Here is a list of the most popular, and not-so-popular fibres used in knitwear today.
It includes natural,synthetics and little known sustainable fibres that will become more popular over the coming years as people focus upon sustainability over ‘easy-care’ laundering.
It is one of the great challenges facing the knitwear industry as consumers start to balance the cost benefits of man-made synthetic fibres vs the environmental damage of the synthetic fibre production. Landfill concerns from fast fashion are forcing synthetic manufacturers to develop yarns that are as bio-degradable as natural yarns.
In the list, fibres that are from animal fleece are noted with ‘wool’ so as to help separate from the different plant based fibres. The term wool is usually reserved for sheep, but it is a generic description of a protected hair covering of an animal that can be sheared - such as a sheep, goat, yak etc.
Alpaca (Wool) - is made from the fleece of the South American alpaca, although often softer than sheep's wool and also hypoallergenic. Alpaca require no pesticides or antibiotic treatment when raised for wool, making their lustrous and durable fleece naturally organic.
Angora (banned) - is made from the fur of angora rabbits. The long thin fibre is plucked or groomed from the rabbit and blended with other fibres to produce a knitting yarn. In 2013, disturbing video showed cruelty to rabbits being plucked and so angora as a fibre has been banned by many retailers.
Bamboo- is a type of grass originating from eastern Asia that requires no fertilizers or pesticides and very little water for its rapid growth. The fabric made from bamboo fiber is silky in texture, has moisture wicking properties, and is very durable. Although current bamboo fabric manufacturing processes involve toxic chemicals, developments for harmless and environmentally sound processes are underway.
Camel (Wool) - for the production of fabric is obtained from the Bactrian camel, which reside in the steppes of Central and Eastern Asia. Camel hair is harvested by hand, then graded according to the color and fineness of the fiber, with about 30% making up the finest, apparel grade fiber. Usually light tan in color, (explaining the term for shade we call 'camel') it is typically blended with other fibers for an extremely supple material with excellent drape and temperature regulating properties.
Cashmere (Wool) - is made from the soft hairs that grow on the belly of a Kashmir goat, which is native to the Himalayas. The scarcity and arduous harvesting process of this fiber makes it a luxury material, as do its extremely soft, well-insulating, lightweight and durable properties as a fabric.
Cupro- is a cellulose yarn derived from the unused cotton linter fibre. This is the soft fibre that is around the cotton seed that is usually discarded after picking. However a Japanese company developed a way top reprocess the linter into a regenerated cotton-like alternative.
Hemp - fabric is made from the inner fibers of the stalk of the hemp plant, which belongs to the bast fiber group. Hemp does not require any pesticides or toxic chemicals when cultivated, produces 2-3 times more fiber per acre than cotton, and the plant even fixes nutrients back into the soil. Hemp fabric is breathable, warm, moisture-wicking, anti-bacterial and easily blended with other natural fibers such as cotton and wool for a soft, durable textile.
Linen (Flax Fiber) - is made from flax, another plant in the bast fiber group, and has been used as a textile since Ancient Mesopotamian times. Growing linen requires far less water than growing cotton, no chemical fertilizers, and it is one of the strongest plant fibers. The material takes dyes well, is highly absorbent and keeps the wearer cool, making it ideal for a range of textile uses from apparel to home textiles and canvas bags.
Merino (wool) - is made from the fleece of Merino sheep, which are originally from Spain but now mainly bred in Australia. Merino wool is very soft, lightweight and regulates body temperature well, explaining its popularity in sportswear and performance base layers. The term ‘Non- Mulsed’ will become more important in the merino category in the coming years as the mulseing practice is stopped by Australian wool growers.
Milk yarn - was invented in the 1930's in Italy and America to compete with wool. Made from milk protein fibers extracted from commercial milk that doesn't meet hygiene standards using ideas developed back in the 15th century. The fiber is environmentally friendly, demonstrates superior strength and has many of the same properties of wool.
Modal - is a fabric made from the cellulose found in beech tree fiber. The production process of Modal involves very few chemicals and recycles most of the water and solvents used. The fabric dyes well, resists shrinkage and fading and is extremely soft.
Mohair (Wool) - is made from the hair of the Angora goat, which has a lustrous and soft coat. Mohair goats are typically shorn twice a year, with no harm done to the animal. The finished material is very durable, takes dyes well, is very warm and has excellent insulating properties. Mohair is often blended with other fibers to add strength and warmth to a particular fabric.
Nylon- developed by Dupont in the 1930s as a replacement for silk, it became a ‘wonder fibre’ and caused a revolution in the hosiery/stocking market. It is now used more often as a blend with other fibres for knitting due to its abrasion resistence and elasticity and accounts for 7% of synthetic fibre production.
Organic Cotton - is obtained from cotton that is grown from non-GMO seed without the use of any harmful or synthetic chemicals, pesticides or herbicides. This method of growing cotton supports biodiversity, healthy ecosystems, improves the quality of soil and uses less water than the cultivation of conventional cotton. Growing organic cotton does require more time, knowledge and skill, and is currently more costly than growing conventional cotton.
Organic Wool - farming requires strict adherence to a set of rules and standards whereby farmers cannot use any chemical inputs on their fields or feed crops and must steer clear of chemical based insecticides and pesticides. The fiber bearing animals can only be fed 100% organic grains, graze on organic pastures, cannot be vaccinated with anything synthetic, and should be well cared for. Organic wool farms must also maintain stocking ratios so that the land can regenerate itself and sustain its environment and the animals grazing on it. Mills that process the wool must be free of synthetic chemicals and demonstrate water consciousness.
PLA - stands for polylactic acid fiber, which is derived from a plant sugar called dextrose obtained mostly from corn as well as sugar beets, wheat or sugar cane. Ingeo corn fibers are essentially PLA fibers, and so considered part of the plant-based synthetics fabric group.
Polyester - developed in the 1940s, it was ‘forgotten’ when nylon was developed. In the 1980s a campaign to promote polyester as being almost the same as cotton saw a re-surgence and today, polyester accounts for 70% of all synthetic fibres produced. Other versions are known as PET which better known as polar fleece. With the advent of micro fibres, polyester is now competing with silk.
Polyacrylic - developed by Dupont in the 1940’s as ‘polyacrilinitrile’, more commonly known as ‘acrylic’. , This is now one of the most popular knitting fibres as it can be readily blended with many other fibres.
Possum (wool) - is harvested in New Zealand from the pelts of the introduced Australian Brushtail possum which has become a pest. The possum has no natural competitor in NZ and therefore has become an environmental disaster for NZ wildlife. The soft inner down fibre of the pelt is blended with merino and has been found to have good thermal and laundering properties. The brushtail possum is still a protected species in Australia.
Qiviut (wool) - is the Inuit word for musk ox, whose warm and strong inner coat hairs are used to spin a silky and soft yarn. Qiviut is much warmer than wool and even softer than cashmere, but extremely rare since the oxen are never shorn, but rather their undercoat is gathered from objects the animals have brushed against each Spring.
Ramie - is an age-old bast fiber plant used by the Ancient Egyptians to make cloth for wrapping mummies. Though very similar to linen, ramie produces a lustrous, silk-like material that is soft to the touch, eight times stronger than cotton, and even strengthens when wet. Industrially processed ramie is chemically intensive, but hand processed ramie is environmentally friendly.
Recycled Polyester Recycled Polyester, or rPET, is made from post-consumer recycled plastic soda and water bottles, food containers, unusable second quality polyester fabrics and worn out polyester garments. The polyester in these items is broken down and re-spun into virgin quality polyester fiber. Using rPET reduces dependency on oil, utilizes waste, creates less air, soil and water contamination, and cuts out the need for a virgin polyester manufacturing industry.
Soy yarn - invented by Henry Ford in the 1930s for use as upholstery, it is made from soybeans and by-products of soy foods (like tofu) that undergo chemical manipulation in order to be turned from plant into fabric. Soy fabric is soft in texture and comparable to silk in the way it drapes. It is also very durable and lends itself well to many different types of garments or home textiles like sheets. Although soy fabric is essentially a natural fiber, toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde are used in the production process.
Seacell - is a cellulose-based material that is made up of the fiber from eucalyptus trees blended with sushi grade, USDA certified organic, 'knotted wrack' seaweed. With a fiber structure that facilitates active exchange of nutrients between the skin and fabric, Seacell releases nutrients such as calcium, magnesium, iron and vitamin E (which is extremely beneficial for repairing stretched or damaged skin) onto the wearer. The fabric is very soft, breathes well and is produced through mostly sustainable processes.
Silk - is made from the cocoons of silkworms, which are often killed in order to obtain the silk of their cocoon. This ancient method of fiber production began in China more than 3,500 years ago, and renders a fabric that is lustrous, manages moisture and is completely natural.
Wild Silk Raw silk - is different from conventional silk since the silkworm is allowed to live out its full life cycle. The moths are allowed to emerge from their cocoon before the cocoon is harvested for silk production, which requires gathering cocoons from the wild that moths have naturally left behind. The resulting fabric is not inferior to conventional silk, but the lives of the silkworms are spared.
Tencel / Lyocell - is a biosynthetic fiber made from the cellulose-rich pulp of rapidly growing eucalyptus trees. Lyocell was the original term for the fiber, but was coined Tencel by the company that currently manufactures the material. Tencel is produced through a closed-loop process where nearly 100% of the water and non-toic solvents used are re-used. The resulting fiber can be spun into high quality yarn that is used for anything from underwear to sheets, jersey fabrics and even denim. Tencel drapes well, is soft, breathable, moisture-wicking, wrinkle-resistant and entirely biodegradable.
Vicuna (wool) - is made from the fleece of the Peruvian vicuna, which belongs to the camelid family and is similar in appearance to a llama. Vicuna fleece is considered to produce the finest wool in the world, and is also as warm and durable as sheep's wool. Vicuna wool is extremely rare, as the animals roam wild and a single pound of fleece per animal is gathered only every 2 years
Yak (wool) - is harvested in Mongolia from the soft down fibre of the yak which is shed in spring and early summer. It has similar qualities as cashmere in that the fibre traps air and therefore has great insulation properties. At present there is limited supply of the fibre which means it is quite expensive
Z-twist- I promised an A-Z list and I couldn't find a true yarn starting with Z. However in yarn spinning there are 2 terms you should know - S twist and Z twist. This is a clever way of describing which direction the spiral of the yarn is twisted. As you can see the letter S has the opposite shape to the letter Z. Therefore a Z twist describes a left-to-right spiral.
A special thanks thegreenshows.com