There are many different
types of fiber to tantalize the fingertips as you work them. A brief description of some of these fibers
is listed below:
ALPACA – Alpaca is one
of the three lama species and a relative of the camel. These animals are native to South America,
where they were domesticated in the upper reaches of the Andes mountains for
their long, silky-soft hair. Today, alpaca is usually found in natural colors
of off white, gray, fawn, and reddish, light and dark browns, and 99% of the
world’s alpaca population is found in Bolivia, Chile and Peru. There are two varieties of alpaca: “suri” and
“huacaya.” Suri alpacas are delicate
animals with long locks of hair that hang almost to the ground. Their hair his thinner and has a higher oil
content than the huacayas, which are strong animals with shorter, spongier
Llamas evolved in South America almost 2 million
years ago, and archaeozoological evidence states that both llamas and alpacas
were domesticated approximately 6,000-7,000 years ago in the high Andes
mountains. By 3,800 years ago their
coats had developed into two distinct fiber types as they trickled down the
mountains into Chile, and reached coastal cities between 400 and 100 BCE. The Incas used Alpacas from everything as a source
for fiber to central parts of their religious ceremonies. The invading Spanish Conquistadors failed to
utilize alpacas for their fiber, preferring the merino wool of their homeland,
so alpaca fiber was virtually unknown outside of South America until the mid
1800s. Sir Titus salt of London, England
re-discovered alpaca, noting that it was stronger than wool despite the
fineness of the staple tested. The
alpaca textiles produced by his mills began making their mark across Europe and
remained a common fabric in the apparel industry, but declined in popularity
during WWII. Today, it is popular in the
US with handspinners and weavers, but its main markets are in Japan and Western
ANGORA – Angora can
refer to one of two fibers: hair from angora rabbits or wool from angora goats
(see MOHAIR). Angora rabbits, commonly
bred in the US and Britain, yield a soft, fine fur from three to five inches
in length that is harvested by clipping, brushing or plucking annually. As the
hairs of angora are so fine, they are often blended with other fibers, usually
with wool or cotton.
There are four main breeds of
Angora rabbit: English, French, Satin and Giant, all of which are utilized for
fiber production. Angora rabbits are
believed to have originated in Turkey, and were bred by the French nobility as
pets as early as 1723. The rabbits were
exported to the US and Canada in the late 1920s. English and French were the original breeds,
with both Satin and Giant recognized as breeds in the 1980s.
CAMEL – Camel hair
usually refers to the downy undercoat shed by camels, although a blend of
undercoat and guard hairs are also available for spinning. There are two types of camels – the dromedary
(one-humped) camel of the Arabian deserts and the bactrian (two-humped) camel
of Asia. The hair was gathered as the
camels shed their winter undercoats in the springtime by a person who followed
behind the caravan, picking up the tufts of hair as they were shed. Because the fiber is so light yet has
incredible insulation capacity, it is rather expensive in it’s 100% pure state
(down only, with no long guard hairs).
The camel hair coats and sweaters of the 70s were not always 100% camel,
but were often blended with wool, mohair, tussah silk or other fibers to keep
costs down. Beware of low-priced camel
fabric or fiber - if it’s super soft and expensive and comes from a reputable
dealer, you’ve probably got the pure hair.
If it seems coarse or inexpensive, think twice before buying.
Both species of camels are
well adapted to heat and dehydration loss through specialized biological
processes involving water consumption, circulation, and extraction from
ingested material. Dromedary camels were
domesticated prior to 3000 BCE in the Arabian peninsula by the nomadic Semitic
cultures. During the Moslem conquests of
Egypt in the 7th to 11th centuries CE they became an
important domestic animal and were used for transporting goods, passengers, and
even for racing. The bactrian camels
were domesticated slightly later, around 2500 BCE. They were found in southern Russia by the 16th
century BCE and western Siberia by the 10th century BCE. They were in use in China as early as 300 BCE
as the original transportation for the silk route, but were later replaced by
camels cross-bred between the two species for better endurance.
CASHMERE – Cashmere,
popularized by the fine knitted “cashmere shawls” that could be pulled through
a finger ring in Victorian England, comes from the long, downy underhair of the
Himalayan goats raised in Kashmir, India as well as Iraq, Iran and Tibet. As these are only plucked or brushed out, the
fiber is also quite expensive, and is often blended with wool. Pure cashmere is light brown in color, and
silky-smooth to the touch.
COTTON – Cotton is the seed fiber of the cotton plant (Gossypium
sp.), that grows in warm, humid climates with 3-5” or annual rain. The plants grow to flower in 80-100 days,
then take an additional 55-80 days for the seeds to form and the cotton boll to
open. Cotton is usually divided into three grades based on the length of the
cotton fibers, which determine the quality: extra-long fibers (longer than 1
3/8 inches), that are usually finer and more lustrous like Egyptian and Sea
Island cotton; long (1 ¼ inches) varieties like Pima cotton; medium-length
staples (up to 1 inch) like Upland and Aacala cottons produced in America; and
short fibers that usually are Asian varieties.
There are also several different colored breeds of cotton including a
variety of green and brown shades.
was grown in the Indus Valley as early as 3000 BCE, and was known in Egypt in
the 3rd Century BCE. The
first mention of cotton on Western European history comes from the Greek
historian Herodotus, who mentions the tiny “lambs” on the plants of India that
produce cotton, a misconception survived into the 14th century. In fact the German name for cotton
“baumwoole” translates into “tree-wool.”
Cotton awnings appeared in Rome in 63 BCE, but was not grown in Europe
until 150 CE when the Greeks began to cultivate it at Ellis. Arab traders brought cotton as far as Spain,
and Spain and Sicily became major cotton centers by the 10th
century. Cotton was considered a luxury
fabric in Europe as it was imported and usually dyed or painted before it was
shipped. Cotton was also valued because
of the brightness and colorfastness of the dyes used to color it, and also for
its use in making candle wicks. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, all cotton
fabric made in Europe was woven with linen warps as people felt cotton was not
strong enough for warp threads.
Cotton comes in a
variety of forms for spinning and dyeing:
BOLL – cotton right off
the plant with seeds still attached.
LINT – cotton that has
been removed from the boll and ginned to break up and remove the seeds.
SLIVER – cotton that has
been combed into top for spinning.
CARDED ROVING –cotton
that has been carded into roving.
PUNI – cotton that has
been carded on hand cards and rolled off into tight rolags, ready to spin.
LAMBSWOOL – Lambswool
should refer to the first “virgin” shearing of a lamb, which is usually done
around 7 months of age. This is usually
the softest wool the sheep will ever produce.
Sometimes the lamb is sheared twice in its’ first year and again when it
is a year and a half – these second and third shearings are often passed off as
lambswool as well.
LINEN – Linen is the product of the bast fibers of the flax plant, (Linum
usitatisimum) that run the length of the stem of the plant. The plant stems must be “retted” in water to
allow the gum that adheres the fibers together to be freed from the rest of the
woody stem material, then the brittle straw can be broken and cleared away in a
process called “breaking and scutching”.
Once the woody material has been stripped from the fibers, the fibers
must be “hackled” or combed, to remove any remaining small pieces of woody
material, align the long fibers, and separate out any short fibers. The long fibers that remain are called “line”
and are usually sold in a “strick” (bundle of fibers) and usually need to be
dressed on a distaff to hold the fibers while spinning. The shorter fibers removed by hackling, which
are still spinnable, are called “tow.”
Both line and tow can be wetted and smoothed between the fingers when
spun so as to loosen the gummy matter that binds the overlapping cells of flax
and cement them together, making for a smoother, stronger yarn. Compared with other fibers, linen has little
degree of elasticity and extremely long fibers, which can make it challenging
to spin. Once woven into cloth it does resist bending, making it prone to
wrinkling and creasing. On the other
hand, linen is a fairly strong and wear-resistant fiber - it gets 20% stronger
when it is wet. It is also an excellent
conductor of heat and thus keeps the wearer cool in hot weather.
Fragments of flax in
stages from seeds and straw to fabrics have been found in the remains of Swiss
lake dwellings dating from 8000 BCE.
Very fine fabrics with threadcounts nearing 500 wpi made from linen (or
shenu in Egyptian) have been discovered in Egyptian tombs dating back to the 7th
century BCE, and tomb paintings dating back to 1900 BCE depict people
separating, preparing, and spinning flax fibers. Phoencian traders brought linen to France,
Belgium and Britain from the Mediterranean. Romans discovered flax fields and linen cloth
when they invaded those lands in 57 BCE, and quickly introduced flax
cultivation throughout their empire.
Flanders became one of the largest centers of linen production in the 16th
century, and flax was spun along with hemp in households to produce cloth in
Europe, Russia and Scandinavia until the Industrial revolution. In the 17th
century other large production centers sprang up in England, Ireland, Scotland
and the Netherlands, where some of the best flax fibers still come from to this
Flax for spinning
usually comes in two forms:
LINE – the longest
fibers from the flax plant, separated by a process known as hackling. These fibers can reach upwards of 2-3 feet in
length, and usually need to be spun from a distaff to keep them from
clumping. It is often sold in a long
twisted package, known as strick.
TOW – the shorter bast
fibers separated from the strick by hackling.
They usually produce a coarser, harrier yarn than spinning line. Spinning these fibers while frequently
wetting your hands in water so you can wet the yarn as you spin it will reduce
the hairy tendencies.
MOHAIR – Mohair from
the angora goat is a long and shiny hair that is often used to make hair for
dolls and bards for Santa Claus costumes.
Angora usually has a staple length of four to 12 inches, and is light
and fluffy to the touch. It is also
extremely durable when spun and woven tightly, and is remarkable
crease-resistant. It is often found in
“fuzzy” bright colored garments, as it has a wonderful affinity to take dyes.
The angora is said to have originated in the
mountains of Tibet, although they are named after Angora (today known as
Ankara), the capital city of Turkey. The
word mohair comes from the ancient Arabic “mukhaya,” meaning “cloth of bright
goat hair.” Records dating back to the
11th century show mohair being used to create fabric for clothing
among the Sumer people of Turkistan. In
the 13th century when Genghis Kahn drove Suleyman Shah out of
Turkoman lands, he and his family drove his flocks of angora goats each day
towards the Euphrates river. Although he
perished while trying to cross the river, his son Ertugul managed to reach the
city of Konya and became a subject of Sultan Aladdin. The Sultan granted him with lands stretching
from Ankara to Kayseri, so there the goats settled. In 1554 a pair of angora goats were sent as a
gift to the Holy Roman Emperor, and the demand for the fabulous fleece soon
outstripped supply. The Sultan of Turkey
was forced to put an embargo on the export of raw fleece, thus only allowing
spun yarn to enter foreign markets.
Queen Victoria finally put enough pressure on the Sultan to get the ban
on raw Mohair lifted, but soaring demand caused many herders to cross-breed
their flocks, thus diluting the purity of the species. In the late 1700s many attempts were made to
export the goats to Sweden, Venice, Germany and England, but all attempts to
introduce the goats failed until they reached South Africa in the 1830s. By 1856 South Africa became an important
supplier of high quality Mohair, and remains to this day along with Turkey and
the state of Texas.
SILK – Silk is a
fiber produced by the silkworm (which is really a caterpillar) as it spins a
cocoon around itself for protection during it’s evolutionary transformation
from worm to moth. Although there are many insects that produce a fibrous
cocoon, the only ones used in the silk industry are those produced by the
cultivated mulberry silk moth, Bombyx mori. For six weeks, newly-hatched silkworms feed
continuously on mulberry leaves – a newly-hatched silkworm will multiply its
weight 10,000 times within one month.
Once they have stored up enough energy to enter the pupae stage, they
produce a jelly-like substance in their silk glands, which solidifies when it
comes into contact with air - the cocoon is spun out of one continuous thread
of silk from 600-900 meters long, taking anywhere from 4 to 8 days to
complete. The amount of useable silk is
extremely small – it takes roughly 550 silkworms to produce 1 kg (2.2 lbs.) of
raw silk. (Microsoft Encarta,
1995.) After the cocoons have been
gathered, they are boiled or treated in ovens to kill the worm inside by heat. The cocoons are heated in boiling water to
dissolve the gummy substance that holds the filament in place so that the
fibers can be loosened and spun.
Silk is one of the oldest
known fibers used in textile production, and has been in use as far back as the
27th century BCE according to Chinese tradition. China carefully
guarded the secret of the origin and processing of silk until emigrants to
Korea, Japan, and later India, brought the secret with them in 200 BCE -300
CE. Prior to this time, anyone caught
revealing the secrets or smuggling the silkworm eggs or cocoons out of China
could be punished by death. It is
theorized that all silk woven in Europe came from Asia until 552 CE, until two
Nestorian monks on a mission to Asia returned to Byzantium with silkworm eggs
and mulberry seeds hidden inside their bamboo walking sticks. The earliest silk was imported from China,
and trickled across Persia and northern Europe as early as 400-600 BCE. A major silk-weaving centers formed in the
Near East in the 3-4th centuries using silk imported from China to
Persia along the Silk Road, the largest-scale silk trade route in the world,
which started around 140 BCE. In the late Middle Ages, important silk
manufacturing centers were set up in Spain, France and Italy. These manufacturing centers soon became the
centers of dye technology, as silk was dyed using the highest quality dyes
There are several different
varieties of silk:
NOIL – Noil is the silk from
the innermost part of the silk cocoon, and can be purchased in lustrous,
SHANTUNG – Shantung silks are
produced by wild silkworms, and often have irregular fibers that are great to
use when spinning textured yarns.
TUSSAH – tussah silk can come
in a variety of honey colors, which are determined by the amount of tannin in
the leaves that the worms eat
VICUNA – Vicuna is the
hair from the wild member of the South American camel family, and a close
relative to the alpaca. It is light
cinnamon brown in color, and is extraordinary for its soft and lofty fibers. Vicuna is reported by many to be the
softest, finest and most expensive natural fiber in the world, as well it
should be – the animals must be killed to get their fur, and were hunted almost
to the brink of extinction for their hair.
Now that they are a protected species, the fiber is extremely rare and
QUIVIOT – Quiviot is the
fiber from the downy undercoat of the musk ox.
Quiviot is very soft and warm.
Quiviot is also quite expensive, selling upwards of $10 & $20 an
ounce depending on the quality and how de-haired the fiber is. It is also often sold as a blend with either
cashmere, merino or silk.
WOOL – Wool, a protein-based fiber produced by sheep, has been
found in Europe dating back to 2000 BCE.
Sheep were domesticated almost 8000 years ago. Wool garments were worn in Babylon as early
as 4000 BCE, and clay tablets from 2500 BCE mention the Mespotamians’ and
Sumerians’ activities in trading wool with nearby peoples. In the second millennium BCE the nomadic
horsemen of the Asian steppes wore wool pants and coats as they made their way
into the Near East, and Phoenecian traders spread wool throughout the
Mediterranean areas in the following centuries.
The Romans bought wool with them as they spread to the
British Isles and to Spain
during the reign of Claudius, where selective breeding and an ideal climate
produced the Merino breed, one of the softest varieties of wool in the
world. Merino was so highly prized by
the Spanish that anyone caught smuggling a merino sheep outside of the country
would be put to death. In 1786 the
Merino finally reached France, where Louis XVI began raising and interbreeding
them on his Estate at Rambouillet, this establishing another fine, soft variety
quickly became one of England’s economic mainstays, and England and Spain were
the two major competitors supplying wool to Europe. Edward III of England forbade the export of
raw wool from England and the wearing of foreign-manufactured wool garments,
and by 1600 CE two-thirds of England’s foreign commerce was from wool
textiles. With the demand for wool cloth
growing rapidly, England began to branch out of country for new sources for raw
wool. South Africa and Australia soon
became major wool suppliers, with flocks (ironically) springing from a gift of
six merino sheep to the government of the Netherlands from the King of
Spain. It was a common medieval fabric
in both dyed and natural colors, and was processed by both professional
manufacturers and housewives. There are
a tremendous variety of breeds of wool that can have different fiber textures
Wool comes in a variety of
LOCK – wool right off the
sheep that has not been combed or carded is considered to be in “lock”
form. Sometimes it is raw from the
sheep, full of dirt, grease (lanolin), vegetable matter, and other interesting
things that sheep roll around in on the pastures and hillsides. This should be washed and picked out of the
fiber in order to facilitate spinning, although wool can be spun “in the
grease”, or right off the sheep.
ROLAG – Brushing wool fibers
back and forth on two hand cards will remove any shorter cuttings and debris,
as well as untangle the fibers to make them easier for spinning. When the quantity of wool is removed from a
hand card it is usually rolled off of the card from top to bottom, forming a
rolag, which is then ready to spin.
ROVING – Roving is formed
from the same basic process as carding, just on a machine that can produce a
continuous rolag. These machines can
card wool into roving that is ready to spin into woolen yarn.
TOP – After being carded, you
can pass the fibers through a device called a pin carder that will align the
fibers so that they are almost parallel with each other, allowing a spinner to
spin a more worsted yarn.
--. “About Alpacas.” Okanagan Alpaca Co. Ltd. www.okalpaca.com/camelidhistory.html.
--. “Angora Rabbit Breeds.” National Angora
Rabbit Breeders Club. http://members.aol.com/angorarabat/narbc.htm
--. “Angora Rabbits, Angora Fiber and Angora
Blended yarns.” Happy J Farms. www.happyjfarms.com/angora-rabbits.htm
--. “Mohair – A history.” International Mohair Association. www.int-mohiar.com/history.htm
Ed. “Alpaca History.” Rustic Pines Alpaca Farm. www.orwell.net/~edcook?history.htm
Eliza. Handspinning. New York: Macmillian. 1976.
Heather. A Beginner’s Guide to Natural
Dyeing. (in progress)
Jodi. Medieval Dyes. Loveland:
Spinning Madly. 1993. (7th printing, June 1999).
Linda. “Spinning with a Medieval Twist.” Compleat Anachronist, #87.
Society for the Creative Anachronism.