fibers & their characteristics

Mostly, a pattern asks for a yarn that is not available. A substitute must come. But how do I replace it correctly? Not only the yarn weight is important, but also the fiber content. Each fiber has different attributs and can affect the appearance of the knitted fabric. I'll show you the characteristics of the fibers.

How does the knitted garment looks like on the pictures of your pattern? Should it be soft and drapey? Does it shine or is it dull and hairy? If it has texture, twisted stitches are knitted or are there cables? These stitches are more difficult to knit with non-elastic yarn such as cotton or linen. Is there a textured pattern with right and left stitches? This wouldn't be noticeable with a hairy or fluffy yarn.

To replace the yarn from a knitting or crochet pattern, you need to know not only the yarn weight, but also the fiber content. Each fiber has different properties. The following list of fibers is intended to give you a clue as to how the knitted fabric looks and what character characteristics the fibers have.


The long staple (4- 11inch/ 10- 28cm) is produced by the alpaca. Native to the South American, the majority of the world's alpaca fiber originates in Peru, Bolivia and Chile. The fiber is hollow and light - as well as warmer and silkier to the touch than wool. It contains little to no lanolin and it can be worn by those with wool allergies.

Knitting with pure alpaca yarn results in a soft fabric that drapes well. The long staple imparts an almost furry quality to the finished garment. Because of its lack of resilience, pure alpaca tends to lose its shape when stretched and is often blended with wool to gain elasticity.


Angora is the given name of the longhair Angora rabbit (- not the fiber of the Angora goat, which produces mohair fiber). The name is derived from Ankara, the city in Turkey where both the Angora goat and the Angora rabbit are thought to have originated. Angora fibers are hollow, soft and fine, giving the finished fabric a light, fluffy, furry appearance. Angora is said to be eight times wamer than wool.

The long staple (4- 11inch/ 10- 28cm) is produced by the alpaca. Native to the South American, the majority of the world's alpaca fiber originates in Peru, Bolivia and Chile. The fiber is hollow and light - as well as warmer and silkier to the touch than wool. It contains little to no lanolin and it can be worn by those with wool allergies.

Pure angora yarn lacks resilience, so it's commonly blended or plied with other fibers, especially wool for elasticity and durability. It's slippery on the needles and because of its fluffiness, it gives little stitch definition. For pure angora itmes, it's best to knit loosely so the angora halo has room to expand or "bloom". The cool cycle of a commercial dryer can be used to fluff up angora items that have flattened during storage. Angora yarn tends to shed, especially the lesser-quality yarns.


Botanically categorized as grass, bamboo is a sustainable ressource. There are two ways to process bamboo to make the plant into a fabric: mechanically or chemically. The mechanical way is by crushing the woody parts of the bamboo plant and then use natural enzymes to break the bamboo walls into a mushy mass so that the natural fibers can be mechanically combed out and spun into yarn. This is essentially the same eco-friendly manufacturing process used to produce linen fabric from flax or hemp. Chemically manufactured bamboo fiber is a regenerated cellulose fiber similar to rayon or modal. Chemically manufactured bamboo is sometimes called bamboo rayon because of the many similarities in the way it is chemically manufactured and similarities in its feel and hand.
Fabric knitted with bamboo is quite breathable and cool and has great drape. Bamboo has a good luster, similar to mercerized cotton. Bamboo yarn loses strength when it is wet and swells considerably in water. The yarn may not be very cohesive. Some brands split much more than others. Use blunt-ended needles to cut down on the splitting. Bamboo needs to be hand-washed; so it isn't a great choice for things that need to be washed frequently.


The most widely used plant fiber is one of the oldest known textile fibers. The biggest commercial producers of cotton are China, the United States, India, Turkey and Brazil. Quality varies and is graded by length of fiber, or staple (from 3/8-2 1/4"; 9.5-57 mm). Egyptian, Sea Island (Georgia) and Pima are considered the finest varieties.
Conventional cotton farming and processing employs extensive use of chemicals, including pesticides, insecticides, herbicides, fertilizers, bleaches, sizing and dyes. There is a growing trend toward organic cotton production.

Mercerized cotton is named for its inventor, John Mercer. The spun yarn is treated with caustic soda (sodium hydroxide) and stretched, making it smoother, stronger, more lustrous and less prone to shrinkage than untreated yarn. And because it absorbs and holds dye better, richer color saturation is achievable in mercerized cottons.

Mercerized cotton plies beautifully and has good stitch definition when knit. Unmercerized cotton is softer and less dense and doesn't wear as well. Cotton draws heat and moisture away from the body, making it well suited for hot climates and seasons. Additional benefits of cotton include its hypoallergenic properties, lack of itchiness, strength, resistance to moth damage and ease of care. Potential disadvantage include the weight of cotton and its lack of resilience, which can make for a droopy garment. Because cotton yarns tend to be less resilient than wool, blends are an option: wool adds softness and warmth; synthetic fibers can decrease weight and add elasticity, while linen can add texture. Knitting a strand of fine elastic thread along with the yarn can help alleviate looseness, especially in ribbing. Most cotton yarns are machine washable. If a garment has lost its original shape, machine drying can help restore it. Cotton garments can be wet blocked or steam blocked.


The fiber from the two-humped camels raised in the desert of central Asia, including China, Mongolia and Russia, is used in yarn. The long (up to 15 inch/ 40 cm) hairs are scratchy and used primarily for rugs and kilims. The shorter (about 5 inch/ 13cm) soft down undercoat and dthe fiber of the baby camel are the sources of the desirable fiber that is used in the manufacture of camelhair coats and handknitting yarns. Camelhair is virtually impossible to bleach and difficult to dye, so it's most often used in its natural shade, the caramel-like brown color.
Camel hair is a poor choice for anything requiring elasticity. Exhibits excellent stitch definition. Sheds slightly in most preparations. It's water and stain resistant. Steam block.


Cashmere is the fiber from the undercoat of the Kashmir goat and it's widely considered the ultimate luxury fiber. Today most cashmere comes from rugged mountainous regions of Tibet, Mongolia, Afghanistan, Iran and China. Each animal produces only about 100 grams (4 ounces) fo usable fiber per year. The fiber is lighter in weight than wool but possesses greater insulating ability.
Cashmere has less elasticity and is drapier than wool. The fiber is very soft and is suitable to wear directly on the skin, because it does not irritate.


Linen is a fiber made from the stem of the flax plant. The plants are pulled from the root, which maximizes the length of the fibers, and the soaked until any non-fibrous material rots away. Only the long fibers of the stems' skins are left, which can be refined and spun into yarn.
Linen fabric drapes well and is light, soft and strong. It may seem stiff at first, but the fibers relax a great deal after washing. Because of this it's extremly important to wash and dry swatches before measuring gauge. Linen is especially well suited to lace patterns, since it has very little stretch; its inelasticity means it isn't ideal for ribbing or stockinette stitches. The lack of stretch also makes blocking unnecessary. Linen yarn can be very difficult to work with; it's slippery (using bamboo or wooden needles is best) and can twist, creating an unintended bias in the fabric.


The oldest and most prevalent wool-producing breed of sheep, merinos possess a soft, fine, long-staple fiber and are recognizable by the characteristic folds in their skin. Descended from a strain originally bred by the Beni Merines, a nomadic group from North Africa, merinos settled in Spain during Roman times. Merinos thrived in Spain; for many centuries the Spanish Armada guarded the breed, allowing none of the valuable animals to leave the country. By the 1700s many people believed that the merino could thrive only in Spain. When King Philip V, who shared this belief, began exporting the sheep as gifts to crowned heads throughout Europe, its falsity was soon proved.
Today most merino sheep live in Australia. Australia is the largest producer of merino wool, with the population of sheep outnumbering that of people. Much of the finest merino is exported to Italy, where it's spun, largely for use in the commercial textile industry.

Merino wool is distinguished by its tight crimp. This characteristic makes merino elastic and also contributes to its loft and softness. The fiber is well suited to wear directly on the skein.


The fiber from the angora goat is called mohair. Native to Ankara, Turkey, the word means "best fleece" in Arabic. The long-staple fiber is wavy and lustrous, and its softness varies depending on the age of the goat, the first shearing, which is called kid, being the softest. About half of the world's mohair is grown in South Africa; Texas is a large producer in the U.S.
Because it lacks elasticity, much mohair for handknitting is blended with other fibers such as nylon, silk and wool. It's usually brushed, creating a halo effect similar to angora, and when knit loosely produces a light, airy fabric.


The soft, gray-brown fiber from the undercoat of the Arctic muskox is called qiviut. Pronounced "ki-vee-ut" the word means "down" or "underwool" in the Eskimo language, and it's sometimes spelled qiviuq, qiviuk or qiveut. A large animal that lives only in the Arctic tundra of Alaska, northern Canada and Greenland, the qiviut has a dual coat that shed naturally each spring. An adult yields between four and six pounds of fiber per year. Qiviut is more expensive than cashmere.
The fiber is lanolin-free, so it's easy to clean. Warmer than wool and extraordinary lightweight, qiviut is often compared to cashmere. Often qiviut is undyed, although it does take dye well. Pure qiviut fiber doesn't felt.


Silk is a natural protein filament obtained from cocoons made by the larvae of the silkworm. It is a continous filament as opposed to a fiber which has a set length or staple. The cultivation of silk is an enterprise that can be traced back to ancient China, and China is still the world's foremost producer of silk. Cultivated silkworms feed solely on mulberry leaves, which have no tannins. The filaments are soft, strong, lustrous and brilliantly white - and absorb dye really well. Tussah or wild silk, is produced from silkworms that feed on leaves containing tannins, resulting in filaments that are duller, and as a result, the dyed colors aren't as clear.
The lightness, sheen and drape of silk make it a popular fiber for spring and summer yarns. It isn't itchy, so it can be worn close to the skin, and it has good stitch definition. The downside of silk is its lack of resilience and tendency to pill. Pure silk is slippery and loose its shape. The knitted garment stretches and doesn't go back in its original shape. Silk is used for not everyday items, just for special items. Knit pure silk tighter as you would do.


The fiber of the sheep is called wool. Depending on the breed, the wool has different qualities (resistance, softness, risk of pilling). The wool has two characteristics: it has scales and curls. These two properties make spinning and felting easier. Because of the crimping, wool is more air than with other fibers. This stores the heat. The most common system for wool grading is the micron system, which measures the diameter of wool in micrometers. For comparison, a human hair has a diameter fo about 60 microns. Fine wool has a diameter of less than 20 microns.
Wool is elastic. In the case of minor problems with the fit, the knitted fabric can be shaped by blocking. Wool is water repellent and can absorb a large amount of water until it feels wet. It regulates the heat and transports the moisture away from the skin. Wool does tend to shrink and felt. And for many years textile chemists worked to develop "superwash" wools that can be machine-washed. However, it's crucial to carefully read the care instructions on the label prior to washing any wool yarn. Wool is very suitable for multi-colored knitting, since the scales intertwine.

With which fiber do you prefer to knit with? And why?


  1. How to substitute yarn – DONNAROSSA
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    […] and floppy; wool is elastic; angora is fluffy; silk shines, is slippery and lose its shape. At Fibers & their characteristics, I explain the attributes to each […]

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