We’re back for the second of two articles looking in more detail at luxury fibres and yarns, and exploring how to look after them to keep them in tip-top shape. This month we are looking at some of the more well-known luxury fibres, firstly heading back to Mongolia to talk about probably the most well-known luxury fibre:
This is defined as the hair from the downy undercoat of the Asiatic goat (Capra hircus laniger) with a mean diameter of 18.5 microns or less. The goats mainly live in Mongolia, the Himalayas and China but can be found as far west as Turkey. The name “cashmere” is the Anglicised form of “Kashmir”, so derived when the Kashmir shawl became a popular apparel item in Europe in the 19th Century after being discovered in colonial India. The Kashmir area was the main area in which this goat hair fibre was being processed into yarn. The goats live at an altitude of around 4000m so they need to keep warm:
Cashmere is said to be between three and eight times warmer than sheep’s wool!
It is also good at regulating temperature in warm weather too due to its high moisture regain, which means that it will feel cool in the summer. The finest fibre is combed out from under the goat’s chin and underbelly but it is also collected when the animal naturally moults in spring, or it can be sheared like a sheep.
The fine hairs are separated from the thicker outer guard hairs in a process imaginatively called “de-hairing”. It takes the fibre from more than two goats’ coats to make a jumper’s worth of yarn!
As well as being very fine, cashmere fibres are also quite short at only 3-4cm long. This does mean that the yarn will be prone to pilling to start with, but this should improve over time. Due to its cost, it is usually found in a blend with cotton or merino wool for crochet or hand knitting yarns. It is great to use for a luxurious pair of gloves or socks or perhaps a special little hat, scratch mitts or bootees for a newborn baby as it is so soft next to the skin and not at all itchy.
Mohair fibre confusingly comes from the Angora goat (Capra hircus aegagrus) and has a high sheen as it has a smooth fibre surface, with only about half the number of scales that you would see in a fine wool. This goat also originates from the Himalayas and its fibre has been used for apparel since around the 8th century. In the Middle Ages it was introduced to the Turkish province of Ankara – from where its “angora” name is derived. Mohair is from the Arabic “mukayyar” -meaning “select or choice”. The fibres are around 25-45 microns in diameter and are 13-16 cm long. It is harvested by shearing the goat twice a year as it grows quickly – and, unlike cashmere, does not have to be de-haired from an outer coat. It is sometimes used as a substitute for fur:
The famous British “Merrythought” teddy bears are made from a mohair fabric.
This fibre was also very popular for fuzzy bright jumpers in the 1980’s that were well known for being itchy to wear and shedding everywhere! The yarns made today still take up dye well for those vibrant colours but the yarn spinning technology is much better these days – although the yarn will still have a tendency to shed a bit, so is perhaps not the best choice for making baby items.
The finest mohair from the baby goat, or kid, is often used in a blend with silk for a very fine lace weight knitting yarn with a high sheen and a fluffy halo. This can be used on its own to make a very fine, lightweight item like a wedding shawl, or held together with a chunkier yarn to create a fabric with a fuzzy sheen to it. Mohair is also strong so is a good choice to give more durability to a no-nylon sock yarn too – some people refer to it as “nature’s nylon”.
Angora is the name given to the hair of the Angora RABBIT, which again originated in Ankara in Turkey. It became a popular pet in 18th century France, including with the aristocracy. The hair is harvested by shearing, plucking the moulted fur, or combing. Fibres are around 6-10 cm long and can be as fine as only 14-16 microns so the yarn is very soft.
The rabbits need to be groomed regularly to stop the fibre getting matted and to stop them ingesting too much of the moulted fur. As mentioned in the previous article, with all luxury fibres it is worth buying yarn from a reputable company with sound ethical principles and policies to ensure the appropriate animal welfare standards are being met. This is especially important in the case of angora – look for sources of “humane” or “cruelty-free” angora, usually small-scale farms, where the rabbits have been hand-combed or clipped rather than sheared or plucked.
Hand knitting/crochet yarns are very fluffy and are often blended with wool, because the angora fibre is not very elastic. It is good for making gloves, hats and neckwear, as well as felted items, because it does felt very readily indeed!
“Fibre made from worms?”… Well, it is actually made from the cocoons of the larvae of the mulberry silkworm (Bombyx mori). The fibre is one continuous filament strand which can be up to 1500 metres long with a fibre diameter of around 10 microns. It also has a triangular cross-section which both reflects and refracts a lot of light like a prism thus giving the fabric a natural shimmer. The modern word “silk” comes from the Old English “sioloc”.
Silk production originated in the Henan Province in China around 4000BC. It is the subject of many a myth and legend. It was only allowed to be worn by the Emperor and his court but slowly became more available and then developed into a trading commodity during the Han dynasty with the main trading routes out of China becoming known as the “Silk Roads”.
In its pure form it doesn’t have much elasticity so will work more like a cotton or linen yarn and will also easily slide off your needles – so for many hand knitting/crochet yarns it is generally blended with either mohair, alpaca or wool to give a sheen without being too slippery. It is great to use for fine shawls and scarves but it may be worth considering adding life-lines if you are doing intricate lace knitting to save you a few headaches if you drop a few stitches!
A reminder of how to wash and block luxury yarns
Remember to always take care - especially as you will have undoubtedly spent more money and effort creating your luxury yarn masterpiece. Take note of the instructions on the ball band and, if the yarn is a blend of different fibres, act as if it is made from 100% of the most delicate one so that its unique qualities are preserved.
As discussed in the previous article, a mild steam block or a light spray block might be a gentler way to finish your item than the more vigorous wet blocking, especially for silk items. To additionally protect the fibres and nurture them, you could also put a pump of KnitIQ No-Rinse Delicate wash in with some water into a spray bottle and mist over the item lightly before blocking. There is a more detailed explanation in our previous Spray Blocking article here.
Or if you just want to gently mould your item into shape without completely soaking it, you could carefully pin it out with rustproof pins – like our KnitIQ blocking pins - onto your KnitIQ Blocking Mats and then softly steam with either an iron or a steamer with a delicate fabric guard attachment, of course being really careful not to make direct contact with the fabric. Try to also avoid piercing the yarn with the pins if it contains silk as it may cause a snag.
If you do need to wet block, take extra care: Don’t agitate the item too much when soaking and squeezing it out, unless you actually want it to felt, then lay it out flat and gently pull it into shape for drying. Even if your item doesn’t need pinning out, KnitIQ Blocking Mats are an ideal surface to support your washed item as it dries.
A note on spot cleaning
You might consider spot cleaning an item instead of washing it – in this case mix a pump of KnitIQ No-Rinse Delicate Wash with a little tepid water – never hot as this will set the stain! Dab onto the stain and lightly blot the area with a piece of kitchen towel to remove the excess.
Put another, clean piece of kitchen towel down and then put the stain face down onto it and work from the wrong side to stop the stain penetrating further into the fabric. Work from the outside of the stain inwards to stop it from getting larger, using - depending on the size of the stain - some more kitchen towel around your finger or a clean cotton bud to gently dab away at it and lift the stain.
Try to avoid spot cleaning silk or a brightly coloured item, because you may also rub the surface dye off and leave a permanent mark – test an inconspicuous area first! It is also wise to store luxury items folded rather than hanging to stop them growing or distorting out of shape. Cashmere in particular can crease and wrinkle quite easily, and silk will stretch. Finally, now you are armed with this knowledge, please enjoy making and wearing your luxury items! We’d love to see them so please remember to tag us in your social media posts.
Or if you would like to discover more luxury fibres, read the first part of this mini-series for Vicuña, Alpaca, Llama, Camel, Yak & Qiviut yarns: