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What are bast fibers?

Jun 14, 2013

Summer is a time of knitting with lightweight fibers, and there are so many to choose from. I'm most familiar with cotton and linen, which are pretty easy to come by. But there are many more fibers to choose from, and they're becoming more and more common in local yarn shops.

Help yourself to a yarnsickle!
From upper right (peach yarnsicle): Bergère de France Cabourg,
Halcyon Block Island Blend, Louet Euroflax Sportweight, Habu Shosenshi, Fibra Natura Flax, and Hemp for Knitting allhemp3
Here's designer Deborah Robson to tell you more about yarns produced from bast fibers and how to get the most out of knitting with them.

Bast Fiber Yarns

Bast fibers are produced in the stems of some plants, including flax, hemp, nettle, jute, kenaf, and ramie. It's a wonder our ancestors figured out how to get the fibers out of the woody stems, a job that involves a long series of steps, including retting, scutching, and hackling: essentially, rotting, breaking apart, and pulling off the stem fragments to release the lovely, long, strong fibers hidden inside. Yet excavations from Stone Age dwellings contain evidence of the use of flax.

Contemporary textile artisans are often far less familiar with bast fibers than with wool, cotton, or synthetics. Flax lagged behind during the industrial revolution, because inventors figured out how to machine-spin cotton first. Wool is easier to work with. Synthetics have, to a great extent, shoved bast fibers to the side.

Nonetheless, with today's focus on sustainable production, the superb qualities of bast fibers are being rediscovered. They require fewer pest controls and grow in a wider range of environments than cotton, use less energy to manufacture than synthetics, and are biodegradable (although they're tough and exceptionally long-lasting). Fabrics made from bast fibers are easy to wash, nonallergenic, and comfortable to wear because they quickly absorb and release moisture.

Knitters are most likely to encounter—and be intimidated by—flax and hemp. These fibers don't have the elasticity you expect from wools and acrylics. When you first work with bast fibers, they don't flow gently across your needles, your fabric feels stiff, and your stitches look irregular. These are all temporary or preventable problems. If you adjust your techniques and both knit and wash swatches, you'll soon find yourself in a delightful new realm of knitting.

Bast fibers are less pliable, at least initially, than other fibers. With use and washing, they soften up. However, on the needles they can be slippery, and the stitches of a pure bast yarn won't flex much. Your needle choice can make a huge difference in how well you like a bast-fiber yarn. Select needles that aren't too slippery but have well-shaped and narrow points. Pure bast yarns also won't want to stay neatly wound into balls. Using a yarn caddy or a resealable bag to contain the ball can be extremely helpful.

Pure bast yarns made from long fibers (called line) will be so strong that you'll need to cut, instead of break, the strands. If you add a new ball by simply overlapping ends, the join may separate. Secure the join with a small, tight knot at a selvedge or at another near-invisible location.

Washing will both soften the fabric and even out your stitches. When care instructions suggest handwashing and drying flat, I also test a swatch with full machine processing. I love the wash-and- wear functionality I discover. Pure bast fabrics will tend to get narrower and longer when they're washed; be sure to do your planning and gauge calculations on a washed-and-dried swatch!

—Deborah Robson, from Interweave Knits, Summer 2011

It's a lovely assortment of yarns, isn't it? Please note Deborah's advice about washing and drying your swatch to see how it'll really end up in your finished object. You'll be amazed at the before and after! Last summer I knitted a T-shirt from a flax-blend; I machine washed and dried it and the fabric turned out so soft and flowing.

Interweave Knits includes a yarn review in each issue, so if you enjoy this sort of information about our favorite "tool," subscribe today!


P.S. Have you knit with a bast yarn? Leave a comment below and share your experience with us!

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andreanm wrote
on Jun 19, 2013 8:45 PM

To answer spiderbunky - it is indeed the zeppelin knot.  Nice video for it.

cybrrmom wrote
on Jun 16, 2013 9:00 AM

I made a layered tiered lace skirt from Euroflax years ago, it moves like a living thing and is so cool-it is very weighty too-I made a neck down sweater too, that just gets softer, it does have evident bias but the yarn is a single, so that is expected and with a plain knit, not distracting, again, so cool. Knit a lovely tank for a friend, cannot count the number of bags, totes and duffles I have made, one is for stowing my often muddy and wet hip waders. so practical, long lasting and attractive, all from Euroflax products. From cotton, have made both the sweater and the shell in 'poetry in Stitches, what a glorious yarn they imported-Favorite needles for bast, Addi lace  circulars-great tapered tip-smooth joins and not too awfully slippery. Happy knitting! cj

Amy@4 wrote
on Jun 15, 2013 8:43 PM

A couple of years ago I knitted Gwen Bortner's entrelac-edged skirt and top with Euroflax linen (100% linen).  The difference between the before- and after-washed swatch was impressive, and kept me going. I found it fine to knit with (believing the end product would be as great as the swatch), all the stitches relaxed and evened out, and the outfit travels/wears wonderfully.  Easy machine wash/dry, and looks great every time.  I just purchased a bunch of pearl linen, linen&silk, and bamboo yarns at half-of-wholesale pricing from a designer who is changing her business model.  Lucky me!  I'm set for a long time.

Amy@4 wrote
on Jun 15, 2013 8:34 PM

I knitted the Gwen Bortner entrelac skirt/top set with blue linen a couple of years ago.  It is magnificent!  Packs/travels well, gets better and better with every machine washing/drying. So easy to care for, and looks great every time I wear it.  I just purchased a bunch of linen yarn and bamboo yarn at half-of-wholesale pricing from a high-end designer who is changing her business model.  Lucky me!

spiderbunky wrote
on Jun 15, 2013 9:25 AM

Andreanm -is that knot called the zeppelin bend? seen here -

Ilehlia wrote
on Jun 15, 2013 8:28 AM

P.S. to Kristi JoK - You could probably use a mitten pattern to make the yarnsicles, and just do the top part without cuffs and thumb, making them as long as you want.  That's what they look like to me.

Ilehlia wrote
on Jun 15, 2013 8:25 AM

The closest I've come to knitting with bast fibers is a cotton/rayon blend (Hjertegarn), and a bamboo/acrylic blend (Bernat).  They have a nice drape, and the rayon gives a lovely sheen.  I'm really interested in trying more.  There's a beautiful pullover pattern on Knitty that uses Allhemp 6 yarn, that I'd like to make.  I also really like the sustainability factor.  At our local pioneer museum, they do demonstrations of preparing flax, the old-fashioned way, so I've seen how much work is involved.  I hope that as these fibers become more popular and accessible, they will also become more affordable.

andreanm wrote
on Jun 15, 2013 7:09 AM

My Mother, who is a sailing captain and avid knitter, taught me a great knot which would be applicable for securing bast yarn, it is quite secure and lies flat.  When having to knot two ends together try creating a loop above and below each end, overlap loops with tails on the outside, bring tail ends from above and below, on the outside, around and through the center loop, pull out excess.  Easy and effective - see what you think.

gumbiecat wrote
on Jun 14, 2013 12:02 PM

I'm currently knitting the Henley Perfected sweater with Classic Elite's DK "Soft Linen",  35% wool, 35% linen, and 30% baby alpaca yarn.  My stitches are a little "wonky", as  described above, and there's no stretch in the yarn.  That surprised me as I thought the wool would give it a tiny bit of stretch.  The stretch is in the knit stitches, though, and it's working out just fine!  Judy in SE WI  

Kristi JoK wrote
on Jun 14, 2013 11:49 AM

I have knitted with EuroFlax Linen and Hemp and love them both....I llike to experiment with all fibers and have enjoyed working with both of these.  Is there my any chance a pattern for the cute "yarnsickles?"  I would love to make some for a cute table display...seeing I don't do sugar anymore or milk products...I could get my sweets this way.....thanks

Denanna wrote
on Jun 14, 2013 10:25 AM

Hi, :)  I love the idea of working with bast fibers. I think it would be great to grow your own. I picked up some at a yard sale.  It's Bernat Panama  Natural Flax   40% cotton 31% acrylic 29 % linen. 3 skeins, total 270 yards.  What could I knit with this?  Would it have to be something like a purse? At first I thought dish cloths but I would like to do something better than that for this yarn. I don't think it's enough for an item of clothing. Thanks De

suejphillips wrote
on Jun 14, 2013 7:57 AM

Hi there!  I've found very useful info on  your blogs. I usually start my day with this read...can be dangerous!  LOL    Is there any chance you could make them print friendly?  I'd like to save to PDF for my files.