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Knitting for Natural Hair – The Ultimate Guide to Yarn Choice

I am so happy to be sharing Knit’s All Folks! first official guest post today! Yolanda was featured in an interview last year on Knit’s All Folks! and I’m so glad she decided to share her extensive, amazing research on knitting for natural hair on my blog. Without further ado, find all the information you could ever dream of on fiber choice for knitting for natural hair!

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My Futile Search for Natural-Hair Friendly Fibers

The idea for this post began as a simple Google search for knitting for natural hair. I knew that many yarns were not great for natural hair, and I just assumed that there would be lots of information, tutorials, and maybe even a free pattern to get me started. Unfortunately, my Google search turned up a whole lotta nothin’! Mostly what I learned was how to attach a satin bonnet to a hat (more on that later). So I made it a personal quest to determine what fibers are friendly for natural hair. After being interviewed by Monica for Knit’s All Folks! Variegated Yarn Tales, it clicked that her blog might be the perfect place to publish my results. And a guest post was born … The rest, I hope, will be natural hair history!

Under the Microscope: Fiber Facts Magnified

Winter weather can wreak havoc on all hair types. We need to keep our heads warm and dry when the wind and snow are attacking us from all angles, so we obviously have to cover our lovely locks. But how we choose to protect them can cause even more problems. In my original search, I found out that everyone seems to know that there are many fibers that are not friendly to natural hair.

But why are certain fibers worse for natural hair than others? To learn the answer, I turned to science. (I actually didn’t want to turn to science, but I really had no other choice!) Natural fibers are fibers that come from animals and plants. Some of these include wool, alpaca, yak, bamboo, silk, cashmere, linen, and cotton. The main problem with animal fibers is that they have scales which can pull and damage natural hair. The fewer scales a fiber has, the less it will attach to hair and cause damage. Additionally, the less coarse the hair is, the less it will attach to the scales. This means that scaly fibers and coarse hair is a recipe for winter hair havoc!

Knitting for Natural Hair: Scaly is Scary!

Look at the picture below to see a microscopic view of some of your favorite fibers for knitting and crocheting up close and personal. Warning: you may find yourself feeling sad about all the hats you’ve made for natural-hair friends which were probably not very friendly to their beautiful hair.

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Image from Easygofarm.net

As you can clearly see, wool is the top culprit that can cause natural hair to lose moisture, break, and become damaged because it has lots of scales. Even high-quality, expensive, soft wool types are pretty scaly. (Et tu, cashmere???)

Hydrophobic vs Hydrophilic

So, you may be thinking, all I have to do is find a yarn that doesn’t have scales, and I’ll be good to go, right? If this were a game show, you’d be going home and your consolation prize would be dry hair … Sorry! Aside from scales, there’s yet another scientific aspect to consider. Now let’s take a look at cotton, linen and bamboo under the microscope. 

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Bamboo photo from swicofil.com

These are all plant-based fibers. They don’t have scales, but they absorb water like crazy (also known as being hydrophilic). So all the moisture that you’ve lovingly added to your hair through deep conditioning, co-washing, or oil cleansing? Your natural locks will be slurped up by these fibers, leaving you with dry, unhappy hair.

So, is there a hydrophobic (not moisture-absorbing) fiber that’s not scaly?

Yes! Acrylic is a synthetic fiber that is hydrophobic, and it obviously doesn’t have scales because it doesn’t come from animals.

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Photo from https://micro.magnet.fsu.edu/

But when I think of knitting with acrylic yarns, I think of items that have no drape and don’t seem to last long. I’m the kind of knitter who works hard to create unique, beautiful items that will last the intended wearer forever. Acrylic yarn usually just doesn’t work for me unless I’m knitting novelty items or things for kids that will be quickly outgrown/lost and/or take a lot of abuse. However, all synthetic fibers are not acrylic. Polyester, rayon, and nylon are synthetic fibers that I’ve seen blended into natural yarns in small amounts, and a small amount can drastically change the properties of the main fiber. Knitpicks Wonderfluff is a great case in point. 

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Click on the image to check out the price of Knit Picks Wonderfluff!

Baby alpaca and merino are encased in a nylon mesh tubing, which ostensibly can protect your hair from the ravages of those scaly fibers. Polyester, rayon, nylon, and many other synthetic fibers are hydrophilic (moisture-absorbing), though, so try to find blends that have only small percentages of them.

The Perfect Natural Hair-Friendly Fiber

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So far, I know this post has been something of a downer. Animal fibers like wool and even cashmere have scales that can pull natural hair … cotton dries your hair out … most fiber fanatics aren’t fond of acrylic … synthetic fibers are hit or miss … is there ANY good news on the natural hair fiber front? Yes, of course! I wouldn’t leave you high and dry—or should I say scaly and dry? There is a natural fiber that is hydrophobic. It has no scales and is extremely kind to natural hair. It’s 100% silk. Silk has no scales because it is a smooth strand that comes from silkworms. Many people believe that silk comes from a silkworm’s butt, but that’s not true. A silkworm’s spinneret is actually located in its mouth. The process of how silk is created and harvested ain’t pretty and it doesn’t end well for the worms (click here for the gory details) but the results are gorgeous!

If you want to create a hat, headband, balaclava, or any other item that will touch natural hair for yourself or a loved one, I highly recommend that you use 100% pure silk yarn. There are lots of great and not too expensive ones out there to choose from. Look on Etsy and Ebay to find deals, because 100% silk yarn can be expensive. Alternately consider fiber blended yarn with silk in them. Knit Picks has a merino-silk blend that is very reasonably-priced and comes in lots of gorgeous colors.

In preparation for this post, I knit up a scalloped lace hat in Artyarns Regal Silk worsted weight yarn.

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Pattern: Scallop Lace Hat by Leah Coccari-Swift. Click on image for pattern on Ravelry.

It’s discontinued, but I found it on Etsy.com for a reasonable price. Also keep in mind that silk drapes very differently than other yarns and is not super-easy to work with. However, once you get the hang of it, the final object is so beautifully soft that you may find yourself not wanting to take it off — which is fine because it so good for your natural locks!

So, if you’re looking for a natural-hair friendly fiber, your best bet is 100% silk or a silk blend but just in case …

Acrylic Yarn Suggestions

If you’re vegan or simply can’t bear the thought of a silkworm meeting an untimely end just for the sake of your hair, then you should definitely look into high-quality acrylic yarn. I personally like Caron Simply Soft or Knit Picks Brava. If you just want to go on using your favorite wool yarn or have a large stash of yarn that is a no-no for natural hair, I say go for the satin sleeping bonnet under the hat trick! It really works and there are lots of tutorials about how to quickly and easily attach one to a winter hat.

I hope this post has provided some much-needed information about knitting for natural hair and natural hair-friendly fibers. I am still researching and learning more about this fascinating and — I think — important subject. It’s a tough, rigorous quest I’ve undertaken that includes buying and trying more and more types of yarn, finding more patterns, and knitting more and more items. (Somehow, I think I’ll manage!)

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Thanks, Yolanda! You can follow her on Twitter here.

Yolanda and I are also collaborating on a silk hat design! Sign up for my newsletter for weekly updates on Knit’s All Folks! so you’ll never miss a post!

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8 thoughts to “Knitting for Natural Hair – The Ultimate Guide to Yarn Choice”

    1. Thanks, Nicole! Maybe the budding knitter in your family will create a natural-hair friendly hat for you…! (Full-disclosure: Nicole is my sister-in-law)

Let me know what you think!