“What is yarn made of?” you ask? How much time do you have? (How much time do I have, for that matter). Yarn can be made from a huge variety of fibers, so please know that this post is only going to scratch the surface. If you have specific questions that this list doesn’t cover, please don’t hesitate to get in touch!
Yarn can be made of natural fibers, synthetic materials, or a blend of both. Here at Darn Yarn, we specialize in natural and blended yarns. Natural fibers can be sourced from animals or plants, and we’ll run down a list of some of the most useful and interesting varieties, starting with animal fibers.
Animal-sourced natural yarns:
The most well-known animal fiber, wool is produced from the fleece of sheep. There are many different kinds of wool in a range of softness and durability (a few kinds you may encounter are merino, bluefaced Leicester, and Shetland). Wool is affordable and easy to use. It creates durable knits that are moisture-wicking and breathable. Unless otherwise indicated on a label, wool is hand-wash only and you shouldn’t put it in the dryer.
Note: we hear a lot about how people can’t wear wool, but often they’ll find that they actually can wear somewool. Fibers from different breeds of sheep can have a totally different feel for the wearer. Not all wool is scratchy!
Mohair is made from the coat of the Angora goat (this is not to be confused with Angora yarn, which is made of the down from Angora rabbits). Mohair is a luxurious yarn with a fluffy texture. It’s lightweight but also extremely warm. Mohair can be tricky to use because it’s so fluffy that your stiches can be hard to see. Some mohair is dry clean only, so pay close attention to the care instructions when you’re considering your choice of yarn!
As mentioned above, angora is made of the fluffy down from Angora rabbits. Angora is much lighter and warmer than wool and is known for its silky feel and fluffy appearance. Like mohair, angora yarn can be tricky to work with because of its texture and the fact that the yarn can be slippery. Angora yarn must generally be dry cleaned or hand-washed and air dried. It is often blended with other fibers for increased durability.
Side note: have you ever seen an Angora rabbit? They’re freaking adorable!
Cashmere is produced from the coat of cashmere goats. Cashmere is warm, but not particularly breathable. It is a luxury yarn that becomes softer the more you wear it. Cashmere is often blended with other fibers to provide a soft but more durable yarn. Pure cashmere yarn must be dry cleaned, but blends may stand up to washing (make sure you double-check!)
Made from the fleece from alpacas (a relative of the llama), this yarn is dense and strong, but soft and lightweight. Alpaca is naturally hypoallergenic and can be good for people who have sensitive skin because of its smooth texture. As with all yarns, check carefully for care instructions. Many alpaca yarns are hand-wash only.
Sourced from the soft inner coat of the Bactrian Camel, camel hair has been compared to mohair or cashmere in terms of softness, but it is generally easier to handle because it is less fluffy. Camel hair is warm, lightweight, and breathable, with a smooth, lustrous appearance. Camel hair must be washed carefully—hand washing is best (although, as always, check the yarn’s specific care instructions)
Although alpacas are a better-known source of animal fiber, llama fiber also an excellent choice, creating a soft, non-allergenic yarn. Llama yarns are durable and warm, but lightweight. Like alpaca and camel yarn, llama yarn must be handled with care when laundering.
Silk yarn is made of fibers from the cocoons of silkworms. The cocoons are first washed with soap and water, then carded, combed, and spun into yarn. Silk yarn is strong but soft and luxurious, with a subtle sheen. It is lightweight and not as warm as some other options, making it ideal for summer garments. The yarn can be somewhat slippery to work with but is generally easy to handle. Silk does not have much elasticity, and large, heavy projects can lose their shape if they are knit from pure silk yarn. If you are hand washing a 100% silk project, be careful not to wring or twist it, as it may not regain its shape. Silk can also be blended with other fibers to add a luster and strength to any yarn.
Plant-based natural yarns:
Linen is made from the long fibers found just under the bark of the flax plant. Linen yarn is durable and absorbent—excellent for summer wear. Sometimes you’ll see linen yarn referred to as flax yarn; the terms are interchangeable. Linen can be spun in several ways to create a yarn of varying smoothness. Linen will seem stiff as you work with it but will soften with time and laundering. While you should always follow specific care instructions, linen yarn can often stand up to machine washing and drying (but please check first!).
Spun from the fibrous flower of the cotton plant, cotton yarn is breathable, soft, and absorbent. It is exceptionally durable, which makes it a great choice for dishcloths, toys, and bath accessories. It also makes perfect summer clothing. Cotton yarn is easy to work with. Keep in mind that a pure cotton yarn is not elastic and will stretch out significantly when it’s worn. Cotton is easy to care for and can often be machine washed and dried, depending on the specific care instructions.
Bamboo yarn, made from crushed and processed bamboo plants, is eco-friendly and can be made without killing the bamboo plant. Bamboo is soft and breathable—a perfect choice for summer garments. Pure bamboo yarn is biodegradable, antibacterial, and extremely absorbent, but it can lose some of its strength when wet and can even disintegrate. For this reason, pure bamboo yarn is less than ideal for items that will require frequent washing—dry cleaning is generally recommended. Bamboo does combine well with other materials, however, so if bamboo appeals to you, keep an eye out for blends. If you want to retain bamboo’s antibacterial properties, look for a yarn with at least 70% bamboo (and check the label for care instructions, of course).
Nettle is harvested from the fibrous inner stems of nettle plants. Nettle yarn is an eco-friendly choice, as nettles require less water to grow than cotton does. Nettle fibers are strong but biodegradable. Pure nettle fibers are rough and suitable for string or rope, so you will generally find nettle in blended yarns for added softness. Nettle makes an excellent alternative to synthetic fibers in yarns that require extra durability (for example, sock yarns). Because blends vary widely, there aren’t general care instructions for nettle yarn—check the specific blend for information!
Sourced from okara, a biproduct of soy milk, tofu, or soybean oil production, soy yarn is produced by removing liquid proteins and forcing them through a spinneret. The resulting fibers are dried and then spun or plied together. Soy yarn (also called soy protein yarn) is silky, lustrous, and soft, but strong. It is breathable and absorbent, making it a wonderful choice for summer knits. Soy dries quickly and has natural antibacterial properties. It stands up well to machine washing and drying (although, as always, be sure to check the specific yarn you’re using).
Tencel yarn is made from wood pulp—mainly eucalyptus and beech. It has a soft, smooth texture with a beautiful sheen. It’s absorbent, breathable, and easy to work with. It’s also strong. Like cotton, Tencel is not at all stretchy, so keep that in mind when you’re planning your project. Your laundering method is going to depend on the specific yarn, but often you can wash Tencel knits in cold water on a gentle setting.
This is just a sample of the natural materials that yarn can be made from. If you have questions about a material that you don’t see here, or if you want more information about one of the fibers above, get in touch!
What about blends?
Yarn blends combine two or more fibers into a single yarn. For example, you might encounter a cashmere/merino wool blend, which combines the softness of cashmere with the strength and elasticity of merino, or a silk blend, which combines lustrous silk fibers with more budget-friendly fibers. Blends are common because they bring together the best of several materials.
Blends can combine multiple natural fibers, but they can also incorporate synthetic materials such as nylon, polyester, or acrylic. An excellent example is some sock yarns, which often combine wool and nylon for added durability.
Your ideal choice of yarn is going to depend on your own tastes as well as the kind of project you’re planning. If you need any help figuring out the best yarn for your purposes, let us know! We love helping people find their perfect match!