Domesticated for 12,000 years, sheep wools, depending on the breed, either become apparels or carpets. Apparel wool is the most absorbent natural fiber, with great breathability, resistance to dirt, ability to hold dyes, wrinkle resistance, and warmth without weight. Great Britain, as a result of the Roman conquest, developed sixty breeds and still grazes thirty million sheep. With its former colonies, the United Kingdom became the center of sheep diversity and high quality apparel wools. Shrinkage, pilling, moths, weight when wet, and modern detergents present inconveniences compared to layering with some specialty petrochemical-based fabrics. Acrylics have replaced wool sweaters, carpets, blankets, and men's hosiery in many markets.
The long, extraordinarily lustrous fiber is stronger and more resilient than sheep wool, dyes the best of all fibers, and doesn't shrink. To improve fluffiness, it is blended with sheep wool or synthetics. A favorite of moths. One of the oldest textile fibers, Mohair goat domestication is believed to have centered in Turkey. Mohair goat herds have shaped the vegetative landscape and eroded hillslopes of many a watershed in Turkey, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, South Africa, etc. Automobile upholstery was largely mohair until the end of World War II when petrochemical fibers stole the market. One of the few natural fibers with multiple end-uses, it can be blended into either apparel, upholstery, drapery, or rugs.
From the Kashmir province of northern India, the cashmere goat remains quasi-domesticated, its supply subject to political troubles. A major eco-transformer of the high plateaus of India, Tibet, Mongolia, China, Iran, and Afghanistan. To complicate fleece gathering, the best fleeces come from the highest elevations (12,000 to 15,000 feet), with reduced quality as one descends. Isolated herders comb about four ounces per year from each goat. Cashmere fiber is a high altitude adaptation; ounce for ounce, it has more insulating power than any other natural fiber. Shawls, dressing gowns, sweaters, dresses, and long underwear have luxurious, silky, soft, and pliant texture, beautiful drape, and rare wrinkles.
Alpaca & Llama
The two popular cameloid wools from South America: Alpaca is high-grade — softer, finer, stronger and more lustrous than sheep wool. Alpacas coevolved with high Andes grasses, limiting globalization compared to sheep. Their slippery fibers resist dying and weaving. They can be sheared only once every two years. But, alpaca fleece contains no waste wool ("kemp") as do other wool providers. The llama is larger (sometimes twice the weight). A multi-purpose cameloid, locals love them as pack animals with the perk of harvesting a coarser, weaker wool with lots of kemp. Not a high Andes specialist, llamas have begun to spread to the mountains of the United States.
Softer, lighter in weight, warmer, more fragile, and more water repellent than sheep wool, the two-humped camel's hair is usually blended with wool for strength. Never wrinkles but does pill. The "llama analog" of Asia: part pack-animal, part fiber-giver. Beard hair becomes rugs and paint brushes. Soft undercoat becomes clothing. The coarser hairs are blended with wool to become poor man's cashmere. Rarely shorn, the wool is gathered during shedding season. Beware: Camel coats can be all sheep wool with camel-colored fibers. Camel coats should be camel fibers or you're being conned.
The Cashmere and Camel Hair Manufacturers Institute (Boston, MA; 617/542-7481, fax 617/542-2199) promotes cashmere and camel hair products.
Very soft, very luxurious, twice as fine as Merino wool, and very rare 'cause the vicuna won't domesticate nor turn sheepish. They must be killed to be fleeced. Populations dropped from 400,000 to 15,000 before Peru protected them. The smallest South American cameloid (three feet at the shoulder), the vicuna yields only a few ounces of fleece per lifetime. The alluring chestnut to cinnamon fleece makes vicuna the most coveted apparel fiber on the planet. Beware of fakes!
Probably bred near Ankara (Turkey), this specialty hair rabbit has been a French source of fiber since the early 1700s. (The angora rabbit should not be confused with "angora" from the angora goat, also bred near Ankara.) The softest and finest of all specialty fibers, the rabbit's fur is plucked (or clipped) every few months. It is up to eight times warmer than wool for its weight. Usually blended with sheep wool or nylon because angora rabbits' short fibers are weak and slippery to spin. Its static electric crackling once made it a long underwear and blanket favorite to treat aches and pains from arthritis. China produces the most blendable grade. France remains the leader in gourmet angora.
Musk-ox are scarce and the wool comes from shedding in spring. Domesticated musk-ox are now combed or massaged to obtain more of the downy, soft, itch-free, shrink-free undercoat. Each musk-ox yields about five pounds a year. (It takes only a few ounces to make a scarf or hat.) Extremely durable and eight times warmer than most wools, qiviut is so clean that it needs no carding before spinning. Qiviut products are essentially value-added only (no raw musk-ox wool enters the market) from Oomingmak, Inc., an Eskimo cooperative in Anchorage and a few other locales. It is the dream bioregional fiber product.
Crab & Lobster
Chitin is the fiber of lobsters, crabs, and the hard exoskeleton of most insects. The frame of butterfly wings, chitin is a kind of long-chain sugar closely related to cellulose. During the "teneral" period, when the outer layers are shed so the arthropods can grow, the softer fabric-like qualities of chitin are more apparent.
Currently used for bandages and burn dressings, it reduces scars and infection and improves healing. It's great for drug capsules. Cosmetic futures are bright because chitin clings non-allergenically to skin. It can be used to help clarify wastewater, and, perhaps even increases rice harvests when used to coat seeds. An abundant recyclable material culled from the wastes of the shellfish industry, chitin (and its modified form, chitosan) needs improved processing and a method to insure a secure supply to compete in the fiber markets.
Spider & Silkworm
Fiber-lovers suffer from arthropod envy. No one has made a fiber like spider silk: most stretchable before bursting, greatest tensile strength, and with the greatest resilience to strain. The less tough silk of the domestic silkworm is still lustrous, catching reflected light; strongest for its weight, stretchy, and resilient (a body clinger); breathing and warm. Imitated by nylon for strength and rayon for sheen, silk is unique in beauty and mystique. But, too much sunlight, sweat, or carpet beetle munching damages silken fabrics. Though rich in co-products (face powder additive, wigs, fishing line, surgical sutures), silk's price has narrowed its market niche to high-end items.
The International Silk Association (c/o Gerli & Co., New York, NY; 212/213-1919, fax 212/683-2370) promotes use of silk in all forms.