Thursday, September 16, 2010

Yarn of Fiber... or Fiber of Yarn?

When I began knitting as a child, I loved studying how a single strand of yarn could be woven through and around itself to create texture, pattern, stretch, and shape. Even now, 26 years and millions of stitches later, I am still fascinated and amazed by this art. The history of knitting and crocheting and their predecessor arts, such as naalbinding, is very interesting.

Oetzi Iceman's Shoes

Textile development is one of the primary factors in a society's technological evolution. Anthropologists study it in detail. This study goes beyond the mere method of weaving to include the type of material of which the textile is composed. Our ancestors wore a variety of things, including be not limited to leather, assorted plants, wood, feathers, and hair. The clothing of the famous Oetzi Iceman are a nice example. Our modern textiles are not so very different from those of yesteryear, though, perhaps more refined and sometimes augmented with synthetic materials.

As a child, I was limited to the budget that my allowance, babysitting, and lawn mowing money would allow when came to buying yarn. This meant that I typically stuck with the standard Red Heart acrylic worsted yarn. I splurged on the yarn I used to knit my mom a sweater for Christmas one year. I went with Caron Dazzleaire, which seemed so much softer than the Red Heart worsted.  Mom still wears that sweater to this day.

As an environmental engineer, an eco-conscience woman, and a whole and organic foods nut, I am quite interested in natural fibers. This along with my interest in history and my knitting has led me to experiment with different yarns over the last year. My stash is developing into quite an eclectic assortment.

Synthetic Fibers

Red Heart Super Saver - 100% Acrylic

Acrylic is the modern synthetic most extensively used in yarn today. With modern spinning techniques some acrylics are very soft and comfortable to wear.  There are quite a few yarns that blend natural fibers with acrylics.  I freely admit that most of stash is acrylic or a blend which includes acrylic.  Acrylics are typically machine washable and safe to put in the dryer.  They are also hard to beat when it comes to price.

Nylon is a common addition to yarn.  It is strong, durable, and lightweight.  It also has a nice stretchy quality.  You see it in a lot of sock yarns but it's in other types of yarn as well.

Polyester is a also a common addition to yarn and is easy to care for.  The new glamour yarns and fun furs are often polyester or a blend thereof.

Caron Dazzleaire - 80% Acrylic, 20% Nylon

The use of rayon has increased over the last decade. Technically, rayon is not a synthetic because it is produced from naturally occurring polymers found in cellulose fiber. I saw a yarn this week that indicated it's rayon was produced from bamboo but really it could come from any cellulose source. It is, however, a man-made material and thus, in my mind does not qualify as natural. 

I am sure there are a plethora of other synthetics used these days but these are the ones I see the most often.

Animal Fibers

Swish Worsted - 100% Superwash Merino Wool

As a knitter, I have a great appreciation for wool. It is a truly wonderful fiber. Even the Iceman had it in his clothing; so humans have been appreciating wool for at least 5000 years. Wool is flame retardant and will keep you warm even when it wet.  As the mother of two small children, I also value machine washability and a great many wools are hand wash only, unless you are looking to felt your knitted item.  I am still experimenting with brands and types but I picked up some Knit Picks Swish Worsted, a superwash 100% merino wool, the other day and it is my new favorite.

Cashmere and mohair come from goats. They have very similar properties to wool but are more luxurious and soft. Definitely a high end yarn. You will see these included in yarn blends as well. Very nice stuff, though unfortunately I don't have any in my stash.

Silk is also at the high end of the yarn spectrum for me. So far I have not knitted with it and really haven't planned any projects for which it would be appropriate. It is supposed to be a good insulator in the winter, though I think I'll stick with wool. It's also supposed to keep you cool in the summer, so maybe I'll do a summer shell out of silk some day. At the moment, I'm too interested in exploring wool, though I have seen some silk-wool blends worth drooling over.

Alpaca, llama, camel, and angora are all wonderful fibers that are often used to create some wonderful fiber blends in yarn. Angora is a rabbit fur which has been used in yarn making for a long time. It's bunny softness is a nice mix with wool; but it's always handwash only and definitely more expensive. Though alpaca, llama, and camel have been used in textile making in their native lands for thousands of years, they are relatively new additions to the main stream international yarn market. These fibers have a hollow core which adds to their insulating value. I have an alpaca blend in my stash, that I picked up on sale, waiting to become a cabled winter cowl. It's wonderfully soft stuff.

Plant Fibers
Tahki Cotton Classic - 100% Cotton

Cotton is the most prevalent plant fiber used in textile making in the world. I admit I like knitting with cotton. I haven't experimented much with different kinds or brands of cotton but I probably will. It's just a very comfortable yarn. So far I've only used the standard Peaches & Creme and Sugar'n Cream brands in my work but I do have some Tahki Cotton Classic in my stash waiting for the right project to come along.

Linen fiber comes from the flax plant. The Egyptians used the amazing flax plant much the same way the American Plains Indian used the buffalo. No part of the plant went to waste. Thus, woven linen fabric has been around for thousands of years. I have yet to see a linen based yarn but I know it exists. Maybe some day I'll get to try it.

The Wool Peddler 100% Hemp Yarn
Hemp may just be my next favorite fiber. This much maligned plant does not deserve the odious reputation with which it has been saddled thanks to it's cousin marijuana. Hemp was once a wonderful cash crop from which an incredible number of goods were made: rope, canvas ships' sails, paper, cloth, and yarn just to name a few. Any products made from hemp sold in the USA these days are generally imported from Canada or Europe. Hemp is wonderful fiber. It is extremely durable, strong, and mildew resistant. Modern fabrics and yarn made from it are similar in texture to that of linen. So far I've only incorporated hemp twine into my knitting for home spa items. If I can find some hemp yarn that doesn't break the bank in cost, I will be knitting with it.

I am curious about bamboo. I've been drooling over some bamboo yarn I saw the other day but so far have resisted the urge to add it to my stash. It is lovely, soft, fuzzy stuff just begging to be a baby hat. Bamboo has antibacterial and ultra violet protective properties as well. The down side is that it all seems to be hand wash only and, I've heard, that it can be splitty making it more difficult to knit.

Soy is another new fiber I've read about. I have not had the opportunity to look at or feel yarn made from soy protein but it's an interesting idea and it does come from a renewal resource.

There are a whole host of other fibers available, both man-made and natural. I've even heard of people spinning their own yarn out of cat and dog hair. As my journey in knitting continues, I am certainly looking forward to trying as many different things as I can. Who knows perhaps I'll take up spinning and create my own fiber blends and yarn.

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