Science with Yarn!

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Whats almost as much fun as working with yarn? Thinking up daft science experiments you can try out in your kitchen, of course! In this ‘Science with yarn’ series of blog posts, yarn is going to be soaked in water, soaked in bleach, set on fire (bahahahaha, wicked fun) be tied to weights, and other epic stuff. But before we get stuck into any of that good stuff, this introduction is just going to look at what yarn is made from. Very briefly, I will touch on the difference between ‘natural’ and ‘synthetic’ yarns (which isn’t as clear cut as you might think) and consider a few other categories.

What is yarn made from?

Remember the game where kids would try to guess what someone else was thinking of, and start by asking is it ‘Animal, Vegetable or Mineral’?

Well, with yarn, it can be any of those three. Yarn is any fibre spun into a string for creating into a fabric. Such is the limitlessness of human ingenuity and the vast array of environments we have lived in through history, that people have discovered how to make yarn from almost anything.

Animal Fibres

The first fibre that most people would think of from the ‘animal fibre’ category is probably wool. So, here”s a question for you – is Alpaca wool? See, I would have said ‘yes’ to that, but then I joined some groups for promoting the wool industry, and was surprised to encounter purists who see wool as strictly coming from sheep. So what comes from alpaca, goats, angora rabbits, yaks? If that’s not wool, whats the collective term for animal hair spun into yarn? Honestly, I don’t know. If you do, drop a note in the comments, please!

In addition to the wool and wool-like fibres that are spun from animal hair, there is of course also silk which is spun from cocoons from silk worms.

And while it is seldom used in our yarns nowadays, there is also leather as a fabric – I wont be looking at the features of leather, so apologies to sewists who might be interested, as I will be focusing more on yarn based fabrics.

Watch shetland wool being carded

Plant Fibres

In today’s world, cotton is the most common plant based fibre, although in historical terms it is quite a newcomer. For most of human history linen and ramie have been the dominant plant based fabrics used. And yes, the humble stinging nettle makes an excellent yarn useful for weaving and also for yarn crafts, but in recent history, the last 150 years maybe, it has fallen out of favour.

However, it’s possible to make yarn and fabric from many types of plants. I am proud owner of 4 skeins of Banana leaf yarn – spun from 100% banana leaf fibre. I’ve not yet managed to think up the right project for such an unusual yarn. Bamboo, tencel and rayon are all synthetic plant based fibre which are quite recent inventions. More about them a little further down.

Ramie fibre extraction

Petrochemical fibres

Acrylic, nylon, polyester and other mineral based fibres can have very different properties. For example, as I expect the water experiments will prove, acrylic can be highly absorbent. Polyester can be 100% waterproof and used for rain jackets. So while we can say ‘all animal based fibres are good for keeping the body warm’ and ‘all plant based fibers have good absorbency’ there isn’t a similar statement about mineral fibres. They are something of a wild card. Yet the core materials they are made from are the same. Petrol sludge. The one statement that can be made about them all is that they are highly polluting.

Watch acrylic fibres being made

What is a ‘synthetic’ yarn?

‘Synthetic’ is generally defined as ‘man made’. In a more technical sense it is something created by synthesis. It can only be made in vats by educated or trained staff with scientific know-how. In contrast, ‘natural’ fibres derive from the natural world without our needing specialist processes.

Personally, I find this distinction a bit suspect. It fails, I think, to value the skills behind many traditional crafts. In the video linked above of the woman making ramie, there is plenty of skill being shown. Although my garden grew with shoulder high nettles last summer, there is no way I could have turned that into fabric.

If you found yourself on a deserted island after a shipwreck, would you be able to clothe yourself? From a stand of flax or nettles, or the wild sheep, would you know what to do? I wouldn’t, and I consider myself a skilled craftsperson.

All our fibres are human made, to an extent, and resulting from human enquiry. Early sheep didn’t give wool. Early farmers bred their fluffiest sheep until they ended up with sheep that gave wool without needing to be slaughtered for their skins. So wool, cotton, and other ‘natural’ fibres are all a result of human intervention. On the other hand, coal was developing under the ground before human evolution started.

So its not the most robust distinction.

What other distinctions can we use?

When I started the Fairythorn, I used the word ‘sustainable’ to describe my approach. But over time, I’m not sure its the best word, as it gets thrown around in jargon so much. The big question is, if we use up this resource, can the planet make more in our lifetime?

Other questions we need to ask are about how much harm is being done. Harm can be through pollution, through animal welfare, and thought social justice issues of an exploited workforce. But these issues are too big for this one post, and instead are themes I plan on coming back to, over and over.

So whats the best type of yarn to use?

There isn’t an easy answer to that question. Much depends on context, and what the yarn is to be used for.

Mineral yarns are very polluting.

Animal yarns may have come from cherished cosseted animals living their best lives. Or they may come from semi-neglected herds of moiled merino. So it’s not really possible to say animal fibres are either ‘good’ or bad’. It’s more complicated than that.

Equally, plant based fibres might be carefully grown in harmony with the local ecology. Or they might be farmed with heave use of pesticides, draining more water than the local ecology can give, based on seriously exploited workforce. This can result in food shortages as the land and water is taken to meet fast fashion’s insaitable desire more cheap cotton.

Because everyone needs to start somewhere, my choice has been to avoid all mineral based yarns. I continue to use all plant and animal based ones.

In this series on science with yarn I will be looking more at the properties of each, as well as unpacking what some of the implications of using them are.

Thank you for reading

By Ciara

I learned to knit as a young child, and came to crochet much later in life when I could no longer knit. Sharing the joy of crochet with sustainability and slow fashion in mind is a passion


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