All About Natural Fibres: Wool and Hair

Following on from last week's blog about insect and plant fibres, this blog looks at some of the more widely used animal fibres. First, a note on microns. The micron is a unit of measurement which describes the width of a fibre, the smaller the micron number, the finer the fibre, and therefore the softer. Conversely the larger the micro number, the thicker the fibre, and therefore the coarser. All of the fibres have their micron number listed next to them, as well as the approximate annual global output for each fibre.

 

Cashmere - 14-16 Microns, 6000 tonnes

Cashmere comes from the Cashmere Goat, a breed that lives predominantly in China and Mongolia, with central Mongolia being home to the finest Cashmere. This geographical area is characterised by huge temperature fluctuations. The Cashmere goat has evolved to cope with this harsh environment by developing a double layered coat. The outer layer is waterproof, whilst the inner layer is very soft and insulating.

Cashmere is hair, rather than wool, which makes it considerably warmer than wool. The drawback of this, is that it is less breathable and more prone to pilling. However as a winter fibre it is hard to beat, and a quick once over with a cashmere comb should remove any pills. Whilst the best cashmere comes from Mongolia, the best cashmere spinners are found in Scotland and Italy - we buy our cashmere from Scotland as we like to keep things as local as possible!

 

Angora 10-18 microns, 3000 tonnes 

Angora comes from the Angora rabbit. A breed that grows very long, incredibly soft hair. The individual hairs are hollow, making this fibre an excellent insulator and also very lightweight. Recently angora has commanded a lot of media attention, because of the cruel ways it can be harvested. It is possible to source ethical angora, but it is more expensive. We source our Angora from Filati Biagioli Modesto, who's rabbits have their coats brushed rather than plucked. If the bunnies are happy, then so are we!

 

Mohair 23-38 microns, 25000 tonnes

Confusingly mohair comes from the Angora Goat, Angora only comes from rabbits. Mohair is known for its fluffy texture and high lustre. It was known as the diamond fibre for this very reason and was originally reserved for the Turkish elite up until the 19th century. The fibres are very straight so it is usually blended with some wool to make it easier to spin. These straight fibres give mohair a lovely fluffy haze when they are brushed after knitting or weaving.

 

Alpaca and Llama 20-44 microns, 4000 tonnes

Both alpacas and llamas are native to the Andes mountains, their insulating coats keep them warm in the freezing winters and cool in the scorching summers. As such, their fibres also have excellent temperature regulating properties when knitted or woven into garments. Alpaca coats have a very high crimp, which produces a lofty, incredibly soft fibre, that is both warmer and more lightweight than cashmere. The llama produces a slightly inferior fibre, but still very soft indeed! For those who suffer from extreme allergies, this fibre contains absolutely no lanolin, so might be preferable to wool.

Alpaca's originated from the wild Vicuna, which produces the most expensive fibre in the world. Vicuna fibre is incredibly soft and much sought after from couturiers and high fashion houses. Vicunas are not a domesticated animal and have their coats shorn once every three years; for this reason the global annual vicuna fibre output is very limited, only around 300 tonnes per year. Expect this fibre to cost around £1000 per metre of woven fabric.

 

Wool 10-33 microns, 1.3 - 1.5million tonnes

Wool is probably the animal fibre that we're most familiar with. It comes in a huge variety of qualities, but for ease's sake, we're going to focus on the types that we use at LANA, which can be roughly divided into three different qualities.

Starting with the softest, merino wool comes, as you might expect, from the Merino sheep. It's micron count can be as low as 10, the finest of all the animal fibres. Merino wool is its best when imported from Australia and New Zealand, owing to the hot dry climate. There are a number of small producers in the UK, but the folds in this breed's coat make it prone to suffering in damp weather - something the UK struggles with!

The next finest fibre that we use is lambswool, this fibre averages about 19.5 microns, so is still very soft. In order to qualify as lambswool, the fibre must be from the first shearing of the sheep (usually around 7 months old). We source our lambswool from Z. Hinchliffe, a company based in the Yorkshire Pennines, who have specialised in spinning animal fibres for around 200 years. Their lambswool comes from the Geelong area of Australia, a name synonymous with high quality fibre.

The coarsest fibre that we use at LANA is Shetland wool, at between 20 and 33 microns. We often lightly felt our Shetland wool, to achieve a characteristic fluffiness. One of the things that we love most about the Shetland sheep is their natural colour variation. It is possible to achieve a huge colour palette of beautiful muted tones, from bitter chocolate, through gold, dove grey and creamy white, all without dyeing. We buy our Shetland wool from Uradale yarns, an organic farm covering 2000 acres of biodiverse landscape in the Shetland Isles. For those who are concerned with their environmental impact, this Shetland wool is the choice for you!