Mechanical responsiveness in many plants is produced by helical organizations of cellulose microfibrils. However, simple mimicry of these naturally occurring helical structures does not produce artificial materials with the desired tunable actuations. Here, we show that actuating fibres that respond to solvent and vapour stimuli can be created through the hierarchical and helical assembly of aligned carbon nanotubes. Primary fibres consisting of helical assemblies of multiwalled carbon nanotubes are twisted together to form the helical actuating fibres. The nanoscale gaps between the nanotubes and micrometre-scale gaps among the primary fibres contribute to the rapid response and large actuation stroke of the actuating fibres. The compact coils allow the actuating fibre to rotate reversibly. We show that these fibres, which are lightweight, flexible and strong, are suitable for a variety of applications such as energy-harvesting generators, deformable sensing springs and smart textiles.