Ask An Editor: Natural Fibers

Hi! My name is Caitlin Wilson; I am the group editor for Mother Earth News and GRIT Magazine. I am also a textile artist and general fiber nerd of more than a decade. I primarily knit, weave, spin, and sew, but if there’s a textile art out there that I haven’t tried yet, it’s certainly on my list to attempt someday. Today, I’m going to talk about the domestication and uses of the four most common natural fibers, which are cotton, linen, wool, and silk. Each of these fibers has its own benefits and detractions, and hopefully, by the end of this video, you’ll be able to go forth with more knowledge about how to choose the correct fiber for your projects.

The first fabric I want to talk about is cotton. This is probably the most familiar fiber for most people. Cotton is produced from plants in the Gossypium genus; it was domesticated in three places: 6,000 BCE in modern-day Peru; 5,000 BCE in eastern Sudan, and also about 5,000 BCE in modern-day Pakistan. Cotton appears all over the world, and it’s very easy to process.

Cotton fibers are very short and fine, which lets you create fabrics like this cotton voile, which, if I hold it up to the light, you can actually see through it a little bit. You can also spin it thicker, to make something like this—extremely fancy—cotton canvas, which has much thicker fibers; would stand up to hard wear much better.

Cotton is hydrophilic, which means the fibers will attract and hold on to water molecules, which is fantastic if you want clothing that will cool you down on hot days when you’re sweating. It’ll draw the sweat into itself, and then as it evaporates out of the fabric, it’ll cool you down. However, if you want clothes that’ll keep you warm in cold or wet situations, cotton is not your friend. Cotton’ll get wet, it’ll stay wet, and it’ll make you cold and wet.

The next fiber I want to talk about is linen, which is produced from the flax plant, Linum usitatissimum. There’s evidence that wild flax has been used as a textile since about 28,000 BCE; however, the earliest evidence of domesticated flax is in 7,000 BCE in modern-day Turkey and Syria. Linen has long, strong fibers. The process of turning it into fiber involves actually rotting and then breaking the outer layer of the stems, and the fiber we use is from the inside layer of the stems.

This is a linen voile, and as you can see, it’s extremely fine, but because the fibers are so long, it’s actually stronger than a fine cotton. I don’t have a terribly thick linen to show you; this is still a fairly fine linen fabric, but as you can see, it’s much more fluid than the voile, and that’s because the fibers are a little bit thicker, but they’re woven loosely.

Linen, like cotton, is a cellulose fiber. It is hydrophilic, so again, it will hold onto water molecules. It’s great if you want to keep cool; it’s terrible if you want to keep warm.

Next, we’re going to move to protein fibers; these are fibers that’re produced by animals. Both of these fabrics are made of wool, which is harvested from the species Ovis aries. There are many breeds of sheep in the world, that’re used for fiber, meat, and milk. Sheep were domesticated somewhere between 11,000 and 8,000 BCE in modern-day Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, and Turkey. There’s also some evidence that they may have been independently domesticated about 7,000 BCE in Pakistan.

This is a fine wool, as you can see. You can see my hands pretty clearly through it, and this is a much thicker wool. It’s been fulled, which means while you can see that it’s woven on this side, this side’s been felted and brushed so that you can’t see the individual fibers that make it up.

Wool fibers can be long or short; they can be fine or coarse; it all depends on the breed and the individual sheep, and what that sheep’s life was like during the year that it was growing the wool. Wool is harvested either by shearing, which is just cutting the hair (it’s a haircut) or by “rooing,” which is plucking off the wool that’s being shed, and that’s more common with what are called “primitive” breeds of sheep, or sheep that haven’t been bred to just grow and grow and grow their wool.

Wool fiber is insulative, and it’s hydrophobic; it will not hold on to water; it doesn’t want to get wet. So, it’s a good choice if you expect to be in situations where you’re going to get wet, and it’s cold out, and you need to stay warm. Wool can actually absorb up to about 30 percent of its weight before it starts to feel wet to you, and it will keep you warm even once it’s started to feel sopping wet. The interesting thing is, wool can actually also be a good choice for situations where you expect it to be warm. Something that’s very fine will actually protect your skin from getting sunburnt or getting too hot, and it will let air flow through to dry the sweat on your skin.

The last fiber I’m going to cover today is silk. Silk is produced by the Bombyx mori silkmoth, which is domesticated. It no longer can reproduce in the wild, so it is livestock just like sheep and goats. Silk appears to have been domesticated at about 4,000 BCE in China, and from there it spread to the rest of the world. To acquire the silk fibers, the cocoons are boiled to remove the gum that sticks them together into cocoons, and then the fibers are reeled. There is also a form of silk known as “peace” or “ahimsa” silk, which is produced after the moths have emerged. So the moths emerge by cutting through the cocoon, and then the fibers will be shorter, but they can still be spun into yarn, and that tends to make thicker, coarser fabrics than silk that’s been reeled.

So, this is my example of fine silk fabric; this is what’s known as a China silk or habotai silk. You can see it’s got that characteristic shine; it’s very, very thin. You can see right through it.

This is a silk suiting; it’s made from thicker fibers, as you can see. It was spun much thicker, and there’s a good chance this was made partly from cocoons that had been cut, rather than reeled. It’s not see-through; it’s got kind of a nubbly texture.

Silk fiber is, again, interesting like wool. It can be good for keeping warm; it can be good for keeping cool. You can use a layer of silk in a coat; it will actually act as an insulator, and it doesn’t have to be very thick to give you that property. You can also use very fine silks to make clothing that will keep you cool on hot days.

We tend to think of silk as a luxury fiber, but there are actually a number of types of silk that are affordable, and if it’s the right fiber for your project, nothing else is gonna behave quite like it.

Thank you for giving me an excuse to pull out some of my favorite fabrics and talk about their qualities. I will be hanging around on the Mother Earth News page for about an hour to answer questions and comments, and I hope to see you there.

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