Sunday 8 February 2015

Why yarn is not just wool.

When I speak to people about knitting I come across some common misconceptions about the craft and today's the post may be the start of a series that will explain some of the basic elements of knitting and crocheting.

To start with you may have noticed that I always speak about "yarn" rather than use the term "wool" to describe the material that I work with. The simple explanation for this is that wool only comes from sheep and it is only one of the kinds of fibre that a crafter can work with. Basically, anything that can be made into a fibre can be used to produce yarn for knitting and other crafts. Other types of common animal fibres that are spun to make yarn are alpaca fur, angora from rabbits and mohair and cashmere from goats. Beyond those more commonly known fibres there has also been a growing interest in spinning yarn from  animals such as camels, possums, llamas and even bison.

Debbie Bliss Como is a super bulky Merino Cashmere blend
Also, let's not narrow our thinking to just animal fibres. Yarns have also been made with plant fibres such as cotton, linen, hemp and bamboo. Silk is also a common component in yarns but as it is a protein based fibre that is excreted by the silkworm after consuming mulberry leaves doesn't quite fall into being an animal fibre nor a plant fibre.

Scientific advancements during the early 20th century also produced a number of synthetic fibres. Acrylic, Rayon, Microfiber and Nylon can be cheaper, more durable and often machine washable. When I was little and forced to wear an itchy jumper that my mum had knit with acrylic yarn I hated anything "woolen". To be honest I would still hate to wear anything that is knit with balls of 100% synthetic yarn, but, synthetics do have their merits. Because of it's durability a small percentage of it is often spun together with lusher fibres to give the yarn strength. If you're knitting socks it is common to find a sock yarn what has a small percentage of nylon to make those hard wearing items more durable. So, don't fear a yarn that has a little bit of synthetic in it, it can still be comfortable to wear against the skin if the bulk of the yarn is made of something else.

Shibui Sock yarn in Peony colourway
So, you might ask what is the softest yarn out there? Well, there is no easy answer to that. Other than personal preference making it an extremely subjective topic, there is also the complicated matter of how the fibre is produced or grown, how it is harvested or shorn, how it is processed into a fibre and how it is spun together. Even which animal it comes from plays a factor. For example, the fur of a lamb or baby alpaca is beautifully softer than older animals of their species.

Cephalopod Merino DK in Gallifrey colourway
What I like working with the most is merino wool. This wool is buttery soft, dyes up beautifully and though not cheap, it is worth it's price tag because it is easy to knit with and comfortable to wear against the skin.

Carefully reading yarn labels is an important thing when choosing yarns. I also highly recommend taking a close look at clothing labels before buying a mass produced knitted garment. 

If you want to understand yarn fibres a lot more a good book to read is 'The knitter's book of yarn' by Clara Parkes. I had it out from Camberwell Library over Christmas and learnt a lot about fibre from it.

Do you have a favourite yarn to work with? Do you stay away from wool because it itches? What experiences have you had with "woolen" garments? 

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