant today, and that may be true, at least in woven textiles. It has a long fiber and is easy to grow. The other species, Gossypium barbadense [hah, slipped another one in], is the species that we, the summer knitters, encounter most often. It’s got a long fiber and is very white, making dying easy. Sea Island Cotton? Pima cotton? Egyptian? Peruvian? All variations of good old G. barbadense . This is the problem for plant freaks, though; after an amazing amount of online research, I’ve been unable to figure out if all those are separate cultivars, regional variations, or some other botanical weirdness. Pima cotton is named after the Pima Indians of Arizona who helped grow the first hybrids of that kind. Sea Island is called such because it’s grown in the Caribbean. Peruvian, ditto, it’s grown there. Anyone want to explain how the heck a new world species got named “Egyptian”, I’d love to hear it; no one’s talking on that score. But to non-plant freaks, it hardly matters, and I know you don’t really care. All you need know is that’s the good stuff.

Mercerized cotton refers to a chemical process that strengthens the fibers and can technically be done to any type of cotton fiber. It’s like superwash wool; the treatment process doesn’t change the original quality, or lack of quality, of the fibers. Just alters them slightly.

Ramie is related to nettles, which is interesting [it is too!] because nettle fibers were used like linen in Northern Europe and woven. Used so well, in fact, that it faked out museum curators for an embarrassing length of time; suddenly a lot of linen shirts got relabeled as nettle shirts. Unfortunately, Ramie’s shorter fibers make it fragile for knitting, and so it is spun with other fibers, usually cotton. If you can find it. I’ve never seen it by the skein, only in commercially knit sweaters, already made. It does soften the cotton and keep it from getting ‘crunchy’, though it adds a fuzziness I’ve never been sure I liked. It’s rather like the angora of the plant world.

Our Weirdness Mention Prize goes to the new rice paper yarn coming out of Japan. That is made from the pith of a small shrub [Tetrapanax papyriferus , hah! Slipped another one in!] that is, ironically, unrelated to rice. The slices of pith -- cross sections of the entire stem, not just the connective bits like in bast fibers -- are laid across themselves and then pounded to felt them together, rather like making tapa or papyrus or vegetable felt, depending on your history classes and cultural heritage. It is then sliced and rolled into ‘yarn’.

Now let’s all get looking and find some really fascinating chunk of plant, be it stem, seed hair, or mystery part, and knit some wonderful sweaters! If you use wooden needles, you can feel all stone-age and stuff. [‘Course knitting wasn’t around in the stone age, but that’s another article.]

P.S. The taxonomic name of the flax plant is Linum usitatissiumum. So there.

Web sites I found helpful during research, that you might also enjoy, are listed below: This one is particularly nice for photos of relevant plants and fairly straightforward explanation.



Julie Theaker doesn’t know where she lives at the moment.

When she isn’t knitting, reading, or writing, she takes classes on botany and anthropology at whatever school will admit her.