Lisa’s List: Fiber Animals Ranked by Hotness
Last week, winter storm Helena took her snowy toll across the U.S., and in the middle of it, here in Colorado, I sat at home with no less than 4 knitted things on: socks, slippers, legwarmers, and a hat. My heat does work, thanks. I’m just one of those people who is always freezing. So when it’s actually freezing outside, I’m all about that wool.
But when deciding between a crisp wool beanie and a floppy angora beret, which offers more warmth? There are levels of hotness that differ across our fiber-bearing friends, so here’s a list of animals that we make yarn from, ranked by warmth properties of their fiber.
But first—I’m gunna geek out on some fiber science. According to Annep Merrow, editor of Spin-Off and Spin + Knit magazines, “the fiber itself is only half the picture. The other half is yarn construction. Anything that traps air is warmer; anything sleek and drapey is cooler.”
I wanted a clear, linear list of animals from cool to hot, but Anne cautioned that “this is a very rough list of tendencies, rather than an absolute scale.”
And that scale goes like this, starting with the warmest fiber characteristics:
Short, soft, hollow (medullated), undercoats > medium, crimpy, solid > long, slick
With those characteristics in mind and remembering that yarn construction can make a big difference in final hotness, let’s take a look at the regal beasties! We’ll count down from least-hot to most-hot.
17. SHEEP WITH LONG FIBERS
We call ‘em longwools; one example is the Border Leicester.
16. ANGORA GOAT
Makes mohair; had a good run in the 1980s in ready-to-wear. Mohair knitting yarns really differ in style and don’t have to make super-fuzzy fabric. It’s also important to note that brushed mohair (fuzzy) makes very warm yarn and rates hotter, but mohair fiber on its own, because it’s so smooth, can’t be regarded as a big hottie.
That’s right, silk comes from an animal and silk is warmer than some sheep and goat breeds. You’ll find silk long underwear compared to merino long underwear on many outdoor-gear sites, and merino wins for warmth—but silk is great at retaining heat while being breathable, and makes thin, lightweight fabric. Everything you want in your underwear.
14. SHEEP WITH MEDIUM-LENGTH FIBER
The Corriedale is one example
13. SHEEP WITH SHORT CRIMPY FIBER
Here’s where Mr. Merino comes in, as well as his friend Cormo.
Camelids enter the list here with the alpaca. You’ll see more camelids further down, including llama, guanaco, vicuña, and camel. These guys come from some high elevation (all of them except the camel hailing from the highlands of South America), and high elevation + evolution + weirdly long necks = super-cozy fiber.
This guy doesn’t need an introduction.
10. ANGORA RABBIT
Angora rabbits make angora fiber (angora goats make mohair). My mom raised angora rabbits when I was growing up and they are BIG FLUFFBALL WEIRDOES. These animals were bred to have crazy big fleeces and they can’t survive in the wild; they need humans to shear them. They chew electric cords for fun. But omigoodness, the fiber is heavenly, and they can live in your house kinda like cats, with litterboxes and everything (but watch your electric cords).
9. CASHMERE GOAT
If you’re the kind of person who buys V-neck pullovers at Bloomingdale’s, you might be surprised to learn that cashmere goats hail from rugged, mountainous Central Asia, where yuppies Do Not Hang Out. But at that elevation, the goats grow fiber that is not only luxuriously soft, but super warm.
On a long backpacking trip last summer, I read Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air, which chronicles the true and horrifying story of the most deadly season on Mt. Everest, and there’s a memorable scene in which the hikers and sherpas rely on yaks to carry their gear through waist-high snow just to get to the base of Everest, and that’s how I know yaks have warm coats. Yaks are now raised in the U.S. for their fiber; Bijou Basin Ranch has some lovely yak yarn for knitters.
Now if this was a ranking of the most valuable fibers on the planet, guanaco would rate better than #7. Guanaco fiber is second only to vicuña, priced by the ounce. The guanaco lives up and down the length of South America, mostly at high elevation except for in Patagonia and the Falkland Islands, which are chilly year-round due to their far-south latitude. The guanaco is believed to be the wild ancestor of the domesticated llama.
This animal is proof that aliens came to earth in ancient times, and it is the MONEY. A small and wild camelid of South American highlands, vicuña fiber has long been cherished by humans; the Inca only allowed royalty to wear it. It was badly endangered at one time, but the species was officially protected in 1974 and has since recovered in numbers. The animal has not been domesticated, and the fiber can only be sheared every 3 years from animals captured in the wild, then released. The fiber is not legal for trade, so you won’t find any yarn on the market, but I did find a number of vintage vicuña woven garments for sale on Etsy and eBay, all VERY EXPENSIVE. For a more legit option, try paco-vicuña yarn, which is legal, available in the U.S., and comes from an alpaca-vicuña hybrid.
5. BACTRIAN CAMEL
Camel down is the ticket here, and though not as soft as its smaller South American cousins, its fiber is very warm.
4. Common Brushtail Possum
We don’t actually have consensus about where in the list possum should fall, but sources say the fiber is warmer than both merino and cashmere. The fiber is hollow and short (about 1” long), which does give it the best warming characteristics according to Anne’s scale, above. This specific possum, the common brushtail possum, invaded New Zealand in the 1800’s and became a destructive species on the islands (where it had no natural predators). So the possum fiber and yarn you find on the market now are coming from government-sponsored pest control programs—i.e., the animals are killed and the fiber harvested. This is sad, but it is best for the ecology of New Zealand, and the fiber is being used, which is a productive by-product of an environmental problem. Most possum yarns are blends, for similar reasons as the mink, below.
This one is tough to rank because you really can’t do anything with 100% mink; it has to be blended to make functional yarn, so rating its hotness on its own isn’t that meaningful. But it’s mink, you know, like the musty coats your grandmother kept in a wardrobe, coats that creeped you out A LOT as a kid and yet fascinated you…the kind of coats unsettling enough that C.S. Lewis could imagine a door to another world opening up amongst them.
Anyway, mink has really short fibers, which can be combed/clipped from the live animal (a weasel-like little critter) without hurting it, so knitting with it isn’t the same as wearing a coat made from it, if that sort of thing bothers you. Mink are found in Canada and Britian, and mink ranches are a big business in Nova Scotia. They do not lasso the minks or put saddles on them, no.
Both #2 and #1 on our list are bovines. Wooly cows, you might call them. Bison bison is an American species; people call this creature “buffalo” but that’s a misnomer dating to the early days of European settlement in North America. Buffalo live in Africa and Asia and are not wooly. The water buffalo gives us some awesome mozzarella, but not wool.
Bison fiber is pretty special. It’s incredibly crimpy with lots of air pockets, necessary for keeping the animals warm on the high and blizzard-prone plains (try to drive through southeastern Wyoming in the winter and you’ll appreciate what these guys have to deal with). It’s also really soft, with a micron count similar to cashmere. And! It doesn’t felt. You can machine wash and dry bison knits. It’s not cheap, as the animals are high maintenance (they’re not really into people) and even though they’re huge, they don’t produce much useable fiber per year.
The Buffalo Wool Company produces bison yarn. And if you can’t keep up with demand once you knit your friends bison outdoor gear, United by Blue makes bison-down hiking socks, which do sound pretty awesome. Let’s go snowshoeing!
1. MUSK OX
And the winner for HOTTEST is a small, stinky, wooly cow from Alaska! The musk ox, though a member of the Bovidae family, is more closely related to sheep and goats than oxen, and can be found in Greenland, northern Europe, Arctic Canada, and Alaska. The males emit a strong odor, which apparently attracts the ladies. HOT.
The fiber produced by musk oxen is called qiviut, an Inuktitut word, and it is knitter’s gold. This is an animal that lives in the Arctic and survived the Holocene extinction event (epic kill-off by humans) by retreating into remote icey reaches of Canada. It is very very warm and butter-soft. You have to touch it, once in your lifetime. The fiber can be harvested either by collecting molted fiber off fences and trees in the spring, by combing the animals, or by harvesting it from the pelts of hunted animals. The Musk Ox Farm in Palmer, Alaska “is dedicated to the domestication of the musk ox and to the promotion of qiviut production as a gentle and sustainable agricultural practice in the Far North, with a focus on public education and providing income opportunities to Alaska Natives.” This yarn is expensive, like many of the other hotties on our list, but makes a precious and toasty accessory that you will treasure forever. Go on, knit yourself a piece of the Ice Age.
These animals are incredible, aren’t they? Weird and wonderful and so helpful to humans through the ages, giving us their better-than-manmade coats. Please note that this ranking is not law and people may disagree about the specific order, but we feel confident that the basic flow from 17-1 is informative and accurate. If you’re interested in learning more about fiber animals and how to spin raw fiber into yarn, check out Spin + Knit. And for rugged, hardwearing, winter knits that can be made in any fiber, check out the 24 patterns in Rugged Knits.
Ply fly and knit hot,
P.S. I didn’t include dog and cat hair on this list, but if you wanna go there, tell me where it ranks in hotness and I’ll run it by the spinners and we’ll think about it.
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