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Animal Fiber Yarns (Part 1)

Vicuna

Vicuna

Continuing our series on yarn fibers (see also Milk Yarn? How does that work? Part 1), I have the great pleasure to begin looking at animal fibers. Some of my most favorite yarns fall into this category so I’m delighted to have this opportunity and hope that you, may find a few new favorites as well.

You are likely already very familiar with several of the most common fibers in this category (e.g. wool, alpaca) however, I believe that you’ll find a few new ones that may surprise you and tickle your fancy.

Animal fiber yarns include;

  • Alpaca
  • Angora
  • Beaver
  • Buffalo
  • Camel
  • Cashmere
  • Fox
  • Guanaco
  • Llama
  • Mohair
  • Possum
  • Qiviut
  • Rabbit
  • Vicuna
  • Wool

The process of producing animal fibers is much easier to understand than the processes for producing either bio-synthetic or plant fibers. The animals are first relieved of their hair or fur by shearing or combing (those with dogs and cats can certainly relate to this step).  The hair or fur is then washed, combed and carded prior to being spun.

In general, animal yarns boast of several key benefits including that they can be breathable, lightweight and yet very warm. Animal fibers are very insulating by nature and are loved by hand spinners as well.

On the other hand, some animal fibers can be itchy, or even cause allergic reactions.  Not all have the same elasticity.  Wool for example, has more memory than alpaca, making alpaca more ‘drapey’ than wool.

If you are looking to experiment with some new animal fibers but don’t know where to start, the following may help you decide where to start.

Camelid Family Yarn Properties

As a number of the fibers in this category are derived from members of the camelid family, I’ve decided to break them out and explore those first in part because Alpaca is the first on the list above.  These include alpaca, camel, guanaco, llama, and vicuna.  Camelid fibers are soft, lustrous and warmer than wool making them great choices for knitting suits, dresses, coats and sweates.

Camel hair is derived from the commonly known bactrian camel (the two humped variety).  Alpaca and Llama are often confused with each other.  Alpaca are roughly half the size of llamas, and sport a softer coat making fleece their primary purpose.  The difference can also be spotted quickly by looking at their ears.  Alpacas have straight ears contrasted by the curved ears of llamas.

Guanaco and vicuna are wild camelids, related to the llama.  The Vicuna is believed to be the wild ancestor of the alpaca.  Whereas alpacas are raised primarily for their fiber, the vicuna can only be shorn every 3 years making vicuna fiber much more rare and very expensive.  Second only to vicuna, guanaco fiber is finer that cashmere and is also very expensive.  It is easy to understand why alpaca is so much more commonly found in your LYS.  If you have the budget for it, all are well worth exploring.

Brands/Where to buy?

Alpaca yarns (100% and blends) are very easily found at your LYS and/or online however, I’ve discovered an additional source of alpaca yarn that may somewhat surprise you; that of the alpaca ranch.  Alpaca ranches sometimes offer yarn in stores of their own (e.g. Alpaca Direct)

Nearly every yarn manufacturer offers alpaca and/or alpaca blends.  In particular, I would be very happy to recommend Berroco and Misti that offer several alpaca yarns in a range of weights and colors.  I have yet to be disappointed with their yarns.  Both can be found online at WEBs.

Camel is a bit more challenging to find however, Debbie Bliss has a nice wool/camel blend and Makalu offers 4 ply DK and 8ply weight Baby Camel yarns that can be purchased at Yarnmarket.

Cascade and Classic Elite both offer a 50/50  llama/wool blend and Plymouth has both silk and linen blends that can be purchased at Noble Knits.

Windy Valley Muskox produces both guanaco and vicuna yarns that can be purchased either directly from them or through Yarnmarket.   Be prepared with your credit card if you want to experiment with these fine fibers and if you do go there, be prepared to experience full-on finger bliss!

Needless to say, alpaca has become one of my most favorite fibers due to its hand, availability, and price.  Please let us know about your adventures with camelid fibers.  We’d love to hear what you have played with and whether or not you have ventured into the luxurious.

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3 Responses to Animal Fiber Yarns (Part 1)

  1. Kimberly Wagner August 26, 2010 at 5:33 am #

    I have not been knitting recently and have never used any natural fiber except regular wool. I was noticing in the picture of the vicuna that the hair ever appears quite soft. Having the qualities of warmth and breathability, being also soft makes it near perfect. There aren’t links for some of the natural fibers that you’ve listed. Are they less accessibile? or is it that they can be used but they haven’t been mass marketed?

  2. Linnea August 27, 2010 at 11:12 am #

    Hi Kimberly,

    It’s very easy to get totally so spoiled with these fibers. Even a really great wool (e.g. merino) will leave you wanting nothing less.
    To better answer your question, are there fibers that you would like some help finding? I’ll definitely review my post and see if there are a few more that I can add but please feel free to let me know if you are looking for something in particular.

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