choosing yarns can be fun, exciting & thrilling, but it can also be scary, confusing and overwhelming. i have gotten a few questions from you guys about yarn choices and such for your projects for the summer sweater knit along. heck, i even had a ton of questions about yarn choices for my project. it was a tricky one. i had to bring the pattern to knit night to get the advice and wisdom of some of my fellow knitters.
since you all can't come to my knit night (i wish you could, wouldn't that be a riot!) i figured what better way to give us all an inside look into our yarn choices than having my pal buffy from passionate design, who is a die hard knitter over to luvinthemommyhood to help take the mystery and fear out of yarn picking and put back the allure and joy into it. we spend a lot of money on our yarn and it can almost always make or break a garment so choose wisely and be smart about it but most importantly have fun with it!
let's hear from buffy...
Help for the Yarn Challenged by Buffy of www.passionatedesign.blogspot.com
You’re at your local yarn shop and while being surrounded by all that yummy yarn goodness creates some semblance of peace within you it also makes you feel overwhelmed. You’ve made the decision to knit a sweater and yet all the options for what you could knit it with makes your head spin. Just then a vibrant and outgoing woman comes in and she’s wearing a hand knit sweater and instantly the shop owner comments on it along with all the other customers. You shrink back just a little in amazement of her abilities.
Yet you overhear her talking about getting yarn for another sweater. She says that the yarn for the pattern she wants has been discontinued but since she rarely uses the yarn specified it doesn’t make her nervous. Then suddenly she’s quiet and you peek out from behind the display of Cascade 220 to see that she isn’t feeling the yarn like you usually do, but is reading the ball band. Some yarn she puts back without really touching the yarn and others she rubs up against her cheek and forearms.
She’s still perusing yarn when you check out, an armful of Cascade 220 in your arms because it is your go-to yarn and you picked out a bright yellow just to be a little different.
Does this scene sound familiar to you? Do you go yarn shopping only to come out with what you always buy? Maybe there isn’t a local yarn shop in your town and you have to get yours online. However, if you’ve ever despaired of finding the perfect yarn for a project despair no longer. What you need is just a few pointers about the fibers that we love and what makes them great for projects. I’ll let you in on what I’ve learned while knitting and watching others knit so that we can learn from each other. I am by no means an expert, but a knitting friend willing to share my little knowledge with you.
First you have to know that there are a variety of fiber types. You have your man made synthetics, nylon, rayon, acrylic and the like. Next are plant based, cotton, hemp, linen, bamboo and finally the knitters staple fiber animal based, sheep’s wool, alpaca, angora, cashmere. While many yarns are a blend of fibers, you need a basic understanding of each fiber’s characteristic and then those ball bands won’t be so baffling.
image via yogurtandgranola
Let’s start with the standard go to fiber, sheep’s wool. This is Cascade 220 or Knit Picks Wool of the Andes and it is great for layering sweaters, highly patterned sweaters, cables, and color work. Wool is elastic so you won’t have to worry about the weight of your sweater bringing the hem down to your knees. Also, wool is a water repellent. Most wool can hold up to 50% of their weight in water without feeling wet. This is why they are great for cloth diaper cover ups and if you live in a cold and wet area. Also, wool breathes which is great if you easily overheat. However, wool can be scratchy and also not everyone can wear wool. Plus wool can felt which means you’ll have to wash it by hand and dry flat. If you’re prone to laundry blunders you might want to rethink wool.
Of course sheep’s wool is not the only animal wool, there is alpaca, angora, cashmere, bison, yak…so many choices. I haven’t had as much experience with these yarns but there are a few things to watch for in these yarns. One, you’ll be drawn to them like a moth to a flame because of their super softness. For as soft as they are they are also that warm. You need not fear if the yarn will be next to your skin because of all animal based wool they are among the least scratchy. However, unlike sheep’s wool they aren’t very elastic and they will over time turn a tunic into a dressing gown. These yarns are for the most part best in blends, as they need a bit more stability and can shed really bad. You can combat the growing nature of these yarns by knitting with a needle one sized smaller so that your fabric is denser or knit one size smaller than normal to accommodate your yarns penchant for growth.
Next up are our favorite plant based yarns. Sadly there are knitters among us who are allergic to wool also not every knitter is blessed to live in a cold region and wool is just too hot so they have to turn to plant based yarns for their knitting. Cotton is a great yarn. It is cool to the skin, breathes and for the most part easy to care for. However, cotton and many plant based fibers are hard on the fingers when you knit with it, also it has absolutely no elasticity so your sweater will grow. Cotton is also not water-repellent--if you get caught in the rain in a cotton sweater you will be very cold once you get home. Mercerized cotton describes the treatment that the cotton received. Mercerization is a process that they put the cotton through, it makes the cotton slightly softer and very shiny (you’ll have to google the process sometime, fascinating).
Linen is probably the best plant based fiber out there. It is super sturdy and can take the brunt of raising kids. However, it is one of the hardest fibers to knit with and it too does not have any elasticity. Yet once you’ve knit it up if you are diligent with your blocking you will have the softest sweaters ever, and linen will remain strong even though each time you wash it the sweater will grow softer.
Bamboo, Sugar Cane, Soy fibers are also plant based; however unlike cotton and linen they are very soft and easy to work with. They share the similar characteristics of plant based fibers (ie inelasticity and non water repelling) without sacrificing our fingers for knitting. If you have to knit with plant based fibers I highly suggest blends. They will help your fingers and you’ll get amazing drape too. One last thing about plant-based fibers is that while many manufacturers will say that they are to be dried flat, you can from time to time toss them in the dryer to help combat the growth you will get. However, don’t toss it in the dryer if you are unable to commit to watching it, you’ll have to check on it frequently just to make sure your sweater doesn’t shrink to fit your five year old ;)
The last of our yarn choices are synthetic fibers. While there is nothing inherently wrong with synthetics they have quite a few drawbacks. One, they don’t breathe and you will swelter in them. Two, the fibers melt so you can’t take them with you camping or your sweater might melt to you as you stand around the fire. Also, they don’t block. So if you’re working on a sweater with lace detail forget about stitch definition. Now, there are some high quality synthetics, but you’ll probably spend the same amount on a high quality synthetic as you would super wash wool. While I’m not a huge fan of super wash wool (they pill horribly) they do have some of the pros (breathability and elasticity) of animal based fibers.
My final recommendation is to knit up a swatch of the yarn you wish to use. Make it a decent sized swatch, 4-6 inches square and then throw it in your handbag or diaper bag and carry it around for a few days. The stress your swatch will receive in your bag will mimic wearing it and you can tell after a few days if the yarn is a good choice for your sweater.
Still if you’re struggling with yarn options ask someone! The lovely people at your yarn shop, your knitting group or even check out ravelry and the board there. As a knitter you need not fear that which we love so much and remember, even the best laid plans can go awry. Good luck and happy knitting!
thanks so much buffy! you can find buffy on her blog passionate design where you can ask her any knitting related questions you'd like. trust me, she loves to chat knitting & is always helping me out. i learned a lot from this post and i hope you all did too! next week we'll be talking about one of the most important parts of making a sweater.....your gauge! eeekkk!!! how to make your yarn work with your gauge & your gauge work with your yarn, how to even make a gauge and what all those thingamajiggers mean on the label of your yarn. hahaha, it should be fun! if you want to join in for the summer sweater knit along and haven't signed up yet, make sure to leave your name, ravelry name and blog (if you have one) in the comments to this post. you can find all the other conversations for the KAL on this thread on ravelry. and for all you sewers, don't worry, there will still be plenty of sewing talk going on here this summer too!
what's your favorite yarn to use? do you have any tips you'd like to share to help others with choosing yarns? do you reccomend a particular online yarn shop that you love?