We all know that sheep are raised for wool. But sheep are not the limit when it comes to producing fiber.
Some of the alternative fibers you have probably heard of, such as cashmere and angora wool. Others may come as a bit of a surprise….
Bison hair can be difficult to work with, but those who have taken the time and trouble to spin it have loved the results. A bison has five kinds of hair: four types of guard hair in various thicknesses and lengths, and then the soft undercoat. The outer hairs can be used to make ropes, but only the undercoat is used for spinning. Once the bison is sheared or brushed and the hair is sorted, the undercoat is typically mixed with longer fibers such as wool or alpaca hair to make it easier to handle. The resulting yarn is durable, but incredibly soft.
Of course, you can’t just spin fiber from any old cow that comes your way. The Highland is the only breed in America that really lends itself to making yarn. Unlike sheep, Highland cattle are typically brushed, not sheared. This separates the fluffy undercoat from the shaggy outer hair and relieves the animal of its heavy blanket in warm weather. The resulting fiber can be difficult to work with, but makes durable yarn.
Different llamas have different types of coats. Some are hairy, some are woolly, and some are silky. In general, however, llama fiber is lighter and warmer than sheep’s wool. The llama can be shorn, clipped, or brushed. Shearing can be difficult, and it takes a llama two years to grow its hair back. Clipping is easier than brushing, but leaves more of the undesirable guard hairs in the fiber. Brushing is time-consuming, but usually results in a high-quality yarn.
Alpaca fiber is a favorite with hand-spinners because it is soft, attractive, and easy to work with. Unlike wool, alpaca fiber is hypoallergenic and free of grease, making the cleaning process much simpler. Alpacas also have an advantage over llamas because they do not have thick guard hairs to sort before spinning.
Different breeds of goats produce different types of fiber. The Angora goat produces mohair—a long, curly fiber prized for its luster. The Cashmere produces softer, downier fiber, not quite as durable as mohair. The Pygora is a cross between the curly-haired Angora and the downy Pygmy Goat. The result is a soft, curly, lustrous fiber. Angora goats are typically shorn and Cashmere goats brushed, while Pygora fiber can be collected either way.
The farm guard dog can earn his keep in more ways than one! The key is that he must be a double-coated breed because only the undercoat is collected and spun. The undercoat must also be at least 2 inches long and fairly clean. The result is an incredibly soft and warm yarn, often used to make keepsake sweaters which pet owners cherish. Dog hair can be collected during regular brushing sessions.
Angora rabbits produce an exceptionally clean, soft wool when properly cared for. Unfortunately, this very softness can make it difficult for beginners to spin the fiber into yarn. Combining angora wool with sheep wool can make the fiber easier to handle and give it a little more durability. Rabbit fiber is collected either by brushing or hand plucking.
You don’t have to raise sheep to spin or sell your own fiber. Many of the fibers listed above are specialty items, making them suitable only for small niches, but they can provide interesting streams of income if you love working with animals and yarn.