How A Yarn’s Characteristics Affect Your Knit Fabric

 

That beautiful ball of yarn goes through many transformations before you find it in your hands, wanting to turn it into something amazing. Everything that goes into yarn production, from the natural or synthetic fibers it’s made of, how its dyed, spun, twisted, and wound into a ball affects the fabric you’re knitting. So it goes, it’s inevitable that a few things will go wrong. Aghast, your socks keep falling down and bunching up in your shoes, or your sweater stretched two sizes in length. This post delves into the characteristics of that coveted ball of yarn, and how they affect the knit fabric. With a better understanding of how yarn’s characteristics affects the knit fabric, it is possible to match “the right yarn” to “the right project”.

Note: This post expands upon the information given in my previous posts, including: Fiber Properties That Can Be Your Friend Or Foe, My Love Affair With Wool, It’s All About The Yarn, The Pros And Cons Of Knitting With Cotton, The Ultimate Summer Yarn – Linen, How To Buy Yarn For A Pattern: Substituting One Yarn Brand For Another, and What All Knitters Know: Knit Fabrics Have The Market Cornered In Pattern Stitch Variety.

FIBER CLASSIFICATION

The foundation of any yarn is the fibers it’s composed of. Fibers are classified into two groups: 1. natural, consisting of animal (protein) and plant (cellulose) fibers;  2. manufactured, consisting of cellulose based fibers, synthetic fibers, and metallic fibers. Blends are combinations of different types of natural and/or manufactured fibers. 

KEY FIBER PROPERTIES

Here’s a refresher of important fiber properties I’ll be referring to in this post.

POPULAR FIBERS AND THEIR EFFECTS

NATURAL FIBERS

WOOL

  • wool is the hair fiber from sheep and is the oldest and most popular fiber to knit with. There are many breeds of sheep producing a variety of fibers ranging from fine to coarse. The most luxurious and soft, fine fibers come from breeds such as Merino. Coarser hair fibers may not feel soft, but wear far better than finer wool, particularly where abrasion is an issue.
  • “hygroscopic” – a property unique to wool. Wool absorbs up to 1/3 of its weight in moisture, while still feeling warm and dry on the skin. It’s cool in summer and warm in winter. I think it’s by far the best fiber for outdoor garments and accessories.
  • extremely high resiliency and elasticity. You can “stretch” wool fabric and it recovers to its original shape.
  • the natural “crimp” or wave to wool fibers helps them absorb moisture and trap air, making fabric warm.
  • for almost any project, you can’t go wrong knitting with wool. It is the most popular fiber to knit for its many advantages, including: the way it glides on the needles; elasticity; great stitch definition; the finer weights are perfect for close fitting garments and Fair Isle patterns; the best yarn for socks; longevity; durability; breathability; warm and cool to wear.

Felted Wool vs. Superwash Wool

  • felting is a term describing the shrinkage of animal hair fibers, particularly wool. The cause of felting is due to the scales along the surface of the wool fiber or any hair fiber. (Not only do scales cause felting, but they help hold the fibers together). When these scales are exposed to heat, agitation, and moisture, the fibers entangle together forming a dense, matted fabric. This is why most wool knits are hand washed, so they don’t shrink.
  • superwash wool is a treatment applied to wool to eliminate the scales, rendering wool machine washable. A potential drawback to the superwash process is stretching. Beware of dramatic stretching with some brands. I’ve experienced this, and I’ve found the best superwash wool yarns are the fine weights used for projects like socks and shawls.

ALPACA

  • two different types of alpaca: Suri with long silky fibers, and Huacaya, denser fibers with more crimp. Most of the hand knitting yarns come from Huacaya alpaca.
  • high strength, producing long wearing fabrics.
  • similar moisture properties as wool.
  • alpaca fiber has fewer scales than wool, so it’s more lustrous.
  • doesn’t felt as easily as wool.
  • dyeing is not necessary. The fibers can be left in their natural state, as the fleece comes in more than 22 different colors.
  • consider touch, drape, and warmth when choosing a project.
  • alpaca is very warm, much warmer than wool. I once owned a 100% alpaca coat that was so hot, I always had to remove it when shopping. Bulky 100% alpaca can be very heavy and warm, so is not the best choice for garments.
  • not as elastic as wool, so using a rib pattern stitch will be more decorative than stretchy.
  • produces a dense, relaxed fabric that drapes.
  • great for projects next to the skin.
  • superfine alpaca is a better choice for garments. It will be softer and lighter weight than the coarser grades.
  • a subtle textured stitch like seed stitch works well, but cables or heavier stitch patterns can increase the weight of the fabric.

MOHAIR

  • comes from the fleece of Angora goats. Kid mohair is the hair from the first two shearings of young goats. The fiber size increases with the age of the goat, so a young goat has fine, silky hairs. An older goat’s hairs are thick and coarse; more appropriate for products like carpets and outerwear.
  • mohair is durable, light weight and warm, but is less resilient than wool. When people think of mohair they think of the most common format, brushed, fluffy stuff. Pure, unbrushed mohair sheds or leaves a lot of fuzz behind. This is often an undesirable characteristic. It is best blended and is often found along with wool and nylon. Silk and mohair is another great blend. Rowan yarns makes a beautiful silk and mohair yarn called Kidsilk Haze.
  • knitters may find yarn with a large percentage of mohair difficult to work with; the long fibers entangle, making it almost impossible to unravel. The fluffiness of the yarn also hides a highly textured pattern; beware of detailed stitches.

SILK

  • a variety of moths produce silk; the most common is Bombyx mori. Silk cocoons produce fine, lustrous filaments in one continuous strand. Silk is the only natural fiber that comes in filament form.
  • wild silkworms produce a coarse fiber with an irregular surface that is less lustrous (tussah silk).
  • has a smooth, slippery surface, lacking bounce or body. Much less elastic than wool.
  • silk is a great insulator or warm; that’s why you often see silk long underwear.
  • has a relaxed drape and reflective qualities to the fabric. Great yarn choice for tops and shawls.
  • rib patterns have no stretch, so 100% silk is not the best choice for items such as socks. For this reason, silk is often blended with more durable, elastic fibers like wool. The silk in blends still adds the sheen and drape.

Note: Blended yarns will add the best properties of each fiber it’s composed of. The amount of each fiber is important and determines the performance of the yarn.

COTTON

  • less popular in hand knitting yarns.
  • fiber length is most important to the quality of cotton – long staple fibers as in Pima, Egyptian, and Sea Island cotton have better fiber properties.
  • high strength to cotton fibers, and stronger when wet. Best for warm weather climates because it’s highly absorbent, and releases quickly through evaporation. It doesn’t hold heat close to the body.
  • generally, the tighter the spin, the firmer the yarn, giving longer wear.
  • looser the spin, the softer the yarn, but more likely to pill and wear more quickly.
  • longevity is not like wool, wears out much sooner.
  • inelastic and not resilient like wool, so it may stretch over time. However, it typically goes back to shape after washing.
  • ribbing alone will not draw the knitting in. Blended with a stretchy fiber will alleviate this problem. The way cotton is spun also affects elasticity; multiple plies and twisted types are more bouncy.
  • textured stitches will work but keep in mind the weight of the fabric. Lots of cables and bobbles will make the fabric heavy.
  • stitch definition and colorwork is best with simple pattern stitches.
  • mercerization is a chemical finish that adds luster and improves cotton’s dyeing properties. Mercerized cotton is stronger than regular cotton, and less prone to shrinkage. This type of cotton is my favorite for its sheen, durability, and beautiful colors.

FLAX (LINEN)

  • extremely durable, more so than cotton.
  • highly absorbent and wicks moisture away from the skin – breathable. A great warm weather fabric.
  • lacks elasticity – absolutely no “spring” to this yarn. Rib stitches in borders are not elastic.
  • stockinette stitch and garter stitch are not good pattern choices, unless combined with other pattern stitches. Garter stitch on its own will drape too much. Textured and lace patterns are most suitable.
  • for socks think again. If you want beautiful drape and durability, linen is perfect for summer tops, shawls, or pieces that don’t need to hold their shape.
  • easily laundered and almost looks better with age, becoming softer with each successive washing.

BAMBOO

  • comes from cellulose pulp of the bamboo stalk.
  • highly absorbent and takes dye well.
  • can be processed to create a silky, soft yarn that drapes. Although it drapes well, consider the weight of the project, because 100% bamboo will drape so much it elongates. I once made a beautiful detailed jacket out of bamboo that stretched so much I couldn’t wear it. Wool or a blend would have been the better yarn choice. Choose projects wisely; simple summer tops, lacy scarves.

SYNTHETIC FIBERS

NYLON

  • nylon is a generic name for one of the fibers found in the fiber group called polyamides. You may notice the words polyamid, polyamide or polymid on yarn labels; most likely they are referring to nylon.
  • major advantage of nylon is its strength. It’s one of the strongest textile fibers, and is commonly used in blended yarns to reinforce them. Wool with a small percentage of nylon is a common blend found in many sock yarns. Nylon is also used as a binder thread in brushed mohair, and in novelty yarns such as eyelash yarn.
  • very low absorption of moisture.
  • pilling is a significant problem because it is so strong, the fibers get tangled and don’t break off the surface of the fabric.
  • the best yarns blends should contain a low percentage of nylon (40% or less), otherwise it’s worst qualities will negate it’s advantages.

ACRYLIC

  • the first production of acrylic in the 1950s was as a replacement for wool; less expensive and washable.
  • acrylic is heat sensitive and stretches when wet.
  • prone to severe pilling and static.
  • the manufacturing process of brushing is used to mimic the look of mohair, but does not have mohair’s properties.
  • it’s best applications are as novelty yarns, such as fake fur and other bulky textured yarns. Small percentages of acrylic blended with cotton and wool adds more strength for these short staple fibers.

SYNTHETIC VS. NATURAL FIBERS

Amongst knitters, there is varied appeal for synthetics. A “synthetic fiber” is a result of chemical synthesis, and is not environmentally friendly. Although they mimic natural fibers, their underlying structure and properties are very different. Synthetics are generally less expensive and easier to care for, but as a rule a pure synthetic absorbs very little moisture, feels hot and clammy, and doesn’t breathe on the wearer. They can be uncomfortable in warm climates. The lack of moisture absorption causes static electricity. Static also acts as a magnet for dust and dirt; frequent washing is a must. They are prone to severe pilling and synthetic fabrics look worn much sooner than fabrics made of natural fibers. They certainly do not have the longevity of a luxurious natural fiber. Synthetics perform best when blended in small percentages with natural fibers; when their best properties are taken advantage of, while the natural fibers alleviate a synthetic’s worst properties.

I avoid synthetics, except for a small percentage of nylon in sock yarns and fake fur. I find the pilling issue one of their greatest drawbacks. The difference between natural and synthetic fibers is the pills can most often be removed from a natural fiber fabric, whereas the strength of a synthetic doesn’t allow the entangled fibers to break away. The many hours spent knitting a complex pattern with a synthetic will be wasted, as your project will look like a mass of pill balls in no time. Really think about the function of your project, the use of complex stitch patterns, and the hours spent knitting when deciding on whether or not to use a synthetic.

YARN CONSTRUCTION EFFECTS

TWIST

Spinning the fibers into yarn requires a certain amount of twist so the fibers adhere to each other. The amount of twist affects a yarn’s performance. In general, the longer the individual fibers, the less twist needed to hold them together. There are exceptions, but the greater the twist, the higher the strength and durability. Loosely spun yarns tend to pill, and garments made from them may stretch.

PLY

The number of plies or strands of yarn twisted around each other affects strength and durability. Yarns are classified into two categories: simple yarns and novelty (specialty) yarns. Simple yarns consist of: a single ply yarn or a single fiber twisted into one continuous strand; 2 or more singles twisted together into a plied yarn (eg. 4-ply yarn means 4 single fibers twisted together); and 2 or more plies twisted together into a cord (eg. 4-2ply cord means 4 groups of 2 plies forming the cord). The degree of twist used to form plies can range from low to high. The number of plies does not dictate the diameter of the yarn strand or weight. A tightly twisted 4-ply yarn will wear better than a low twist single ply yarn.

Novelty yarns are created by special spinning, twisting or combining these processes. This yarn category includes:

Textured Yarns

  • these consist of hairy and tweedy types.
  • affect the fit and ease of garments.
  • complex patterning may be buried by highly textured and hairy yarn types.

Smooth/Silky/Slippery Yarns

  • fall or drape with gravity.
  • don’t add bulk, but can stretch.

COLORED YARN EFFECTS

The number one motivator for a purchase is the “color” of the yarn. Dyeing yarn is simply the application of color by either natural (organic) or synthetic dyes. Dyes are chemical compounds dissolved in water or liquid, so they penetrate the fibers. Dyes are chosen based on their compatibility with fibers. For example, a dye formula used to color nylon is different from the dye used to color wool fibers. Each fiber responds differently when colored. Some fibers like silk and cotton generously soak up color to create brilliant, lustrous effects. Hand knitting yarns are dyed in either the fiber form (prior to spinning) or in the yarn format (hanks).

Because of the popularity of hand dyed and hand painted yarns, I want to disuss these terms. Hand dyed yarns tend to be driven by a single person in small factory settings, producing personal and special yarn collections. Hand painted yarns use various techniques of manually applying dye to the yarn in a “painterly” fashion (not dunked into dye pots) to achieve a rainbow of color.

Kettle dyed yarn is an advanced hand dyeing technique for coloring yarn that involves manipulating the dye in pots or vats in small batches to produce tonal effects. A common “look” is a subtle gradation of one color or lighter and darker areas of one color. Popular brands using this method are Malabrigo and Manos del Uruguay. Hand dyeing in kettles have no true dye lots; even though the hanks are dyed in batches; each hank is still a little different.

Hand dyeing requires skill and an understanding of dye chemistry. Truly good hand dyed yarn looks beautiful on the skein, but equally knits into a beautiful cohesive work of color.

In large scale operations, the following terms create different effects when knit. Space dyeing gives yarn a multi-colored effect. A skein of space dyed yarn consists of two or more different colors that are repeated across the length of the yarn strand. The effect is collage-like or uneven horizontal stripes. It is possible to produce space dyed yarns at home, but the effect is less precise.

Variegated yarn is dyed with more than one color. There is a wide selection of variegated yarns including: heather or tweed containing yarn flecks of different colored fibers; ombre with light and dark shades of a single color; multi-colored with two or more distinct hues; self-striping with lengths of color that automatically create stripes in the knit fabric; and marled, made from strands of different colored yarns twisted together.

The effects of variegated yarn vary depending on the technique, pattern stitches used, and the frequency of the color changes. These effects include “flashing” (lightning bolt) and “pooling” (patchy). With any yarn dyed in multiple colors, you run the risk of “pooling”, where the specific colors in the yarn repeat occur at just the right intervals on the fabric, stacking on top of each other to form “pools” or “patches” of color. Some yarn manufacturers deliberately do this or plan color pooling, like self-patterning sock yarn.

Pooling has varied appeal amongst knitters because it can look awkward and splotchy. To diminish the pooling effect with hand dyed yarns, some knitters suggest knitting with two skeins simultaneously; by knitting two rows from one skein, then two rows from the other. Color pooling occurrs less often with hand painted yarns.

DYE LOTS

Dye lot numbers are stamped on yarn bands. Yarn is dyed in batches, so it’s not uncommon for the same color to vary from one dye lot to another. Differences between dye lots can be very obvious when knitting an item in a solid color. You will notice a line where a change in dye lots occur. For this reason it’s a good rule of thumb to buy all yarn from the same dye lot or batch. Sometimes it’s not always possible to get them the same, but one solution is to introduce a new dye lot in small doses; alternating a few rows of the old yarn with a few rows of new yarn beginning early in the project.

Hand dyed and hand painted yarn producers may not bother with dye lots as the yarn works its magic on the needles. It’s all about the beauty of the color mix.

BLEEDING DYE

It’s not uncommon for brightly colored yarns and dark shades to release a small amount of dye in the first few washings. Generally, you won’t see changes in the overall color of a knit. A final rinse with a small amount of vinegar in the water can stabilize the dye, if you notice excessive bleeding.

CAREFUL SUBSTITUTION

In my previous posts on substitution, I mentioned that the amount of yarn in meters/yards is key to choosing a substitute. But you can’t substitute any yarn even with the same yardage. It’s also important to choose a yarn with a similar fiber content as the one used in the original design. When thinking about replacing one fiber type for another, consider the fiber’s properties and how it may affect your project. For example, if you replaced wool with cotton in a design knit in cables and textured stitches, you will notice differences in the end product. Cotton is inelastic and tends to stretch, is heavy, hangs differently from wool, and doesn’t wear as well.

The yarn’s structure contributes much to the texture of the knit fabric. Remember the character of the yarn. Cotton and silk yarns stretch, and change shape when worn, while wool retains its original shape. Tapes and slippery yarns give dimension to the fabric, while mohair is light and airy. Tweeds and variegated yarns provide an allover color dance, so substituting a solid, plain yarn will make the fabric look ordinary. Lastly, complex stitchery may be buried with highly textured yarns.

TEST SWATCHES BECOME A MUST

“A swatch is your best friend”

Every knit creation stems from its main material – the yarn. I can give you lots of information, but experiencing first hand how a yarn affects knit fabric is the only way to learn what a yarn can do for your project. Making many projects from the different fibers and yarn types helps you better understand their properties. Don’t avoid making swatches; a swatch of a coveted ball of yarn speaks volumes. Afteral, your goal is to match “the right yarn” to “the right project”. And it’s possible to do so. There is no “wrong” yarn, only a “wrong” choice.

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Confusing Terms Found On Yarn Labels

Typical Information on Ball Band

Yarns are packaged with paper ball bands containing information to help you choose the most appropriate yarn for your projects. I outline this information in my e-book “It’s All About The Yarn”. The following are “confusing terms” you may find on yarn labels.

  • Yarn Weight – Typically you won’t see the weight category (thickness of yarn strand) printed on the ball band, but some manufacturers will denote the yarn’s weight category by its number (0 – 7), term (lace – jumbo), or both.
  • Yarn Length – This is the yardage and meterage (amount in yards and metres) for one ball, skein, or hank. This is the actual length, not to be confused with weight in ounces and grams. Two different 50g balls of yarn will have different lengths. For example, a 50g ball of lace weight yarn may be 420m in length, whereas a 50g ball of sock yarn may only have 175m in length. Yardage and meterage is what is used to calculate the amount of substitute yarn.
  • The meaning of the following yarn types is unclear: fingering, sock, sport, baby, and 4 ply yarn. Historically, these yarn types were used as “names” of the yarn. Plies were often used to describe weight, because they were fairly uniform. Today, a single ply yarn can be a very fine lace or a bulky Icelandic wool. Regardless of the weight, all types can be a single or consist of many plies. The following chart is helpful, and notice that in UK, Australia, and New Zealand (not all yarn manufacturers) plies have remained as yarn weights, even though the meaning is no longer clear. Note: The differences between Fingering, Sock, Baby and Sport are small – it’s most important to rely on your gauge when choosing the appropriate yarn for your project.

Australian Yarn Label – 4ply yarn

Yarn Weights for US, UK, and Australia

  • DK, Worsted, Aran – These terms are also yarn weights, commonly found on labels, particularly DK, which stands for “double knitting”. DK is a “light (3) weight” yarn and is popular. Worsted and aran are classified as “medium (4) weight”. “Aran” is slightly thicker than worsted.
  • Color Codes/Dye Lots – Color codes are the manufacturer’s number for a particular color. Dye lots refer to the dye batch number, or the batch the yarn was dyed in. Because yarn is dyed in batches, it’s not uncommon for the same color to vary from one dye lot to another. For this reason, it is important to buy yarn in one dye lot for your project.
  • Some labels, particularly yarns manufactured in Europe may show a rough guide as to how much yarn is required for different garments in average sizes for men, women, and children.
  • You may also find a crochet gauge in single crochet (sc) and hook size for a 4 inch square, along with the stockinette stitch gauge.
  • Care instructions will be in text, symbols, or both. For symbol reference, check out this chart.
  • Flax/Linen – Flax is a food and fiber crop cultivated in cooler regions of the world. Textiles made from flax are known as “linen”. You will often see the term “linen” used on a yarn label, rather than “flax”. The collective term “linens” is generically used to describe bed and kitchen textiles, even those not made from flax.
  • Mercerized Cotton – Mercerization is a chemical finish used on cotton that adds luster, and improves its dyeing properties. Mercerized cotton is stronger than regular cotton, and less prone to shrinkage.
  • Superwash Wool – Superwash is a finishing process that alters the scale structure of wool, so that wool doesn’t shrink when machine washed. For felting projects, do not use superwash wool. Since the “felting” process shrinks wool to make a dense fabric, superwash wool won’t felt.
  • Bamboo Sourced Viscose – Bamboo fibers come from the pulp of bamboo grass. Bamboo yarn is manufactured by two different methods. In one of these methods, bamboo is processed in the same manner as rayon (viscose) fiber, with chemicals and equipment used to make synthetic fibers. Manufacturers are now required to label these “rayon like” yarns with terminology such as “bamboo sourced viscose”.

I hope in defining these “confusing terms”, that this information will help you shop for the best yarn for your projects.

The Ultimate Summer Yarn – Linen

Blue Flowers - Flax Plant

Blue Flowers – Flax Plant

100% linen is one of my favorite, albeit underrated yarn. “Linen” is a generic term to describe flax fiber, woven textiles, and yarn. It is made from the stem of the flax plant, a bast fiber. Many flax species have beautiful blue flowers sitting on a high stem. The plant is cultivated as a food and fiber crop in cooler regions of the world. Top quality flax is primarily grown in Western European countries and Ukraine. Flax fibers are soft, lustrous, smooth and straight, and the harvested bundles look like blonde hair prior to processing. There are few 100% linen hand knitting yarn brands, as it requires a great deal of processing. Two popular brands are Louet Euroflax and Quince and Co. Sparrow.

Harvested flax bundles

Harvested flax bundles

Flax Characteristics

Flax is the oldest textile fiber and used in the ancient civilizations around the Mediterranean. It is the strongest of the plant fibers, and like cotton is stronger when wet. Its absorbency is higher than cotton and can withstand very high temperatures, making it easy to care for. Flax is stiff to work with, due to its low elasticity and resiliency. These properties cause the extreme wrinkling of linen fabric, a property that many consumers find annoying. Flax is often blended with other fibers such as cotton and silk.

Linen yarn is one of the best yarns for summer clothing because it breathes, feeling cool and comfortable in hot climates. The true beauty of linen is it gets better with successive washing. You can’t say that about many yarns and textiles. It’s suitable for summer tops, scarves, wraps, light throws or other pieces that don’t need to hold their shape. It becomes drapey, soft, and supple with age and laundering.

Tips When Knitting With Linen

  • 100% linen yarn is stiff, so it helps to wind the yarn twice to soften.
  • Wash and dry swatches and samples before measuring, as the fabric relaxes and the gauge will change.
  • Standard rib for bottom borders and neck edges are not suitable due to its inelasticity. Hems, rolled, lace or garter stitch edgings work.
  • Needles are more often a personal choice when it comes to the materials used to produce them. Smooth bamboo and wood needles will grip the yarn better at the smaller sizes. Whichever type of needle you choose they should be very smooth with pointy tips. Smaller needle sizes are better; save the large needles for openwork or lace patterns.
  • Plain stockinette stitch or garter stitch are not the best pattern choices. Garter stitch in particular will drape too much, unless combined with other pattern stitches. Linen is more suitable for texture knitting – cables, knit/purl combinations, and lace.
Lace Swatch

Lace Swatch

  • Use the overlap method of joining a new ball of yarn, and join new yarn at the edges, not in the body of work.
  • Weave in yarn ends following the stitch path on the wrong side of the fabric, or use duplicate stitch.

So dive in and try some 100% linen yarn and make yourself a scarf or summer top. My someday project is to make an intricate lace tablecloth in Louet Euroflax.

Am I Really Allergic To Wool?

sheep cartoon for wool sensitivity post

When I owned a yarn retail business, one of the most common complaints I heard from customers, was that they couldn’t wear anything wool, because they were “allergic”. I am going to set the record straight, because wool doesn’t deserve a bad rap. In my posts, “My Love Affair With Wool” and “It’s All About The Yarn – Getting To Know Fibers”, I talk about wool’s unique properties. Suffice it to say that it is the most popular fiber amongst knitters.

A true wool allergy is rare, and usually exhibits as a rash on the face, arms, and hands. The rash can occur immediately after contact, or appear a couple of days later. Medical experts believe the allergen is from the alcohols that make up lanolin, the oil in sheep’s wool. If you have a true allergy to wool, any creams or makeup containing lanolin will cause the same allergic reaction, as when exposed to the fiber.

Wool sensitivity is different from a wool allergy. Most people who think they are allergic just have sensitive skin, and are uncomfortable wearing wool. What causes this sensitivity?

  1. The Prickly Factor – This is really an irritation by any kind of coarse fiber. The surface of a wool fiber is covered with scales that vary in size, and determine the fineness and coarseness of wool. Fine, soft wool has as many as 2000 scales/inch, whereas coarse wool has as few as 700 scales/inch. The large scales of coarse fibers are what cause skin irritation, or that “itchy” feel. The most luxurious, fine, soft wool fibers come from breeds such as Merino sheep. Icelandic breeds produce a coarse, scratchy fiber. Because a wool is coarse and scratchy doesn’t make it “bad”, rather it is highly durable and suitable for a variety of projects. “Superwash” is a finishing process that alters the scale structure so that wool can be machine washed, and makes the yarn feel softer. Blends of wool with other fibers may be an option, by experimenting with varying percentages of wool. Other hair fibers like alpaca and cashmere may be more comfortable for those that suffer with irritation. Why not try layering, or wearing a shirt or T-shirt under a coarse wool garment.
  2. Dyes, Cleaning Chemicals, Cat Dander, and Dust Mites – Sometimes the irritation is caused by one of these allergens, rather than the wool itself. Black dyes that contain PPD (paraphenylenediamine) can be an irritant. Cleaning chemicals like those used in dry cleaning, and home laundering washing powders and liquids can also cause skin irritations. Dirty wool knits, and those containing cat dander and dust mites can also be problematic. Make sure your garments are regularly cleaned with mild soap and avoid fabric softeners. There are some fabulous wool cleaners on the market (SOAK, Eucalan, and The Laundress Wool and Cashmere Shampoo). Another tip is to wash all knits prior to your first wear. I always wash my finished projects before wearing. There are very few instances where it is necessary to send knits to the dry cleaners. Most knit garments including cashmere can be safely washed at home.

More often wool is just a mild irritant, and by following some simple suggestions, you can still enjoy it’s amazing properties. So indulge is some Merino wool, and whatever you make with it will reward you for years to come.

Another Use For Self-striping Sock Yarn!

My latest free pattern uses self-striping sock yarn to make a classic vest. Because the vest is a much larger project than a pair of socks, the stripe pattern breaks up. Self-striping sock yarn falls in the category of variegated yarns – yarns dyed in more than one color. The yarn strand is dyed to create a variety of effects, self-striping being one of them. You can create your own “look” by trying another type of patterned sock yarn to make this vest. Make sure to check out The Little e-book of Abbreviations and Knitting Terms, including my favorite buttonhole, the “One Row Buttonhole”.

Sock Yarn Vest

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Fiber Properties That Can Be Your Friend Or Foe

It always amazes me that you can take two sticks, some yarn and create a fabric. Yes, knitting is one of the categories of fabrics. I’ve discussed fibers and yarn construction in my ebook It’s All About The Yarn.  I want to take a closer look at some often neglected fiber properties that affect your hand knit projects. Fiber properties, yarn construction, and stitch patterns are not independent of each other, but work together to create the project you desire. The properties discussed below aren’t necessarily “bad” or “good”, but are important when choosing yarn and to the overall success of a design.

Elasticity or Resiliency 

Elasticity is the ability of a fiber to return to its original shape after being stretched. This means the fiber is flexible and prevents a fabric from wrinkling. Wool is one of the best examples of this property. Just try squeezing a ball of wool or experience the ease in which it glides across your needles. Wool is by far the favorite of knitters, and mine.

The elbows of sleeves and cuffs are areas of garments that tend to wear out first, but can withstand heavy wear when made with a resilient fiber. Most animal fibers are resilient. Silk and cotton are examples of fibers with low resiliency, and tend to stretch out of shape with wear or use.

The amount of elasticity also affects how a garment drapes or hangs. Because cotton stretches, it is typically unsuitable in designs with allover cables or other dense pattern stitches, adding too much weight. One time I used 100% bamboo in a structured cardigan, a big mistake; it was heavy and draped too much.

Loft

Loft describes yarn that is open, springy, and appears bulky in comparison to its weight. Mohair is fluffy and light weight, but appears bulky in texture. Loft is created by the air space between individual fibers, and provides insulation. Wool fiber has a natural crimp producing an open structure that traps heat.

Fibers with high loft also have high elasticity, which prevents the fabric from flattening. If you take a ball of wool or mohair and squeeze, it springs back.

Pilling

Pilling on the surface of a knit fabric.

Pilling on the surface of a knit fabric.

You’ve probably noticed unattractive, fuzzy balls on the surface of your sweaters. These balls of fiber are called pills, and are the result of short fibers entangling on the surface of the textile, caused by abrasion or friction. Abrasion occurs in areas of heavy wear such as cuffs, inner side of sleeves where the arm rubs against the body, and heels of socks.

All knitted items pill to a certain degree. The degree of pilling is affected by the type of fiber, yarn construction including twist, tightness of the knit fabric, and the pattern stitch. Pills are common with softly spun, single ply yarns. Acrylic and other synthetics pill more than natural fibers. Because synthetic fibers are so strong, the pills don’t break off the surface, whereas pills are easily removed from natural fiber surfaces. Many knitters prefer natural fibers for this reason – an acrylic item can look like “pill central” in no time and you can’t remove them. You might want to stay away from acrylic for projects that require many hours of knitting and complex stitch patterns.

Felting

Felting is a textile term describing the shrinkage of animal hair fibers, particularly wool. The cause of felting is due to the fiber’s structure. The wool hair fiber is composed of scales along its surface. When these scales are exposed to heat, moisture, and agitation, they entangle or lock together forming a dense, matted fabric. I’d be willing to bet many of you have accidentally felted a sweater by putting it in the washing machine. Careful attention must be paid when washing animal hair fibers.

Felted fabric is produced by textile manufacturers to make dense fabrics such as boiled wool and melton. Felting projects can be an enjoyable process when done “deliberately”. Superwash wool has been treated to prevent shrinkage, and items are safely laundered in the washing machine. But trying to felt with superwash wool won’t work!

Absorbency And Static Electricity

Static electricity is produced by an accumulation of electrical charge. It is a huge problem with synthetic fibers which lack the ability to absorb moisture. Even natural fibers will exhibit static electricity in low humidity, but is easily reversed. Synthetic fabrics feel hot, pill readily, and hold static charges making them easily soiled and difficult to clean.

Even though you may be dying to use a particular yarn that exhibits any of the above properties, there is a project out there for it! Just try to consider the function of your project before diving in to prevent an undesirable outcome.

New E-book: It’s All About The Yarn

Latest E-book - It's All About The Yarn

Latest E-book – It’s All About The Yarn

The yarn store is like paradise for the knitter. Walking into a yarn store is to experience an immense color palette and tactile pleasures. Choosing the perfect yarn for a project is largely determined by its fiber properties and its construction. This e-book looks at the fibers and the construction of hand knitting yarns. I’ve also included a bonus section on how to buy yarn for a pattern.

I hope this information will help you in choosing the perfect yarn for your projects. As you delve into the variety of yarns available, you will certainly find the ones you love, and be able to use a substitute yarn when that favorite type decides to be discontinued. Happy Knitting!

It’s All About The Yarn