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Plant fibres

Overview | Linen | Hemp | Cotton | Home experiments | Synthetics | Corn

Bamboo | Soy | Rayon & Viscose | Ramie | Modal | Spandex

Acrylics |

Wild sheep were more hairy than woolly, but they have been bred for wool over many centuries. On other pages of this site you can read about some environmental effects of sheep farming in Britain and also about the sad life of sheep and lambs.

In Britain, the wool production market was strong until the 1960s, when acrylic fibres began to be expertly developed. So at that time, prices obtained by sheep farmers for wool fleeces dropped and the sheep farmers turned to enhancing meat production instead. Meat is now the main product of sheep farming by a large margin.

Knitters often turn to wool as more 'natural', but the commercial preparation and spinning of wool is not in itself an environment friendly chain of processes. The softest and most durable wools have been treated in a strong acid which removes the 'scales' from the fibres, and / or they have been treated by coating the fibres with a polymer which prevents the scales from attaching to each other, which causes shrinkage / 'felting'. That's not to mention the bleaching and the dyes..... The 'carbon footprint' of wool is not negligible, especially when the product originates from very distant parts of the world. It has to be said, though, that the carbon footprint of alternative yarns is not quite negligible either, though it varies a lot.

Luckily, the choices for sheepless knitters have increased in recent years and we can always find cruelty free and environment friendly yarn for our projects, whether plant based or synthetic.

Plant fibres

Textiles of plant origin are classed according to the parts of the plant which gives the fibre, and these include seed hairs, such as cotton, stem fibres, such as flax and hemp, leaf fibres, such as sisal, and husk fibres, such as coconut.

To illustrate the wide potential of plant fibres, here is a list of most of the commonly used ones, not all of which are used for knitting yarn:

Abaca, a plant native to the Philippines, was once used widely for rope and is now being developed as an energy-saving replacement for glass fibres in cars and boats.

Bamboo processing can involve leaves, stem and the soft inner pith to synthesise textiles suitable for many uses.

Coir is a coarse, short fibre extracted from the outer shell of coconuts. It is used for ropes, mattresses, brushes and car seats.

Cotton is pure cellulose and is the world's most widely used plant textile fibre. Cotton still leads the global textiles industry.

Flax is one of nature's strongest vegetable fibres and was one of the first to be harvested, spun and woven into textiles.

Hemp also has a long history and is now being developed as a versatile fibre especially for clothing and accessories.

Jute has strong threads which are used worldwide in sackcloth. It often originates on small farms in the monsoon regions of the Indian subcontinent.

Kapok is a strong and lightweight fibre which comes from the seed pods of a tree native to South America.

Ramie is a nettle fibre, white, with a silky lustre, and is one of the strongest natural fibres, similar to flax in absorbency and density.

Sisal is a coarse fibre which can replace glass fibres in composite materials used to make cars and furniture.

Plant fibres for knitting

Please see the guidelines page for more information about how each yarn behaves. You can search the main online UK  yarn suppliers websites for the type of yarn you are looking for but in the case of hemp you may need to do a separate google search.

As far as knitting goes, the main plant fibres are hemp, linen, cotton, rayon, ramie, corn and soy. In general they are soft, breathable and have insulating properties. They are also renewable!


Traditionally, the process of getting the fibres from the tough plant stalks involved 'retting' to break up the fibres by immersing the stalks in running water, 'scutching' to separate out the woody bits, 'hackling' or combing the fibres, 'carding' to align them further, and finally spinning. I can't believe that I once sowed an experimental bed of flax (it's very pretty) so that I could try doing all that myself. Needless to say it didn't work out!flax

Even with technology this process is laborious, hence the relatively high price of linen. Flax is widely grown in the UK, mainly for the oily seed, and there have been several attempts in recent times to revive our once thriving linen industry. Flax for linen was last grown in England in the 1950s.

Linen yarn for knitting is available for instance from Texere and Rowan. It is not particularly smooth to handle but makes a hard wearing breathable garment that improves with washing.


The processing of hemp for textiles is similar to that for linen. Despite having the same botanical name, industrial hemp varieties contain a negligible amount of narcotic. China is the largest exporter of hemp but it is now grown in many other countries including the UK (for paper and textiles other than yarn). HempLike flax, the seeds of hemp have great nutritional benefits. The plant has potential as a 'green' renewable as it is hardy and needs comparatively little fertiliser and pesticide.

Hemp knitting yarn is available in the uk. It is rather hard, like linen, but improves in softness by liberal machine washing, and is very hard wearing. Unlike linen, hemp creases very little when folded. 100% hemp yarn for knitting and crochet can easily be purchased on line though sometimes you will find it blended with wool.


cotton plantThis is another textile used since ancient times, though not widely in the UK until the industrial revolution, when it was one of the main drivers of that revolution. It can't be grown successfully here and even in its native regions it needs lots of pesticides when grown on a large scale - only organic cotton can be said to be environment friendly. Because of the way that cotton behaves when it is spun, it is the most flexible of the plant fibres. Cotton yarn for knitting is widely available – a cotton / acrylic mix is warmer and lighter to wear than 100% cotton.

Home experiments

               Here is a photo of some common bog cotton, or cotton grass (eriophorum)  which an intrepid vegan smallholder friend is planning to spin by hand! This will be a real challenge because the fibres are so short.

bog cotton

... and the same friend is even experimenting with rose bay willow herb seed fibres. She writes: "I've just picked a huge bag of rosebay willowherb fibre for spinning. It's pure white and soft as silk. I can't find any information about using it and can't understand why since it seems amazing. Of course, I might be missing something! If so I expect I'll find out what it is soon. The fluff bursts out of the seed head if it's warm and dry. It goes everywhere including up your nose." Here's her photo -

rose bay

(Later) "I spent a couple of hours picking the fibre off the stems I'd cut down yesterday. The problems encountered with this fibre so far are - Difficulty catching the seed pod at the perfect time for harvesting. Too late and the pods burst open at the slightest touch, at which point they fly off at the slightest whiff of a breeze (just moving your hand is enough to set them off). In addition, the pods mature at different rates from the bottom of the plant upwards. The best option seems to be cutting the plant down at the optimum time and harvesting within a controlled environment i.e. not sitting just inside your barn on a very windy day! Even if you do this, the pods still open at different times so I found myself harvesting some fibre, laying the stem down and then coming back to it when the remaining pods were ready. Invariably, I missed the second optimum harvesting time and 'lost' the second batch because I breathed on it! Storing the stems is also another problem. They need a still atmosphere (no breeze), the correct humidity and good air circulation. If the plant gets too moist it goes mouldy. On the other hand if it gets too dry, the pod casings break up into tiny bits and you can't easily remove them by hand. "I am sure somebody else has already done all this research. Darned if I can find the info anywhere. I haven't even got on to cleaning the fibre (it just needs the seed and pod casings removed). I haven't tried spinning it yet either. I was wondering about spinning without cleaning the seed and pods away to see what it would do. I might do both. Anyway, I think I've got a bit obsessive! All the above reasons are maybe why this plant hasn't been used commercially!"


BambooOften these are the byproduct of another industry, as with corn and soy. So that's all good. However, before being used for soft textiles they first need to be made into a pulp and processed with heat or chemicals to produce a liquid which is then forced through a spinneret to make solid filaments, which means that they are quite a way from being in their natural form. Recent technology has led to the creation of filaments of many different kinds, for instance hollow filaments would give cloth or yarn warming properties, which is brilliant for knitters. They are also resistant to 'pilling' (those messy bits which appear on the surface and can be pulled off some knitted garments).

Lyocell /Tencel

Lyocell, like rayon, is regenerated from wood cellulose, and Tencel is a brand name of a type of Lyocell that is made in a process which is more environment friendly. Tencel is the most sustainable of the plant based synthetics, being made from organically grown trees from a transparent supply chain, using non-toxic chemicals, in a closed loop system - and it never requires bleach. It is becoming more available in knitting yarns but as yet is still quite expensive. In the UK, look for Tina Tape yarn ( and Prism Tencel Tape ( If you want to try spinning your own, Tencel tops are available from at a fraction of the price of the yarn!


Yarn made from Bamboo is a plant-based synthetic fibre. The plant itself has many uses and has long been used in building and paper making. We even eat parts of it. Bamboo textiles are reputed to have a natural antibacterial property which remains even after many washes. Like all synthetics, bamboo is beautifully smooth to knit but is usually mixed with other fibres to give more flexibility. Blended with cotton it gives a hard wearing and biodegradable garment. Again, purchase of bamboo yarns (without wool mix) is easier on line than in the shops.


Yarn made from corn is another synthetic. Filaments for spinning are made not from the plant fibre but from sugars which are extracted from the corn and fermented. A search will find that 100% corn yarn is available to buy on line. It is often spun into 'ribbon' type, tubular yarns.


Soy yarn (a 'synthetic' yarn) is made from the waste produts of soya processing. It was first developed in war time but the industry has since declined. You can find it on line now, but it has yet to become widely available. I have handled soy 'tops' (fibres ready for spinning) which are super smooth and soft, but I've never used a soy yarn. As with hemp, soy is sometimes blended with other fibres to give it flexibility and bounce. It's also blended with expensive animal derived yarns to cut down costs and increase durability.

Rayon and Viscose

Rayon was the first 'man made' textile and dates back to the very early 20th century. Like viscose it is made from cellulose extracted from wood and cotton fibres and is commonly used in a yarn mix to give sheen. However it needs to be washed carefully.


Modal is made from wood, by the same basic process as synthetics. It is stronger than rayon and stays soft after many washings (whereas cotton can become hard in hard water areas). Also, unlike rayon, it doesn't stretch or shrink when wet - so it's good for a cotton blend, where you will often find it.


Ramie is similar to modal in quality and you will also find this in cotton blends. The raw material (nettles!) is mostly imported from China and other Asian countries.


By and large, these are made from petroleum products. Yes, this has got to stop, and at some point in the future I'm sure it will - we can only hope the transition to alternatives will not be too traumatic. Meanwhile, I say to those who would boycott synthetic yarns, how about giving up travelling in cars and aeroplanes? Or using anything made from plastic? Yarns are a tiny part of the massive petrochemical complex and wars are not fought over knitting yarn (but they are fought over oil). 


Nylon was the first pure synthetic to be successfully marketed, in the 1930s, just in time to take over from silk in wartime parachutes. There are now many different versions and brand names and it often pops up in yarn mixes, sometimes called polyamide.


This is the non-wool yarn that is most used by people who knit for pleasure without spending too much, or who want to knock up some whimsical items for a charity sale. It has had a bad press, but actually there are many different kinds and it's improved massively over the years. Each brand is spun to have its own qualities, from soft baby yarn to warm and chunky. Generally the more expensive ones are nicest, so no surprise there.

Unlike some plant based yarns acrylics have a good 'stretchy' quality and they are also durable, washable, don't shrink and are resistant to moths. Because they don't hold water they dry very quickly, which again is convenient. Acrylic sweaters can be as warm as wool. And being relatively cheap to produce, they come in great varieties of colour. Ravelry has an entry devoted solely to acrylics and there are lots of great photos of members' acrylic knitting on there. However, see the special note on acrylics.

Spandex (Lycra®)

This is a relatively new synthetic and is a gift to knitters for adding stretchiness to spun yarn. I am sure it will be developed more and more to enhance this quality in modern synthetics. It's already available, so search on line for 'elastic' in the yarn mix.

See the Guidelines page for some general guidance on using plant based and synthetic yarns.


Though acrylics are not renewable or biodegradable, all synthetics are definitely recyclable, and this is happening more and more.  Plant based synthetics are renewable as well as recyclable.  

In the recycling of synthetics, less dye is used. This is because, before being shredded, waste synthetics are sorted into colour.

The fibres are cleaned, carded and spun, and depending on quality, they may end up as insulation, upholstery, or fabric, as well as yarn. Polyester based materials are recycled differently, being chemically changed, melted and spun into new fibres. The point is that they are all recyclable!

100% recycled yarns have already made their way into the high street.
This probably is the start of a trend, together with improving techniques
in the manufacture of plant based yarns which will take over from
acrylics when the oil runs out.
We are the future!

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