According to Wikipedia, yarn is a long continuous length of interlocked fibers, suitable for use in the yarn arts. But to me, yarn is LIFE! The more you know about your yarn and what goes into it, the better equipped you are to buy and use it. In this guide, you’ll learn the basic characteristics of the most common yarn fiber types on the market, plus how to take care of them and their most suitable projects.
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What is Yarn Fiber?
A maker’s motivation to use one yarn over another is often influenced by several factors, including price, access, allergies, suitability to the project, and personal preference among other things. The yarn fiber, or material makeup of the yarn, plays a key role in that decision, considering that fiber content impacts the performance and care of the finished piece.
Yarn Fiber Types
Yarn fibers fall into three main categories: Animal Fibers, Plant Fibers, and Synthetic Fibers. Each group varies in price, usability, and care. How you block your projects will also depend heavily on which category the yarn comes from.
Animal fibers like wool, cashmere, and alpaca come from animals (sheep, goats, and alpacas, respectively). Plant fibers like cotton, linen, and bamboo are derived from plants. Synthetic fibers like rayon, acrylic, and nylon are man-made. Any combination of these yarns, either within types or between types, is called a blend. Blends are produced to capture the best qualities of each fiber within a unique yarn.
Type 1: Animal Fibers
Yarn produced from animal fiber starts with naturally-occurring materials. Often animals are expertly sheared to collect the material to make yarn. Animal fibers are known for their warmth and insulating properties but are avoided by vegan makers or those with certain allergies.
Wool is the most common yarn used in the fiber arts and is easily accessible in the larger market. There are many varieties of wool, all of which are derived from sheep. Variations in texture, care, and cost depend on the breed of sheep used to make the yarn. Wool can be used for nearly any project but is often preferred for warm, fitted sweaters, heavy heirloom blankets, and other prized garments and accessories.
Wool is highly praised for its flexibility and hardwearing nature. This animal-fiber has great stitch memory, meaning garments made in wool are more likely to keep their shape over time. Wool is often blended with other animal, plant, and synthetic fibers to enhance it’s positive qualities. For example, “sock yarn” is a blend of wool and nylon, with wool contributing softness and flexibility while nylon offers strength and enhanced durability.
Caring for handmade wool items labor intensive but easy – simply hand wash gently with mild detergent and lay the final piece in place to air dry. Hand washing is necessary as too much agitation can cause wool to felt. “Superwash” wool yarns are advertised as machine washable, but beware. Machine washing will still cause wear over time. If machine washing, place the piece in a garment bag before starting the cycle, and consider air dying instead of machine drying.
- Warm and breathable
- Durable yet stretchy
- Versatile and easy care
- Available in a plethora of colors, blends, and varieties
- May be itchy based on personal allergies
- Can be prone to pilling
- Cost varies greatly
Variations: There are many variations under the umbrella of wool. Take a look at these common wool variations.
- Merino Wool. Derived from Merino sheep, Merino wool is highly praised for it’s soft, smooth texture. Merino wool is popular for it’s texture and versatility, but is prone to pilling and comes at a higher pricepoint.
- Virgin Wool. This wool comes directly from the fleece of a sheep and does not include any recycled wool.
- Superwash Wool. This is wool that has been chemically or electronically treated to remove the outer layers of wool yarn. The resulting fiber is soft to the touch and machine-washable.
Alpaca is derived from the animal of the same name and has flame- and water-resistant properties. The finished yarn is soft and fine, while the smaller diameter and hollow thread of the fiber make this yarn even warmer than wool. Naturally warm and of a heavier weight, alpaca is made for luxurious garments and extra special accessories.
Alpaca yarn is highly sought after for its unbelievable softness and smooth texture. Its luxurious quality contributes to its higher price point and absence from most commercially available yarns. The lack of lanolin makes alpaca hypoallergenic and ideal for those with sensitive skin.
One major downside of alpaca is its tendency to stretch coupled with its lack of stitch memory. Counteract these negative attributes by being extra careful during the blocking and care processes. Spot clean when possible or hand wash very gently and lay flat to dry.
- Unbelievable softness and a luxurious feel
- Durable and warm
- Blends well with other fibers to heighten the making experience
- High pilling rate
- Is often very pricey
- Very stretchy with little to no stitch memory
Soft and warm with great drape, cashmere is considered one of the most luxurious fibers within the crochet world. It comes from the undercoat of “Kashmir” goats in South Asia. These goats only shed once per year and produce a very small amount of fiber. As such, cashmere is often blended with other animal fibers. Add a touch of elegance to your accessory collection with a pair of cashmere gloves or a hat.
Unlike many other yarns, cashmere actually gets softer with wear. It is also an incredible insulator, being even warmer than wool. On the downside, it is weaker than wool and prone to wear if friction is applied. It is also one of the most expensive fibers on this list. Avoid the high cost by looking for cashmere in blends – you’ll often find cashmere blended with merino wool, which is a personal favorite of mine.
Cashmere is a real princess when it comes to care. Most experts recommend dry cleaning cashmere garments. This is truly the safest route. To care for your pieces at home, spot clean when possible, and lightly steam block for a quick refresh.
- Luxurious, soft, and drapey
- Gets softer with wear
- Highly insulating
- Very expensive
- Weaker than other animal fibers
- Prone to pilling and high maintenance
This fluffy yarn is seeing a resurgence and I’m 100% here for it. Mohair is derived from Angora goats (not to be confused with Angora rabbits!). Used on its own or held double with another yarn, mohair adds an interesting level of texture and warmth. Add a strand of mohair to handmade sweaters or winter accessories to bring a touch of whimsy to everyday items.
Though light and stringy, mohair is praised for its warmth and breathability. It also pairs well with other yarns and is often held double throughout a project. You can hold mohair on its own or with multiple strands of mohair for a deeper, hazy look. The biggest gripes crocheters have with mohair is that it is difficult to undo your stitches, it can be irritating to those with sensitive skin (even if you don’t otherwise have fiber allergies), and the fuzzy fiber can make it hard to see your stitches.
Care for mohair much like any other animal fiber – hand wash with mild detergent and let air dry. Mohair is especially feltable – the fibers will felt together with too much agitation. Never rub mohair during the blocking or washing process. Instead, gently dunk the piece into the water to loosen dirt and oil. Lay flat, stretch into place, and let it air dry.
- Many gorgeous colors
- Plays well with other fibers in a blend or held double
- Fluffy and warm
- Strong and absorbent
- On the expensive side compared to other yarns
- Can be especially irritating to the skin
- Loose fibers can get caught in hair and beards
Type 2: Plant Fibers
While the warming properties of animal fibers make them ideal for cold weather, crocheters can’t wait to reach for breathable, lightweight plant fibers in the summertime. Plant fibers require some processing to turn raw materials into yarn. While plant fibers share commone qualities like moisture-wicking and easy care, they also share some negative traits, like heaviness and inelasticity.
Evidence of cotton in handknitting dates back to before the 12th century. Used for everything from clothing to socks and everyone’s favorite washcloth, cotton is one the most versatile fibers we have access to. Unlike many woolen yarns, cotton is typically quite smooth, contributing to its stellar stitch definition. Beginner crocheters enjoy working with cotton for its flexibility and ease of seeing stitches.
There’s a lot to love about cotton as a yarn. It is relatively inexpensive and accessible both in stores and online. It is also incredibly strong, making it a great choice for projects that need a sturdy touch. The biggest downside of cotton is its inelasticity and poor stitch memory. Though not prone to stretching on its own, overly stretched cotton will hold its new shape and is not likely to bounce back.
When it comes to care, it doesn’t get much easier than cotton. Toss handmade blankets, cloths, rugs, and even clothing into the machine for washing and drying. If you’re concerned about your project stretching during the cycle, pop it into a garment bag first.
- Lightweight and breathable
- Won’t irritate allergies or sensitive skin
- Low cost and easy to find in hundreds of colors
- Blends well with animal, plant, and synthetic fibers
- Low stitch memory
- Can be prone to pilling
- Some tendency to split when crocheting
Variations: There are a few variations of cotton available on the market. Keep your eyes peeled for these different types.
- American Cotton. The most common type of cotton found on the American market. This yarn has a short staple length, causing it to be rougher and more prone to pilling compared to other cottons.
- Pima Cotton. This middle-of-the-road cotton type is softer than American cotton and is often advertised as a luxury yarn fiber.
- Egyptian Cotton. This is the softest and most expensive of the common cotton yarn types. It has the longest staple length and is the least prone to pilling.
- Mercerized Cotton. These cotton yarns are treated to include a coating that reduces pilling, aids in the dye process, and adds a subtle sheen to the yarn.
Derived from the flax plant, linen’s claims to fame are its durability and moisture absorption. Here’s a fun fact about linen – it’s even stronger than cotton, only second in natural-fiber strength to silk. Linen yarn produces a natural wax coating, adding a light sheen to finished projects. Often combined with other fibers, linen is suitable for warm-weather wearables and home decor projects.
If you’re looking for the best fiber to crochet into summer garments, linen is for you. Linen has thermo-regulating properties, allowing you to stay cool by absorbing moisture and wicking it away from your body. Linen also has the superpower of being even stronger when wet, allowing it to be truly machine washable. And the cherry on top – linen gets even softer as you wash it! There are some downsides, though. Linen has little to no stretch, so it can be a pain to crochet with. Also, linen is pretty slippery to stitch, so go for a wood hook over aluminum.
Linen takes well to machine or hand washing. For the machine, wash with like colors in a normal load and dry on regular heat. Try removing your linen pieces from the dryer while still slightly damp and lay them flat for the remainder of the drying process.
- Strong and lightweight
- Anti fungal and antibacterial
- Incredible drape
- Blends well with other plant fibers
- Still emerging on the market – can be hard to find
- Gauge swatch is imperative – linen crochets much differently than it wears
- Some tendency to split when crocheting
Soft, sleek, and eco-friendly? YES! You can find all of these qualities in bamboo yarn. Bamboo yarn is made from bamboo grass that is distilled into cellulose and spun into a silky smooth yarn. The absence of animal fibers makes this a go-to option for vegan makers and those with allergies. Find this fiber blended with other natural or synthetic fibers for a lightweight yarn perfect for summer stitching.
Bamboo is best known for its softness, mimicking Pima cotton or Merino wool on a good day. It is also non-allergenic, making it a good option for baby items and gifts. It has great absorbing qualities and is considered highly sustainable. On the flipside, it’s not quite as strong as other animal fibers, and it can be expensive, so it is rarely found on its own in a yarn.
Due to its limited durability, consider hand washing items made from mainly bamboo yarn. Since most bamboo yarn is coupled with other fibers, pay close attention to the yarn label for appropriate care instructions.
- Eco-friendly and sustainable
- Soft and lightweight, ideal for warm weather
- Won’t irritate allergies or sensitive skin
- Can be expensive – look for it paired with other fibers
- Less durable than other animal fibers
- Still emerging on the market so it can be hard to find
Smooth, shiny, and strong, silk is arguably the most expensive yarn type of them all. Silks come from the cocoons of the silkworm. Only the best cocoons are harvested to make silk while the remaining cocoons are reused in the process of cultivating silkworms. Silk’s strength, warmth, and absorbency make it a stellar choice to add to lacy shawls, heirloom sweaters, and cherished accessories.
Items made in silk are best known for their impeccable stitch definition and signature sheen. Silk also has an unmatched drape, nearly folding in on itself while still in the skein. Silk’s lack of elasticity is its main drawback. To counteract this, reserve silk for graceful, lacey projects. Avoid anything too large or heavy, as this will severely stretch the silk and distort the pattern.
Silk items should be gently hand washed or, better yet, dry cleaned. Spot clean with a damp towel if possible. Be sure to store silk items securely as they may be susceptible to moths. Plastic vacuum seal bags are my favorite choice for storage.
- Very soft and silky with a high sheen
- Strong stitch definition
- Lightweight but insulating when paired with other yarns
- Quite expensive, even in a blend
- Highly prone to snagging and pilling
- Attracts moths
Variations: Not all silk yarns are the same. They vary by species and harvest technique, among other factors. Learn more about the different types of silk available in yarn.
- Mulberry Silk. Derived from a silkworm fed exclusively on mulberry leaves to produce the finest silk with the longest fibers and most pronounced shine.
- Tussah Silk. Silkworms who feed on oak or fruit tree leaves produce this silk, characterized by it’s shorter, stronger fiber.
- Silk Noil. No fiber goes to waste in the production of silk! After the long fibers are extracted, the leftover bumpy bits are paired with other yarns to lend a tweedy texture.
Type 3: Synthetic Fibers
The availability of synthetic fibers is ever-expanding in the yarn world. Synthetic fibers are made using chemical processes rather than naturally-occurring substances. While typically easier to find and care for, more makers are considering the environmental impact of synthetic yarns before purchase.
Acrylic yarn is the most popular synthetic fiber on the market, easily available on its own or combined with natural or other synthetic fibers. The process to make this yarn starts with a man-made source material that is melted down, then extruded through a spinneret with different-sized holes. The liquid then hardens into filament threads that are then spun into different yarns. Acrylic is generally very durable and easy to care for so it works well for many types of projects as well as learning to crochet.
Both warm and strong, acrylic gives you the best aspects of wool while still being low cost and easy to find. It’s also machine washable, with some brands getting softer as you wash them. Some common downsides of acrylic yarn are its lack of absorbency and breathability.
Caring for acrylic yarn is the easiest among the fibers we’re covering today. Most acrylic yarns can be machine washed along with the rest of your clothing. If you want to take additional care with your items, wash on a gentle cycle followed by a low-temp dry. Acrylic drys especially fast, so laying flat to dry might be faster and saves energy.
- Inexpensive and easy to find
- Great choice for learning to crochet
- Machine washable and dryable
- Won’t irritate your allergies
- Less breathable compared to other fibers
- Fibers can melt at high heat (always dry on medium to low setting)
- Holds greasy stains and odors more than natural fibers
Also called polyamide, nylon is the original DuPont brand name for this pre-World War II synthetic fiber. Nylon fiber is often added to other yarns to enhance its signature strength, elasticity, and sheen. Have you ever heard the term “sock yarn”? This typically refers to a wool yarn that is spun with a small amount of nylon, making it more durable in the use of socks. You’ll also find nylon in novelty yarns, adding interest and shine to yarn store shelves.
Nylon’s biggest attribute is its strength – it is widely considered the strongest textile fiber on the market. Besides that, it is lightweight, durable, and elastic. It is also easy care, making it especially useful in baby items. Keep in mind that nylon is heat sensitive and will easily melt if it comes in contact with irons or flames. It can also be a bit scratchy in yarns made from 100% nylon.
Machine washing is your best bet when caring for items made with nylon-based yarns. You can also put pieces in the dryer – just stick to a low heat setting. If the nylong is blended with another fiber, pay close attention to the care instructions on the label.
- Blends well with plant, animal, and other synthetic fibers
- Easy care and machine washable
- Strong and durable
- Very heat sensitive
- Chemically processed and not typically considered sustainable
- Can be scratchy – look for yarns with a nylon blend if planning to wear near the skin
Rayon is categorized as a biosynthetic fiber, which involves putting plant-based source materials through heavy processing to turn cellulose fibers into usable yarn. Tweaks and adjustments are made in the manufacturing process to produce wildly different results, allowing rayon and it’s derivities to be incredibly versatile. Rayon and other biosynthetic are typically combined with other fibers to lend a smooth texture and breathability.
The qualities of rayon vary wildly based on processing, but you will find a few characteristics across the board. Rayon was originally produced as a less-expensive alternative to silk, so you are likely to find a silky quality in all rayon yarns. Rayon also has cooling properties and is efficient at directing heat away from the body. Conversely, rayon lacks elasticity and can be incredibly slippery to crochet with.
All rayon yarns are generally easy care, but be sure to check the label. When in doubt, hand wash or machine wash on a gentle cycle and allow the piece to air dry.
- Light sheen and smooth feel
- Affordable alternative to silk
- Blends seamlessly with animal and plant fibers, as well as other synthetics
- Prone to stretching and may lose shape
- Fiber becomes very delicate when wet
- Chemically processed and generally not considered eco-friendly
Variations: Most biosynthetic yarns use the same process but differ based on the source material. Look for these names when considering the fibers in your yarn.
- Viscose. Derived from wood pulp, this fiber can be made from any number of materials like beech, pine, bamboo, and even sugarcane.
- Tencel / Lyocell. Considered more eco-friendly than traditional rayon, Tencel (which is the brand name for Lyocell) is more absorbent than the original and usually adds high shine to a yarn.
- Modal. This form of rayon comes specifically from beech trees. It is categorized as being absorbent and gained popularity as a good fiber for activewear.
This post shares just the tip of the yarn fiber iceberg. We haven’t even talked about hemp, camel, microfiber, or the dozens of other yarn types you’ll find on the market.
The best way to better understand yarn fiber is to use it. Buy it, crochet a swatch, and care for it as instructed on the label. Then make a note of how the material performs and feels, and your personal preferences for use. Refer to your notes as you choose yarn or select yarn substitutes for your favorite patterns.