What are bast fibers?

Summer is a time of knitting with lightweight fibers, and there are so many to choose from. I'm most familiar with cotton and linen, which are pretty easy to come by. But there are many more fibers to choose from, and they're becoming more and more common in local yarn shops.

Help yourself to a yarnsickle!
From upper right (peach yarnsicle): Bergère de France Cabourg,
Halcyon Block Island Blend, Louet Euroflax Sportweight, Habu Shosenshi, Fibra Natura Flax, and Hemp for Knitting allhemp3

Here's designer Deborah Robson to tell you more about yarns produced from bast fibers and how to get the most out of knitting with them.

Bast Fiber Yarns

Bast fibers are produced in the stems of some plants, including flax, hemp, nettle, jute, kenaf, and ramie. It's a wonder our ancestors figured out how to get the fibers out of the woody stems, a job that involves a long series of steps, including retting, scutching, and hackling: essentially, rotting, breaking apart, and pulling off the stem fragments to release the lovely, long, strong fibers hidden inside. Yet excavations from Stone Age dwellings contain evidence of the use of flax.

Contemporary textile artisans are often far less familiar with bast fibers than with wool, cotton, or synthetics. Flax lagged behind during the industrial revolution, because inventors figured out how to machine-spin cotton first. Wool is easier to work with. Synthetics have, to a great extent, shoved bast fibers to the side.

Nonetheless, with today's focus on sustainable production, the superb qualities of bast fibers are being rediscovered. They require fewer pest controls and grow in a wider range of environments than cotton, use less energy to manufacture than synthetics, and are biodegradable (although they're tough and exceptionally long-lasting). Fabrics made from bast fibers are easy to wash, nonallergenic, and comfortable to wear because they quickly absorb and release moisture.

Knitters are most likely to encounter—and be intimidated by—flax and hemp. These fibers don't have the elasticity you expect from wools and acrylics. When you first work with bast fibers, they don't flow gently across your needles, your fabric feels stiff, and your stitches look irregular. These are all temporary or preventable problems. If you adjust your techniques and both knit and wash swatches, you'll soon find yourself in a delightful new realm of knitting.

Bast fibers are less pliable, at least initially, than other fibers. With use and washing, they soften up. However, on the needles they can be slippery, and the stitches of a pure bast yarn won't flex much. Your needle choice can make a huge difference in how well you like a bast-fiber yarn. Select needles that aren't too slippery but have well-shaped and narrow points. Pure bast yarns also won't want to stay neatly wound into balls. Using a yarn caddy or a resealable bag to contain the ball can be extremely helpful.

Pure bast yarns made from long fibers (called line) will be so strong that you'll need to cut, instead of break, the strands. If you add a new ball by simply overlapping ends, the join may separate. Secure the join with a small, tight knot at a selvedge or at another near-invisible location.

Washing will both soften the fabric and even out your stitches. When care instructions suggest handwashing and drying flat, I also test a swatch with full machine processing. I love the wash-and- wear functionality I discover. Pure bast fabrics will tend to get narrower and longer when they're washed; be sure to do your planning and gauge calculations on a washed-and-dried swatch!

—Deborah Robson, from Interweave Knits, Summer 2011

It's a lovely assortment of yarns, isn't it? Please note Deborah's advice about washing and drying your swatch to see how it'll really end up in your finished object. You'll be amazed at the before and after! Last summer I knitted a T-shirt from a flax-blend; I machine washed and dried it and the fabric turned out so soft and flowing.

Interweave Knits includes a yarn review in each issue, so if you enjoy this sort of information about our favorite "tool," subscribe today!


P.S. Have you knit with a bast yarn? Leave a comment below and share your experience with us!

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