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Spinning Words 2–The Fiber

Spinning Words 2–The Fiber

Last time, we explored words connected with the equipment used for spinning yarn. Today we’re going to look at some of the words involved with the fiber. And, trust me, they’re unique!

The Plant Fibers

The plant fibers like linen have a long, convoluted process just to get the fiber ready to spin … A ton of work, but it yields such a great list of obscure vocabulary:

  • Bast: Fiber from grass-like plants, such as flax, hemp, and bamboo.
  • Beet: A bundle of harvested flax, waiting to be turned into linen
  • Ripple: Strong, coarse combs used to remove the outer shaft of the flax plant and all the seeds
  • Retting: The process of essentially rotting the plant to get to the bast
  • Breaking: Crushing the retted stalks to separate the bast (spinnable) fibers from the non-spinnable core.
  • Shive: The small pieces of bark left after breaking
  • Scutching: The act of removing the shives from the bast.
  • Hackling: A combing process to get the bast ready to spin and to separate the longer fibers from the shorter ones.
  • Stricks and Tow: The long and short fibers you get after this whole process. (Anyone know the expression “tow-headed” to describe a person with blond hair? This is where THAT word comes from.)

Phew! And then you wonder why good linen can be so expensive. All this makes removing all those tiny seeds from a cotton boll seem easy, huh? (Almost!) (And, did you know that cotton actually comes in natural colors, not just in white? But that we’ve selectively bred for white fibers to make dyeing easier and more consistent?)


  • Bombyx: Cultivated silk from silkworms in the far East
  • Tussah: Wild silk from Asia. (I bet you didn’t know there were different kinds of silk, did you?)
  • Cocoon: The chrsylis made by the silk worm in preparation of turning into a moth.
  • Reeling: The act of peeling off the spun thread off the cocoon into one, long, long piece.
  • Silk Hankie or Silk Cap: A cocoon of silk that’s been teased out of its round shape into something (mostly) flat and layered and ready to spin.

Wool and other Animal Fibers

Spinning words 2 I’m not going into detail about all the animals that provide fiber; the list is too long! (Sheep, goat, llama, alpaca, camel, vicuna, bison, rabbits, musk ox, dogs … and it goes on.)

  • Wool: This can be used very loosely to refer to a class of animal fiber, but mostly, it just means the hair that comes off a sheep. (Note: In England, knitting yarn is usually referred to as “wool,” regardless of the fiber content, but I think they’re just trying to make things complicated.) (Yes, that last statement was a joke, but they really do use the word “wool” for “yarn.”)
  • Angora: The fur from an Angora Bunny
  • Mohair: The fur that comes off an Angora Goat (Although, I hear that the Angora Goat has recently been renamed to avoid confusion, but the idea that we use the word Angora to describe two different species but only one of their fibers just strikes me as deliciously complicated.)
  • Fleece: The coat cut off a sheep–imagine getting a haircut that not only shaves your head, but does it in such a way that all your hair comes off in one piece, like peeling an apple in one, long strip. Because, yes, an experiences shearer can remove a sheep’s entire coat in one, big piece, and this is usually done twice a year, in the Spring and the Fall. No, it doesn’t hurt the sheep (barring the occasional small nick from the clippers), and more importantly, the sheep doesn’t have to be killed, making wool a renewable, animal-friendly resource. (Well, with reputable farmers, anyway! Some farms are more “commercial” than others but the fact remains that you do NOT kill the animals to get their fleece, so wearing wool is a GOOD thing for the animals–it’s more economical to keep them alive to shear twice a year than to kill them for meat.)
  • Raw: Description of the fleece right after it comes off the sheep–dirty, full of lanolin, bits of straw, grass, and, er, other things.
  • In the Grease Some people will spin directly from a raw fleece, so as to keep as much lanolin in the wool as possible for its water-proofing abilities but, um, I can’t say that’s ever appealed to me. Although, you can soak a fleece in plain water, no soap, to remove most of the dirt while leaving the lanolin and at least still end up with cleaner fleece.
  • Scour: The act of cleaning a raw fleece. I find this word ironic because, unlike say, scouring a dirty pot, this is must be a gentle process … it just uses really, hot water.
  • Felt: The condensed fabric formed when wool fibers are bonded together, usually with hot water and friction … whether done on purpose, or not. (Have you ever accidentally tossed a sweater into the dryer and ended up with something that would fit a 5 year old? Congratulations. You made felt.)
  • Full: Some people say that the process I just described as felting is really fulling. I’ll be honest and tell you I’m not entirely clear on the difference, and with most knitters and spinners, the two terms are more or less interchangeable.
  • Staple: The length of each individual fiber
  • Micron: A unit of size that determines how fine or coarse a given fiber is. The higher the micron count, the softer and finer the fiber.
  • Crimp: The number of bends in the wool, like curly hair. The more crimp, the more elastic the fiber. Less crimp means stronger fiber.

Incidentally, did you know that there are vast numbers of sheep breeds? All of which provide completely different kinds of wool in terms of softness, strength, color, luster, and so on? Most sweaters you buy might say “100% Wool” or, if you’re lucky, more specific and say Lambswool, or Merino, or Cashmere (though that’s from goats, not sheep).

But to a spinner, you want to know the KIND of sheep. Cormo? Corriedale? Blue Faced Leicester? Targhee? Merino? Jacob? Ramboulliet? Romney? That list alone could go on for ages and it all matters. Trust me!

Links to the pictures, if you’re interested:
1. here, 2. here, 3. here, 4. here, 5. here, 6. here, 7. here, 8. here, 9. here, 10. here, 11. here, 12. here, 13. here, 14. here, 15. here

Phew! That’s enough vocabulary for one day!

8 thoughts on “Spinning Words 2–The Fiber

  1. --Deb Post author

    And, believe it or not, there’s one more post to go! I’ve covered the equipment, I’ve covered the fibers … but I haven’t touched on the actual SPINNING yet!

    Gosh, I hope you’re not all getting bored…

  2. Lawrence Miller

    Say, wanna go for a spin, Deb? I can see from your picture that you are a little kinky. Whoops! That’s just your hair that is kinked, huh?

    Oh a more serious note, I hope you get back to English soon. You did some good stuff there and I like it. I bet others do to. You have a way of making it fun. Not an easy thing to do for most of us when teaching English.

  3. --Deb Post author

    That’s true, I COULD turn all those posts into a nice, handy ebook, couldn’t I? And, don’t think I haven’t thought about it!

  4. Sue

    Felting is making a fabric from loose fibers. Fulling is altering an existing fabric made of yarn (knit, woven, crocheted, whatever) to shrink it down, make it denser, and interlock the fibers.

    But yes, they are often used interchangably.