Weaving With Wool – Material Spotlight

Weaving With Wool – Material Spotlight

Weaving and wool go hand-in-hand.

In fact, tapestry would not be as we know it today without the use of wool as a common material used in weaving. So what is it about wool that has made such a huge part of the history of weaving itself? How can we use it today to its full potential?


In case you have missed my other yarn spotlights you can check those out here:

Weaving with cotton

Weaving with linen

Weaving with hemp


This page may contain affiliate links. If you purchase something through these links then I will receive a small commission – at no extra cost to you! Please read our DISCLAIMER for more info. Thanks for the support!



Wool as a fiber


wool yarn on cones

So what exactly is wool?

Wool can actually be used to describe many different types of protein fibers from different animals. For example, the fleece from sheep, alpaca, goats, rabbits, and other animals are all called wool.

That being said, when you see “wool” listed as the contents of your yarn or fabric then it is going to be a type of sheep’s wool. Otherwise, it will usually have the animal title preceding it. So unless I say otherwise, wool = sheep’s wool.

Wool fibers are made primarily of a protein called keratin. This is very similar to our own hair. Just like our hair, wool has cuticles that go along the length of the fiber that you can actually feel. These cuticles are responsible for one of the main attributes of wool – the ability to felt.

While felting in and of itself is an artform, it also applies to your weavings and how they behave. We will go more into that a bit later when we talk about pros and cons.


History of weaving with wool


Sheep were first domesticated in about 5000 BCE, but it was not until around 4000 BCE that they began to be utilized for not just their meat, but also their wool and milk. It took 1000 years for the fleece of these domesticated sheep to shift from mostly hair that was unsuitable for creating yarn to mostly wool. Prior to this, most weaving materials were made of cellulose fibers such as linen and hemp

Since wool naturally comes in different colors (whites, greys, browns, and blacks) and because it easily takes dye, it became a prominent material for creating patterned textiles. These textiles were often weft-faced and became tunics and tapestries.

This dye affinity meant that the domestication of sheep changed the future of textiles. Suddenly there were more color options to work with and more imagery could be created.

A quick refresher on tapestry:

Tapestry is a weft-faced weaving that features discontinuous weft. Most often (although not always) these weavings heavily feature imagery. 

Learn more about tapestry here.


How it is harvested and prepared


wool fleece and hand carders

An important thing to understand about wool is that it is a renewable material. This makes it a sustainable option for weaving that you do not have to feel guilty about using. While those that are vegan may abstain from wool since it comes from an animal, wool is collected without causing harm to the sheep. In fact, domesticated sheep have evolved to need shearing in order to live a more comfortable life. 

There are many different types of sheep that produce different types of wool. Some sheep even have a mixture of wool and hair. 

After shearing, the fleece needs to be cleaned before it can be turned into yarn. Cleaning the wool is important to rid it of multiple things you will not want in the final product you use for weaving. The wool is cleaned of large debris such as grass, dirt, dust, and feces.

Most often the fleece is also cleaned to remove the waxes and oils (such as lanolin) from the fibers. Sometimes these waxes are kept on for spinning, but they should always be cleaned off when it comes time to purchase yarn for weaving.

After it is cleaned the wool is carded to make sure all of the fibers are going in the same direction to prepare it for spinning or for weaving. If you are not doing your own spinning or cleaning up raw fiber, then you may not need hand carders. If you do need them, though, then these Ashford hand carders are the ones I am using.


Families of wool yarn


wool and fiber books

There are hundreds of different breeds of sheep from all over the world. We do not have time or really need to go over all of them here. There are some names, though, that you may come across in your yarn purchases that would be good to know.

If you want to learn more about different breeds of sheep then I highly recommend The Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook by Deborah Robson and Carol Ekarius.


Merino


There are many different breeds of sheep but not all of them are great for producing fibers for weaving and other fiber arts. There are some breeds known as hair sheep that produce little to no actual wool. Wool yarns can be categorized by the weight and texture of the fibers. One of the most common types of wool that you will see is Merino.

This common family of sheep originated as a crossbreed of Spanish and Moroccan ewes (female sheep) to African rams. Despite its reputation for fine soft fibers, in the Merino family, there are actually many different breeds of sheep that range from having fine to courser wool textures. Since it has become a household name, you can assume that the Merino you can find in everything from socks to sweaters to base layers is of the finer variety. Prior to being dyed, most Merino wool is white or off-white, but can sometimes be found in grey, brown, or black.


Northern European Short-Tailed


One of the most well-known breeds of sheep from the Northern European short-tailed family is the Icelandic sheep. These sheep are not surprisingly originally from Iceland and were developed almost entirely in isolation – keeping them pure. In 1985 and 1990 they were brought over to North America.

Icelandic sheep are double-coated where the outercoat is called tog and the undercoat is called thel. These terms are sometimes applied to other types of non-sheep wool as well. These two types of wool are sometimes spun together and sometimes separate. If separate then thel is best to use for anything that needs to be really soft, while tog is best to use for applications that require a strong yarn.

Shetland yarn is another popular breed that is known for its wide range of natural colors. Much like the Icelandic sheep, Shetland sheep are double-coated. The two types of wool that you can expect are “kindly” and “beaver” with the former being very fine and soft and the latter often characterized as scratchy.

Shetland sheep will naturally shed both their over and undercoats, but this happens over a few weeks of time. Instead, like most sheep raised for their wool they are sheared to get all of their fleece at once.


group of sheep

English Longwool


Leicester (pronounced Lester) sheep are a member of the English Longwool family. As their name implies, this family of sheep is known for their long wool. These sheep mainly come from the UK but originated from Rome.

These sheep can be shorn twice a year for shorter gains, or once a year for longer wool. Within the Leicester family, there are 3 main breeds: Leicester Longwool, Border Leicester, and Bluefaced Leicester. I will not be going into all the differences here, but just know that not all Leicesters are the same.

Among these different breeds you can find all colors, but mostly white. The Longwools locks can be crimped or curled.


Cormo


The Cormo sheep do not fall into any particular family but are still notable. Cormos originated in Australia as a cross between Corriedale rams and Merino ewes. They continue to be bred very precisely to keep the wool consistent in look, feel, and yield. They were brought to the United States starting in 1976.

The wool from Cormo sheep has a well-defined crimp and stretches well and is good for both fluffy and lacy applications.



Wool – what it is good for?


Absolutely a lot of things … (get it?)

Anyway, wool is an amazing fiber.

Like most natural fibers wool is biodegradable. As long as it is 100% wool and it has not been treated than when your woven fabrics or scraps are no longer usable you can be happy knowing that they will not be adding to the landfill. If sustainability is important to you then this is just one of the attributes that you will want to be looking for when choosing your fibers.

Learn more about sustainable yarns here.


Wool is flame resistant


Did you know that wool is used by firefighters and other professions where fire could be a professional hazard? Wool is naturally high in both water and nitrogen which makes it much slower to burn than other fibers. When it does ignite (with very high heat) the structure makes it so the fire does not spread and only smolders. Wool is actually considered self-extinguishing as any burning stops when removed from active flames.

It also does not melt or drip which makes it a great option for home textiles or anything that will be against the skin.


woven wool scarves

Temperature regulating


If you have ever looked for performance wear then you may have heard that wool is great for keeping you cool and dry. In fact, wool can actually absorb up to 33% of its weight in moisture without feeling damp. This makes it a great option for anything that you might wear if you are planning to be sweaty.

Wool will absorb both perspiration and moisture from the air. These things will keep you cool in warmer weather and warm in cooler weather by balancing everything out.


Mold and mildew resistant


We previously talked about the anatomy of wool and the fact that it has cuticles all along each fiber. These cuticles are perfect for when you need a yarn with a little extra “tooth” to it. You will not have to worry about your warp or weft sliding around! Some weavers use wool as their warp for tapestry for this very reason. The wool warp grips to the weft and keeps it in place. That is not to say that using a cotton or linen warp will mean the weft will be moving around during weaving, but if you are noticing some slip then you can always try wool!


Every fiber has its drawbacks


While wool is a great fiber for a lot of different applications there are some that you may want to leave for other types of yarn.

One of the biggest things to keep in mind with wool is that it is a favorite of moths.

Moths are attracted to protein fibers and if you have ever had a favorite woolen sweater mysteriously have holes appear in it, you know exactly what I am talking about. This may not be enough reason to not use it at all (do not let the moths win!), but it is something to think about when storing your wool yarns and finished weavings.

Learn more about studio organization (and storing wool) here.

Another possible drawback of using wool is that it can be prone to felting. Depending on what you are going for you may or may not want your wool to felt.

Felting may be advantageous for certain applications or for filling out gaps from weaving. Felting, though, is not always the goal when making woven fabrics. If you are wanting to make sure your wool weavings do not felt then you will need to be very careful when washing. There is also a chemical finish you can get on your yarn to keep it from felting called superwash.

Learn more about yarn treatments and specialty yarns here.


Weaving with roving


weaving tapestry with wool roving

First, what is roving?

Roving is an unspun fiber that has been cleaned and carded so that it is all going in the same direction.

It is basically a long fluffy “snake” of wool that you would normally spin into yarn, but can also be woven as is!

Weaving with roving seems to have become more popular as of late and that is probably because the payoff is huge. Roving created large fluffy areas of texture on the surface of your weavings and can be really beautiful to weave on their own or mixed with more traditional yarns to really make them pop out!

You can weave plain weave, soumak, overshot, and more with roving. So if you are looking for a way to add some extra interest to your weaving then try this out!


Favorite Wool Yarns


The types of wool yarn that I personally use in my studio range from those that are great for tapestry to those that are great for wearable fabrics.

These are the wool yarns that I keep buying!

Harrisville Shetland Wool

Harrisville Highland Wool

Scout Dk Wool


Resources



Natural Synthetic Yarns – Tencel, Modal, Rayon, & Viscose

Natural Synthetic Yarns – Tencel, Modal, Rayon, & Viscose

No, that is not a typo!

Most of us have heard of the two main types of yarn: natural and synthetic. These two yarn types are characterized by not only what they are made of but also how they are made. These yarns also have subcategories that further characterize them (protein, cellulose, etc.) and help to start understanding what they are used for.

So what happens when you have a yarn that is made from a natural material but created with a synthetic process?

You probably guessed it: natural synthetics. 

In our ongoing journey to understand the yarns that we weave with it is time to go over yarns like Tencel, modal, and rayon.

These yarns are often touted as the yarns of the future because they have the best characteristics of both worlds. This is not always the case, though. 

Also, it is important to admit that this is not as clear-cut an article as you would imagine. It is not uncommon for these yarn names to sometimes be used interchangeably and for things to get a bit complicated.

Before we go on – here are my other yarn guides in case you missed them:

Weaving with cotton

Weaving with linen

Weaving with hemp


This page may contain affiliate links. If you purchase something through these links then I will receive a small commission – at no extra cost to you! Please read our DISCLAIMER for more info. Thanks for the support!


By any other name (viscose)


When searching for yarns like these you may also come across different descriptors that all really mean the same thing. These names are: semi-synthetic, regenerated cellulose, and plant-based synthetic.

Speaking of alternate names: the term viscose can be used for any and all types of these natural synthetics, but it is mostly used as an alternative name to rayon. Since it is sometimes used for any natural synthetics, though, it means viscose could either be “good” or “bad”. Natural synthetics are often touted as being sustainable, but that is not quite the full story. So while the generic term viscose could be a good sign, it does not necessarily bode sustainable.

Viscose itself is considered the first generation of natural synthetic fibers so it is understandable that it has become a term associated with all of them. Think of it as the fiber version of Kleenex or Xerox. Those are brand names that are applied to other similar products.

The generations of natural synthetic fibers essentially shows where these fibers sit in the grand scheme of innovation. With each new generation of yarn the process has gotten cleaner and more sustainable.

Just like viscose, the term rayon can also be used as a catchall. The issue with this is that other types of natural synthetics have their own names and their own processes for creation. Some of them are cleaner than others. Using the term rayon to cover all of these fibers makes it hard to distinguish the good from the bad (so to speak.)

Remember that thing you learned in geometry where a square is a rectangle but a rectangle is not always a square? It is kind of like that. 

So viscose could be the same thing as rayon and rayon and viscose could also be used to describe other types of natural synthetics…

Remember I said it gets confusing?


How natural synthetics are made


While all of the different types of natural synthetics are going to be a little different in the way they are made, they are all generally made with the same process.

The long story short version goes like this: first, raw materials (plants) are broken down into small pieces with different chemicals. This creates a viscous pulp of raw cellulose (where the original term viscose came from.) This pulp is then extruded through a machine with high pressure to create a fiber that will be spun into yarn.

The biggest difference is what happens to all those chemicals after the yarn is created.


Environmental impact of open and closed-loop systems



When it comes to the production of just about anything there are two types of systems that determine what happens to the byproducts from the creation process.

These are open-loop and closed-loop systems.

Open-loop production systems are those that create the product and anything that is leftover (chemicals) gets discarded. These chemicals then are possibly released into the environment.

Closed-loop systems on the other hand take those leftover chemicals and reintroduce them back into the manufacturing process. This means less waste and no negative consequences for the environment.


Rayon (from bamboo)



Despite one of the previous statements above that rayon is a generic term for natural synthetics, we are going to use the term to mean a synthetic yarn made from bamboo as this is the most common way that rayon is made. 

Rayon (just like viscose) is considered a first-generation regenerated cellulose fiber.

Rayon is probably one of the most commonly used natural synthetic yarns that you will come across. In fact, I guarantee if you take a look through your own closet you will probably have at least a few articles of clothing made with rayon.

If you are not new to the sustainable journey, then you probably already know that bamboo in and of itself is a very eco-friendly material due to the fact that it is fast-growing and requires little to no pesticides.

Bamboo is used to make a lot of different products from toothbrushes to toilet paper to flooring. When it is used to make yarn, though, it has to go through an extensive process to create the shiny and durable yarn that we are all used to.

As stated earlier, the process of creating rayon takes raw bamboo that is turned into a pulp through the use of chemicals. Unfortunately, the chemical (carbon disulphide) used in the rayon process is considered a neurotoxin and is dangerous not only to the people that are making the fabrics, but also to the environment. Rayon is created in an open-loop system which, if you remember, means those toxic chemicals are leaching back into the earth.

The creation of rayon is so toxic that the production of certain types of rayon has actually been banned in the United States.

The rayon that I am using is 8/2 Maurice Brassard Bamboo in cactus.


Vegan (artificial) silk


One of the biggest draws to rayon is that it is often deemed a vegan silk alternative. This is because of its high luster and great drape. If you are someone that does not like to use any animal products then this could be a great option. That being said, harmful for the environment generally also means harmful to the animals that live there.

Tencel and modal are also considered silk alternatives and they are potentially better for the environment. The result of these yarns are very similar to that of rayon as they create a high luster yarn with a great drape.

So why would you choose one over the other? One of the biggest reasons may be price, followed by not enough knowledge of what either or both are made of. Due to the different chemicals needed and their somewhat different productions, Tencel (for example) tends to be a little more expensive than rayon.

If you are just after the sheen, you can also consider mercerized cotton. You can learn more about mercerization in this post on yarn treatments and specialty yarns.




Once again, Modal is not so straightforward. Modal, in general, is a second-generation cellulose fiber that is created with beech trees.

Generic modal can be considered sort of a middle ground between rayon and Tencel. (Tencel is next!) While it uses the same neurotoxin: carbon disulphide that is used in the creation of rayon, it uses less of it. The process of modal creation also employs a catch system that is intended to lessen the leaching of this chemical into the environment.

Hope for modal, though, is not lost. There is a version of modal by the Austrian company Lenzing that is called TENCEL ™ Modal. This type of modal is created with patented technology that traps even more chemicals – keeping them from the environment. They also only use beech trees that are sustainably grown.

The issue with other types of modal is that this same sort of transparency is not there. Other companies do not disclose where they are getting their resources and you could be inadvertently purchasing yarn made from non-renewable sources.

As far as the benefits of modal, they are similar to that of other regenerated cellulose yarns. In fact, modal tends to be even softer and more breathable than Tencel.

A downside, though, is that it is hard to find yarn that is purely modal as it is often mixed with other yarns like cotton. So if you are looking for a yarn that is purely made from modal then, at least at this time, you will have a hard time finding it.


Tencel (Lyocell)



Tencel and lyocell can be one and the same. Where lyocell is the generic fiber – Tencel is actually the brand name that is made by Lenzing (just like modal.)

Tencel is made solely with eucalyptus. This eucalyptus is grown and sustainably harvested. Plus eucalyptus requires little water and no toxic pesticides to grow! That makes it a great choice for a sustainable fiber base.

Lyocell on the other hand can be made with eucalyptus, oak, or birch trees.

Unlike rayon, Tencel and lyocell are created in a more sustainable and conscientious closed-loop system. The chemicals used are also less toxic and continue to be recycled and reused over and over.


Pros and cons of Tencel (lyocell)


As far as sustainability goes, beyond the points we already mentioned, Tencel is also completely biodegradable. That means that when your fabric is no longer of use, or if you have yarn scraps that you do not know what to do with, then you can rest assured that they will not be stuck hanging around a landfill.

Do you know what to do with your yarn scraps? Ideas here!

When it comes to weaving, Tencel is soft, strong, and is prized for the way it holds dye. This high absorbency translates well to practical uses as it is 50% more absorbent than cotton!

The biggest disadvantage is that it tends to be more expensive than some of the other options. Unfortunately, you often have to pay for sustainability.

The tencel that I am using in this post is 8/2 Maurice Brassard Tencel in colors vieux blue, charcoal, and navy.


natural synthetic yarns infographic generations

Different weavers will always have different concerns about their yarns and other materials. Vegan and plant-based may be important to some people and not even a consideration for others. Those looking for vegan options may choose synthetic yarns more often, and those who are sustainably minded may opt for only natural (protein or cellulose) yarns.

Of course, when you are trying to keep in mind both, or you are just looking for some more options, the natural synthetics like rayon, modal, and Tencel can all seem like a great option.

It is important to know where your materials come from and understand the impact they have and not only your weavings, but also the people who make them, and the world we live in.

Despite the confusing interchangeably used terms it can be possible to make a choice that you are happy with. If you are wanting a fiber that is more sustainable stick with those that are labeled Tencel, lyocell, or modal. That way you always know what you are getting instead of being left to wonder.


References


https://www.britannica.com/science/cellulose

https://www.fabricromance.ie/blogs/journal/everything-you-need-to-know-about-tencel-and-modal

https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2019/nov/18/pulp-fabric-everything-you-need-to-know-about-lyocell

https://goodonyou.eco/material-guide-ethical-modal/

https://www.the-eco-market.com/tencel-fabric/

https://cfda.com/resources/materials/detail/rayon-viscose


Yarn Ball Winding Options – Preparing Your Weaving Yarn

Yarn Ball Winding Options – Preparing Your Weaving Yarn

Depending on your yarn buying options you may never need any of these tools to wind yarn. This is because weaving yarn most often comes already wound onto a cone or tube ready to go.

This makes setting up your loom or winding your shuttles simple!

That being said, you may purchase yarn on a skein. This yarn needs to be wound in order to use it, otherwise, it will become a tangled mess. 

Most often yarn on skeins is knitting or crochet yarn. Make sure you know the difference between these types of yarn! You can read about it here.

Depending on the option you choose, the yarn – once wound – will be turned into either a ball or a cake.

A ball of yarn is pretty self-explanatory, but what is a cake?

Essentially, it is the same thing except that the top and bottom are flat.

Neither one is better than the other, the different forms just come from the way that the tool winds them.

So if you find yourself with yarn that needs to be wound then what are your options?


This page may contain affiliate links. If you purchase something through these links then I will receive a small commission – at no extra cost to you! Please read our DISCLAIMER for more info. Thanks for the support!



Ball winder


yarn on yarn ball winder

Probably the most well-known and common way of turning a skein of yarn into a cake: the ball winder is also one of the fastest ways to do it. Despite the name ball winder – it actually makes yarn cakes, but really it does not matter since they do the same thing!

You can either get a manual one or an electric one depending on how much you want to spend and how much work you want to do. These are both great options if you will be winding a lot of cakes and want something that goes relatively fast. 


2 yarn cakes on table with plant

Nostepinne


The nostepinne is the original ball winder! It is also the one you probably have never heard of – until now.

Nostepinne means “nest-stick” in Scandinavian and that is a pretty good name for this tool. It is a polished stick that you nest your yarn on to create a center-pull ball. These polished sticks are a simple tool that you can carry with you anywhere. They are actually pretty simple to use too, but they do take a bit longer to wind your ball than a ball winder. 

They also require a bit of patience to get the rhythm of the ball going. It will actually feel a bit odd at first, but sticking with it will get you a satisfying center-pull yarn ball!

How to use a nostepinne:


nostepinne to wind yarn directions

Open up your skein and either place it on an umbrella swift or stretch it across a stable surface.

Find one end of your skein and either wrap it around the far end of your nostepinne a few times or attach it with a slip knot. This will be the center-pull part of the ball.

Start wrapping your yarn around so that the wraps are sitting next to each other. After you have done this a few times, you can start to cross them diagonally as you twist the nostepinne towards you. You will want to try to catch it on the shoulder of the ball you are making as you go. This will help to make sure that it does not get loose.

Twisting the nostepinne while wrapping will ensure that the ball grows evenly and securely. You will want to make sure that your wraps are not just building upon themselves. Also, make sure that you are not wrapping too tight so you do not stretch out your yarn.


nostepinne to wind yarn directions

When you are done you can simply slide off your ball and tuck in the yarn end that was originally wrapped around the nostepinne!

This is the nostepinne I am using! The Kromski nostepinne in mahogony.

There is more than one way to wrap a nostepinne, but this is the way I was taught. You can always play around with it to find a way that feels natural to you. Another common method is to wrap your yarn in a figure 8 pattern. Try it out and see which one you like!


Knitting needle


Knitting needles are used in much the same way as a nostepinne since they are basically the same shape.

When it comes down to it all you really need is a stick to wrap some yarn around! 

The directions are also the same as for the nostepinne. The only difference is that there is no dedicated notch to attach the center of the yarn to, so just make sure to keep it separate. 

The advantage of the nostepinne over the knitting needle is that the nostepinne will be more comfortable to hold. Since it is a dedicated tool for that purpose it is made to be held for longer periods of time while you are working with it.


knitting needle to wind yarn directions

knitting needle to wind yarn directions

The advantage of the knitting needle is you may already have one in your studio!

If you only need to wind a ball of yarn occasionally then this may be a great option for you. If you will be winding yarn balls often then you may want to invest in a nostepinne or a ball-winder.

I am using the Clover bamboo knitting needles in size 17.



Winding yarn by hand


If you have none of the above and you still need to create a ball to work from then you still have an option! This option does not create a center-pull yarn ball, but it still creates a yarn ball that is in a format you can easily use for warping or shuttle winding.

I have actually gone over instructions on creating a yarn ball by hand in my t-shirt yarn tutorial. If you are looking for a yarn winding option that does not require any extra tools then make sure to check out my t-shirt yarn post.


Do you need an umbrella swift?


umbrella swift with yarn skein

No and maybe.

Let’s first start off with what is an umbrella swift

An umbrella swift is a tool that is used to hold a skein of yarn and turn freely as the yarn is taken from it in order to turn it into a ball or cake. They are often made of wood, but also sometimes made of metal and plastic and they open up much like an umbrella does (hence the name.) This means that despite their open size, they do get smaller and easier to store when not in use. 

Umbrella swifts are a great tool to have if you are winding yarn because it holds the skein for you and does the work of keeping it tangle-free during the winding process.

If you are using either the nostepinne, knitting needle, or winding a ball by hand then you do not need the umbrella swift. You can put the skein around a chair back or even around your knees while you are sitting in order to keep it taught and tangle-free. 



If you are using a ball winder though (and especially the electric ball winder) you will want an umbrella swift to accompany it. So while the ball winder itself is sometimes not that much more expensive than your other yarn winding options, the fact that you need the umbrella swift definitely adds to the expense. 



It does make things go smoother though! The video above was just for fun, but you can see how smooth the process is as the yarn goes from the swift to the ball winder.

I am using yarn by Sheep and Shawl on Etsy!



Regardless of how you decide to wind your yarn, it is always good to have some options in your weaving toolbox (literal and figurative!) If winding balls of yarn is not going to be a regular occurrence then stick with a simple method with inexpensive tools or ones you already have.

If you need to wind your own yarn often then I recommend investing a bit more to get a swift and a ball winder so you can spend more time weaving and less time preparing to weave.


Weaving With Hemp Yarn – Material Spotlight

Weaving With Hemp Yarn – Material Spotlight

Hemp is not a bad word – despite its unwarranted bad reputation. In fact, hemp can be a fantastic yarn and fabric!

With sustainability on more and more weaver’s minds and the legalization of cannabis in many parts of the United States- hemp is making a comeback! Due to the surge in popularity, it seems like a trendy fiber right now. It is trendy for good reason though, and a trend that will probably stick around.

Hemp yarn is great because it ticks a lot of the boxes that a great cellulose yarn should.

Despite the fact that we are only now appreciating it for what it is, hemp has always been a part of our history. In fact, it actually is one of the oldest materials used to make fiber!


This page may contain affiliate links. If you purchase something through these links then I will receive a small commission – at no extra cost to you! Please read our DISCLAIMER for more info. Thanks for the support!



Hemp cultivation


There are many differences between hemp grown for fiber and hemp grown for… other things (more on that later.)

When hemp is grown for fiber, though, it is planted densely so that it will grow tall with little branching. These tall stems create longer fibers that make great yarn. The fiber is mostly harvested from male plants as they produce finer fibers than their female counterparts. The female plants are actually usually used for seed.

Straight after harvesting, the hemp stalks are tough and woody. They must be left out in the field for retting in order to break down the fibers to get to the softer core. Retting can be done in multiple ways, but essentially involves letting water and bacteria break down the tough parts of the stalk.

When it is ready, it gets divided into tow fibers and line fibers – similar to linen.

(Learn more about weaving with linen)

Tow fibers are the shorter and coarser fibers and line fibers are longer and more often what you think of when you see hemp yarn.

In fact, hemp and linen have a lot in common in their manufacturing process. The hemp can be either wet or dry spun with the tow fibers often dry spun and the line fibers are wet spun.

Similar to linen, wet spun hemp creates stronger yarn, but unlike linen it does not affect the hairiness of the finished yarn.  


History of hemp: the “king of plant fibers”


hemp yarn with books

Originating in central Asia, hemp could be found in China as early as 2800 BCE.

Hemp fiber is so ingrained in history that the word canvas actually comes from cannabis! This is because canvas (or sailcloth) was originally made with hemp yarn. It was ideal for use as ropes and sailcloth because of its inherent resistance to rot and damage from saltwater.

Since it was such a vital fiber, hemp became known as the “king of the plant fibers.”

Despite this name, hemp fabrics were also used to clothe the poor while silk was meant for the rich. Nowadays, though, hemp’s trendy reputation has made it more in demand. Due to this, many wealthy and environmentally conscious consumers are now wearing hemp!



Pros of hemp yarn


The more you wash your hemp yarn and textiles, the softer they will become. With subsequent washes, hemp will lose its waxes, oils, and lignin. This will not only make the yarn softer but also whiter if it is undyed.

Hemp gets better with age.

Like other bast fibers (fibers made from the stems of plants) hemp is incredibly strong. That is why it has been used to make ropes and canvas throughout history. It is only bested by linen in this category.

Due to the fast-growing time and the limited amount of pests attracted to it, hemp requires almost no pesticides. Its fast-growing time also makes it a great option when looking for a sustainable yarn.

Learn more about sustainable yarn options.



Cons of hemp yarn


Despite the fact that hemp is such a strong and durable fiber it is prone to damage by acids. And not just strong acids, but weaker acids like those found in tomatoes can damage hemp if left untreated for too long. Keep this in mind when caring for anything you weave with hemp. 

It also has very little elasticity and is even less flexible than linen!

Bleaching also damages hemp, so if you want it to be lighter then time will be your friend.


Hemp vs linen


hemp yarn and linen yarn comparison

I have mentioned multiple times that there are many similarities between hemp and linen that go far beyond just their tan appearance. 

They are both bast fibers that have a similar (but not the exact same) makeup. Where linen has three main sections: the core, pith, and phloem – hemp has an extra layer of fine fibers between the phloem and the core. This makes the hemp stalks much thicker than linen stalks. Hemp also has reddish cells in the stem that create its tan color.

Hemp is actually a much taller plan than linen. It can get up to 15 feet tall, where linen grows to only 40 inches.

Get Your Hemp Yarn On The Woolery


Hemp and marijuana


hemp yarn and cannabis sativa drawing

We can not really get through an entire post on hemp without talking about the green leaf in the room.

Hemp and marijuana are the same but also different. Basically, they are different types of the same plant.

Cannabis.

Hemp is cannabis sativa and marijuana is cannabis indica. 

They look different, have different chemical makeups, and are grown and cultivated differently.

Cannabis sativa was banned alongside cannabis indica in 1970 in the United States despite the fact that it does not have the same amount of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). So yeah, hemp contains some THC – but very little and not enough to illicit the same psychoactive effects as marijuana.

While the hemp fibers and yarn were technically legal to purchase, it was still illegal to grow the the plants to make them. This made these fibers harder to find and gave them a bad name to anyone who did not know the difference.

Unfortunately, it got a bad rap even though it did not deserve it. Hemp got the short end of that stick.

There is even a lot of evidence that cannabis sativa existed and was used in Europe about 4000 years before cannabis indica was ever even introduced in the area from southern Asia. At least in that area, the yarn came before the high.


Hemp is so much more than its relationship to marijuana and should be celebrated as a fiber with a rich history and sustainable future. Consider giving hemp a chance the next time you need a strong and sustainable fiber for your weaving!


Resources


https://hempfoundation.net/how-yarn-is-made-from-hemp-fiber/

https://ministryofhemp.com/hemp/not-marijuana/

Barber, Elizabeth Wayland. Women’s Work: the First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times. Norton, 1995.

Gaustad, Stephenie. Practical Spinners Guide – Cotton, Flax, Hemp. Interweave Press Inc, 2014.


A Weaver’s Guide To Choosing Sustainable Yarn

A Weaver’s Guide To Choosing Sustainable Yarn

Are you using sustainable yarn?

There are a lot of different yarns that you can choose from that may meet your sustainability needs. But what is sustainable yarn? Also, if there is a such thing as sustainable yarn – what counts as unsustainable yarn…?

For the record, I understand that sustainability might not be the first thing on your mind when choosing yarn.

That’s ok.

There are a lot of aspects of weaving that require certain types of yarn (strong, absorbent, warm, etc.) Those yarn traits are probably the main thing you are looking for. Unfortunately, some of the more traditional yarns aren’t always the best for our planet. They may require pesticides to grow, use a significant amount of water, or be made from non-biodegradable materials.

The good thing is that we are living in a time where we have access to other choices.

We also live in a time where it feels like you have to pick and choose what “type” of sustainability you are looking for.

Sometimes finding the sustainable yarn option might mean choosing between the fiber that is vegan or that one that requires very little processing. It can be hard to not feel a bit overwhelmed when facing these choices.

Knowing your options is a good first step.


This page may contain affiliate links. If you purchase something through these links then I will receive a small commission – at no extra cost to you! Please read our DISCLAIMER for more info. Thanks for the support!


sustainable yarn

Natural doesn’t necessarily mean sustainable


That would be too easy.

If you are worried about your weaving footprint, then buying natural yarns over synthetic yarns is a really good place to start.

Natural yarns are those that are either cellulose (made from plants) or protein (taken from animals). As opposed to synthetic yarns that are made from petroleum and plastic. 

I talk more about types of yarns in my choosing the right warp post HERE.

While synthetic yarns definitely have their time and place (that is a different post!) their link to petroleum and other fossil fuels plus their tendency to “shed” micro-plastics into our water are problematic. To say the least. Specifically, polyester is known to leach plastic into the water and end up in the fish that you eat!

Just because your fibers are grown instead of created, though, doesn’t make them perfect.

It is important to look at how they are grown and their effect on the environment to really understand their impact.


What to look for in sustainable fibers


sustainable yarn

How it is grown/ cultivated


Different fibers require vastly different environments and resources. While some may grow easily with little water and little need for pesticides, there are others that may take a toll on the soil by depriving it of nutrients. These crops then require more water to grow.

Plant fibers that take less resources are inherently better for the environment, but they are not your only option.

Sustainability usually describes the impact of the plants used to create your yarn. Another thing to look at is the way the protein fibers that you are using are harvested and the way the animals are treated. 


Let’s look at silk


Traditional silk is created by farming silkworms specifically for that purpose. These worms are then boiled and the silk is harvested from their cocoons. There is a different method of silk creation called peace silk that does not kill the worms but instead lets them hatch. In this case, the silk isn’t as long as traditionally harvested silk since the cocoon is broken. The resulting fabric doesn’t have the same shine.

The issue with peace silk, though, is that the silkworms have been raised over centuries purely for the purpose of silk production. Ultimately, they only live a few miserable days after hatching. If you are looking for a more humane option than traditional silk, arguably, a silk alternative would be a better choice.

That being said, if you are not worried about that humane treatment of silkworms (no judgment) then just make sure to look at the other sustainability questions when searching for a silk yarn that you will use.



The fiber’s afterlife


While we all want our yarn and yarn creations to last forever, fiber is inherently ephemeral. This is why we have way less ancient textiles than ancient pottery or metalwork. While they can be preserved to make it last longer, a lot of textiles (notably non-synthetic ones) will break down when exposed to the elements for extended periods of time. 

With the exception of woven artwork, this is actually for the best. When your woven towels, blankets, and other textiles are no longer usable it is ideal for them to break down and return to the earth. Otherwise, they end up sticking around indefinitely adding more volume to our overflowing landfills.

Most of your cellulose and protein fibers will be biodegradable. Whereas synthetics either won’t break down or will break down into the micro-plastics mentioned earlier.


What if the fiber is processed and not grown?


While generally most processed yarns are not going to be on the sustainable end of the spectrum, processing doesn’t necessarily make it a bad choice.

When looking at processed yarns it is important to not only think about what the yarn is made from but also how it is made. It is also important to consider the work conditions of those that are making it.


sustainable yarn tencel

Closed-loop systems


Certain seemingly sustainable yarns are a bit deceptive.

Rayon is one of the biggest examples of this. Due to its shiny nature, it is a good alternative to silk if you are looking for a vegan option. Unfortunately, vegan does not necessarily mean good for the environment.

Rayon initially seems good on paper. It is most often made from bamboo which is known to be one of the most sustainable plants due to its fast-growing nature. That is why it is often marketed as “green”.

While rayon is a cellulose-based fiber, it is essentially lab-created. It is put through a rigorous process to turn cellulose into yarn. During this process, the bamboo is turned into a pulp using potentially dangerous chemicals. Since rayon is made in an open-loop system, these chemicals can leach back into the environment during processing. These same chemicals are also inhaled by the people processing the yarn.



Don’t start to feel lost though! I know it is starting to seem like I am only giving bad news, but there is potentially a better option when looking for more sustainable fibers.

Tencel.

Tencel (brand name for lyocell fiber) is technically a type of rayon because it is a man-made cellulose fiber. Unlike most rayon, though, Tencel is made from sustainable eucalyptus trees in a closed-loop system. This means that the chemicals used to turn eucalyptus into yarn won’t enter back into the environment. The chemicals used are also safer for everyone involved. Overall, it can be a better choice.

Tencel and rayon are also similarly shiny. Rayon could arguably have more luster, but the sustainability of Tencel might outweigh that for you.


sustainable yarn organic cotton

Should you buy organic yarn?


Another thing to consider is organic or conventional?

Organic yarn may seem unnecessary if you think about organic purely as a classification for foods that we consume. This is completely understandable!

Since we won’t be consuming cotton or other natural fibers – is it worth it to spend the extra money?

In my opinion? Yes, if you can.

Organic yarns mean that they were grown without the use of pesticides. Textiles won’t be passing on pesticides to our digestive systems, but they have an overall effect on the environment and the wildlife where the fibers are grown. If you take a look at the bigger picture when it comes to organic fibers, they are worth it.

The price of organic yarns (much like organic foods) can be prohibitive for some people, though. So to this, I say: be mindful of what you are using and make the best choices that you can.


Organic vs conventional yarn – cotton


Cotton is one of the most used fibers around the world.

Conventional cotton uses pesticides to deter pests and these pesticides can leach into the surrounding environment and water systems. The pesticides can also linger on the finished cotton and cause skin issues in those with sensitive skin. Overall, conventional cotton is one of the thirstiest plants to produce. It results in 16% of the world’s water usage!

Organic cotton, on the other hand, uses insects that do not harm the cotton to deter the pests that would. It is also grown while utilizing crop rotation which makes the soil healthier and requires a lot less water.

91% less water.

During processing, conventional cotton uses chemicals to clean and dye the cotton and can negatively affect the workers that are processing it. Organic cotton doesn’t have this issue.

Aesthetically, organic cotton is also a more luxurious yarn to weave with! All organic cotton is hand-picked instead of picked by a machine. This makes it so that the longest cotton fibers are preserved resulting in a softer yarn.

Learn more about cotton HERE.



Linen and hemp are also a good choice for sustainable yarn, but just like cotton – organic is even better. Conventional linen and hemp are biodegradable and use less water than conventional cotton. Hemp is also naturally resistant to pests so it requires no pesticides to grow.

You can learn more about linen here.

You can learn more about hemp here.

I wish I could say it was easy to always identify the sustainable choice and/ or the right choice for your weaving. Instead, arming yourself with some knowledge and making sure you are making informed decisions is one of the best things that you can do.


These are some of my favorites that I have in my own studio:

Maurice Brassard Tencel

Gist Yarn Mallo Organic Cotton

Maurice Brassard Linen

8/2 Linen Yarn

8/2 Hemp


Resources


https://www.eco-stylist.com/is-organic-cotton-really-sustainable/

https://ecocult.com/why-does-silk-have-such-a-bad-environmental-rap/

https://sleepsherpa.com/organic-cotton-vs-regular-cotton-whats-difference/

https://craftsmanship.net/eco-fashions-animal-rights-delusion/

https://ecocult.com/greenwashing-alert-that-natural-fabric-made-from-plants-might-be-toxic/

https://goodonyou.eco/how-sustainable-is-linen/


Weaving With Linen – Material Spotlight

Weaving With Linen – Material Spotlight

I may be a bit biased when it comes to linen because much like my love for cotton, linen is a staple in my own studio.

That being said, it has a permanent home in my own weaving studio for a reason. Aesthetically, linen’s natural colors and natural shine work perfectly in my tapestries as warp and weft.

So what makes weaving with linen so special? Read on.


This page may contain affiliate links. If you purchase something through these links then I will receive a small commission – at no extra cost to you! Please read our DISCLAIMER for more info. Thanks for the support!


Types/cultivation


Linen is a natural bast fiber made from the flax plant (the same plant you get flax seeds from.) Bast fiber which also includes hemp, jute, and milkweed are fibers made from the inside of the straw-like stems of these plants. The anatomy of a bast fiber shows a harder outer layer, the phloem (this is the fiber layer), and a core.

Flax plants have two varieties: textile flax and linseed flax. These two types of flax are grown to either produce linen or to harvest the seeds for many other different uses. They have slightly different appearances and are also grown, harvested, and processed in different ways.

As I’m sure you can guess – we will be focusing on the textile flax.


weaving with linen - linen yarn and flax painting

In the field, flax can reach heights between 30” – 47” which means the fibers used to create linen are similarly long. They are also planted close together to encourage vertical growth over horizontal growth. Prior to harvesting, the flax plant grows delicate blue flowers.

Flax naturally comes in different colors depending on its growing situation. Minerals in the soil as well as where it is grown can affect the color of the finished linen, but it may wash out eventually.

Due to the makeup of the fibers, it also contains waxes, pectin, and gums. These things all can wash away over time making your linen yarn whiter and less dense. You also get two different types of fiber from linen processing. Line flax (long, luxurious, and shiny fibers) and tow flax (shorter and weaker fibers).


weaving with linen - line linen and tow linen

Flax grows well in moist and warm locations. It is harvested when mature, but not too mature in order to get the best quality fiber. Once the plant matures for a longer period it is no longer a good choice for fiber. Instead, the seeds can be harvested to be used or replanted next year. 

To harvest the flax for linen it is always pulled from the ground and never cut. This is because it allows for the longest possible fibers. These stalks are then dried and after drying there are multiple time-intensive ways to extract the phloem from the rest of the plant. 

If you are interested in reading more about how to turn flax into linen then I recommend Linen – From Flax Seed To Woven Cloth by Linda Heinrich. This book is a must for anyone interested in learning more about every aspect of flax and linen. It goes over the growing, harvesting, processing, dyeing the linen as well as linen weaving projects.

I also recommend The practical spinner’s guide: Cotton, Flax, Hemp by Stephanie Gaustad. This book is a great introductory book to these three cellulose fibers and is a good option if you want to learn more, but want something a little less in depth.



Uses


Linen is one of the most often used yarns for tapestry warp. This is because of its incredible strength and ability to hold up to the tension required by tapestry. 

Learn more about tapestry HERE.

Beyond tapestry, linen is also often used for lightweight clothing and home goods. The word “linens” has become synonymous with sheets and towels even though traditionally they weren’t always made from linen.

In the next section, you can see why linen works well for all of these things.



Linen pros


Weaving with linen is great for anything that needs to be fast-drying. It is also incredibly absorbent. Linen is actually the most absorbent natural fiber! Towels are a fantastic example of this since you want your towels to absorb moisture but not hold onto it.     

One of the most well-known properties of linen is how lightweight it is. If you think about summer-y linen pants then you can probably imagine their breezy nature made possible by the linen. 

Linen is also a resilient fiber. If you are looking for something that will wear well then this could be a great option. When exposed to sunlight, linen does not discolor but instead reverts to the natural color of cellulose (white). 

Just like cotton, linen is actually stronger when wet. This is another reason why it makes such a good option for towels or the like.


Very strong 


weaving with linen - linen yarns

If you are looking for a fiber with the greatest amount of strength then look no further than linen. For reference, linen has historically been used to create rope (alongside hemp and jute.)

You don’t make rope out of fragile materials.

Due to its strength, it makes a fantastic warp for anything, but especially tapestry since it requires such high tension. Also, if you don’t love the look of linen (…why?) then hiding behind your tapestry weft won’t be an issue.

Depending on the weaving you are creating, though, it may not be your ideal choice for warp on a pattern weave since it will be seen. Instead, find the strongest yarn that you can that works with what you are creating.


Naturally shiny


Unlike cotton that needs mercerization to be shiny, line linen is actually naturally shiny without any treatments. (Learn about mercerized cotton and other yarn treatments HERE). Tow linen, though, is less shiny because it is shorter and requires more twists when spinning than line linen. 

Line linen is almost always wet spun which also adds to its shiny appearance. This means that it uses a spinning process that requires warm water to smooth and soften the fibers. Tow linen can be wet spun, but is usually dry spun. Dry spun tow linen is even more absorbent and has a “tooth” to it that can be a benefit for certain types of woven textile or rope.


Linen cons


weaving with linen - crimped and wrinkled linen

Memory (stays crimped etc.)


If you have ever owned any linen clothing then you know how hard it can be to get wrinkles out!

Linen fibers have a memory and don’t always like to cooperate when you are trying to force them to do things. If you use linen in your weaving, but then unweave it – it will retain a crimped appearance where it went over and under your other yarn.

This also means that when purchasing it won’t be found in balls but instead only on cones or tubes. These help to tame linen’s wild nature.


Takes time to soften


Right off the cone linen isn’t always luxurious. While it has it in its nature to become a soft and beautiful fiber, until its been washed a few times, it will be stiff.

Not only does the linen naturally have waxes and other substances in the fiber, but oils are often used to more easily spin the flax into linen. All of these things make for a stiff yarn.

Linen can shrink after being washed so always make sure to either wash your linen yarns before weaving or make sure to do a sample and know the amount of shrinkage you have to account for. You can learn more about shrinkage HERE or in my ebook that you can purchase below (it has so much more in it too!)


Need help planning your weaving project? Stuck trying to figure out how much yarn you need? What the h&^$ is WPI? Check out my e-book!


Breaks down when dry


While linen is pretty resilient nothing is perfect.

Whereas it does very well when wet and when heat is applied, it likewise breaks down in low humidity situations. The linen fibers themselves can start to fray and break if they get too dry. Traditionally linen was woven in humid rooms for this reason. You don’t want your linen to be wet, though, because it is also prone to mildew.

Keep in mind that humidity can be bad for your loom, so be careful if you decide to work this way.

Generally speaking you should be fine in your regular home studio.


Can be costly (compared to cotton)


Linen is not the least expensive option you can choose when weaving, but not a lot compares to its strengths (and it’s strength!)

When compared to cotton, linen tends to be more expensive so if you are making a sample just to see if something works then I recommend sampling with a similarly sized cotton instead. This obviously doesn’t work if you need to test for linen shrinkage – in that case use the linen.

FYI, 8/4 cotton and 8/4 linen are actually different sizes. Learn about yarn sizes HERE.


weaving with linen - books

Whatever the reason you are looking to weave with linen, it is a great material that has so many different uses. If you haven’t tried it yet or you are looking to get started with this versatile, but underappreciated fiber then check out some of my favorite linen yarns.

Bockens Lingarn Linen 16/2

Bockens Linvarptrad Linen Rug Warp 8/2

Gist Yarn Duet Cotton/ Linen


References


Heinrich, Linda. Linen: from Flax Seed to Woven Cloth. Schiffer Publishing, 2010.

Gaustad, Stephenie. Practical Spinners Guide – Cotton, Flax, Hemp. Interweave Press Inc, 2014.


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