At the end of my previous post, I mentioned a pretty puzzle, as Holmes would say. But not a full-fledged “3 Pipe Problem”. I appeal to your open-mindedness and trust. All will be explained…
There once was a little girl who was fussy. Everything itched, rubbed, pinched, or irritated her fussy fussy skin. She lived in Cleveland, Ohio, a place known for “Lake Effect” snow and sleet, so she was forced to bundle up half of the year. At her Grandma’s house, there were ancient mittens, coats, snowsuits and other items that smelled musty and OLD. They itched, they got wet, and the little girl hated them with a passion.
The little girl was nonetheless fascinated by fibers, and any fiber art she could get her little hands on. Hale Homestead (often called “Hale Farm”, just outside Akron, in Bath Ohio) was nearby, a magical place with room-sized looms, ferriers (don’t call them blacksmiths!!!), glass-blowers, and candle-makers. (This was back when schools had money for cool field trips, but I digress….)
She imagined herself in Laura Ingalls’ world, churning butter, making maple syrup, roasting a pig’s tail and all. But she was still fussy about anything itchy. Laura certainly itched, and endured without complaining. (Ma would have never allowed griping about itch, especially during the Long Winter of the 1880′s)
But, there was a flip side to all this outdoorsy living. One could be a very bad boy like cousin Charley, and end up with yellow jacket stings all over his body. A cautionary tale to all who are lazy about helping in the harvest…..
The little girl taught herself to sew at age 9, and lots of fiber-related skills followed. She was a tad ahead of the curve with knitting, knowing no one who knit in the family, and gamely taught herself from books. One of her first big projects was a Kaffe Fassett vest that she made out of novelty “mohair”-like yarn. (Lots of you out there can imagine Tumbling Blocks in fuzzy yarn(!), and what was up with a beginner learning intarsia in that way? But that’s another post.)
She knitted away, avoiding anything that reminded her of those itchy, musty, nasty old snow things back in the day. She used cotton a lot, surprised by how heavy everything was. Silk, but again, not totally satisfactory. Slippery, gorgeous, draping all over the place, but not good for some things. She hated acrylic and its nasty plastic “squeak”, but felt there were no options. NO WOOL EVER!
On a trip to San Francisco, she purchased a lovely soft yarn called Cashmerino by Debbie Bliss. It was a gorgeous purple, a deep wine, and it passed the Neck Test: (all yarns must be rubbed against the nape of the neck and throat without a single prickle before purchase. No exceptions, as ordered by the Fussy Little Girl.)
Yes, the little girl was me. It took me so many years to trust in wool that I wasted a lot of knitting time and money. My projects were’nt right, and I knew it. They didn’t have that springiness I was after, and I wanted a connection with the past.
Why are some wools itchy and others not at all? This is the puzzle. Clara Parkes, the amazing moderator of “Knitter’s Review”, one of the earliest free websites around, and the books, “The Knitter’s Book of Yarn” and “The Knitter’s Book of Wool”, explains this seeming contradiction.
Just like there are wines and there are WINES, there is wool and there is WOOL. It’s all about how old the animal is (lambswool is much finer than adult wool), what breed of sheep it is (Merino is my favorite, for its very fine hairs and the “crimp” factor. It means it holds lots of pockets of air for warmth and recovers beautifully when stretched), and even what part of the sheep’s body the wool is from.
Some Clara facts: The quality varies from sheep to sheep on the same farm (a good argument for purchasing your wool from small farms. They know.) The number of scales on the hair itself is very important. If the scales are large and less dense, that translates as rough or even the dreaded, “itchy”, as when there are about 500 per inch. When you feel a fiber with many more scales, small and dense, you interpret them as having no drag or resistance. They are smooth, even silky, up to 3000 per inch. Silk doesn’t have any; since it’s a liquid protein that hardens on impact with air, it’s a completely different feel. There are no scales to get in the way of reflecting light.
The term “wool” can actually apply to any protein fiber from an animal, but usually the label will specify if it’s Alpaca, Vicuna, Mohair, etc., because they are usually more expensive. I find alpaca to be much softer and less prickly than cashmere and mohair. However, it has more drape and is heavier than merino; a blend of the two is perfection in my mind.
Wool used in rug-making is obviously a different fiber from lambswool used for a shawl. They both have their place. Interestingly, the lighter wool yarns are often warmer than the heavier yarns. Airy, light wool usually has more scales per inch. it’s just like a strand of our own hair; pulled between your fingers from top to bottom is smoother that doing the opposite, because of the way the scales point downward on the shaft. Even if you can’t feel the scales, they are one big reason a wool is itchy on your neck or isn’t.
The above yarn is by Jade Sapphire. It’s called Lacey Lamb, and is 100% superfine lambswool. When I take this shawl places I drape it on my friends and ask them what they think the fiber is. Few of them guess wool, because they too associate it with itch. (The downside of this yarn is that the loose twist means it snags rather easily, but other than that, it’s a delight). This crocheted up quickly on a size G hook (more about crocheted lace in a future post. This design was adapted from Lisa Naskrent’s Dahlia Shawl. Not your grandma’s toilet tissue covers! stay tuned…)
You can try a wool blend before taking the 100% wool plunge, but be warned that they can be itchier than all-wool. Usually cheaper grade wool is combined with nylon or polyester to get an inexpensive product (such as Lion Brand’s Vanna’s Choice, which ends up heavy and scratchy). Wool blended with bamboo or microfiber is a better choice, but be warned that the end result will be heavier and have more drape than pure wool.
My advice? Be willing to spend a little extra to get the best wool you can afford. The challenge of finding them, especially when shopping online, can be discouraging. But there are brands known for their softness. Usually it’s a combination of the finest wool fibers with the way it’s been processed. Over-processed wool can be itchy; the chemicals used to wash and dye them are too harsh. Sometimes a processor wants to leave the wool really natural, but it can mean picking out bits of grass and who-knows-what, which can indicate the wool came from the underside of the animal, meaning not as soft.
Don’t be sucked in by color! I’m a huge fan of Noro, a Japanese company run by an artist (a genius when it comes to combining colors and textures in a hand-spun effect). These yarns are great for non-wearables and art knitting, but forget next-to-the-next softness.
You’ll notice that my patterns will recommend wool yarn almost every time. There’s a specific reason for that. The behavior of wool is factored into the design of the project. If you use a different fiber, or even a different kind of wool, the finished product will be different. If you’re an intermediate or higher knitter, that’s not a problem. You already know that if you use a Blue-Faced Leicester instead of Merino, the result will be flatter, heavier, but more lustrous. A Shetland yarn, even a lace weight, will be warmer that a hard, tightly-spun worsted for mittens. (Lots more scales per inch on the less-processed Shetland yarn means lots of little pockets of air are trapped, like bubble-wrap. Icelandic wool is minimally processed as well, with the same result, warmth!!)
I have worn wool shawlettes in summer air-conditioning; why is this so comfortable? Another mystery solved! Clarka Parkes: “Wool is hygroscopic (eve: great Scrabble word!! ) a great trait for clothing…the fiber is able to absorb up to 30% of its weight in moisture while still feeling warm and dry against your skin. This helps the fabric BREATHE, readily absorbing and releasing moisture to maintain a steady ECOSYSTEM of comfort against your skin, no matter how cold or damp the external weather may be”.
Fisherman’s sweaters are a classic example of warmth despite being buffeted by the icy waves of the North Sea, but so is an etheral smoke ring (a fluffy little scarflet). Have you ever worn something that didn’t breathe, like 100% nylon, or microfiber? I have a winter coat that is as thin as a blouse, but I can only wear it when it’s so cold that I don’t mind it. Still, I end up sweating and am colder than ever.
Wool is more comfortable to wear than silk, too. When I had a clothing line in my 20′s, I found that my silk pieces would make me sweat, no matter how filmy the fabric.
You’ve patiently read this far, so I’ll give some very specific recommendations for soft wool yarns that perform well when knitted. (In a word, they’ve got SPROING, my unvented word for highly crimped, lofty, springy yarn.)
Madelinetosh Merino Light:
This is the yarn I made the Texas Live Oak shawlette with, and plan to use on as many things as I can. This color is a gorgeous confection of luminous, earthy colors. It’s about the same weight as sock yarn, but without the tight twist. This preserves the lofty quality the wool has before it’s spun. When you see more than one ply, that means that multiple strands were used and twisted together, which of course makes a yarn stronger, but you lose the artisanal quality many of us are shooting for when we make handknits.
Other excellent choices: (that I personally use)
Cascade Yarns Eco Wool, Cascade Yarns Eco Alpaca, Mirasol Nuna, a blend of bamboo, silk, and wool, Plymouth Alpaca Grande, a bulky 100% alpaca yarn (more on alpaca when we release the pattern using this yarn), Dream in Color, Malabrigo worsted.
Yarns I found Itchy, but useful for bags, pillows, etc: Knit Picks City Tweed (gorgeous colors, good price, but itchy), Knit Picks Palette (a fingering weight, 100% 2-ply wool in a zillion colors, but not soft enough for me), Debbie Stoller yarns (at Michael’s) , Most Lion Brand wools (their Cotton Ease is a nice yarn), and please don’t be suckered in by the lovely colors of Lion Brand Homespun. It’s hot, it pills, ravels, snags, and there is no way to keep the ends woven in invisibly. It does make a pretty afghan for gifting. Avoid Lion Brand Wool-Ease and Jiffy, unless it’s for a rug, for the same reasons as Vanna’s Choice.
So, even though I’ve barely “scratched” (ha!) the surface here on the quest for a non-itchy wool, I’m hoping my own tortuous journey will save you time and money. Believe me, I’m still that fussy, itchy little girl, so if I say something might work for the fussiest wearers of handknits out there, it probably will.
I’ll continue to review specific yarns as others have done before me, but from my point of view. For the whole story on yarns, wool or otherwise, I highly recommend the books mentioned above. Once you understand what a type of yarn can, and can’t, do, you make informed decisions rather than impulsive ones (we’ve all done it!) when matching yarn to project and wearer.
Next post, closer to the big reveal of the ascot/neckwarmer/Mobius for men, women and children. Watch me graft garter stitch and add a contrast edging! I promise you can do it!