textiles · exploration · misadventure

Some Call It Cheatin’: Acrylic or Natural Fibers?


Totally gratuitous picture of sheep + her fleece. (Ain't that fleece pretty?)

Totally gratuitous picture of sheep + her fleece. (Ain’t that fleece pretty?)

My reader Susie had some questions, one of which I answered in an earlier post, Some Call It Cheatin’.

Her second question is this:

Which is better—acrylic based yarn or natural fiber—again for crocheting and knitting?

The short answer is: natural fiber.

The long answer is, of course, complex.

I will always, always turn to a natural fiber before I turn to acrylic. I like the way natural fibers feel and behave and smell. Wool is a natural bacterial retardant and clothes made from wool can be aired and worn again and again without washing. Wool keeps you warm in cool weather, and cool in hot weather. (Really. My boyfriend rode from Washington to Kansas in summertime wearing a wool shirt and arm protectors. Ten years later, this is still his preferred cycling attire. Lycra schmycra.)

Not all acrylic is cheap acrylic. It’s an extruded fiber and can be long and strong, as well as short and fragile. However, cheap acrylic, with it’s short fibers and inability to cling to itself as wool does, pills like gangbusters. Plus, all acrylic clothing I have ever worn makes me stink to high heaven.


Acrylics are a terrible choice for baby items. They are either treated to within a biohazard with fire-retardant chemicals, or they aren’t fire retardant AT ALL. And if not treated, they are extremely dangerous to have near you in a fire.

For more information:

Beware the giant enzyme ad in the middle of that last one, but look at this little tidbit from further down in that article:

Fire and burn hazards:

The Marine Corps now prohibits troops in Iraq from wearing synthetic clothing while off base… after too many unfortunate burns from soldiers wearing polyester, acrylic, and nylon—which readily melts in high heat and fuses to the skin.

When acrylics fuse to the skin, they destroy it utterly, resulting in devastating burns. Do you want that on your baby? I don’t. Superwash wool yarns are good middle-ground here. They’re still fire-retardant, but can be washed in a machine (but not dried in a dryer; they still need to lay flat to dry).

Which is not to say there are not valid reasons for using acrylic. If you knit for charity, many charities request you use acrylic-based yarns because they are machine washable, while most natural fibers are handwash only. Also, acrylic yarns are inexpensive compared to commercial yarns, and practically free when compared to the cost of handspun yarns.

Well, Susie, I hope I have not terminally confused the subject for you and turned you off of crochet forever. Jebus but I can go on.

Thanks so much for the questions!

5 thoughts on “Some Call It Cheatin’: Acrylic or Natural Fibers?

  1. i feel really gratified to be the source of so many posts. Thanks for answering my questions. I crochet only with acrylic- when acrylic is washed, it does shrink and does not look like it originally did.

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    • Well, I really appreciate your questions. It’s nice having someone else point me in a direction. And I had no idea acrylic shrunk when it’s washed. When you say, “does not look like it originally did,” what other changes do you see?


      • I used bulky yarn and after washing, the yarn does not look bulky any more. Moreover, the colours have faded and they don’t really look good any more.


        • That’s a bummer, Susie. You could try a little splash of vinegar in the water when you wash; sometimes that helps dyes not to bleed. But I’m not sure what do do about the incredible shrinking bulky yarn. It might be that the yarn in question was spun with too little fiber and too much air, so that when it was washed the air was pushed out of it, and it collapsed. Lots of air/too little fiber is one of the things that makes handspun more durable than commercial yarns. You may have come across a yarn that’s at the extreme end of that spectrum.

          Liked by 1 person