Last week, I talked about the gauge of yarn for a pattern. This week, let’s talk about what the yarn is actually made of. There are lots of different factors in this. There are subsets to my subsets. I want to be super clear, Dear Reader, this is literally the barest of factors. My goal here is not to get you to the point where you think you know something. Rather, I want you to get to the point where you realize you know nothing, and likely never will. I know, I know, that sounds terrifying….but, it doesn’t have to be.
Yesterday was Halloween. We dress up as something else, we try to scare ourselves and others, all in good fun. Today is Dia de los Muertos. In Mexico, this is the day when we honor our antecedents. I think people try to put these two days together on the same continuum. However, I disagree with that practice. Halloween is about confronting our fears. It’s about making fun of what’s scary. Which is great! However, the Mexican culture doesn’t seem to find the same things scary. While a skeleton is typically terrifying for an Anglo person, it’s a canvas for a Mexican person.
My words don’t do this distinction justice. I encourage you to read some magical realism. Or, here…this is a Frida Kahlo self portrait. If you read a bit about her life, you’ll find it was horrible. This portrait shows the constant pain that she lived with. It also shows, however, the beauty she was able to make with that pain. I don’t think I could do that.
Shocking no one, I have digressed greatly. I intended to point out that not knowing doesn’t have to be scary. We have been taught that the unknown is scary. What if, instead, we had been taught that the unknown was an adventure? What if we took these experiences and learned from them, and moved forward, and put forth our lessons to learn new things?
Lets talk about fiber content really briefly with a spirit of learning and adventure. We’ll hopefully learn just enough to whet our appetite for more. Waiting For Rain calls for a cashmerino. So let’s start there…right after I rant about these dumb mash-up names…like labradoodle. These aren’t even portmanteaux! They sound ridiculous. I know, it’s a living language, and I’m just being old–but c’mon!!!
This particular blend has wool, cashmere, and manufactured fibers.
Wool: There are literally entire books written about the specifics of different wools. I have been told that The Field Guide to Fleece: 100 Sheep Breeds & How to Use Their Fibers is a good place to start. Let that sink in. 100 breeds. A place to start. So, you see why this will not be at all exhaustive? As a rule, wool tends to be springy, and have a good memory. This means that it will be easier on your hands while knitting. It will tend not to “sag” or “grow”. Wool is generally warmer, so not often good for warmer climes (either the knitting of, or the gifting to). Wool, unless it is treated, is not generally machine washable…so it will need special handling for cleaning. DO NOT think that wool is scratchy and gross. The reason those fulled wool blankets feel gross is because they have little ends sticking out all over the place, what you knit will not have that construction, so your hand knit item won’t be gross. Merino is actually one of the “softer” wools.
Cashmere: Cashmere actually comes from goats rather than sheep. Isn’t that cool? whatever you do, don’t think about their creepy eyes staring at you when you are cuddling that cashmere sweater. For reasons I’ll likely go into in a spinning conversation, cashmere is super soft and can be spun much thinner easier than “wool”. However, it is stupid expensive, so you will almost always find it mixed with something else.
Manufactured fibers: This is as helpful as “artificial colors and flavors” in the ingredients list of food. Manufactured fibers could have structural purpose, they could provide elasticity. They could provide washable-ness. They could just be filler. IDK.
Other fibers you might see commercially include, but are not limited to:
Silk: this is the cocoon of the silk moth. The fiber has a beautiful sheen. It can also be spun incredibly thin. These two factors make the yarn/fiber “slick” rather than fuzzy. It is incredibly breathable and rot resistant. For this reason, items made of silk do better in tropical climes. Silk is technically a protein fiber, however, it doesn’t always act the same way as other protein fibers. It is a thing all its own.
Alpaca: living in the PNW, alpaca farms are literally everywhere. LITERALLY. Alpaca is super soft, but doesn’t have good memory. So, a sweater made of pure alpaca will tend to get longer and longer the more you wear it. Because it doesn’t have the crimp or scales of wool, it doesn’t felt as easily as wool, but it still felts. This lack of crimp makes it less “springy” but more drapey. Llama is actually much like alpaca, but coarser/more durable. Likewise, baby alpaca is softer/more fragile.
Cellulose: There are a lot of cellulose fibers (plant-based) for the vegans out there. They don’t tend to be as springy as protein fibers. This lack of “give” can be more difficult to work with and tire your hands quicker. This also means that fewer things will come out in the blocking.
Cotton probably comes to mind. You’ll mostly want to consider if the cotton is mercerized or not. If it’s mercerized, it won’t soak up as much water…which makes it better for garments. If it’s not…it’s incredibly absorbent, which makes a good wash cloth. Bamboo is a fun baby fiber because it tends to be softer than cotton right off the bat (cotton tends to need several washes to soften up). The hidden bonus of bamboo is that it is not only machine washable, it is also naturally antimicrobial. Linen and hemp are also available, but both take *a lot* of washing to soften up.
There is often a hardiness/softness tradeoff in fibers. The trick is finding the correct balance for what your project is. For the protein fibers (with the exception of silk…which is all sorts of different on all sorts of levels), I look at what the animal looks like. I can see what some of the prevailing characteristics of the fiber are just by looking at it on the animal. See how the sheep is all big and warm, and kind of felted? but the merino is sleeker and softer looking? Think about which animal you’d rather use for your project. An outer sweater doesn’t necessarily need to be very soft, but it needs to be durable. Whereas a neck scarf may not need to be as durable as it needs to be soft. Again, shawls are the perfect project to play with yarn.
Before I sign off this extra long post, I wanted to talk a bit about the interplay between fiber and gauge. We talked about how wool tends to be warmer, so it may not be a good idea to make something intended for a summer item. But, what if we used a thinner wool? Alpaca is super drapey, but what if we wanted something a bit more sweater like? We could use a larger gauge wool, or smaller size needles to make a firmer fabric with the drapey fiber.
Do not message me about all the fibers I “forgot”. I probably didn’t forget. I was super clear at the beginning that this was not going to be comprehensive. On second thought…do message me. I’ll tell you what my experience with those fibers have been.
Oh, and here’s bamboo. Just because it breaks my brain that bamboo makes such soft yarn.