In these strange times we could all do with a bit of luxury in our lives. This is why in the next two articles we will look in more depth at luxury fibre yarns and learn how to care for them to keep your gorgeous handmade garments looking and feeling as good as the day you made them. On our quest, we will take a trip to the Andes, into the Arabian desert, to the Mongolian steppes, and the Tibetan plateau to discover the more obscure fibres as well as some that you may be more familiar with.
A luxury fibre can sometimes also be called a “noble” fibre. They are often sourced from rare animals or where the harvesting or manufacturing process is more complex so that making the end product is harder than for regular wool yarn. It is possible that they were originally named “noble”, because historically only the wealthiest and titled people could afford to buy them.
They can be broken into two main categories: Hair fibres, which are animal fibres other than sheep’s wool, and silk. Luxury fibres are still expensive today and so are often blended with another fibre such as cotton or merino wool so that the customer can enjoy the feel of a luxury fibre without the eye-watering price tag to match!
Types of luxury fibre
Now we hope you don’t get the hump if we start by talking about camels! There are several members of the camel family in different parts of the world – and a lot of them produce fibres that can be made into yarn we can crochet or knit with. The first one is one that you may not have heard of before. Please let us introduce the…
This lovely little creature is an animal from the llama branch of the camel family. Its undercoat hair produces a softer and finer fabric than can be obtained with any other wool or hair. Sadly this means that up until about 50 years ago, the vicuña was hunted almost to the point of extinction.
Fortunately, however, it is now protected by the Peruvian government and special nature reserves are set up, but the fibre is still very hard to source. Its hair is harvested by combing it, which can only be done once every 3 years.
Its fibres are only 10 microns thick, compared to merino at around 24 microns and even superfine merino at 18 microns! In Inca times, only royalty was allowed to wear garments made from vicuña.
It is usually only sold in its natural caramel colour, because the bleaching and dyeing process would affect its delicate and super soft texture too much. A quick internet search shows that 100g of a lace weight vicuña yarn could cost you approximately £1000 – if you can get hold of it that is!
This is fibre from the fleece of the alpaca (Lama pacos) which also inhabits the high mountain region of South America. The alpaca is the domesticated descendant of the vicuña and the yarn is much easier to get hold of and definitely more affordable in comparison!
There are two main types of alpaca: The Huacaya with crimped fleece which is more like a sheep’s, and the Suri with a silkier, more lustrous fleece that hangs in dreadlocks. It comes in 22 different natural shades and will also take dyestuff up well.
Alpaca farms are popping up all over the world now, and you may well come across one whilst out on a countryside walk here in the UK. They are friendly herd animals, although sometimes a little too friendly when they smell a tasty apple in your rucksack pocket they will chase you across a field!
Special properties of the alpaca fibre
Alpaca fibres are smoother and have less pronounced scales on their surface than wool, which is why they are less likely to cause itchiness – especially Suri Alpaca. And because they live at such a high altitude where they need a warm, cosy coat in the winter, the fibres have more air pockets in their centres than wool fibres do, which means that they will insulate and keep you warmer than wool fabric.
Alpaca fibre does not contain any lanolin so does not have to be scoured before dyeing like wool does and as a result retains more of its soft handle after dyeing. This also means that it is classed as a hypoallergenic fibre for people who can’t tolerate wool yarn. They may be able to wear alpaca instead.
Baby alpaca fibre is finer than merino wool at around 20-22 microns although some fibres can be even finer at 15 microns. The fibre is usually 7.5cm to 17.5 cm long, with some Suri fibres reaching up to 25cm long. It is also inherently water repellent and will wick moisture away from the body, which is very useful if you live somewhere like Britain where it’s mild and rains a lot.
Alpaca yarn is not as elastic as wool yarn – it behaves more like cotton when working with it so you may need to go up a needle or hook size to get your gauge right. It may also shed more than a wool yarn, which is why it might not be the best choice to use in baby items.
Llama fibre comes from the fleece of the llama (Lama glama) – which also inhabits the highland regions of South America. It is a close cousin of the alpaca and vicuña. It is more comparable to sheep’s wool in terms of texture and weight. They are bigger than alpacas, and more prone to spitting at you! In Peru, a herd of friendly alpacas will often be accompanied by a guard llama to protect them so watch out! Baby llama fibre at around 30 microns is suitable for hand knitting yarns, but it is not as commonly used as alpaca.
Now a brief foray into the desert to meet the Bactrian camel (Camelus bactrianus). Hair from this animal has been used in textiles for centuries and many of the breeders still live a nomadic lifestyle in the Mongolian steppes. As a distant cousin of the alpaca, baby camel is also used in hand knitting yarns. It has a staple length of up to 12.5 cm and is 19-24 microns in diameter. In preparation for the harsh winter conditions with temperatures as low as -40oC, the camel grows a thick two-part coat with soft hairs next to its skin and a thicker protective layer on top to combat the strong winds and sandstorms. Rather than being shorn, the camel naturally sheds its coat in spring and the soft undercoat fibres can then be separated from the coarser guard hairs.
Yak & Qiviut
The yak (Bos grunniens) is a long-haired cousin of the cow that lives semi-wild in Mongolia, the Himalayas, Tibet and other areas of Central Asia. Like the camel, the yak sheds its coat in the spring and this is when the fine undercoat hairs are combed out. The fibre is 16-20 microns in diameter with a short staple length of 3-4cm.
It is generally sourced directly from semi-nomadic herders, which sustains and supports the local communities in these remote areas. It is becoming more popular as an alternative to cashmere. Finally, the Canadian and Alaskan musk ox is a distant relation to the Yak and the qiviut fibre it produces has similar properties.
With all luxury fibres it is worth checking that the company you are buying the yarn from has sound ethical principles and policies to ensure the appropriate animal welfare standards are being met.
- Our trusted source for luxury yarns: Tribeyarns.com
How to wash and block luxury yarns
Firstly, and as always, check the ball band to see what the yarn supplier recommends. In general, it is best to proceed with caution as you will have maybe spent a bit more time and money than usual creating a project out of a luxury yarn. If your yarn is a blend of different fibres, act as if it is made from 100% of the most delicate fibre in the blend so that its special properties are retained. In case of doubt, always hand wash wool luxury and fibre garments.
When it comes to blocking your knitting or crocheted item, a more gentle spray block or a light steam block might be kinder to your item than the complete dunking of a wet blocking. To protect the fibres further and nourish them, you can mix in a pump of KnitIQ No-Rinse Delicate Wash into a spray bottle filled with water and apply lightly to the item before blocking. There is a more detailed explanation in our previous Spray Blocking article here.
Or if you just want to gently shape your garment or accessory without wetting it, you could pin it out using rustproof pins such as our KnitIQ Blocking Pins on your KnitIQ Blocking Mats, then lightly steam with either an iron or a steamer with a delicate fabric guard attachment. Be really careful not to directly contact the fabric surface or to scald yourself!
If you do decide on wet blocking, take extra care especially with alpaca fibre as it can become quite fragile when wet. Carefully lay it flat to dry and don’t pull it into shape too aggressively. Even if you don’t need to pin out your item, KnitIQ Blocking Mats are an ideal surface to lay out your washed item onto.
It is also advisable to store luxury items folded rather than hanging to stop any distortion or stretching. But make sure that you wear them and enjoy them rather than admiring them from afar – we think that life’s too short to save things for best! And remember to keep tagging us in your pictures on social media.
Next month we’ll look at fibres from goats, rabbits and… worms – see you then.
If this wets your appetite, read on for more luxury yarns. The second part of this mini-series focuses on Cashmere, Angora, Mohair and Silk: