Take a look at the clothes you’re wearing right now. Without looking at the label, can you tell what fiber(s) they’re made from? Many are woven from synthetics, but some of the best textiles out there are made of natural materials like wool, flax, cotton, and hemp.
The materials listed below are some of the best ones around for transforming into fiber, and you can grow or raise them all right on your homestead.
Some of the processes to get them to that point are more involved than others, but all are fun to try cultivating and using at home.
All kinds of nettles have been used to create fiber for centuries. In fact, graves in Denmark yielded scraps of nettle fabric dating back to the Bronze age (nearly 3,000 years ago). 
This fabric was made of standard stinging nettles (Urtica dioica), but apparently, the best fabric is made of Himalayan nettles (Girardinia diversifolia).
The fiber you’ll be extracting from nettles comes from their stems. These need to be peeled and “retted” after being harvested. Retting is a process in which fibers are soaked in liquid: usually, soft running water.
This softens them and makes them easier to separate. After retting, they are combed and dried in preparation to be spun.
If you’ve ever brushed up against a nettle, you know that they’re pretty horrible to touch. As such, it’s difficult to believe that fabric made from nettle fiber isn’t just as durable as linen: it’s also softer to the touch.
This is a far cry from the parent plants! You’ll need some heavy gloves and thick, sturdy clothes to harvest and process them, or you’ll be picking nettle prickles out of your skin for a week.
If you do get stung by the nettles, slap some duct or packing tape on the area to remove the hairs. Then apply baking soda to neutralize the nettles’ acid.
2. Dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum)
If you’re looking for a strong fiber to create cordage, then dogbane is a great option. It’s not one of the most well-known natural materials, but it’s an excellent option.
Yes, it’s quite poisonous if ingested, so don’t chew on the stalks as you’re harvesting them, and be sure to wash your hands frequently when handling these plants. In fact, if you can wear gloves, even better.
Oh, and be sure to keep these plants well away from any pets. If possible, process dogbane fibers somewhere far away from any animals or small children, just in case.
You don’t need any specialized equipment to make dogbane cordage, as this video shows. Once you’ve harvested the stems (in autumn) and pulled the fibers apart, you can give them a basic spin either against your leg or with a simple drop spindle. Then ply them together!
Dogbane cordage is absolutely ideal for making heavy, durable ropes. You’ll find that you use rope a LOT around the homestead, and knowing how to make it yourself will save you a lot of money at the hardware store in the long run.
3. Hemp (Cannabis sativa L.)
This one’s a bit tricky, as you’ll need to do your research to find out whether growing hemp is legal in your area. Even though the varieties grown for fiber have hardly any THC, they’re still a restricted species in many places.
Hemp fiber is similar to both linen and cotton but has benefits over both of them. For example, although it’s just as lightweight as these fabrics, it’s three to four times as durable.
This makes it ideal for outdoor clothing, as it can take a beating without tearing. Better still, unlike those two fibers on their own, hemp is seriously mold-resistant.
That means that if your clothes get wet and can’t dry them immediately, you won’t smell like a basement, and the fabric won’t degrade.
All these attributes make hemp rather perfect to combine with other natural materials. It’ll add durability without extra weight.
4. Flax (Linum usitatissimum)
If you’ve ever worn linen, then you’re already familiar with flax fiber. It’s durable yet lightweight and breathable, and a must-have if you’re cultivating natural materials for your own cloth fibers.
Processing flax is a time-consuming, intricate process, but not a difficult one. If interested, you can learn the basics about it on this Flax to Linen page. Alternatively, Crowing Hen Farm has published a book on the process. It’s an incredibly helpful guide with easy-to-follow instructions.
You’ll need to plant a significant amount of flax to make enough fiber to make the process worthwhile. Fortunately, flax thrives in depleted, sandy soil. As such, if you have areas on your land that are inhospitable to anything other than yarrow or mullein, sow flax generously all over it.
5. Mother-in-Law’s Tongue (Sansevieria sp.)
This one was certainly new to me! If I had known that I could make fiber out of Snake Plant (Sansevieria) leaves, I would have started processing them years ago. These plants thrive outdoors in zones 9-11, where they can grow up to 12 feet tall.
Apparently, these fibers have been used for bowstrings in the Philippines for centuries, but people in the west are only starting to take advantage of them now.
Much like dogbane, these fibers are best for heavy-duty projects. Use this cordage for rope, hammocks, and sturdy baskets.
*Note: all Sansevieria parts are very toxic to humans and animals alike. As such, only grow it indoors if you don’t have any pets roaming or flying around. Also, be sure to wear gloves while handling it until it’s processed into complete fiber form.
6. Milkweed (Asclepias sp.)
You’ve probably picked up fluffy milkweed tufts in late summer or autumn and blown them into the wind. They’re amazingly fluffy, aren’t they? Well, that fluff can be turned into fiber, OR used as fiber filling.
In its spun and woven form, milkweed seed fluff (floss, really) is quite brittle. It’s really soft and lightweight, as you can imagine, but needs to be combined with something like cotton, linen, or cashmere for durability.
When used as a stuffing, however, that’s where the magic happens. This floss is six-times warmer than wool, which makes it a perfect cruelty-free alternative to down.
It’s also non-toxic, unlike many types of synthetic stuffing. Best of all, its loft makes it a buoyant stuffing. As a result, you can use it in homemade life vests! In fact, it was used in military life vests during WWII.
Use it as a stuffing agent for household items like pillows, coats, and other projects that require both softness and high loft.
You can harvest and process the plants’ stems for a more durable (yet also ridiculously soft) fiber, just like you can nettles.
There’s good news and bad news here.
The good news is that bamboo is an insanely sustainable fiber source. It grows like a weed and reaches full maturity (30 ft in height) by its third year.
It can thrive in zones 4-11, depending on the variety, and is one of the best natural materials for all kinds of fiber. In fact, bamboo silk is one of the softest, slinkiest fabrics out there.
Now for the bad news: this stuff is INSANE to try to process at home. It’s so dense and sturdy that it’s used to construct houses and furniture. So, as you can imagine, it’s so dense and sturdy that it takes a ton of time, effort, and chemicals to get those fibers free.
It’s easy for industrial manufacturers to get their hands on the enzymes and amine oxides that can break down and free the fibers. Then those fibers require further processing, all of which takes time and significant power. If you have all the time in the world to make this stuff, then go for it!
8. Pet Hair/Fur
Depending on the type(s) of non-human companions you live with, you may be able to transform their fur (or hair) into fiber too.
For example, many rabbit breeds shed fur that makes a spectacularly soft, fluffy fiber when spun. Similarly, certain dog breeds that have long undercoats are ideal for spinning into yarn.
Do you have a long-haired dog breed like a Samoyed, Afghan hound, Bernese mountain dog, Collie, or similar? Then be sure to keep zippered plastic bags at hand every time you brush them. Then, wash those glorious fibers and transform them into fabric!
9. Livestock Fibers
Have you decided to add some livestock to your homestead? Well, if you’re interested in processing your own fibers for various household items, crafts, etc., then be sure to include some fiber-friendly animals as well.
The most popular animal that’s raised for its fleece/hair is, of course, the sheep. Wool from these beautiful beasts has been used for fabric for thousands of years.
If you’re interested in having some fiber animals around, be sure to do some research as to which species (and breeds) thrive best in your area. Depending on where you’re located, you could include:
- Goats (Angora, Cashmere, Pygora)
- Highland Coo Cattle
- Musk Oxen (which yield treasured Qiviut fiber)
- Angora Rabbits
These all require varying levels of care (and feeding), and each of their fibers is processed differently as well.
This one’s not all that exciting, as cotton has been used for fiber and fabric for ages. Furthermore, it takes a ton of land, water, and resources to grow enough to make substantial amounts of fabric out of it.
Then there’s the fact that this perennial plant only thrives in zones 8-11, and it’s illegal in many US States.
There are a lot of pros and cons to growing this crop. That said, if you live in a place where growing it is legal, it’s warm enough to thrive, and you’re a fairly patient sort, you might as well give it a try!
A World of Natural Materials to Experiment With
Please keep in mind that these are just 10 of the most common and easily available natural materials to transform into fiber. Depending on where you’re located, there may be many more to experiment with.
Whenever possible, draw upon local indigenous knowledge and/or historical records to inspire and educate your own endeavors.
Also, remember that some of these fibers are rough to the touch, while others are a bit delicate and break easily. Fortunately, they can be plied together in different quantities to create fabulous fiber blends.
For example, combine milkweed fluff “silk” with 20% angora goat or rabbit fiber for a super-soft and shiny, but more durable fabric.
In contrast, sheep or goat wool that’s been melded with an equal amount of Qiviut will be ridiculously warm and lightweight, and more moth-resistant than wool would be on its own.
As an added bonus, natural fibers take natural dyes a lot more easily than synthetic ones do! As a result, you can experiment with all different plant dyes from your own land. Then get creative with your various knitting, crocheting, weaving, and sewing projects.
Isn’t self-sufficiency awesome?!
Buchanan, Rita; A Weaver’s Garden, Interweave Pr; First Edition (June 1, 1987)
- Bergfjord, C., Mannering, U., Frei, K. et al. Nettle as a distinct Bronze Age textile plant. Sci Rep 2, 664 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/srep00664