The 3 Main Categories of Fibers
Protein fibers include silk, wool, alpaca, cashmere, mohair, llama, camel, and Qiviut (Musk Ox). Most require hand washing, and air drying, and will be the most costly.
Cellulose fibers include cottons (mercerized/ unmercerized), linens, banana fiber, bamboo, and hemp.
Synthetic and Semi-synthetic fibers
Synthetic and Semi-synthetic fibers include Lyocell, Rayon, Tencel, Viscose, acrylic, nylon, and metallic.
There are also blends. These could include any of the above with each other, such as cotton-cashmere, silk-alpaca, silk-cotton, cotton-linen, and many more. I tend to lean towards using mostly cellulose and protein fibers, and occasionally will add some sparkle using a metallic-blend accent. It is really a personal preference on what to choose for the item being woven, its purpose, and what appeals to you.
Which to use and when
When choosing fibers for a particular piece, consider the item’s usage, how to care for the item, and functionality. Again, it is mostly a matter of personal preference, but let’s look at type of item being woven:
Napkins, table runners
Best fibers: Cellulose (plant based) fibers
You will probably want to throw them in the washer & dryer, so cellulose fibers, such as cotton, a cotton-linen blend, linen, or even synthetic fibers are good options. Cotton will shrink, usually 2 inches in the width and depending on the length of the item and the amount of tension under weaving, I have had 2-8 inches of shrinkage in the length.
Note: not all cottons shrink at the same rate. Using cottons of various sizes (8/2, 8/4, 3/2, boucles, slubs, mercerized vs. unmercerized) will add depth and texture, but could shrink at differing amounts (especially if they come from different manufacturers). I do not have enough experience weaving with 100% linen, but have found that a cotton-linen blend will behave similarly to cotton.
Scarves, stoles, neckerchiefs
Best fibers: Cellulose (plant based) for warp, Protein (animal based) fibers for weft
I will often use either a cotton, wool, or silk warp and weave with a protein fiber or blend as my weft. I love the luxuriousness of silk, especially when mixed with an alpaca-silk blend, or extra fine merino-silk blend. These will need to be hand washed with Eucalan soap (or something similar) and air-dried. If you weave on an all wool warp, using an all wool fiber as your weft, this could cause the item to start to “felt” depending on how it is cared for, but a blend should be fine. Ironing it after it has completely air dried will leave the item soft, supple, and with a lovely drape.
Snuggling up with a cozy lap blanket, again one would probably want it to be able to throw into the washer/dryer. I just finished two lap blankets made with a cotton warp and woven with a Superwash wool – silk blend yarn. It came out the washer with some shrinkage, due to the cotton warp (what I expected – 2” in the width, 3-4” in the length), and was so extremely soft and cuddly. A Superwash wool on its own would have worked beautifully too.
Using organic cotton would be a great choice, to ensure softness against a baby’s skin and the durability to weather many washings. Babies are prone to skin irritations because their skin barrier is thinner, and therefore, more sensitive. Also to consider, a baby’s allergic reactions to certain fibers. Some studies are showing that a superfine merino wool produces less irritation in infants than cotton clothing.
Using mixed fibers in a piece
I have made scarves and shawls, where I might add accent fibers scattered throughout the piece to add interest and texture. I wove a scarf that had a cotton warp, with a weft of one strand of silk doubled with a strand of an extra fine merino-silk blend. Here and there, I added a bit of banana fiber, a metallic blend fiber, silk ribbon, and sari silk fiber, to add interest and dimension to the piece.