Series: All About Animal Fibers

As you already know from previous posts, I have been collaborating with Colinton Australia and as promised, I want to share with you in a series the things I’ve learned as I’ve been working. I had a little crash course in working with mohair when I was designing Urban Lines, but I wanted to start by sharing with you what I’ve learned about animal fibers in general. I realized how important it is to understand the properties of different fibers and how much this knowledge will help you achieve a successful final outcome of a project.

Until I started working on this design and learning from Colinton, I did not realize that animal fibers can be separated into two basic categories. Even though they are all made from animal hairs, just as with human hair, they have different properties. There are the fibers, wool being the most well-known and popular, that have memory and those that do not, such as mohair. To say a fiber has memory means that when you wash it, it will “bounce back” to its original shape when it dries. The fibers without memory can be blocked aggressively and will hold whatever shape you block them to when they dry. Because I made Urban Lines with a luxury fiber, I wanted to get the most out of my yardage, and the pattern is written with aggressive blocking in mind.

Whether a yarn has memory or not depends on the structure of the fiber itself. Sheep’s wool has lots of crimp, which gives it the characteristics of being elastic and retaining memory, even after blocking. Other fibers with good crimp are yak and qiviut. Both are more expensive because like cashmere, they are produced from the underdown of the animals (qiviut is from the muskox) and therefore take alot of work to harvest. The animals don’t produce alot of it, which also raises its value. But if you are allergic to wool and looking for suitable substitutes, they are good options and are considered to be heirloom fibers because of their rarity.

Mohair, angora, and alpaca are very straight fibers, and therefore do not have elasticity. They are extremely responsive to dyes, have lots of lustre, and will retain whatever shape they are blocked into. People often confuse mohair and angora because mohair is made from angora goats. However, angora itself is from the Angora rabbit. Cashmere is another goat fiber, but is made only from the soft down combed from underneath the goat’s more coarse exterior hair.

Mohair is much stronger than angora and cashmere, and also cheaper. Angora and cashmere will retain whatever shape you block them into, but it is harder to find them in pure form because they are often blended with other fibers to keep costs down and give them a little more strength. Alpaca has the same properties of being blockable and retaining its shape. It is very soft in its own right, but if you are looking for something finer like angora, baby alpaca is a good alternative. If you buy blends of these fibers mixed with wool, then you will not get the same results when blocking.

Looking back over the course of my project experiences, this information explains alot about the projects that didn’t quite turn out right, even when my gauge was spot on. I am the queen of substituting yarns – in fact, I don’t know if I’ve ever gone out and bought the yarn a pattern actually calls for. But after designing this piece and learning more about the properties of fibers, I’ve changed how I choose yarn when making substitutions. I realized that when deciding what size to make, you should always consider whether the finished measurements are given with the expectation of blocking, and what fiber the pattern is made with.

For instance, in this case, I wrote the pattern based on final blocking measurements because I knew the mohair would “grow”. The pieces you knit are not the same size as the final measurements in the pattern, which are written for the final size you achieve after it is blocked. I would never substitute wool in this pattern unless I was prepared to do alot of swatching and adjusting.

If, like me, you have had problems in the past with pieces not fitting the way you expected, even when you thought your gauge matched the pattern, I would encourage you to revisit the pattern and see what fiber the designer used. Consider the nature of that fiber, and if substituting, try to find a fiber that has similar qualities. It will make a huge difference in the final result!