A detailed look at camel hair yarn. How soft is it really? How does it knit up, and is it worth the price?
These days, a lot of people buy yarn online, where you can’t feel or touch it. And even if you could, you might not be able to tell how it knits up, as not all shops have swatches for all yarns. That’s why I thought I might help you out a bit and share my experiences with knitting with camel hair yarn.
Camel hair or even baby camel hair is incredibly soft and but can be quite pricey. Here on my blog, I got two patterns, my Into the Desert cable cowl and my Into the Wild cable hat that were knit with this luxurious fiber.
I’ll first guide you through the basic stats and then I’ll show you the swatches and knitting results. I want to put you into a comfortable position where you can judge for yourself whether it’s worth buying those beautiful golden brown skeins or not (yes it is :P).
Note: Check out my yarn guide for beginners in case you are new knitting and need to catch up on the basics of yarn weight, types of fibres, etc.
Camel Hair – what you should know
There are many different camel species on this planet, most camel hair yarn comes from the Bactrian Camel which is native to Inner Asia. You’ll find the domesticated kind from the Black Sea in Russia to the steppes of Mongolia. The wild Bactrian camel is, sadly critically endangered due to habitat loss (just in case you were, those are NOT used for fiber production).
Unlike most other animals kept for harvesting fibers, camels are not shorn. They lose their winter coat naturally during the moulting season in spring. Usually, the fine undercoat hair is harvested by combing. Sometimes the shed hair is collected manually as well. The much coarser guard hairs are typically not used for knitting yarns and kept for rugs and bedding. The finest quality is produced by the baby camels (so watch out if it’s on sale!).
The undercoat hairs have a diameter of around 16-20 microns. In terms of softness, it is thus quite comparable to heavier cashmere qualities. Those typically are in the range of 14-16 micros. Just focusing on those micron numbers alone, is a mistake though (more on that below) because camel hair yarn feels super soft.
It has excellent thermostatic properties – No big wonder, as the hair is meant to protect these proud animals in the fierce winters of Inner Asia. When spun, it has a very nice light sheen to it, with the slightest bit of fluff. It’s also very light – much lighter than wool (so, definitely look at the yardage and not the weight when buying).
Like with many other delicate fibers, the yarn is dyed unbleached. As a result, you usually find rather muted colors, though it seems to take in dye rather well. All camel hair yarn I ever sampled had a very uniform color (and no semisolid marbeling at all). The natural hair has a golden tan color that may appear a bit greyish under direct light. Shades from red to brown are also possible.
Much like wool, the yarn does felt and if you are not working with a synthetic blend, you can join in a new skein by felting it together. On the negative side, you have to take extra care when washing (or dying) the yarn. Lukewarm water and gentle handwash is thus recommended.
Interestingly enough, it does not absorb water very well and dries remarkably fast. When I soaked my little swatch for 30 minutes, I just wrung it gently between a soft towel and it emerged almost dry from it.
Most of the yarn is produces in Mongolia, Tibet, and Afghanistan, though New Zealand and Australia have become significant producers as well.
Knitting with camel hair yarn
Let’s talk about actual knitting. As I said, camel hair yarn is incredibly soft, so knitting with it is quite blissful. The yarn glides effortlessly across your finger (it’s just so light!), it’s very soft to the touch, but because there is not a lot of fluff, it also has quite a compact feeling. It’s quite a different kind of softness than cashmere or mohair yarns. I am saying this without a preference for either, just as a statement that it feels much more solid.
For my examples here, I am using the Cairo yarn by Pascuali. Obviously, results may vary depending on the manufacturer of the yarn, the dying process, and of course the origin of the fibers. So, take my findings more as a general direction and not absolute truths. But all the other camel hair yarns I tried out so far, were similar (I just happen to like this one the most).
Because the undercoat hair is rather long, camel hair yarn can be spun quite well. As a result, stitches will appear quite uniform. I mean, it’s not comparable with merino wool or cotton, but it’s still quite the smooth surface. I knitted a little stockinette stitch swatch to show you what I mean. It definitely looks handknit but in a very elegant way.
The other thing I personally find remarkable is the fact that you can actually work cables and complicated lace patterns with it. With pure cashmere or mohair, and even baby alpaca, most complicated patterns are sort of not viable because the stitches won’t show all that well because of all the fluff.
Camel hair yarn tends to be more compact. So, if you are looking for a soft yarn for a cable sweater or a headband, this could be the perfect choice for you. I actually even would say it would be wasted on stockinette stitch (though it’s certainly a viable option)
Another thing I really have to mention is its durability. Cashmere or Mohair is known for being delicate. Frog it or give it too tight a tug, and you run the risk of tearing it apart. All the camel hair yarn samples I tested were so tight, I couldn’t even tear apart a single thread of a 4 ply yarn even if I tried reeeeaaally hard.
On the negative side, it’s often spun a bit lighter, so splitting is an issue. Not a big issue, but you still happen to split the yarn as you knit ever so often. For complicated stitches (say a p2tog tbl or so), this might become a nuisance.
When you wash it, it does bloom up a tiny bit, but it’s not a huge halo or anything that drastically changes the appearance of the fabric. It doesn’t shed a lot either. So, two big, big bonuses for me.
One thing you really should consider, however, is that it’s incredibly warm. This can be a nice bonus if your winter’s really harsh, but I’m not sure if I wanted to jump around in a camel hair yarn sweater in Florida in winter if you get my meaning. I’ve heard it recommended for transition months because it also helps camels to keep cool. I don’t even know where the info came from. It makes little sense because, after all, they do shed the wool you will be knitting with in spring because it would get to warm. You are knit knitting with their summer coat, right?
All things considered, camel hair yarn is definitely one of my all-time favorite fibers. I love the natural tones of it, I love how warm and soft it feels, and how well you can use it for a bit more complicated winter patterns.
It certainly is more expensive than wool, but it’s usually not as outrageously expensive as other super-soft alternatives. Where Cashmere might cost around 50-100 USD (depending on the quality) per 100 grams, camel hair yarn is currently sold in the range of around 30-50 USD per 100 grams.