When we talk about wool most of us are probably thinking of yarn spun from the fleeces of sheep. However, not all animal fibres come from sheep; you can obtain yarn from a wide range of creatures. Here we’re going to look at some of the more interesting ones.
These members of the camel family originate in South America and are noted for their soft fleeces. Alpaca fibres are smooth and hollow, making for a lightweight yarn that feels lovely against the skin. The hollow fibres also mean that the yarn traps more air, making it incredibly warm. It’s also stronger than sheep’s wool and surprisingly durable for such a soft and light yarn. You can buy alpaca yarn dyed to a variety of colours but there’s also a wide range of natural shades available, from white through fawn and brown to grey and black.
Probably the best-known non-sheep yarn comes from Cashmere goats. Originally from the Kashmir region of modern-day northern India and Pakistan, these goats are now farmed in a variety of other countries. Their yarn is highly prized for its softness and the fine quality of the fibre. Once knitted up, garments are lightweight yet very warm.
This yarn is derived from the angora goat. As well as being soft and fine, the fibres of mohair have a particularly silky and lustrous quality that reflect the light in a distinctive way. Mohair also absorbs dyes very well and so you will find it in a wide range of colours. It’s often combined with other animal fibres so the mohair holds its shape when spun.
Rather confusingly, angora comes from the angora rabbit rather than the angora goat. Angora fibres are very fine and silky and the yarn has a characteristic fluffiness that gives an effect described as a ‘halo’. It’s lighter and much warmer than sheep’s wool but it does felt very easily and so angora fibres are often combined with sheep’s wool to minimise this potential.
Yaks are a cow-like animals from Central Asia where they were originally used as a pack animals before being farmed. The down-like fibres from the animals’ undercoats are spun into a yarn which has a softness comparable to cashmere. Although yak yarn does not contain lanolin – the substance that gives sheep’s yarn its water-repellent qualities – it does contain a fatty acid that makes it water resistant.
Bison yarn is spun from the soft undercoat of the American bison – yarn producers obtain this by gathering up the ‘fluff’ that animals shed each year. Like yak yarn, bison yarn has water-resistant properties and is soft and light, meaning it can be worn next to the skin as well as being ideal for outer garments.
Some people cannot wear sheep’s wool, often because of an allergy to the naturally occurring lanolin. None of the animal yarns highlighted here contain lanolin, making them ideal if you’re knitting for anyone with an intolerance to sheep’s wool. However, these yarns are often mixed with sheep’s wool to make them easier to work with, so check the ball band if you’re trying to avoid sheep’s yarn. As with all natural fibres, take care when washing your finished projects – follow the advice on the manufacturer’s ball band.