Your Guide to Synthetic and Natural Yarns and Wool
With all the different yarns available on the market, it can be daunting to know which one is the best to choose for your project. In this article we’ll answer your questions about the differences in yarns and fiber, what they are best used for, and much more.
What is the difference between natural and synthetic yarns or fibers?
The difference between natural and synthetic yarns is that synthetic yarns are man-made fibers that are spun into yarn, while natural yarns are made up of fibers from animal hair, plants, or even certain types of insect cocoons.
Natural yarns can be divided into three main groups; plant fibers, animal fibers, and protein fibers.
Plant fibers include:
- Bamboo — made from the fast-growing bamboo plant, the resulting yarn is soft and, if you are working with 100% bamboo, you should not have a problem with allergies as may be the case with wool. Bamboo is also a very breathable yarn and has great drape.
- Cotton — made from the cotton plant’s boll fiber that actually protects the seeds and naturally helps with seed dispersal. It is one of the most common fibers used to make yarn with.
- Hemp — made from the hemp plant fiber. Hemp yarn won’t shrink or stretch and won’t pill. It also softens more with every wash. No longer only available in undyed or earthy tones, there is now a large range of vibrant colors available.
- Linen — made from flax plant fiber, it is very strong and absorbent and also dries faster than cotton. It does have poor elasticity, which means that the wet fibers will also barely stretch.
- Soy — made from treated soybeans, this is another fairly new yarn on the knitting and crochet scene.
Plant fibers don’t retain as much heat as animal fibers do, making them perfect for warm or milder weather. A great choice for both garments and accessories, these plant fibers can also be used to create home décor items as the fibers are durable enough to withstand repeated use.
Animal fibers include:
- Alpaca — Alpaca yarn is made from the fleece of alpaca’s and has a soft and silky finish. It is also very durable and ideal for you if you suffer from allergies as it doesn’t contain lanolin. Alpaca is great for winter items like jerseys, cardigans, and hats.
- Angora — The downy, extremely soft coat of the angora rabbit produces a luxury yarn. As the fiber is not elastic, it’s usually blended with wool. Yarns of 100% angora are usually only used for accents. The fibers also felt very easily, making the correct care very important.
- Camel — Collected from Bactrian camels by either shearing, combing or hand gathering the fiber shed during molting season. The coarse outer hair and fine hairs are separated after collection and then the fiber can be washed and spun. Camel fiber/hair is usually blended with other fibers like wool and not used as 100% camel hair yarn.
- Cashmere — Cashmere yarn is made out of the fiber from cashmere or pashmina goats. It’s three times more insulating than sheep wool. Cashmere is a luxurious yarn that can be used to make sweaters, hats, gloves, and socks. Accessories like shawls can also be made from this yarn.
- Llama — The fine undercoat of llamas can also be spun into a warm yarn. Usually blended with other fibers, like wool. Items made from llama yarn remain warm even when they get wet and it is also a superior cold weather and winter fiber.
- Mohair — Mohair yarn is made from fiber that is collected from angora goats (not to be confused with angora wool that comes from the angora rabbit). South Africa is the biggest global producer of mohair — producing nearly half of it. Mohair is sometimes called the diamond fiber as it offers exceptional color reflection. The yarn is also lightweight and stays cool in summer and warm in winter. Mohair also retains dyes beautifully.
- Wool, including merino wool — Probably the kind of fiber people think of when they hear “wool” and “yarn”, is the fiber that is made from sheep wool. Merino wool is one of the favorite types of wool thanks to being extra soft and breathable. The merino fiber is also a lot more elastic than other types of wool. Even more good news for merino wool wearers is that it can reduce the symptoms of eczema when worn next to the skin as it maintains a buffer of stable humidity and temperature. Merino was shown to be even more advantageous than cotton! The study, which was published in the British Journal of Dermatology, shows that wool need not avoided by children — or even adults — with eczema.
- Yak — Used for over a thousand years by nomads in the Tran-Himalayan region to make clothing, tents, ropes, and blankets, yak fiber is now also used in wool blends. Yak down is warmer than merino wool by 10-40% and its softness can be compared to that of cashmere. Truly a luxurious product!
Silk is a protein-based fiber that comes from the cocoons of certain insects. The best-known silk is made from the cocoons of the larvae of the mulberry silkworm. It is mostly used to make accessories.
Pure silk yarn is extremely soft and takes dye very well, creating rich, jewel tones and lustrous colors. It does take a bit of practice to get used to as it is a very slippery yarn if not blended with something like wool or bamboo.
Synthetic, artificial, or man-made fibers can be described as “totally synthetic”. These fibers are made from crudes and intermediates, including petroleum, coal, limestone, and water. Semisynthetic, or part-synthetic fibers — like rayon — are derived from plants, for instance from wood or bamboo.
Synthetic fibers include:
Frequently asked questions
We’ve gathered together some of the internet’s most frequently asked questions about different yarns and fibers to give you all the answers in one place.
What does “superwash” mean?
If you see that a wool yarn is “superwash”, it means that it can be washed in a washing machine (without turning into a clump of felt!). Yarns can be made into superwash yarns in two ways; by using an acid bath or by covering the yarn with a microscopic layer of polymer or resin.
Keep in mind the following when you work with superwash yarn:
- Superwash yarn stretches more than non-superwash yarn of the same fiber makeup.
- Superwash should still be washed in a cool wash to prevent the coating from being damaged. A warm iron can also damage the coating, so you also shouldn’t iron items made from superwash wool. Rather, dry them flat.
It is therefore very important that you make your swatch first to test gauge before you start knitting your project when you’re working with superwash wool. This will ensure that you don’t end up with a garment that is too big, too small, or too stretchy.
What does it mean when a yarn is a fiber blend?
Different yarns consist of different fibers, but yarn (or wool) doesn’t have to be made up of 100% of the same fibre. So, for instance, you can get yarn that is 100% cotton or merino wool, but you can also get yarn that is a mix (or “blend”) of different wool and animal fibers or plant fibers. You can get a blend of animal fiber and silk or plant fibre and silk as well. Bamboo and silk, for instance, makes for a very beautiful, light yarn.
Fiber blends can also be a mix of synthetic and natural fibers. These blends are usually a cheaper option and may contain only 10 or 20% natural fiber, but it all depends on the specific mix and what the intended use of the blend is. Sock yarn, for example, contains the synthetic fiber nylon, but only very little (for instance 5%).
Why does sock yarn usually contain nylon?
Nylon is often used in fiber blends because it adds strength and elasticity to the yarn. It also helps the finished item retain its shape a lot better. The result is socks that are comfy and forms perfectly to your foot while still retaining their shape after they’ve been worn and washed.
You’ll see that most sock yarns are not only a nylon blend but is also superwash, making them very easy to care for.
What is the best yarn to use for babies?
There is much talk about what the best yarn for baby clothes, blankets, toys, etc. is. While much of it depends on your own taste, there are things to keep in mind when making items for babies:
- Babies have very sensitive skin
- Baby items usually have to be washed often because of everyday use and spills.
- If the baby is premature and still in the hospital, ask the hospital which fibers they allow, as some fibers create a lot of static electricity.
Yarns to choose from for baby are:
- Bamboo/bamboo blends
- Cotton/cotton blends
- Merino wool/certain merino blends
- Soft and non-scratchy fiber blends.
What is the warmest yarn to use for hats, scarves, etc.?
If you’re looking for something that can withstand even the harshest of winters, you may want to look at merino wool, yak wool or wool blends, or alpaca. These wool types are all at least three times warmer than sheep’s wool. However, some other more exotic yarns can also be very warm, for instance, bison wool, qiviut wool, and cashmere.
When you keep in mind availability, price, comfort, and ease of working with it, you will most likely find that merino wool — like that by KnitPal — comes out on top.
What makes KnitPal wool so special?
KnitPal’s merino yarn mainly comes from Peru. The merino sheep are raised by small farmers in the Andes of Southern Peru — at an altitude of 11 500 — 16 000 ft above sea level. At this height, temperatures can differ by more than 50 degrees in one day. For this reason, the sheep grow dense coats of fleece that are not only extremely durable but also has a high thermal quality. KnitPal supports women-led farms buy buying their yarn from them. But that’s not the thing that makes KnitPal’s yarns so very special, and neither is it that they are biodegradable (and therefore doesn’t leave a nasty footprint!); it is also the way in which they are hand-dyed with love and happiness.
Based on Dr. Masaru Emoto’s recent research, the shape and molecular structure of water changes with positive messages, prayer, and music. At KnitPal we are truly inspired to bring happy and healthy energies and only good feelings to the yarn that we’re sending to your home.
In order to be able to do this, we soak the yarn in warm water the night before we dye the yarn. While we do this, songs full of love, gratitude, and happiness are played. Lately, our music of choice is some of The Beatles’ classic songs, including “All You Need Is Love” and “Come together”.
When it comes to the actual dyeing process, it is a labor of love to get each skein dyed to perfectly match your team’s colors because we know how important that is to you. You can’t support your team in faded colors! We test the color a few times before applying it to the yarn and we make sure that we use the established Pantone and CMYK systems to ensure the colors are matched perfectly every time.