More Exotic Fiber
This page is a continuation of Exotic Fiber page one which covers the camel family - alpaca, llama, vicuña, guanaco and, of course, camel. To go to this page,
Most animals that produce exotic fiber have more than one type of hair – usually an outer guard coat and a softer, downy undercoat that insulates in winter cold weather. Beginning spinners should note that much of the down fiber is very short staple length so a bit trickier to spin. This can be offset if the fiber has a high crimp, such as Yak and Cashmere.
The fineness of these exotic fibers is indicated by their micron count which is a measurement of the diameter of one fiber strand. For comparison, a human hair is about 60-70 microns. Individual fiber microns are found with each description below. Softness of the fiber is also determined by the texture of the fiber strand which shows up on microscopic imaging. A smoother strand will feel softer than a scaly strand even if that strand is a lower micron count.
Qiviut / Musk Ox
Musk Ox are a very old species – they have around since the time of the Woolly Mammoth. Most live in the Canadian Arctic, some in Greenland and Alaska. Qiviut is not another term for the musk ox but refers to the soft downy undercoat. It is the lightest and warmest of all the natural fibers and along with the vicuña, is the finest exotic fiber. It takes some experience to spin this one – the fiber is short and has no scales so it is very slippery but of course, feels wonderful next to the skin. Qiviut is often blended with silk or fine merino.
Microns: 10 -12
Color: gray-brown, dyes easily
Staple length: 3.5–7 cm (1.5–3 inches)
Bison are native to North America. At one time, their numbers were estimated as high as 70 million, but the 1800's saw a huge decline, down to only about 1000 in the 1880's. Due to ranches that now raise bison, mainly for meat, their numbers have returned to about 600,000. Nonetheless, there is only a limited amount of fiber available – estimated at 10,000 lbs per year in the US. Most of it is sheared from slaughtered animals. Some is collected wild.
There are five distinct types of fiber on the bison, but the most prized is the soft undercoat or down. Modern technology has made it easier to separate the down from the coarser fibers, which is utilized for carpets and outer garments. The down hairs are solid and don't shrink or felt. It is very strong, soft and warm – probably one of the warmest, along with qiviut, so it should be spun fairly thin so it's not too hot to wear. Plus, at premium prices, a thinner yarn will go a longer way. The book, Teach Yourself Visually Handspinning, suggests spinning with a moderate twist, but ply firmly. This also goes for Qiviut. You can also spin these delicate exotic fibers on a hand spindle, but use the lightest one you have.
Microns: 12-29 for downy hair, guard hair 21-110
Staple length: just over one inch (2.5 cm)
The yak is a long-haired member of the bovine family, domesticated in Tibet. The coarse outer hair has long been used for weaving functional articles – like blankets, tents, bags and ropes. The softer undercoat that requires separation from the coarser hair, is a more recent addition to the market, meeting the North American and European demand for soft, luxury fibers. Yaks shed their fiber in the spring so it is often collected by combing during the shedding season. Like other short fibers, it can be a challenge to spin but somewhat easier because it has a good crimp and is not too slippery. It is similar in feel to cashmere, camel and qiviut. It felts very well.
Color: mainly dark brown, some gray, black and de-pigmented white
Staple length: 3cm (1.2 inches)
If you dye fibers or want to learn, be sure to see our
. They're fun and easy to use.
Probably the most well-known of the exotic fibers, cashmere is almost synonymous with soft and luxurious. The name derives from Kashmir, India but today China is by far the largest producer. Cashmere fibers have a unique scale structure so will always feel softer than a wool of a finer micron count. There are a number of domestic goat species that produce the soft downy undercoat. (Actually, all goats produce cashmere but not in significant amounts). One cashmere goat will only produce a yearly amount of about 150 gms. The fiber is typically combed out during the spring moult and separated from intermingled guard hair. The remaining coarser outer coat is clipped and put to other use. Some countries, Iran, Afghanistan, New Zealand and Australia may shear the animals but this results in a higher coarse hair content. Like many of the exotic down fibers, cashmere fibers are very short. But they are also very crimpy which can make spinning easier. It blends well with other wools or silk.
Microns: average 19
Colour: shades of grey, brown, white
Staple length: 5-7cm (2-3 inches)
Angora goats originated in the region of Ankara, Turkey, mentioned as far back as 1500 BC. Today, the US, Turkey and South Africa are the top producers. These goats are prolific hair growers and are usually sheared two times per year. One goat can produce 5 to 8 kilograms per year. They are not particularly hardy animals and have high nutritional needs due to the rapid hair growth. A poor diet will show in the fleece. The fleece is called mohair and apart from silk, it is the most lustrous of the natural exotic fibers. Like silk, it also dyes beautifully. The fiber size is similar to a coarse wool, making it a strong, elastic and heavy fiber. The surface is much smoother than wool contributing to its luster as well as its poor felting properties.
Microns: 20-45 microns – increases with the age of the goat
Colour: white, black, grey, silver, brown, red
Staple length: 7.5–15 cm (3-6 inches)
Angora rabbits produce angora fiber, not to be confused with exotic fiber of the Angora goat referred to as mohair (although they do also orginate from the region of Ankara, Turkey). Most production angora comes from China but sources for handspinners are often from rabbit hobbyists. Most breeds, except German angora, molt their fur. It is usually plucked, or collected after molting, occasionally sheared. One rabbit, depending on breed can produce 1-5 pounds of fiber per year. It is very soft, fine, silky and fluffy, producing a halo effect when knitted. It is often blended with wool – this increases its elasticity - or other natural fiber. The angora fiber is hollow, making it very light while at the same time about 8 times warmer than sheep wool. Angora felts very easily, even on the animal itself if it is not properly groomed.
Colour: multiple colours
Staple length: 7-13 cm(3-5 inches)
Watch Out for Scurf in Undercoats
Animals that have undercoats, such as bison, angora rabbits, yaks and goats, can develop a skin flake in the fleece. A type of dandruff, this flake is called scurf. Check to make sure that the fiber that you buy is scurf free, because it does not wash out or come out in the spinning. If you have fiber that contains scurf, separate out the clumps of fiber that have scurf in them and throw them away before you start spinning.
From Teach Yourself Visually Handspinning by Judith MacKenzie McCuin
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