A Glossary of Dyeing and Spinning Terminology can be found here.

Focus on Fiber

Alpaca image by Fred Gran

Alpaca image by Fred Gran

Alpaca – Vicugna pacos

Members of the camelid family, alpacas are related to llamas and camels.  Alpacas have been domesticated for thousands of years and are originally from South America. There are no wild alpacas.  They were bred for their fiber and not as pack animals as were the llamas.  The Incas had an extensive breeding program focusing on the breeding of different colors of alpacas.  Here in the United States there are more than 20 recognized natural colors.

There are two types of alpacas: huacayas and suris.  Approximately ninety percent of alpacas are huacayas.  The difference between the two types is in their fleeces.  The huacaya alpacas are fluffy and they have a little bit of crimp to their fibers.  Suri alpacas look like they have dreads but their fiber is not matted.  Instead it hangs down in gentle ringlets.  Suri fiber tends to be finer in diameter and have more drape than huacaya.

Alpaca is a hair rather than a wool.  Its hollow core creates a fiber that is both lightweight and warm.  It is three times stronger than sheep’s wool and is stronger when wet.  The surface of the alpaca fiber has less scales than wool and is therefore more lustrous than wool.  The reduced number of scales means that alpaca will not felt as quickly as wool.  Alpaca has almost no memory but is soft, warm, and lustrous with a beautiful drape.

Angora Rabbit photo by Ross Little

Angora Rabbit image by Ross Little


Angora fiber is soft and warm.  It is up to eight times as warm as wool.  The fiber comes from one of five general classes of angora rabbits: French, English, German, Giant, and Satin. Regardless of which of type of angora you are spinning it will all have a certain amount of guard hairs.  These guard hairs help keep the fiber open and lofty and prevent matting.  Inferior angora will have too high a percentage of guard hairs and the resulting yarn will be itchy instead of soft.

While angora rabbits are originally from Ankara, Turkey it was France that traditionally was known for its production of angora fiber.  Now the majority of angora fiber comes from China, Chile, Argentina, and Korea.

BFL image by Sally Ann Thompson

BFL image by Sally Ann Thompson

Bluefaced Leicester Sheep - Ovis aries

The Bluefaced Leicester (BFL) sheep, also know as Hexham Leicester were developed around Hexham in the county of Northumberland in northern England.  BFL sheep were selected from Border Leicester sheep for their fine fleeces and blue face.  The blue face comes from short white hair over blue skin.  Mature BFL sheep will not have wool on their heads, necks, or legs.  Both ram and ewe are polled (without horns).  One of the most distinguishing characteristics is the broad Roman nose.

The breed was developed primarily for crossbreeding to other native British breed around the turn of last century.  It has recently become a popular breed, especially among handspinners.

The wool of the Bluefaced Leicester falls in the category of a luster longwool and occasionally contains kemp (wiry non-pigmented hairs).  The wool has narrow curly locks rather than crimp giving the wool more drape than a merino type wool.  The micron count should fall between 24 and 28 microns and the staple length is typically 3 to 6 inches.  Fleeces will weigh between 2.5 and 4.5 pounds.  The mature ewe weighs 150 to 175 pounds and the ram weighs 200 to 250 pounds.  Most BFL sheep are white, a recessive gene can crate an occasional colored sheep.  The sheep are primarily found in the UK though flocks can also be found in the United States and Canada.

Camel image by ElinorD

Camel image by ElinorD

Bactrian Camel - Camelus bactrianus

The camel fiber that is used for garments and spinning comes from the Bactrian camel, which has two humps in contrast to the dromedary camel, which has only one hump.  Bactrian camels can survive very cold weather and are found in Tibet, Afghanistan, the Gobi Desert, and the north of central Asia.

The camel’s coat can be divided up in to three groups.  The outer hair coat can be as long as 15 inches, is coarse and often used as warp.  The middle coat is about 3 to 5 inches long with a texture similar to wool.  It is this fiber that is spun and woven into the fabric for camel coats.  The downy undercoat is 1 to 3 inches long that has properties like cashmere though not as fine in diameter.  Camel down’s diameter generally falls between 18 and 24 microns.  The camel sheds this downy undercoat in big mats that is collected by combing.  Approximately 5 pounds of camel down can be collected from one adult camel during their molting.  Like cashmere, camel does not have much elasticity nor does it felt easily.

Corriedale image by James Marshall

Corriedale image by James Marshall

Corriedale Sheep - Ovis aries

Corriedale sheep were developed simultaneously in New Zealand and Australia in the mid 1800′s but credit is given to James Little for establishing the breed.  He was doing this breeding work while managing the Corriedale Estate in Otaga on the South Island of New Zealand.  Although Mr. Little started his work in the 1860′s Corriedale wasn’t chosen as the official name for the breed until 1902.  Corriedales were first imported into the United States in 1914.

The goal of the breed was to create a dual-purpose breed that would do well in the areas of New Zealand that had moderate amounts of rain.  To achieve this goal Lincoln rams were bred to Merino ewes.  The breed is marked by long living, docile animals whose ewes are good mothers and have a high percentage of multiple births.  The rams will weigh between 175 and 275 pounds at maturity and the ewes weigh between 130 and 180 pounds with a fleece weighing between 5 to 10 pounds skirted.  The staple length of a Corriedale fleece is 3.5 to 6 inches with a micron count between 24.5 and 31.5.

Corriedale sheep are adaptable to a wide variety of grazing situations and as such they are now the second most numerous sheep breed in the world behind Merino sheep.

Finn Sheep images courstesy of Australian Finnsheep Breeders Association

Finn Sheep images courstesy of Australian Finnsheep Breeders Association

Finn Sheep - Ovis aries

Finnish Landrace Sheep also known as Finn sheep have many characteristics that make them ideal all around sheep.  The ewes are good mothers typically having triplets or quadruplets and producing enough milk to feed them all.  They are naturally short tailed so they don’t require tail docking.  They are also naturally polled or horn-less. Finn sheep are considered a dual-purpose sheep as their meat is lean and tasty and their wool is fine and lustrous.  While Finn wool is considered a medium-grade wool it is the finest of the group with a micron count falling between 24 and 31 microns with a 3-6″ staple length.  The wool also has the reputation of blending well with other fibers.

As their name implies, Finn sheep are originally from Finland. They are thought to be several hundred years old and therefore considered an ancient sheep breed.  This descendent of the wild mouflon sheep first came to North America in 1966 for crossbreeding purposes to increase lambing percentages in existing flocks.  In Finland they were bred to have multiple births because the extremely cold winters meant that only a few ewes were allowed to live indoors until spring.  Then in spring these few ewes would be able to have many lambs thus quickly increasing the flock size during the warmer weather.

Because of its extensive use in crossbreeding programs there are very few flocks of purebred Finn sheep though their popularity is increasing as handspinners learn about this wonderful breed.  The majority of the Finn sheep in North America are white.  Black, grey, and brown colors all exist as well as spotted or piebald.  Due to an increased interest work is being done in Finland to preserve the color range of the Finn sheep.

Merino Sheep image by Phillip Capper

Merino Sheep image by Phillip Capper

Merino Sheep - Ovis aries

Merino sheep are the gold standard against which all other wool is judged.  Originally from Spain, these animals were so highly valued that before the 18th century a person would be put to death if they exported a merino sheep out of Spain.  During the 18th century the Spanish king sent a handful of merino sheep to France that founded the Rambouillet sheep line.  Now most merino wool comes from Australia where approximately 80 percent of the sheep are merinos.

Merinos are valued primarily for their crimpy, soft wool that has a lot of lanolin and very little luster.  Generally their wool is 2.5 to 4 inches long and between 18.5 to 24 microns.  Merino can be extremely fine, as fine as 11.5 microns, well within the range of luxury fibers like cashmere, yak, and camel downs.

Targhee image by Jack McRae

Targhee image by Jack McRae

Targhee Sheep - Ovis aries

The Targhee sheep breed was developed relatively recently.  It originated in the early 20th century at the USDA sheep experiment station in Boise, Idaho, which is surrounded by the Targhee National Forest for which the breed was named.  The goal of the breed was to create a dual-purpose breed that had a good yield of wool and thrived in the Western plains and grasslands where the breed was developed.  The bases of the breed were Rambouillet, Corriedale, and Lincoln sheep using the ratio of ¾ fine wool and ¼ long wool breeding strategy.  In 1966 the breeding books were closed and from then on all registered Targhee sheep have parents that are both registered Targhees.

Targhees are large sheep.  Mature rams weigh between 200 and 300 pounds and mature ewes weigh between 140 and 200 pounds.  Targee ewes produce approximately 5 to 6 pounds of clean fleece while targee rams produce about 8 to 11 pounds of clean fleece.  The staple length is between 3 to 5 inches long with a micron count of between 21to 25.

Tussah Moth Image by Clemens Nestroy

Tussah Moth image by Clemens Nestroy

Tussah Silk - Antherea

Tussah silk comes from the Antherea silk worms.  The word tussah is derived from the Sanskrit word tasara meaning “shuttle”.  Tussah silk is known as “wild silk” because the worms have not been domesticated but they can be raised commercially.  The majority of tussah comes from China, particularly the Lioaning province.  There, the worms are raised on Oak trees.

The tussah worms will eat the leaves of a variety of trees.  These leaves contain tannin, which gives tussah its distinctive honey beige color.  Tussah silk is a little coarser and stronger than cultivated silk.  A silk fiber, when looked at in cross-section, is triangular in shape with rounded corners.  This quality and the fact that the fibers have a smooth surface is what create silk’s luster and shine.  It is also one of the strongest natural fibers but becomes weaker when wet.  Exposure to UV light and perspiration also weakens silk fibers.  Silk makes fabric and garments that have luster, warmth and drape but without elasticity.

The silk fibers, called fibroin, are made when the worm extrudes the protein fibroin from two ducts under its lower lip.  The fibroin hardens when it hits the air and is glued together by the protein sericin to form the cocoon.  Sericin is soluble in water and fibroin is not.  Thus when the cocoon is submerged in hot water the sericin holding the silk fibers in the shape of a cocoon is removed.  From there the fibers can be used.

Wensleydale image by Sally Ann Thompson

Wensleydale image by Sally Ann Thompson

Wensleydale Sheep - Ovis aries

The Wensleydale sheep take its name from the Wensleydale region of North Yorkshire in the UK.  The breed developed from a ram known as “Blue Cap” who was a result of the cross breeding of a Dishley Leister ram and a Teeswater ewe.  He got his name from the distinctive blue pigmentation of his head.  This and other qualities such as his large size and distinctive wool have been passed down to his modern day predecessors.  Wensleydale are considered to be the largest of the breeds found in the UK with mature rams weighing approximately 300lbs and mature ewes weighing approximately 250lbs.

The wool of the Wensleydale falls in the category of a luster longwool.  While still on the hoof the wool of the Wensleydale falls in ringlets almost to the ground.  Due to a genetic quality the wool should be completely free of kemp (wiry non-pigmented hairs).  The micron count should fall between 33-35 microns and the staple length can 12 inches long for a years worth of growth.  The sheep are primarily found in the UK and are classified as “at risk” by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust of the UK as the breed has less than 1500 registered breeding females.

Yak image by Clemens Nestroy

Yak image by Clemens Nestroy

Yak - Bos grunniens

Yaks are part of the bovine family and are originally from the Himalayas.  The indigenous people of Tibet, Mongolia, and South-Central Asia depend on the yaks for their survival in the harsh climate.  In addition to fiber for spinning, weaving, and felting, the yaks provide meat, milk, yogurt, butter, oil, hides, bones and horns for tools and containers, and dung to be burned as fuel.

Yaks were first imported into the United States in the late 1920′s but they are still a rarity here.  They are raised not only for fiber and dairy but also for meat and to be crossbred to cows.  A bull yak at maturity weighs between 1200 and 1500 pounds and a mature yak cow weighs between 600 and 800 pounds.

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