The Ravelled Skein

About Fibers And Furbelows: KnitPickdbyPenney Glossary January 03 2014


A highly-elastic, man-made filament that is spun into yarns, Acrylic is both warm and strong.   With a cuddly-soft, wool-like hand acrylics are often preferred by people who dislike wearing “real” wool and cashmere. Due to the stability of the fiber and the rich, vibrant colors achievable in dyeing, acrylics are employed as an integral component in numerous complex blended yarns.


See Rayon.


Indigenous to the Andean highlands of Peru, Argentina, Chile and Bolivia, the Alpaca evolved from the domestication of the vicuna several thousand years ago and is closely related to the llama and guanaco as well. Today’s alpacas produce fleece in a stunning range of 22 natural colorations from a dyeable white to an inky blue-black with the whites being the finest quality. Soft, silky and very durable, alpaca is found to be lighter and warmer than wool and, because it contains no lanolin, is hypo-allergenic and itch-free. The use of this luxurious fiber helps promote sustainable agriculture in the Andes.


Angora Goats produce the silky, long fibers known as Mohair. These very strong fibers, which are made into exquisite lofty yarns, are much prized for their softness and lustrous sheen. (See Mohair for a complete description of this fiber.) Specially-bred Angora Rabbits also produce an ultra-soft, very fine fiber which is known as Angora.   Substantially warmer than wool, angora fibers (from both Goats and Rabbits) are very lightweight, non-crushing and have the highest heat retention properties of any natural fibers.


Art Apparel (also referred to as Wearable Art or simply Art Wear) comprises a niche category in the realm of better apparel and accessories. Intended to be accepted as serious works of art, these unique, designer-executed pieces are created to adorn the body….to be worn!…but, often times, are simply put on display and exhibited as the Art that they truly are. Handmade and, most frequently, one-of-a-kind, this artwork-to-wear embodies the same aesthetic design concepts applied in sculpture and other three-dimensional art forms.


Bamboo, one of the fastest growing of all plants, can quickly reach a height of almost 100 feet. This very high growth rate, combined with the fact that bamboo can be cultivated in cold mountain regions as well as hot tropical zones, makes the bamboo plant a very valuable, sustainable resource. The cellulosic fiber fabricated from the pulp of this natural plant, and itself called Bamboo, has gained in popularity in recent years as a Green Fiber for use in apparel. Flexible, strong and very light weight, bamboo fibers are often blended with cotton and/or silk to create elegant, silky-handed yarns.

Banana Fiber

Banana Fiber is a super-soft, yet durable renewable resource that has been used for quality textiles since the 13th Century. The dramatically lustrous Banana Fiber we use for KnitPicks is sensual to the touch. Indeed, a transformation from ugly to elegant occurs with this particular yarn! Created expressly to promote the cause of women in India and Nepal, it is helping them support their families while at the same time getting rid of waste. This versatile yarn is made from the cellulose fibers of the aged (and decaying) outer bark layers of banana trees which, having been soaked in water to dissolve their chlorophyll structures, are extruded into a pulp suitable for spinning into fine yarns which can then be dyed into rich, vibrant colors.


Literally meaning “curled,” Boucle is a term of French derivation. The curly loops in the yarn create a knobble surface effect giving it a rough-textured appearance when knitted or woven.


Cashmere is a highly prized and expensive wool, treasured since the 15th Century for its extra-fine texture and silky hand. This strong, light fiber is made from the soft, downy undercoat that grows snuggled beneath the long, coarse guard hairs of Himalayan, Kashmir goats. Annually only a few ounces of this wool can be harvested from each goat, either by combing or the less desirable shearing method, so production of Cashmere yarns is, obviously, quite limited.


Chenille comes from the French word for a caterpillar, which it closely resembles with its soft, fuzzy-textured, surface pile. Historically made from silk and cotton, chenille today is often produced using wool along with acrylic and/or rayon and may appear iridescent as these fibers each catch the light differently. Very soft-textured, chenille yarn is sought after for its look of luxury and wonderfully sensual, velvety hand.


Fibers are the essential thread-like filaments, either natural or man-made, that are the basic components which are spun, and then dyed, to become knitting yarns. Natural fibers that are utilized extensively in KnitPickdbyPenney ArtWear pieces include silk, alpaca, wool, mohair, llama and cotton. Man-made or synthetic fibers, which often mimic the hand and texture of their natural cousins, include acetate, polyester and nylon.

Fiber Art

Fiber Art takes its context from the world of Textile Arts. The name came into common usage following World War II to describe the creative output of designers and artists working in natural and/or synthetic fibers and yarns rather than with the paints, metals or clay as found in more traditional two-and-three dimensional Art forms.


A decorative, loosely hanging yarn, ribbon or thread embellishment, traditionally added at the ends of scarves, but, also, occasionally found irregularly floating on the sides of these accessories.


The way a fiber or yarn…or garment...feels when touched is known as its hand. Determination of hand is often subjective rather than objective. How do you perceive the surface? Is it coarse and rough? Or maybe soft and silky? Is it so dry and crisp it almost crinkles like a piece of paper? Perhaps it is warm, fuzzy and cuddly like a child’s teddy bear? These are just a few of the ways in which we sense and respond to the feel of yarns and garments.

Hand Knit

Any garment where the inter-looping of yarns is done manually and creatively…by hand… as opposed to being done regimentally by machine.


For thousands of years, fibers have been turned into yarn through hand-spinning using a simple spindle with a distaff to hold the raw material or, from the late Middle Ages on, a spinning wheel. It is not surprising, therefore, that, in today’s world of mechanization and standardization, the most creatively unique knitting yarns are frequently produced (in small runs) by spinners using these simple, hands-on techniques. Rarely uniform in texture and size, and prized for the fact that they both look and behave quite differently from commercial, mill-spun yarns of similar fibers, hand-spuns each have their own individual character which dramatically enhances the garment in which they are utilized.


The term defining a hand-dyeing process in which yarns, in small hanks or skeins, are placed in a metal container and immersed in a dye bath to which heat is applied. Beautiful variegated yarns with subtle tonalities are created through the careful placement and “patterning” of one or more liquid dyes. When the desired depth of color is achieved, the newly-dyed yarns are removed from the dye bath, thoroughly rinsed and washed, then finished for knitting or weaving.


Lambswool is a supremely soft, smooth, resilient wool, acquired only from the first shearing of sheep when they are approximately seven months of age. Considered to be the highest quality wool fleece available, lambswool is also the most hypo-allergenic and is, therefore, very desirable for use in better apparel.


Llamas, currently found in the Andean highlands of South America, are distant domesticated relatives of the camel, which they closely resemble except without the back hump. Also related to the wild vicuna and guanaco species, llamas (and their smaller domesticated cousins, the alpacas) have a fine undercoat suitable for spinning into textile yarns as well as a much coarser layer of guard hair used in the manufacture of rugs and ropes. Natural llama wool, which comes in an extensive range of colors from white or pale gray through the reddish-browns to black, has a very soft hand and is naturally lanolin-free.


Merino wool, coming from the Merino sheep originally bred in Turkey and central Spain, has been highly valued for its softness and breathability since the middle Ages. Finely crimped and with an excellent warmth-to-weight ratio, this luxury wool can provide warmth without overheating a wearer.   The lanolin it contains also adds anti-bacterial properties to yarns spun with this fiber.

Metallic Yarns

Metallic yarns are plied, either exclusively or partially, from fibers containing metal and will have a natural, shiny luster, which adds “gleam” to the finished yarns. Considered novelty yarns, that add sparkle and a festive finish to knitted garments.


Mohair is the quality, silk-like yarn with a lustrous sheen that is made from the fine, long hair of younger Angora goats. Often confused with Angora wool, which is the fleece produced by the Angora rabbit, Mohair is a luxury fiber that takes dye exceptionally well, is durable and naturally elastic. Since Angora goats are a single-coat breed, there is no need to de-hair mohair fleece to separate the very valuable down from coarse outer hairs as would be required with Cashmere or Llama wool, for instance.


Nylon is the generic designation for a group of synthetic polymers first produced in the 1930s by DuPont Chemical Co. for use commercially in tooth brushes and women’s Nylon stockings. Intended to be a synthetic replacement for silk (which it did replace for military applications, such as parachutes, during World War II), it has high tensile strength and durability and an excellent resistance to mold, mildew and chemicals. In addition, Nylon has the ability to vary in appearance from dull through semi-lustrous to very lustrous making it an excellent component in plied fibers and yarns.

Organic Cotton

Organic Cotton is environmentally friendly cotton, grown in soil that has been certified to be chemical free for a minimum of three years. This certification applies to the non-use of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. While Organic Cotton is, obviously, more expensive to produce due to smaller harvest yields than regularly-grown cotton, it is much prized as being far less damaging to the environment. Organic Cotton fibers are lustrous and highly absorbent. With its gently soft, cuddly hand, Organic Cotton is spun alone (or in blends with other natural and synthetic fibers) into elegantly desirable knitting yarns.


Plying is the process employed with yarns, hand-spun or commercially produced, to create a strong, balanced yarn by combining multiple individual twisted strands into just one twisted yarn. These strands may all be composed of the same fiber or of a number of fibers or blends. Varying the tension when plying, or the relative sizes and twists of the strands plied together, can create dramatically textured novelty yarns. Along with the basic one-strand yarn, known as “singles,” two-ply, three-ply and four-ply yarns are most frequently used for hand knitting and in textiles.


Polyester, or Poly as it is often called, is a large class of quick drying, resilient synthetic materials containing polymers that are used extensively in the manufacture of plastics and textile fibers. While often perceived as having a plastic-like hand, Polyesters and the yarns produced from them, have the specific advantages of superior wrinkle resistance, excellent durability and outstanding color retention. For this reason, polyester is often spun in combination with the softer natural fibers, such as cotton and wool, to produce yarns with outstanding blended properties.


Rayon, a natural-based cellulosic fiber made from either wood pulp or cotton, is considered one of the most economical of all synthetic, man-made fibers and is used as a stabilizing fiber in many yarn blends. The natural cellulose base gives the fiber many of its characteristics such as its low cost, comfort and versatility. In contrast, fibers synthesized solely from chemical compounds, without a cellulosic component, are called non-cellulosic polymer fibers.


In KnitPickdbyPenney creations we extensively use a mixture of the ecologically friendly and stunningly beautiful silk, cotton and/or wool yarns from Tibet, Nepal and India that have new life as reclaimed or recycled yarns and ribbons. The reclaimed yarns are made from fabrics that have never been used, such as mill ends and scraps from fabric or clothing factories, which would have eventually ended in a landfill. In reclaiming them, these fabrics are processed back into short fibers that are then spun into new yarns. The recycled yarns and ribbons, on the other hand, are made from fabrics that are pre-used, such as from vintage silk saris and old textiles. Both terms are often appropriate for a given yarn as they are synergistic blends of fibers from each source.


See Reclaimed for an explanation of the differences between these two ecologically friendly types of yarns and ribbons.

Sari Silk

Reclaimed and recycled Sari Silk ribbons are a dramatic textural and color component of many KnitPicks. Vintage, finely hand-woven silk saris of anywhere from two to nine yards in length, are torn by hand into quarter inch ribbon strips, which are then randomly sewn together end to end, creating the nuanced colorations of these luscious knitting silks.


Silk, used in China for making apparel as early as 3500 BC, is a natural protein fiber that is spun into yarns and woven into very elegant, often gossamer textiles. Most silk fiber today is obtained from the cocoons of mulberry silkworms raised in captivity but there is also a luxurious Wild Silk, known as Tussah, which is spun into dramatically soft, shimmery yarns. Because of the high luster and drape of silk, along with an excellent rate of absorbency, designers find silks irresistible for use in quality apparel. Additionally, due to their prismatic, triangular structure, silk fibers refract incoming light at different angles allowing silk yarns to have that glowing, iridescent appearance for which it has been treasured for so many generations.


Streamers are long, narrow ribbon-like “flags” of yarn or ribbon dangling freely to embellish the sides or ends of KnitPickdbyPenney scarves.

Sustainable Fibers

Sustainable fibers are part of a larger trend towards sustainable design where products are created with consideration of their overall environmental and social impact. Striving to be more socially responsible, designers are utilizing naturally-grown fibers and eco-conscious products. And, through the use of renewable and environmentally friendly yarns, such as bamboo and banana fiber, we are striving to respect the environment and create a system that can be supported indefinitely in terms of social responsibility.


Tassels are used as an elegant and ornamental finishing feature. A type of embellishment, composed of clusters of entangled yarns, threads and/or ribbons knotted together at their tops, tassels hang like regimental sentries parading across the ends of a KnitPickdbyPenney scarf.


Tussah, or Tussar Silk, is a type of Wild Silk produced from Tussar silkworms which live in the wild in Southeast Asia. Tussah, which is generally more textured than cultivated (mulberry) silk, has a glorious sheen but, because of its shorter filaments, it is less durable than cultivated silks. There are approximately 500 species of wild silkworms found around the world today but Tussah silks are the most widely utilized for designer knitting yarns.

Wearable Art

See Art-to-Wear.

Wild Silk

See Tussah.


Wool is one of the most versatile and widely used natural fibers known to man. Sheep’s wool, such as Merino and Lambswool, is spun into fiber and translated into yarns of varying textures and qualities. Used extensively in luxury yarns, it is soft and warm, wrinkle resistant, very durable and color-fast when dyed. Additional varieties of wools include Alpaca, Camel’s Hair, Cashmere, Llama, Mohair (from the Angora goat) and Angora fur harvested from Angora rabbits. Each has its own individual properties but all are durable, lofty, lustrous and, to one degree or another, silky in hand. All of these wools can stand individually as elegant yarns. But, spun together into complex blends of wools, silks, and cottons plus a variety of synthetic fibers, wool creates a multitude of warm, water-resistant plied yarns perfect for better apparel.


Yarns are long, continuous lengths of interlocked natural and man-made fibers and filaments which are employed for knitting. Standing alone, or as a combination of textures and fibers, each finished yarn has its own character and personality. Blended yarns happily manifest the qualities of all of the fibers from which they are derived. The fun, novelty yarns are especially visually appealing blends of synthetics created to add stability as well as drama to otherwise simple knitted creations.

Yarn Dyed

Yarn dyeing is the process of adding permanent color to yarns prior to knitting or weaving them into fabrics.