We’re going to talk about yarn microns and softness, I promise. But first, we have to establish some standard of comparison. We’ve chosen the hair on your very own head as a place to start. Have you ever heard the term “hair shirt?” Apparently, monks in the middle ages would make shirts out of hair and wear them under their clothes as a subtle form of self torture. These were itchy and coarse enough to scrape the skin and cause minor bleeding. Yikes! If you run your hands through your own hair, you won’t find it so very unpleasant, but have you ever gotten a piece of your own hair caught on your eye? Or on your own tongue? Of course you have, and very unpleasant it is, too. And once you cut it, there is a sharp end that pokes into your skin in a nasty way.
What does this have to do with yarn and microns, you ask? Well, let me tell you. Since it isn’t pleasant or practical to make clothing or other fabric from our own hair, human beings began to consider using hair from other animals. Something softer and more comfortable. They looked around them and thought, “Horse hair? Nope; too coarse and not enough of it. Cow? Surely not. Goats? Well, their outer hairs are at least as bad as our own, but they do get a nice soft under coat in winter. Not much of it, but great if we can get it. Hmmm…maybe sheep?” And the rest is wooly history.
But that still doesn’t explain the whole micron to softness connection, right? Well, let me give you just a little bit more history and it will become clearer. When humans first started using sheep fleece for clothing, the sheep hair wasn’t as soft as we’ve come to know it. It was just a darn site better than horse or cow or human. These early sheep hair gathering humans began to notice that some of their sheep had hair that was softer to the touch than others. So, some humans started breeding soft haired sheep to other soft haired sheep and creating breeds with fine, soft wool.
As the breeds got established, even within breeds there could be variance. Just like human beings, sheep can have finer or coarser hair than their wooly cousins. The climate where they live, their diet, and how clean they keep can have a great effect on the softness of their hair. And if the softer wool was more prized, the breeders should be able to get a higher price for it, right? Of course. So, who gets to determine how much a particular fleece should be worth? Well, the buyers, of course.
But, rather than having each and every person who wanted to buy a fleece fondle each and every fleece available, experts with sensitive finger and a vast experience of wool would run a few lock through their fingers and give it a grade. Coarse, medium, fine, super fine, expialidocious, a fleece would get a grade, and price would be agreed between the seller and the buyer based on that grade.
Now we have microscopes and lasers that are capable of measuring the exact diameter of a single hair from an angora rabbit. The unit of measure is the micron, which is one millionth of a meter or 1/25,000 of an inch. Really, really tiny, right? Well, yes. And this is where the softness part come in.
This chart shows a human hair as the largest fiber at 70 microns, and an angora rabbit hair as the smallest at 13 microns. You can get a better view of it in our newsletter.
We are able to distinguish the size and texture of small things, but not infinitely small. There is a limit to the diameter of fibers that we can feel. As we noted above, a human hair is coarse enough, and sharp enough if cut, to be clearly felt. But sheep have hair that is thinner in diameter than human hair. Some breeds of sheep even more than others. As the diameter, in microns, of the individual hairs gets smaller, we are less abel to distinguish one fiber from the bunch of fibers. The feel starts to blur into a single sensation rather than a thousand separate ones. The more we experience this blurring of sensation of individual fibers, the more we experience it as soft.
There are other factors that determine softness. The length of the fiber, how curly or crimpy it is, how sharp the cut ends are, how tightly it is spun, etc, will all have an impact on how much we can feel an individual hair out a bunch of hairs. But the size of the hairs is the biggest contributing factor.
This is why we like to feel a yarn before we decide whether we want to make something that’s going to go next to our skin. You’re probably aware that some parts of the human body have more, and more sensitive, nerve endings than others. Fingers rank really high in the number and sensitivity of nerve endings. But fingers can’t tell you how something is going to feel on the underside of your chin. This is why we encourage you to gently run a skein of yarn against your neck or under your chin if you’re planning on making a cowl out of it.
Also keep in mind, it’s not just a marketing ploy to get you to value baby alpaca more than merino. Baby hair on any animal is going to be finer than on an adult. And extra fine merino is not a subjective assessment. It’s smaller in microns and, therefore softer.
As fiber artists, we all appreciate the variety of fuzzy, wooly, hairy creatures who provide us with the materials of our craft. Sheep are my favorite fiber animals, and not just because I see sweaters when I look at them. They have such lovely, funny faces, and so much personality. There used to be a small family farm ten minutes from my house, and every spring we would detour past the fields to look for the new lambs. There’s nothing better than watching lambs at play — they seem to have springs instead of legs. This little cutie is from Bittersweet Heritage Farm in St. George, Maine:
Photo by Dyan Redick
One thing I’ve always been fascinated by is sheep herding. I suppose it started with James Herriot. My grandmother sent me his picture books when I was young, and my mother would read them aloud with all the accents. I quickly became a devotee of the TV show as well. (For those of you who don’t know, James Herriot was a Yorkshire veterinarian who wrote wonderful stories of his patients and their people.) In almost every episode, there would be a flock of sheep pouring across the Yorkshire Dales, accompanied by a farmer and a dog or two. Now, I’ve personally tried to single out a horse from a herd, and I’ve only succeeded when the horse allowed me to. How could one farmer possibly direct a whole flock of sheep across an open landscape? The answer is thanks to a seamless partnership between farmer and sheepdog. It’s pure magic to see a sheepdog at work, and if you have a chance you should check out the herding demonstrations at the Common Ground Country Fair this year. But for those of you who can’t wait until September, I’ve rediscovered a fun video that was sent to me a few years ago. It involves sheep, LEDs, and a few farmers with a brilliant idea (and perhaps a little too much free time?). As you watch it, think about the incredible work of the sheepdogs that made this video possible: Extreme Sheep Herding.