Fibers, Part 1: Morphology

Though I am retired from academia, my love of both researching and sharing my research provides fodder, as it were, for crafting blog series about various fiber-related topics.  A book I recently picked up at a book sale of a local library is simply (and aptly), titled Textiles (7th ed., Kadolph, Lanford, Hollen & Saddler).  After about a week’s worth of daily summaries of what I was learning from the book, Thor suggested I start another blog series.  Much of what was contained in Textiles I already knew; almost all of the information about creation and use of synthetic fibers for use in the textile industry was both new and (dare I admit it?) uninteresting to me (which means I will only briefly touch on the latter).  But it set me on this new series … 🙂

First in my Fibers series is about the morphology (physical structure) of fibers and their key terms.


Whether you’re a yarn producer or end user, all natural fibers (except for silk) are measured in staple form.   They measure anywhere from 3/4 (three-quarters) in./2 cm. (e.g., cotton, angora, linen tow) to 18 in./46 cm. (e.g., wool, linen).   Yarn producers buy synthetic fibers as filaments; measured in yards or meters, they are continuous strands of indefinite length though can also be produced in tow form.  Tow is a coarse, broken fibre such as flax, hemp or jute.

By the way, researching for this series, I learned that “tow” is properly pronounced to rhyme with “cow.”  If “tow” refers to cellulose acetate tow, however, then “tow” is pronounced to rhyme with “toe.”


A skilled fiber artist is careful to match yarn choices to her designs.  Why is that important?  Because how the fabric performs/moves and feels to the touch (its hand) is related to the size of the fiber.  If the fiber artists wants the finished fabric to have body, be crisp, and/or have a rough texture, she will look at yarns made from large fibers.  If she wants a finished fabric that is soft, pliable and/or drapes easily, she will look at yarns made from fine fibers.

Fineness of natural fibers, as the reader may already know or remember from previous Sweaty Knitter posts, is revealed by its micrometer measurement.  (A micrometer is 1/25,400 of an inch or 1/1,000 of a millimeter.)  The lower the number, the finer the fiber.

And just so you know … companies that manufacture synthetic fibers and the companies that buy the fibers to manufacture cloth use different measurements: denier (gram weight of 9,000 meters of fiber or yarn) and tex (gram weight of 1,000 meters of fiber or yarn).  Manufacturers of synthetic yarn use a measurement called dpf (denier per filament); dfn is the denier divided by the number of filaments.

In contrast to natural fibers that are not uniform (because they are subject to irregularities in their growth cycle caused by, e.g., diet, mineral absorption, etc.), manufacturers of synthetic fibers and silk control size.


Natural fibers excluding silk consist of (1) the cuticle – an outer covering, (2) an inner area, and (3) a central core (that may be hollow).


Different fibers have different shapes; the outer surface also differs.  Take a look at these drawings of cross-sectional views of various fibers.

erase xsectional pic(Source:  Textiles, id. at 21).

What does this mean for the fiber artist?  The shape of the fiber affects the hand of the fabric the fiber is used to make.


A skilled fiber artists – and especially spinners – understand how a fiber’s crimp is  important.  The crimp is the frequency of waves in a protein fiber.  Wikipedia defines crimp:

“The number of bends per unit length along the wool fibre approximately indicates spinning capacity of the wool.  Fibres with a fine crimp have many bends and usually have a small diameter. Such fibre can be spun into fine yarns, with great lengths of yarn for a given weight of wool, and greater market value. Fine fibres may be utilised in the production of fine garments such as men’s suits, whereas the coarser fibres may be used for the production of carpet and other sturdy products. Crimp is measured in crimps per inch or crimps per centimetre.”

The crinkle is the crimp that occurs along the shaft of a single fiber.  Not all protein fibers are equal in crimp.  Angora, for instance, has little to no crimp.  (If you are interested in reading more about wool and crimp, I found much to learn from Australia’s Woolwise – The Cooperative Research Centre for Premium Quality Wool.)


Not understanding that different fibers affect the hand of the final fabric can have disastrous results.  About 25 years ago I saw a beautiful Alice Starmore Fair Isle pattern that had been knit into a near shapeless rag.  There seemed to be nothing wrong with the knitter’s mechanical skills, but she lacked any understanding (and apparently recognition) of hand.  The knitter chose one of Starmore’s beautiful Fair Isle patterns but paired it with a bulky weight single ply cotton and knit the sweater several sizes smaller (to make up for the gauge difference) than she would had she followed Starmore’s advice.  The result?  A hideous sweater that pilled mightily, pulled out of shape easily, hung dreadfully; perhaps worse, Starmore’s delicate pattern was transformed into a blurry mess.  Yes, the knitter had some technical skill (she could cast on, knit, purl and carry yarns), but a complete either disregard or recognition of fiber properties.



About sweatyknitter

Fiber art devotee, author, and amateur artisan bread baker.
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12 Responses to Fibers, Part 1: Morphology

  1. Thank you for the feedback and – in particular – catching my error! Oh my, I knew this so I do not know how that occurred. Sheer sloppiness on my part. I just remedied the error. Thank you thank you thank you!


  2. Panth says:

    Lovely post (and, indeed, series). Absolutely fascinating!

    That said, I think you’ve made a mistake where you’re talking about micrometers. It is the lower numbers that are finer.


  3. Thank you for the kind words … I assume it isn’t often one sees “fiber” and “morphology” in the same sentence! 🙂


  4. Cotton always stretches, of course, even when you perfectly match the recommended gauge. And the larger the sweater, the heavier the sweater and thus the increasing size. 😦 Experience, learning from errors, and educating oneself on fiber properties will help ensure future projects come out the way you’d like. We’ve ALL been there! 🙂 The last cotton-silk (worsted weight) I knit I wore once and then ripped it all out. Eventually I’ll reknit it into a dress for my granddaughter.


  5. jengolightly says:

    Yes, how best to bring out the characteristics of precious stash yarn, this is my usual dilemma. I agonise over which design will bring out the best in my lovely yarn. So the yarn sits in the stash. I find a new design, but which yarn will work best with the garment? I made two cardigans in the exact recommended dk weight cotton, and both came down to my knees, they were like wearing cardboard, and they felt cold to wear. As I gather experience, perhaps I can make better decisions.


  6. Pingback: Catching up on my reading | Knitigating Circumstances

  7. I think most fiber artists learn the concept, at least, of “hand” after a few projects where they’ve changed yarn without thought turn out dreadfully. Sadly. The adage I’ve commonly heard from knitters (both new and old timers), “If you can get the gauge, you can swap the yarn,” is really dangerous. >


  8. needleandspindle says:

    I really enjoyed this. There is nothing more pleasurable than finding out about stuff. The shapes of the fibres/filaments were so curious, particularly the synthetic ones which like you I have never really considered much. The Starmore sweater is a shudderingly salutary story…I can’t imagine that Alice Starmore would have had much sympathy though.


  9. Pedantic?! No more than I had I noticed my error … I should have used a slant instead of a dash … 3/4 (three-quarters). Thank you for catching the error!! >


  10. Very interesting. It’s amazing how many different shapes a strand of fiber can take. Not to be pedantic, but I’m wondering about the numbers in the third paragraph on staple length. 3-4 inches is considerably longer than 2 cm.


  11. Except there’s no test … 🙂 >


  12. Thanks for this. Brings back memories of my school days when I learnt about fibres in one of my classes.


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