Animal fibers are natural fibers that consist largely of particular proteins. Instances are silk, hair/fur (including wool) and feathers. The animal fibers used most commonly both in the manufacturing world as well as by the hand spinners are wool from domestic sheep and silk. Also very popular are alpaca fiber and mohair from Angora goats. Unusual fibers such as Angora wool from rabbits and Chiengora from dogs also exist, but are rarely used for mass production.
Not all animal fibers have the same properties, and even within a species the fiber is not consistent. Merino is a very soft, fine wool, while Costwold is coarser, and yet both merino and Cotswold are types of sheep. This comparison can be continued on the microscopic level, comparing the diameter and structure of the fiber. With animal fibers, and natural fibers in general, the individual fibers look different, whereas all synthetic fibers look the same. This provides an easy way to differentiate between natural and synthetic fibers under a microscope.
Silk is a “natural” protein fiber, some forms of which can be woven into textiles. The best-known type of silk is obtained from cocoons made by the larvae of the silkworm Bombyx mori reared in captivity (sericulture). Degummed fibers from B. mori are 5-10 μm in diameter. The shimmering appearance for which silk is prized comes from the fibers’ triangular prism-like cross-sectional structure which allows silk cloth to refract incoming light at different angles. Silk is also the strongest natural fiber known.
The length of the silk fiber depends on how it has been prepared. Since the cocoon is made of one strand, if the cocoon is unwound carefully the fibers can be very long.
Wool is the fiber derived from the fur of animals of the Caprinae family, principally sheep, but the hair of certain species of other mammals such as goats, alpacas, and rabbits may also be called wool.
Alpaca fiber is that of an alpaca. It is warmer than sheep’s wool and lighter in weight. It is soft, fine, glossy, and luxurious. The thickness of quality fiber is between 12-29 micrometers. Most alpaca fiber is white, but it also comes in various shades of brown and black.
Angora wool or Angora fiber refers to the down coat produced by the Angora rabbit. There are many types of Angora rabbits – English, French, German and Giant. Angora is prized for its softness, thin fibers of around 12-16 micrometers for quality fiber, and what knitters refer to as a halo (fluffiness). The fiber felts very easily. Angora fiber comes in white, black, and various shades of brown.
Bison Down is the soft undercoat of the American Bison. The coat of the bison contains two different types of fiber. The main coat is made up of coarse fibers (average 59 micrometers) called guard hairs, and the downy undercoat (average 18.5 micrometers). This undercoat is shed annually and consists of fine, soft fibers which are very warm and protect the animal from harsh winter conditions.
Cashmere wool is wool obtained from the Cashmere goat. Cashmere is characterized by its luxuriously soft fibers, with high napability and loft. In order for a natural goat fiber to be considered Cashmere, it must be under 18.5 micrometers in diameter and be at least 3,175 centimeters long. It is noted as providing a natural light-weight insulation without bulk. Fibers are highly adaptable and are easily constructed into fine or thick yarns, and light to heavy-weight fabrics.
Mohair is a silk-like fabric or yarn made from the hair of the Angora goat. It is both durable and resilient. It is notable for its high luster and sheen, and is often used in fiber blends to add these qualities to a textile. Mohair also takes dye exceptionally well.
Wool has two qualities that distinguish it from hair or fur: it has scales which overlap like shingles on a roof and it is crimped; in some fleeces the wool fibers have more than 20 bends per inch. Wool varies in diameter from below 17 micrometers to over 35 micrometers. The finer the wool, the softer it will be, while coarser grades are more durable and less prone to pilling.
Qiviut is the fine underwool of the muskox. Qiviut fibers are long (about 5 to 8 cm), fine (between 15 and 20 micrometers in diameter), and relatively smooth. It is approximately eight times warmer than sheep’s wool and does not felt or shrink.
Fiber from other animals
Hand spinners also use fiber from animals such as llamas, camels, yak, and possums. These fibers are generally used in clothing.
Hair from animals such as horses is also an animal fiber. Horsehair is used for brushes, the bows of musical instruments and many other things. Chiengora is dog hair.
Wool from a wide range of animals can be used for handicrafts and garments.
Most animal fiber will felt but some felt much better than others. Sheep’s wool is one of the more versatile types of fiber to use in a felting project. Other types of fiber that felt fairly easily are Alpaca, Angora, Mohair, and Llama. There are many different breeds of sheep and the wool from each breed has different qualities and characteristics. Learning about the various differences will be a great help when determining which type of wool should be used for which individual project.
Fibre from Alpacas and Angora goats is softer the younger the animal. Alpaca fibre described as ‘cria’ – the name for baby camelids, will be the softest fibre. The softness of the fibre also depends where on the animal it was sheared from. The ‘blanket’ is the best part, it is soft and long. Fibre from the neck and upper legs is soft, but shorter, this is usually called ‘seconds’ and fibres from the lower legs and belly has lots of guard hair, and is coarser and usually quite dirty. Alpaca fibre is very soft and has a silky feel. Because it doesn’t have scales like sheep wool, it is less likely to cause the ‘itchy’ feeling some people get from wool.”
Fibre from Angora goats is known as Mohair. Kid mohair is from the youngest goats and is softer and more curly. Fibre from slightly older goats known as ‘Yearling’ is courser and more wavy than curly, and fleece from older animals is known as Adult mohair’ or ‘grown mohair’. Mohair is very shiny. The micron count for cria alpaca and kid mohair is around 20 for both, increasing with the age of the animal.
Other micron counts are Cashmere 14-19, Angora rabbit 10-16, Vicuna 10-13, Camel 15-23.
Sheep’s wool is a renewable resource and a multipurpose fiber. Wool has characteristics that have made it a desirable fiber for many thousands of years.
- Wool can absorb up to 30% of its own weight in moisture. Therefore, when worn as clothing, it can wick sweat from the body and enhance the body’s own cooling system. It prevents the clammy, cold feeling found when wearing synthetic clothing.
- Wool is an insulator as opposed to trapping heat. As an insulator, it keeps you warm in cold weather and cool in hot weather.
- The moisture in each wool fiber means that it is fire resistant. Wool will char in an open flame but is self extinguishing and stops burning after being removed from the flame.
- The waviness or crimp of wool fiber gives it a natural elasticity. This elastic quality allows the wool to retain its shape better and makes it very durable as the fiber can be bent multiple times without breaking.
- Wool is resistant to dirt because the small scales on the surface of the fiber hold the dirt near the surface, making the dirt easier to remove. Wool also repels odors.
- Like most fabrics, wool is a good sound absorber.
- Due to its moisture content, wool is resistant to static electricity.
- Saving the best for last, wool has the ability to felt. Due to the small scales on the surface of the wool fiber as well as other factors such as the crimp, wool when combined with warm water, soap and a little agitation will matt together in an irreversible process called felting.
Wool is graded to determine its quality. The quality can be determined by fiber diameter, crimp, colour, staple length, staple strength, yield and remaining vegetable matter. The most important factor though is the fiber diameter. The fineness or coarseness of the wool will determine its end use. The diameter is measured either by the Bradford System or by microns.
The Bradford System is a way to measure the fineness of a wool breed. The Bradford Count is the number of hanks of yarn (a hank being 560 yards long) that can be spun from a pound of wool tops. The finer the wool, the more hanks could be spun. Wool with higher Bradford counts are finer and therefore can be spun into longer yarn.
Micron count is the diameter of the fibre in microns, a micron is 1,000th of a millimetre. The lower the micron count the finer the wool.
Shipment / Storage / Risk factors
Usually shipped in bales. Argentine dressed horse hair has a natural moisture content varying between 6% and 10%, according to the season in which it is packed. Subject to loss in weight due to drying out.
Horse hair deteriorates when wet, either from external causes or as a result of damp packing, which causes the material to become brittle and rot. Similarly mohair and other animal fibres also react to the presence of any excess moisture.
The product is liable to ignite spontaneously according to oil/moisture content.
Check the IMDG (International Maritime Dangerous Goods) Code for transport advice.