An Introduction to Fibers

By | April 15, 2016

The Difference Between “Yarn” and “Fiber”

In short: fibers are woven into yarns, and  yarns are woven, knitted or otherwise processed into fabric.

A lot of folks think of that stuff you knit and crochet with when we say “yarn”, so we tend to use the word “fiber” when we should say “yarn”.

This guide is written for beginners, so I’ll strive for an acceptable compromise between accuracy and comprehension for the newcomer, okay?

Starting At The Top

The first differentiation between fibers and yarns: is it natural or artificial? Natural fibers come from a source that’s grown, artificial fibers are produced from various chemical sources.

Examples of Natural Fiber

Natural fibers can be further categorized by whether they are plant-based, or animal-based.

Wool and silk are animal-based fibers. Wool can come from sheep, llamas, goats and even rabbits and dogs. Their hair is clipped and then spun into a yarn. Silk is extruded by the silkworm in extremely fine threads, and those threads are spun into a yarn. Animal-based fibers are sometimes referred to as protein fibers, because that’s what makes up hair and wool: protein.

Meanwhile, there are a LOT of plant-based fibers out there: cotton, linen, and hemp are the most well-known. The list also includes coir (the outer husk of a coconut), bamboo, jute, sisal and more. You might hear them referred to as cellulose fibers, but not very often. Be careful not to confuse that term with cellulose derivatives, which are a whole other fabric beast.

Examples of Artificial Fiber

Artificial fibers are derived from many chemical sources and many of them trace their origins back to an oil barrel. Polyester, acrylic, nylon and elastane (commonly known by the trade name Spandex) are among these.

And there are the cellulose derivatives. Yes, cellulose – an organic compound found in plants – is technically a natural substance. But cellulose goes through such a chemical stew to become a yarn that if you were to subject that yarn to a burn test, it reacts more like polyester than cotton. Cellulose yarns include rayon and some acetates. Tencel/lyocell, which you might encounter while fabric-hunting, are subset of rayon.

So Who Cares? What’s the Difference?

In general, natural fibers will shrink more in the wash, take dye more easily and be more comfortable to wear because they’re “breathable”. And there are a few other tricks too, such as the fact that wool retains its insulating properties even when wet, which you can’t say of polyester. Animal-based fibers are more likely to provoke an allergic reaction, as anyone who’s broken out into hives after wearing a wool sweater can attest. Natural fibers tend to be more expensive, especially if you’re looking to buy something that’s 100% natural, rather than a blend.

Artificial fibers can be more durable, hold dye for longer and cost less than natural fibers. They can take brighter colors than natural fibers, too, but they are more difficult to dye for reasons I get into elsewhere on the site.

Both artificial and natural fibers can be used in all types of fabrics. You can make velvet from silk and you can make it from polyester. The fabric in your jeans could be 100% cotton, or it could be a blend of cotton and Spandex.

An ongoing need to find the best of both worlds – a fabric that features most of the advantages of both natural and artificial fibers and as few as possible of the disadvantages – means that there are a lot of blended yarns out there for you to choose from. Visit the more-specific entries to get more detail about specific fiber types.

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