Fun with Fibers

By Kelcie Brown, Tara Allen, Ginger A. Apolo, Laura Briscoe, Leanna Feder, Deirdre Franks, Elizabeth A. Gjieli, Tallia Maglione, Emily B. Sessa, Nicole Tarnowsky, Kimberly A. Watson

Feb 16 2024

What do you think of when you picture where fiber comes from? Maybe a fluffy sheep, a grazing alpaca, or a caterpillar spinning a silk cocoon? Maybe you picture a cloud-like tuft on a cotton stem waving in the breeze? While many fibers such as wool, mohair, and silk come from animals, there are many fibers we can get from plants, too. Plant fibers can commonly be found in the form of cotton or linen (which is made from flax), but they can come from unexpected places too, like kudzu or even bananas!

The Herbarium team put our brains together to think of as many plant fibers as we could, and then we knit and crocheted swatches to see how well they work! Take a look at the swatches and read about our experience working with them.

Jute as a fiber comes from two species within the Mallow family, Corchorus olitorius and C. capsularis. We are not sure exactly which species our jute fiber was produced from, but it was very fun to work with! It would make a great bag.

Bamboo rayon was quite easy to work with. This fiber was very soft and smooth, so it was comfortable to hold for long periods of time and would work really well for clothing and blankets. The only issue was that the strands of yarn seemed to split more easily than wool and acrylic yarns, but even so it was easy enough to fix by undoing the stitch, increasing the tension on the yarn, and redoing the stitch more slowly. Bamboo already has so many interesting uses, so it’s not surprising that it also makes a good fiber! Since bamboo species can grow quickly and are widely distributed across the world, they could be an excellent source of sustainable fiber.

Cotton. Globally, about 90% of all cotton production is of cultivars derived from this species Gossypium hirsutum. The fiber is made from the fruits of the plant. It’s soft and easy to knit or crochet. Odds are you’re wearing something that is at least some percentage of cotton as you read this. Cotton, linen, and/or bamboo can be blended together to make a soft, light fabric with a nice drape, perfect for summer weather.

Linen, Linum usitatissimum. Linen fiber has been used to make both woven and knit fabrics for millenia. Whereas cotton fibers are harvested from the fruits of the cotton plant, linen fibers are derived from the fibrous stems, giving linen different characteristics compared to cotton. Its fibers are stronger and smoother than cotton but also less flexible. It also dries more quickly than cotton fibers. These properties are what make woven linen fabrics cooler to wear on hot days. In knitting this linen yarn, the strands were stronger and stiffer to work with. Each stitch really held its shape, with the final result having an airy mesh quality that would make a lovely summer sweater!

Hemp, Cannabis sativa. The hemp twine is stiff and rough making it a little more challenging to crochet. However, those qualities also make the swatch feel more durable. Perhaps it would not make the most comfortable sweater, but it would make a great bag.

Banana Silk, Musa textilis. Native to the Philippines, this species of banana is cultivated for its strong fiber. The fiber can be processed from the leaves. The fiber’s strength and natural salt resistance makes it ideal for maritime rope, but when processed and dyed it also makes gorgeous, soft cloth! The possibilities are endless!

Nettle, Boehmeria nivea. Native to eastern Asia, this nettle, from which we get ramie, is one of the oldest fiber crops. The fiber is processed from the inner stem of the plant, like linen. The resulting fiber is surprisingly airy with a nice drape. It is more often used for weaving fabrics, but it makes for a unique knitting project, too.

Kudzu, which includes many species of the genus Pueraria,  is a vine native to Asia. When it was introduced to the United States, it quickly became invasive, especially in the Southern US, where it is sometimes called “the vine that ate the South.” This fiber was thin but very stiff. Blocking and steaming the fiber didn’t change it at all. When knitting it was difficult to keep an even tension. It wouldn’t make a good wearable, but kudzu has potential as crocheted or woven bags or baskets! Good way to recycle an invasive plant. Kudzu can grow one foot per day during the growing season, so there’s plenty of fiber to go around!

More about: Useful plants