Crochet yarn used to come in just three types of fiber: wool, acrylic and cotton. Wool came in three basic weights: fine, worsted and bulky, and was often combined with acrylic for a washable product with some of the feel of wool. Acrylic yarn was the cheap yarn, often in both price and quality. Cotton yarn, in a variety of weights, from fine thread for crocheted lace to a medium weight for baby items, was mostly marketed for crochet and tatting. But times have changed, and so have the kinds of yarn available to crochet hobbyists and addicts.
Crochet Yarns aren't Just Sheepish
The most common and least expensive animal yarn is still sheep's wool. The highest quality wools are Merino and Wensleydale, valued for their long staple and soft finish. Wool may be blended with acrylic, cotton or other animal fibers, and comes in at least eight weights, from the very fine lace weight to a very bulky weight for sweaters and outdoor wear.
Angora and mohair yarns come from goats. Because of the comparative scarcity of goats, as well as the labor-intensive process of producing yarn from their fur, mohair and Angora yarns tend to cost more than wool. They're often blended with wool to make them more affordable. The textures of both mohair and angora yarns is fuzzy, from the short staples (fibers) they contain. While this makes for a softer finished product, it also can make it more difficult to work with, which is another reason to choose a blend. (Savvy crocheters may be aware that yarn combed from "Angora rabbits" also is marketed as "Angora yarn." Current marketing laws don't require that yarn manufacturers be specific about the Angora source, although better companies are.)
Another group of animals whose fleece is used for knitting and crochet yarn are the camelids. Alpaca yarn is the most commonly available and probably the most popular type, and it comes in every yarn weight from very fine fingering or lace weight to bulky. It's softer than most wool yarns, but, like wool, alpaca yarn should be hand washed and air dried, or dry cleaned, unless label instructions specify otherwise. Llama yarn is another camelid variety. It comes mainly from Peru, but more and more Americans are raising llamas and alpacas for their wool. The vicuna is the smallest of the camelids, and vicuna yarn is rare. Baby camel yarn, however, is available, for a higher price than alpaca or llama. Llama yarn is almost always blended with wool, usually in a worsted or bulky weight, but alpaca yarns, especially the lace weight, may be 100 percent alpaca.
Yarns You Can Eat?
Yarn manufacturers are increasingly turning to plants for new kinds of yarn. Cotton, silk and linen fibers have been used since the times of the ancient Egyptians and Chinese, but corn, soy and bamboo fibers are the 21st century alternatives.
For the ecologically minded crocheter, many plants are carefully grown, made into fiber and dyed without the use of chemicals, so that they can be marketed as organic yarn. Labeling, again, may be a problem when you try to go green, especially with bamboo yarns. Most bamboo yarns are made with harsh chemicals and come from China, where labeling laws are even more lax than here. If the label doesn't say "organic yarn" or "100% organic," you should assume that it isn't.
Most soy yarn is made in China from the waste left over from tofu processing, and most is imported by the South West Trading Co. On its own, soy yarn is a fine tube, making a lightweight and flexible fiber. Soy yarn is frequently combined with wool, silk, cotton, or a combination of the three.
For an environmentally friendly alternative to traditional cotton yarn, crocheters can turn to corn. The Kollage company makes Corntastic, a 100% corn yarn in a DK weight (lighter than worsted, but heavier than lace). It has a soft texture and is machine washable, making it an ideal choice for baby clothes, socks or summer sweaters. Kollage makes another interesting yarn called Creamy. It's 80% milk-yes, milk-and 20% cotton. It's an exceptionally soft yarn, dyed with organic dyes, but at $19 for a 50 gram fingering weight skein, it may not be the best choice for an everyday project.
Mixing it Up
A look through a yarn supply store or Web site will show you that a lot of yarns still contain acrylic, nylon, and/or rayon, but they're not your grandmother's yarns. One of the most interesting and fun yarn types using artificial and natural blends is ribbon yarn. Ribbon yarns come in a rainbow of colors, often all in a single ball, and a host of textures, but can be crocheted just like any other yarn.
With all of these new yarns to choose from, why stick with yarns you've used for years? Run your fingers through mohair, alpaca, soy or bamboo, and you might decide it's time to try something new.
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