This Must Be Thursday

What are you made of?

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.

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Broken Column

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.

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Look at all that fiber!!

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.

 

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I spared you creepy eyes, and gave you fabulous hair!

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:

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Life cycle of the Silk Moth

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.

 

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What are you looking at? 

 

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.

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Cotton before harvest.

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.  th8OB995PU

This Must Be Thursday

Size isn’t everything…right?

Friend S has wanted to do a sort of knit along.  Basically, she and I doing the same project at the same time.  A part of this, I think is so that when she comes upon something weird in the pattern, I can hopefully help.  Another part is that we live over an hour away from each other.  Even living in the future, it’s hard work to maintain friendships over that distance.  So, needs must.

I was able to cajole her into coming to a retreat at the end of last month.  (We are both making efforts) The retreat piggy-backed on OFFF (Oregon Flock and Fiber Festival).  While there, she found the pattern she wanted to work on–Waiting For Rain. Let me just interject right here how appropriate the title is since the PNW has had a dearth of rain.  I think I’m withering away. The featured image is the shawl we will be embarking on.

Eventually, I will do a post on choosing a pattern, and what to look for.  For right now, lets just assume this was done, and we are now looking at yarn for the project we’ve chosen.  The easiest thing to do, of course, is to use the yarn in the colorway the designer recommends.  You know me better than that, though, right? Each aspect of yarn can be chosen to match the pattern, or be different to the pattern (look at me being all British).

Yarn has many qualities to look at/for.  The least of which is color.  Picking a yarn (in my opinion) solely on color is like picking a car or house on the basis of color alone.  You can do it, but I will judge you–harshly. We will ignore color for now.

Gauge is generally one of first things I look into. This means how thick the yarn is…lace weight? bulky? If you like the general appearance of the piece the pattern designer has as an exemplar, you’ll want to choose a yarn of the same/similar gauge.  Please, Dear Reader, do not think you have to limit yourself to what the designer recommends.  Remember, it’s recommended to wait 20 minutes after eating before you swim…who does that?

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Called for yarn weight. Disregard guitar cable

I mean, unless you’ve eaten your weight, and might explode.  Otherwise, do whatever makes you happy.  Shawls are a perfect project to play with yarn substitution, since surprises aren’t as catastrophic in a shawl.

This particular project calls for a fingering weight yarn and size 6 needles.  I tend to knit pretty close to what most designers call for, so I’ll go with that.  I have friends who tend to knit looser, in which case, they may use a size 4 or 5 to get the same results.  Likewise, those who tend to knit tighter would go up to 7 or 8.   I could go on and on about needles and construction, but we’ll also forgo that conversation for now.

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Thinner yarn. Same guitar cable.

All else being equal, if I go with a thinner yarn, using the same needles, then the fabric I create will be looser, and airier, than the designer intended.  This may also have the effect of making a project more “drapey” than it otherwise may have been.  It may be less sturdy, and/or less warm.

If, however, I use a thicker yarn, the fabric will be denser. It will tend to be stiffer, and will impede airflow. The project could go from being a lovely spring shoulder warmer to something better suited to the wilds of northern Finland.

Please note, none of these effects are inherently good or bad, they are just different.  While you do have to be prepared for the consequences, consequences can be good things.

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Bulky yarn. Ack! the cable spawned!!

When we discuss fiber content, we will talk about some ways you can offset some of these effects, or how some of these effects will be necessary to offset the effects of the fiber you *really* want.

Now, if we use a commensurate needle–size 4 needle with a thinner yarn, or size 8 needle with a thicker yarn…then that is another way to adjust size.  The smaller needle/yarn  will make a smaller project with the same density of fabric.  The larger needle/yarn will make a larger project with the same density of fabric.  This can be a fun way to adjust sizing on a pattern which doesn’t go into the size you want.  However, if you are doing this on a garment…please, please, please gauge swatch.  There will be math.  Lots and Lots of Math. Or, you can do what I try to do, and make a garment, and trust it will find it’s own home.

Adjusting yarn thickness and needle size can affect the amount of yarn you will need as compared to what is recommended.  My personal belief is to have way more yarn than you think you need.  I recommend this to all my knitting friends.  The fact that this means I get to receive all their leftovers (seriously, 1/2 my yarn wall is hand me down partial skeins) is just a bonus.  But…if you are spending all that time and money, you don’t want to run out of yarn.

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All three sizes for comparison.

Also please note…there are *tons* more sizes of yarn than just these.  In the US, commercial yarn manufacturers have sizing charts on the ball bands.  I cannot stress enough that this is a guide only….kind of like the movie ratings.  (There are R movies that a reasonable teen can watch, but PG 13 movies I wouldn’t want them to come near)  A size 4 (worsted) can vary greatly in thickness between yarn lines, and then you have so many indie spinners and dyers who may or may not subscribe to those conventions.  Or, the dreamy yarn your friend brought from Europe….or…or…or

So as with other things in life, size matters…ish.  Within a certain range, who cares? But…get too big or too small…and well…you need to make adjustments.  Again, not better or worse, just different.