is summer. Summersummersummer. Warm breezes,
cool beaches, drinks in pineapples with little
back scratchers, and something else. Summer
means but one thing to strange, scary people
like me. Plants. Or more specifically, plant
fibers. Cotton, linen, ramie, even raffia,
if you’re feeling wild and crazy. For
plant freaks, the yarn is almost as much fun
as the knitting itself. Ever wondered what
the difference was between fibers? What plant
does it come from? Why is linen so tough;
why is ramie so soft? What the #$*% is pima
cotton? Gather ‘round, boys and girls,
and the knitting plant freak will tell you.
There are lots of ways to
classify plant fibers [just as there are lots
of ways to classify plants, but you really,
really don’t want me to get started
on that], so let’s look at the fibers
according to what part of the
plant they come from. Then
we’ll do the expected “linen-cotton-everything
Bast fibers are some of the
strongest fibers in nature. They are also
some of the oldest; linen has been used for
at least ten thousand years in Europe, and
hemp in China for a similar amount of time.
They are the fibers from the stems of plants
and are literally the connective tissues that
hold the plant together. If you remember your
biology classes (yeah, I don’t either…keep
reading), they talked about xylem, the long
plant cells that move water around the plant.
That is what bast fibers are -- the xylem,
removed and spun into thread, string, or yarn,
if you can call something that unforgiving
yarn [I’m not sure I can]. Linen and
hemp are about the only bast fibers you’ll
find available in a knitting yarn. Other plant
bast fibers are yucca, agave (the same plant
that tequila comes from – have a drink,
weave a mat), and New Zealand Flax, which
isn’t really a flax but a relative of
the agave. This stuff is so strong, the rest
of the plant is rotted away from around it
as an early processing step. Ramie is similar
to a bast fiber, but the plant tissue used
is from the leaf, not the stem. That makes
the processing easier, but the fibers shorter
and more fragile.
Seed hairs are the main
type of fiber used today in plant-fiber-based
textiles. And there is only one plant that
produces seed hairs long enough to be useful:
cotton. Over ten thousand years, on three
continents, domesticated varieties have been
selected and re-selected for long, strong
fibers. But the next time you knit with cotton,
remember that botanically speaking you’re
knitting with a sort of afterthought part
of the plant that doesn’t serve a whole
lot of purpose other than making the plant
attractive enough to humans to get us to spread
it over six continents. Hmm. Maybe that’s
enough purpose after all.
Raffia, a fiber from an
African palm tree, is traditionally woven
but lately has been knit into bags, hats,
and belts. Does knitting with palm tree fibers
say summer knitting, or what? Fronds are shed
in long, paper-like strips, and used pretty
much as-is. It’s not exactly a bast
fiber, but it’s not exactly anything
else, either. We’ll put it into the
botanical freak category.
So what does all this botany
tell us? [It’s not that much botany.
Do you see any taxonomic names up there? No.
And there’s only one technical term,
xylem, and it made more sense than ‘those
vascular thingies’. It took a lot of
effort on my part to leave them out, and you’re
welcome. Plants are cool. Go look it up.]
When we look at how the plants create the
fibers, we can learn something about the yarn
and what to expect from it. There is a point
to this, other than my plant freakishness.
People hate linen, and I’ll
tell you why. It’s a bast fiber. The
very toughness of the fiber that makes it
so sturdy is what makes it such a you-know-what
to work with in the first place. The fibers
are very, very long, and they are stronger
wet than dry. If you want something indestructible
in the washing machine, this is your fiber.
If you do knit something from linen, make
it a classic that you’ll wear forever,
because linen is a fiber that needs to age.
And age. And age some more. Preferably over
a period of decades. The more it is tortured,
the softer it gets. At one point in traditional
Irish linen manufacture, the linen is pounded
with sticks to soften it. So cut the poor
fiber some slack and don’t be mad at
it for being less than perfect right off the
Same goes for hemp, which
is also a bast fiber. Yes, hemp does come
from Cannabis sativa [had to
get a taxonomic name in there]. The plant
has male and female versions. The best hemp
fibers are from the male variation of the
plant. Those are the ones regularly weeded
out of grow rooms world wide. It’s so
nice to know that each gender of the plant
serves a fine purpose.
At any rate, hemp is, by
all accounts, nearly as hard to knit with
as linen, and just as indestructible. So again,
let the poor fiber age a bit before you decide
you hate it.
Knowing what I do about
bast fibers, I have considered skeining hemp
or linen yarn and running it through the wash
ten or fifty times before trying to knit with
it, to see if that helps. Can’t hurt;
the stuff won’t die.
And this brings us to cotton.
Ah, cotton. The mainstay of summer knitting
for most of us -- the pretty colors, the coolness,
the crispness that shows lace, the fuzziness
that will hide mistakes. The totally confusing
list of species, cultivars, commercially grown
crops, and other corporate hoo-hah.
Do you have any idea
how screwed up the natural history of cotton
There are four species of
cotton that are domesticated. [Five, actually,
but the fifth is grown in Hawaii as an ornamental
shrub and not used for textiles at all, so
it doesn’t count.] Two species of cotton
were domesticated in the Old World -- one
in India, and one in South Africa. Both those
species had very short fibers, which made
them difficult to work with. They were almost
instantly replaced by new, improved New World
variations. [Do you want the taxonomic names?
Hah. Didn’t think so.] The upland Central
American version is said to be predominant
today, and that may be true, at least in woven
textiles. It has a long fiber and is easy
to grow. The other species, Gossypium barbadense
[hah, slipped another one in],
is the species that we, the summer knitters,
encounter most often. It’s got a long
fiber and is very white, making dying easy.
Sea Island Cotton? Pima cotton? Egyptian?
Peruvian? All variations of good old G.
barbadense . This is the problem
for plant freaks, though; after an amazing
amount of online research, I’ve been
unable to figure out if all those are separate
cultivars, regional variations, or some other
botanical weirdness. Pima cotton is named
after the Pima Indians of Arizona who helped
grow the first hybrids of that kind. Sea Island
is called such because it’s grown in
the Caribbean. Peruvian, ditto, it’s
grown there. Anyone want to explain how the
heck a new world species got named “Egyptian”,
I’d love to hear it; no one’s
talking on that score. But to non-plant freaks,
it hardly matters, and I know you don’t
really care. All you need know is that’s
the good stuff.
Mercerized cotton refers
to a chemical process that strengthens the
fibers and can technically be done to any
type of cotton fiber. It’s like superwash
wool; the treatment process doesn’t
change the original quality, or lack of quality,
of the fibers. Just alters them slightly.
Ramie is related to nettles,
which is interesting [it is too!] because
nettle fibers were used like linen in Northern
Europe and woven. Used so well, in fact, that
it faked out museum curators for an embarrassing
length of time; suddenly a lot of linen shirts
got relabeled as nettle shirts. Unfortunately,
Ramie’s shorter fibers make it fragile
for knitting, and so it is spun with other
fibers, usually cotton. If you can find it.
I’ve never seen it by the skein, only
in commercially knit sweaters, already made.
It does soften the cotton and keep it from
getting ‘crunchy’, though it adds
a fuzziness I’ve never been sure I liked.
It’s rather like the angora of the plant
Our Weirdness Mention Prize
goes to the new rice paper yarn coming out
of Japan. That is made from the pith of a
small shrub [Tetrapanax papyriferus
, hah! Slipped another one in!] that is, ironically,
unrelated to rice. The slices of pith -- cross
sections of the entire stem, not just the
connective bits like in bast fibers -- are
laid across themselves and then pounded to
felt them together, rather like making tapa
or papyrus or vegetable felt, depending on
your history classes and cultural heritage.
It is then sliced and rolled into ‘yarn’.
Now let’s all get
looking and find some really fascinating chunk
of plant, be it stem, seed hair, or mystery
part, and knit some wonderful sweaters! If
you use wooden needles, you can feel all stone-age
and stuff. [‘Course knitting wasn’t
around in the stone age, but that’s
P.S. The taxonomic name
of the flax plant is Linum usitatissiumum.
Web sites I found helpful
during research, that you might also enjoy,
are listed below:
This one is particularly nice for photos of
relevant plants and fairly straightforward