Clothing and the materials we use to make them is important. I sat down with Margaret Tullis, an instructor for Shuttle, Spindles and Skeins, to get a crash course about the fibers we wear everyday.
What is a natural fiber?
A natural fiber is anything from a plant or animal that can be spun into a material for knitting, weaving and other techniques for clothing and other goods.
Oftentimes sheep is what comes to mind when discussing wool. And that’s no surprise because 90 percent of the world’s wool comes from this animal. “There are hundreds of breeds of sheep,” explains Tullis. “In Colorado, it is mostly Corriedale and I have a friend that has a Jacob.” Many knitters and fiber artists enjoy working with sheep wool because it produces a springy yarn and dyes nicely.
Alpacas come from the camel family and originate from the South America region. This hair can feel a little more luxurious and less itchy than its sheep counterpart, but it’s often mixed together with sheep wool for a stronger texture. “A lot of yarns are mixed now with Alpaca wool together because of the Alpaca drooping or not having the springback,” says Tullis. “The two of them together gives you a springier yarn.”
Linen originates from the flax plant. “Both Linen and Hemp are bast fibers that come from the base of the plant,” says Tullis. A bast fiber is collected from the inner bark of the plant and is often a soft, flexible material. Linen is often worn during summer months because of its breathability and coolness once it’s in its manufactured state.
Cotton derives from the cotton plant and grows in a boll to protect the seeds. Cotton is a tricky fiber to pick, so the invention of the cotton gin helped this soft fabric become a cheaper, common household clothing item. In fact, it is the most widely used natural fiber in clothing today.
Hemp comes from the base of the Cannabis sativa plant. It is a rough fabric and can difficult to spin and produce locally. “They have to track it from seed to finished product the same way recreational and medicinal [cannabis] is, even though it doesn’t have any THC,” says Tullis.