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Haute Stuff: Fun with fibres

Not that I need to tell you this, but it’s getting cold. In fact, I’m likely trying to warm my frigid blue fingers with the heat emanating from my dilapidated laptop as you read this. In light of that, here’s a little bit of education for you about fibres – and by extension, fabrics.

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By Karen Aney (The Cascade) – Email

Print Edition: October 31, 2012

Not that I need to tell you this, but it’s getting cold. In fact, I’m likely trying to warm my frigid blue fingers with the heat emanating from my dilapidated laptop as you read this. In light of that, here’s a little bit of education for you about fibres – and by extension, fabrics. We’ll focus on knitwear today; this is scarves, hats, mittens and such, but also sweaters and cardigans and even jackets. I know it’s one more thing to cram into your brain, but it’s good to keep in mind when shopping for winter clothing!

The warmest fibres are going to come from animals. This is because animal fibres are meant to keep animals warm in all sorts of conditions. More scientifically, it’s because these fibres are, for the most part, hollow. Just like our human strands of hair, each strand of fur or hair has a hollow centre. This means that it’s light, but still traps air before it gets to your skin. That’s a good thing. Air is cold. Cold is the devil.

For the animal-conscious among you, don’t let this freak you out too much. Unlike leather, having fur from animals is actually good for them. If their fur isn’t trimmed regularly or shorn off, it can mat and cause the animals great discomfort. It can even lead to infection and death. So, this winter . . . save a bunny, wear an alpaca scarf. Right.

Within the animal fibre family, there’s going to be varying degrees of warmth. The warmest of all, pretty indisputably, is called qiviut. That’s the Inuit word for the wool of a muskox. Aside from being warm, the fibre is great as it does not shrink in water. It’s also obscenely soft. Yes, obscenely. The only drawback to qiviut is the price: the cheapest I’ve ever seen a scarf for that was pure qiviut was just over $200. Not exactly student-budget friendly. It’s possible to find wool (or other fibre) blends, but that will cut down on all the benefits qiviut offers.

A great alternative option is alpaca. This fibre is harvested from—wait for it—an alpaca. For those of you who don’t spend their time watching the Discovery channel, alpaca are animals that look kind of like llamas or camels except furrier, and they’re native to Peru and the surrounding regions. Alpaca is awesome because it’s much more plentiful than qiviut. More plentiful, of course, equals cheaper! It has the same benefits of qiviut, but to a lesser degree. It’s a hollow fibre, so it’s still super warm. Depending on the breed of alpaca the fibre has been harvested from, it can have a slight halo to it – that’s the fuzzy stuff that kind of floats above the bulk of the fabric. This won’t add to the warmth factor, but makes it kind of fuzzy and more fun to pet.

Cashmere, mohair and angora are all other animal fibres (from a goat, goat, and bunny respectively) that offer the same benefits to a lesser degree than alpaca. They’re also fuzzier. One fibre that I’ve been seeing a lot on the market lately is merino wool. It sounds great, and retailers hype it as being the softest, best thing since sliced golden diamond-studded bread – but it’s really not. It’s a lesser grade of wool that comes from a fairly ubiquitous sheep, and though it tends to feel softer than the itchy kind of wool, it’s not as warm and definitely does not have the great water-wicking properties that typical wool has. Because of this, it won’t be nearly as warm as wool or the other fibres mentioned here.

So there’s knitwear in a nutshell. Alpaca is your friend, splurge on qiviut if you can, and don’t get sucked into the merino wool vortex. Keep your eyes out for these fibres when shopping for accessories to keep you warm, and 100 per cent versions are always best.

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