A Crash Course in Fiber...or How To Decode the Descriptions
As your browse our site, you may find yourself confronted with some unfamiliar terms. See, since you can't reach through your computer screen to touch the fiber (but wouldn't that be cool?!), the next best thing is a careful and precise description. Here's a quick breakdown of what terms and characteristics we're likely to mention in a description, and why you should care about them. Of course, nothing can replace actual experience with a lot of different fibers, or better yet, a class with a great spinning instructor. We encourage you to support your local teachers and shops, as they are a wealth of knowledge.
Fiber descriptors can easily be categorized into The Easily Measureable Characteristics, The More Subjective Characteristics, and The Preparation.
The Easily Measurable Characteristics
The most easily measurable characteristic is fiber length. Fiber length means the average length of an individual fiber after all processing has been completed. Knowing how long a fiber is can help you choose which spinning techniques you might like to use. Generally speaking (though as with all things fiber arts, there are no hard and fast rules - experimentation is your friend!), longer fibers are happier being spun with a worsted drafting technique, and shorter fibers are happier being spun with a woolen drafting technique. When you see a fiber length given in a product description, that is the information being furnished to us by the manufacturer. There is sometimes a slight varience from batch to batch.
Another aspect that is easy to measure is micron count. You will not personally be able to take this measurement unless you own a super powerful microscope, but it's still a quantitative characteristic. A micron is a millionth of a meter, and it is the standard unit used to talk about fiber width, particularly animal fibers. The smaller the micron count, the finer the fiber is. Many people say that the finer the fiber the softer it is, and there is some correlation. However, many other factors contribute to whether our hands perceive a fiber as "soft", so don't be afraid of higher count fibers! When you see a micron count given in a product description, it is often a range, and again, that information is given to us by the manufacturer. Non-animal fibers are not routinely measured, and as such we rarely have that information available.
The More Subjective Characteristics
A word that you often hear when talking about fiber is luster or sheen. This simply means how much light is reflected off the surface of the fibers. The more reflection, the shinier the fiber appears. Luster in a finished yarn can be affected by fiber type, fiber prep, and spinning technique. When we talk about luster in a description, we are using our experience to reference certain types of fibers combined with certain preps that tend to reflect more light and appear shinier. This is highly subjective, and there is no easy way to measure it.
When it comes to wool, crimp and crimp pattern are factors that are so easy to see before processing, and so difficult to see afterwards. We do our best to describe the common crimp characteristics of a particular breed of wool, but of course this can vary widely from sheep to sheep. All descriptions of crimp on this site, therefore, are generalizations, and should be taken as such.
There are many different ways to prepare fiber for handspinning. The most common commercial preparations are carded sliver (pronounced SLY-ver) and combed top. Carded preparations separate and fluff the fibers without discarding anything but dirt and vegetable matter. All the fibers are left pointing in different directions, making this preparation ideal for woolen-style spinning. Combed preparations align the strands, and shorter fibers fall out during processing. This is the traditional prep for worsted-style spinning. Again, experience and experimentation will teach you what you like best.