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Knit Like a Boss: A Dose of Fiber

Way back when we were learning the basics of knitting, I briefly mentioned fiber content. Now we’re going to get more into it, because it’s kind of important.

Fiber isn’t just something you need to eat so your poop is normal. It’s also the foundation of everything we do. The fiber content of your yarn can determine a lot about how the end product will turn out. It can effect how stretchy something is; how soft; if it’s machine washable; if it’s hypoallergenic or vegan; any of a number of things.

No matter what fiber you use, this will probably happen. Image via Natalie Dee.

Most patterns will recommend a yarn to use. If you can’t get that exact kind for whatever reason, you should try to substitute something of a similar fiber content. There’s a little bit of wiggle room, but you don’t want to try and use something vastly different and expect the right results. You may be able to substitute a blend instead of a pure fiber (this is nice, because blends are usually cheaper) but I wouldn’t try, for example, using a cotton-bamboo yarn when the pattern calls for a fuzzy alpaca.

It’s important to think about how the item will be used when you pick the yarn, too. You don’t want to use a delicate, hand-wash-only wool if you’re making something for a baby or pet. A sturdier, machine-washable acrylic or cotton would be smarter, so it can be tossed in the washer when something gross happens to it. Some people are allergic to wools, and many vegans will choose not to wear any fiber derived from an animal (silk, alpaca, wool).

So what are the fibers? Let me break it down for you (I’m not dancing as I type this, I swear).

Synthetics

Acrylic: Oh, cheap, plastic-y yarn, where would I be without you? Seriously, acrylics can be great as well as terrible. As I mentioned already, they’re machine-washable, so they’re great for anyone messy, and they’re really inexpensive. A large skein of Caron Simply Soft will run you about $6, while the same amount of a natural fiber will likely cost three or four times that.

There are some drawbacks, though. There are environmental factors to consider, though some brands make their yarns from recycled materials. But the feel is the issue. While Simply Soft has a pretty nice texture, some other brands (I’m looking at you, Red Heart) can feel extremely rough to the touch, and even squeak a little while you’re working with them.

Acrylic is vegan and good for someone with a wool allergy, however there have been cases where it can irritate the skin on someone with eczema.

Blends: Yarns that are a mixture of acrylic with something else, like wool or cotton, are a great compromise. Completely natural yarns can be kind of expensive, especially when you’re making a larger project, and mixing in a little of the fake stuff brings the price down.

Lion Brand makes a lot of blends.

You can also get yarn made from other synthetic materials like polyester, nylon and rayon. Sometimes a natural material like corn or milk (really!) can be manipulated into yarn.

Plant-Based Yarns for Hippies

OK, you don’t have to be a hippie to like plant-based fibers. It can’t hurt, though.

The touch, the feel, etc. We all know what cotton is. It can be a great fiber for certain projects. It’s usually soft. It’s vegan. It’s pretty durable and washable. But it won’t work for everything. It’s a great yarn to use if you really want the stitch pattern to shine, because you can really see everything. Be warned: you can really see everything. So watch for mistakes. Bamboo is another option, though it could be considered “bio-synthetic” instead of simply plant-based. It has pretty much the same advantages and drawbacks as cotton, but can be clingier and has more of a sheen to it.

Animal-Based Yarns for the Bloodthirsty

I know, I know. You don’t eat the animals that provide yarn. It’s mainly animals like sheep and alpacas, who get shaved down. Even still, if you’re knitting for someone who is vegan, check and see how they feel about wool. I know a lot won’t wear it at all, but others might be OK with it because the animal isn’t killed. There are also a lot of people with allergies who can’t wear wool. If in doubt, check with your intended recipient.

Wool: Comes from sheep, of course. There are many different kinds, named for the breed of the animal or the region they are from. There’s lamb’s wool, Shetland wool and Icelandic wool. Merino wool is widely accepted as one of the finest kinds. You can get wool that has been treated to become machine washable, but if you don’t, be careful. Wool will felt really easily if it’s hot, wet and agitated (hey-oh), so the washing machine is out. Hand wash only.

Alpaca: It’s made similarly to wool, but comes from the fur of the alpaca instead of a sheep. It’s extremely soft. I bought a big bag of alpaca yarn at a sale in the fall and was half tempted to just dump the balls on my bed and sleep on them instead of making anything. (I did end up using some of it. I’ve made a few hats from the stuff.)

Other fleeces, like angora and mohair, from goats, and angora, from rabbits, have different feels and uses. Animal fibers can be really fuzzy, and if they are it can be hard to make things out of intricate lace. If you’re going for fluff, stick to a simpler stitch.

Novelty Yarns for Pretty Much No One

Ever get that hideous sweater from a well-meaning relative that was so covered in furry stuff and bobbles that you couldn’t be seen in it in public? That was probably a novelty yarn. They do have their uses (Lion Brand’s Fun Fur is great on the hobbit booties I mentioned when we were talking about baby gifts), but please exercise discretion and caution.

Of course, without tacky novelty yarns, we wouldn't have this picture. (Via WilWheaton.net)

Faux fur, which is also known as “fun fur,” though that’s a specific brand and type, is exactly what you think. Little strands attached to the yarn that look like fur when you knit it up. Ribbon yarn is usually made of rayon. Bouclé is this weird, loopy, bumpy stuff that kind of looks like an acrylic poodle.

Proceed with caution.

By [E] Liza

PhD student. Knitter. Brooklynite. Long-distance dog mom. Reluctant cat lady. Majestic unicorn whose hair changes color with the wind.

5 replies on “Knit Like a Boss: A Dose of Fiber”

Knitting or crocheting, you might also find that some of the yarns interact with the hook/needles you’re using. I have a great set of metal crochet hooks which play well with most yarns, but a couple of older metal hooks get really squeaky with some acrylics. By contrast, anything slippery (bamboo, for example) works somewhat better with the older, more textured hooks.

I like some novelty yarns, like the super fluffy ones that don’t look like fake fur. Wool frustrates me because so many cool yarns are at least wool-ish and I can’t wear them at all. And my sister-in-law is a spinner who works almost exclusively with wool and she can’t spin me something cool.

Thank you for relegating novelty yarns to the end, where they belong. Blech.

Also thank you for a lovely breakdown of things to keep in mind about different fibers. Especially about cotton showing everything. I, uh, may have run into that with a cute little baby dress I made for my cousin out of mercerized cotton. Very shiny and pretty, also very obvious where I screwed up the waistline. Sigh. Ah well, the kid’s only 18 months, she doesn’t care.

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