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Thoughts on Non-Superwash, Nylon-Free Sock Yarns

LBHandknits

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Some of my first memories from childhood, are of my grandmother knitting socks. She used steel double-pointed needles, which seemed to move in her hands at the speed of light, while her ball of yarn likewise swiftly diminished. The yarn she used was usually whatever was left over from larger projects, such as sweaters. It was roughly sportweight equivalent in weight, and always 100% wool. Just your garden variety wool. No superwash treatment. No nylon. The socks lasted for years.

It is perhaps for this reason, that the concept of sock yarn has always amused me, as have the occasional startled reactions to my ‘inappropriate’ sock-knitting yarn choices. It has been the dominant narrative in the knitting industry for some time, that sock yarn should contain nylon and be superwash-treated. The reasons being, that both of these features make the socks more hard-wearing, and that, in addition, the nylon content facilitates stretch. The argument, however, never rang quite true to me. By all accounts, socks were plenty hard-wearing before the widespread use of nylon and the invention of superwash (one older friend describes socks lasting so long in her family, they were passed down from one sibling to the next!). Also, as a fibre that is inherently elastic in its own right, wool should not really need synthetic help in that regard.

Still, around two years ago I decided to keep an open mind and give ‘sock yarn’ an honest try. Which I did, making pair after pair out of the usual suspects - including commercial yarns from Reggia, Cascade, and Drops, and hand-dyed yarns using various merino/nylon and BFL-nylon blends. At the same time, I continued to knit socks out of various ‘non sock’ yarns.

And?

According to my experience with the socks I wear myself, and to feedback from others who wear the socks I make, my impression is that it makes no difference. The main factor determining how hard-wearing a sock will be, seems to be the tension it is knitted at. Knit a sock densely, and it will wear wonderfully - superwash or not, nylon or not. Loosen up on the tension, and it will not.

I can show you socks that are superwash treated and 25% nylon, which felted grotesquely at the heels after their 2nd or 3rd outing. And I can show you socks that are 100% non-superwash wool, which look nearly new after a year of regular wear. A difference of even 1 stitch per 10cm in tension seems to play a larger role in a sock’s durability, than the presence or absence of nylon content and superwash treatment. The superwash, nylon-blend socks are not worse. But neither are they better.

Of course, the above is just my experience. And if it contradicts yours, by no means do I want to dismiss that. But considering that my experience has been as described, I have decided at this stage to go back to using yarns that are 100% natural fibres, and minimally processed (no superwash). Even for socks.

My current go-to yarns are the new fingering-weight blends from Studio Donegal - Olla (which I have already written about here) and Darnie. These yarns are not yet available on the Studio Donegal website, but are sold by This Is Knit.

As for hand-dyed yarns, I absolutely love the wool-ramie and wool-ramie-silk bases used by Apple Oak Fibre Works. I believe she currently calls these bases Doolin and Turin, and I have written about the former here, under the dyer’s old name.

I am also quite excited about the Natural Sock project from Woolly Mammoth Fibre Co. With a similar yarn preference to mine, Emma took matters into her own hands and approached a UK mill about producing a suitable blend of wool for a non-superwash, nylon-free sock yarn. The result is a high-twist, fingering weight BFL-Cheviot blend, which I am looking forward to trying.

If I were to commission my own sock blend… It would probably be something like 90% high-twist non-superwash BFL and 10% silk. But really, I enjoy variety and will happily make socks out of a wide range of natural fibres, with a few notable exceptions. Namely: I would avoid fibres that are prone to pilling. I would avoid fibres which are ‘hairy,’ or have a strong halo (the excess fluff would quickly grow matted in wear). And I would avoid fibres without elasticity. So basically, no merino, no cashmere, no mohair, and no cotton. But honestly, I find that most ‘ordinary’ wools make perfectly suitable sock yarns, as long as I knit them at a tight gauge and of course wash the socks by hand.

At any rate, I am pleased that more small-scale yarn producers and dyers are experimenting with natural sock yarns, and am interested in seeing where this leads.

Do you knit socks strictly out of ‘sock yarn?’ As always, feedback about your own experiences is welcome!

What Can You Knit Out of Wensleydale?

LBHandknits

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With the recent rise of interest in place- and breed-specific yarns, Wensleydale long wool is enjoying some much-deserved attention. But I notice that while knitters are buying Wensleydale, once they have it in hand many don’t quite know what to do with it. And so I thought it might be useful to share my experience.

One of my cold weather staples is a gray Wensleydale sweater, which I knitted a year ago, then wore all through last winter and have just pulled out again now that the weather’s turned cold. This sweater never fails to fascinate fellow knitters, because it looks and feels so unusual no one can work out what yarn it is made of. Guesses from looking tend to include mohair, angora, cashmere, and alpaca. Guesses after touching will usually lean in the direction of “some kind of mohair blend?’

The revelation that the sweater is in fact 100% Wensleydale is unfailingly met with surprise. ‘But isn’t Wensleydale a longwool, kind of like BFL? This looks and feels nothing like BFL!’

Indeed not. And so, if you buy Wensleydale thinking you know what to expect since you have already worked with Blue Faced Leicester, you will be in for a big surprise.

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A thoroughly British wool, Wensleydale is spun from the long and curly fleeces of Wensleydale sheep, which originated in Yorkshire. My experience with this yarn so far extends to three different sources: The West Yorkshire Spinners, the Wensleydale Longwool Company, and Laxtons (which mainly supplies undyed blanks to indie dyers). With that in mind, here are my impressions:

. Wensleydale is a very shiny yarn. And while longwool breeds are generally known for their lustre, to my eye the lustre of Wensleydale far exceeds that of, say, BFL, and Border Leicester yarns. In the finished garment it almost looks as if the fabric has a high silk content.

. Wensleydale has a distinct halo, to the extent that some might consider it ‘hairy.’ The combination of the halo and the lustre, is probably why so many tend to mistake my sweater for a mohair-silk blend.

. Perhaps as a result of the halo, Wensleydale does pill. Not nearly as badly as cashmere or merino, but maybe on par with mohair and certainly far more so than BFL. The pills, however, are easy to remove and the fabric does not seem to suffer afterward.

. For most people, I daresay Wensleydale would not be a next-to-skin yarn. To the touch, it can feel simultaneously soft and prickly. If you can imagine blending Icelandic Lopi with cashmere, the effect is not dissimilar.

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. Wensleydale has exceptional drape - more in line, I would say, with what you might expect from Alpaca than sheep’s wool. And so when deciding what sorts of things to knit out of it, keep that in mind. Wensleydale fabric is rather amorphous, and does not keep its shape in the same way as the much-crisper BFL. This makes it an excellent choice for flowy oversized sweaters, but not so much for structured fitted ones.

. As a result of its drape and halo, meeting gauge with Wensleydale can be tricky. When worked at the gauge appropriate for its meterage, the fabric can seem a bit gauzy (and it does not bloom/ fill in after blocking). However, tightening up the gauge will result in a very heavy fabric, which will neither look nor feel right. After experimenting with this for a bit, my feeling is that you do need to go with the gauge appropriate for the yarn weight, and accept the slightly open look to the fabric as part of its inherent characteristics.

. Finally, Wensleydale is an exceptionally warm yarn. Warmer than other longwools I have tried, and more on par once again, with the likes of mohair and alpaca. If you life in a cold or damp climate, this is quite handy for winter as it means you can knit a garment that is fine enough to fit under tailored overcoats and light enough to pack away easily, yet still plenty warm.

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In summary… My impression of Wensleydale wool, is that it is best suited for ethereal, floaty winter garments, to be worn over baselayers.

The combination of its warmth and its lustre makes this yarn particularly wonderful for achieving that elusive balance of cozy and elegant that one might appreciate in a winter garment.

For a rare breed wool spun in England, it is also quite a reasonably priced yarn, with commercially-dyed options (from the manufacturers linked to earlier) priced at under €10 per 100g.

If you are interested in Wensleydale yarn but uncertain whether you will like it, I suggest purchasing a small quantity, keeping an open mind (rather than expecting it to be a BFL substitute), and swatching/experimenting until you get a handle on its unique properties.

The sweater shown here was made out of the West Yorkshire Spinners ‘Gems’ Wensleydale DK, in the Moonstone colourway, purchased at Row by Roe in Co. Derry, Northern Ireland. The design is my own improvised seamless drop shoulder concoction, with lace edgings.

Have you knitted with Wensleydale yet? Please do share your experience!

The 'Garden Pot' Cardi, and Thoughts on Mosaic Colourwork

LBHandknits

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A lot of people have asked me about this cardigan, and I kept neglecting to write about it. But when I took it off this afternoon I noticed the light in the garden was good. So perhaps it was time for a photoshoot and a proper introduction.

This garment, which I call the Garden Pot Cardi for reasons that will soon become apparent, was one of those experiments which gets worn quite a bit but was never meant to become a pattern. The main reason, is that the yoke motif is straight out of a stitch dictionary (and I prefer to be more original with my designs). You can find it in Mosaic Knitting, by Barbara Walker, and it’s ‘Mosaic 48: Garden Pot.’

A year or so ago I was asked to teach a workshop on mosaic colourwork, and this was one of the things I made in preparation for it. Or rather, I started making it, then got bored half way through and abandoned it, then came across it languishing in a bag months later and managed to finish it when I accidentally took said bag on a long bus trip instead of the project I actually meant to take. As one would!

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But anyhow: Mosaic colourwork, also known as slip stitch colourwork. It is undergoing a bit of a resurgence in popularity these days, but is still fairly unusual compared to ordinary (stranded) colourwork. The basic premise is: You work with one colour at a time on any given row, using slip stitches to display the colour from the previous row, thereby creating a colourwork effect.

If you are completely new to the technique, this article by Interweave offers and excellent introduction. And if you care to delve deeper, the aforementioned Mosaic Knitting by Barbara Walker is the tome you need.

Often presented as an ’easier’ alternative to stranded colourwork, mosaic knitting does eliminate the need to manage multiple strands of yarn simultaneously. It also produces a stretchier fabric, since there aren’t floats on the underside to constrain it. For these reasons, some see it as a clever substitute for stranded knitting.

However, to my eye slip stitch colourwork is so visually distinct from stranded colourwork, that the two are anything but interchangeable. It is also worth noting that slip stitch colourwork is governed by a rather restrictive set of spatial rules, which severely limits the range of forms this technique can be used to produce. These two things are in fact connected, and if you study the motifs produced with the slip stitch technique, you will notice a certain look of squarishness/ pixelation that is common to all the imagery. Whereas with stranded knitting it is possible to produce smooth, rounded, organic-looking shapes, with mosaic knitting any attempt at such a shape will ultimately result in a - well, distinctly mosaic - look. Even the flowers in my Garden Pot yoke look like tiled representations of flowers, which the eye keeps trying to break down into a rhythmic collection of squares and rectangles, rather than actual flowers.

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I don’t mean to make it sound as if I dislike the technique. I just feel that trying it because you think it will achieve the same result as stranded colourwork, but will be easier, is the wrong reason to try it. Mosaic knitting produces a rather specific look and texture, and if you like it then that’s a great reason to try it.

Me? Well, I like my Garden Pot cardigan (knitted out of some random skeins of DK Shetland, which Jenni of Apple Oak Fibre Works was clearing out of her shop a year ago). And I am happy to show interested folks how to work the technique. But for some reason, I do not feel inspired to design my own slip stitch colourwork motifs, whereas stranded colourwork designs come to me readily and constantly.

And if you want to knit your own Garden Pot cardi: Find a cardigan pattern with a circular yoke construction, which allows for a horizontal panel of 31 rows, with 16 stitch repeats, plus a few stitches left over on each side. Then fill that panel with repeats of the Mosaic 48 chart from Barbara Walker’s Mosaic Knitting. I believe this chart is top-down reversible, so you can use either a top-down or a bottom-up construction method, whichever you prefer. If anyone ends up giving it a try, I would love to see.

Meanwhile, the Garden Pot cardi is one of those ‘just for me’ garments which I enjoy wearing all the more, because it was made using a technique (and yarn) I do not often gravitate toward. Now, perhaps after 6 months of wear, it’s time to add those missing buttons…

Has anyone else tried mosaic - aka slip stitch - colourwork? If you are also a stranded colourwork knitter, I would love to know what you think of one vs the other.

Phoenix! My First Test Knit

LBHandknits

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As mentioned on previous occasions, I do not come from a background of knitting from patterns. I was taught to knit in an improvisational manner, making calculations from scratch, and adjustments on the fly, for any piece I wanted to make. What we think of as 'designing' in ravelry-era knitting culture was for me just an inherent, and fluid, part of the knitting process. For most of my knitting life, I assumed that everyone did it this way, and, until fairly recently, I did not know there even was such as thing as ready-made knitting patterns. Fast forward to today, and I now design patterns for a living …despite which, I still find it strange and unnatural to knit from a pattern myself!  

If you are thinking, this does not exactly paint a picture of an ideal test knitter, you would be absolutely correct. And yet, the Phoenix beckoned. 

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The Phoenix pullover is the upcoming inaugural design by Melissa Littlefield, of Knitting the Stash. Melissa - who is now doing her Nth test knit for me, poor soul! - was especially helpful with my Sunny Every Day pattern, the process behind which I described here. And so I told Melissa that, should she ever take the plunge into knitwear design herself, I would be delighted to reciprocate. Happily, she took me up on it.

And I say happily, because honestly I feel as if test knitting for Melissa ended up being at least as beneficial for me as it (hopefully) was for her. I am not going to delve into the details of the test knit here, as they are already documented here for anyone interested. But in a more general sense, I will say that in dealing with somebody else's pattern I felt a heightened sense of responsibility and ended up approaching it in a more diligent manner than I would my own work -  taking copious notes, keeping to a self-imposed schedule almost religiously, and generally being far more organised than I normally would be. In the process, I realised how much better it is to do things this way, than via my normal, somewhat more chaotic process. 

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Design-wise, the Phoenix pullover started out as Melissa’s remake-along project. The design is based on that of a store-bought sweater, which Melissa reverse-engineered and modified to suit her preferences. Worked in DK weight yarn, in the round, from the bottom up, with raglan-sleeve construction and short row neckline shaping, Phoenix features a cabled front, and reverse-stockinette back and sleeves. It is a look that is both classic and casual.

With permission, I modified mine by working the cables on both front and back. But otherwise I (mostly!) followed the pattern as written.

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Overall, I found test knitting the Phoenix enjoyable and reasonably easy, especially since the construction method (bottom up) is not one I normally gravitate toward. I did read the pattern from start to end in order to get a detailed sense of what I would be doing at every step, and why, before I started knitting. Following a pattern blindly is just not something I am capable of doing! But once I got the whole picture, I felt pretty content to follow the step by step instructions without second-guessing the design at every turn, which was rather nice!

The only glitch I experienced with the process pertained to the sizing. Before I started knitting, I found it difficult to decide on the size. I normally prefer to wear sweaters with about 2” of ease around the bust. However, the designer wore her original Phoenix sample with zero ease, and I really liked the way it looked on her in the photos. As a result, I decided to do the same - which, unfortunately led me to re-affirm my preference for 2” of ease! The sweater technically fits me, in the sense that I am able to put it on and move in it. I even like the way it fits around certain areas - tight around the bust, roomier around the waist, form fitting but not ‘sausagey’ in the sleeves. The problem is the yoke. In the size I opted to knit, it is too shallow for me, pulling at the underarms and giving the whole garment an ill-fitting vibe. Consequently, I have asked Emily (who is smaller than me) to model the Phoenix here, as I feel this does the design more justice.

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As soon as I have some free time, I plan to re-work the yoke, adding at least an extra inch of length to the base before I start the raglan decreases. And since the sweater is worked bottom-up, yes that will mean unraveling almost the entire yoke! But hey, it was a good reminder of an important rule to follow when knitting from patterns, which on this occasion I neglected: When selecting which size to knit, it is crucial to pay attention to all the relevant measurements, and not just the obvious ones such as bust and waist circumference.

Having gone through the Phoenix test knit process, I can see myself doing other test knits on occasion, time permitting, for designers with whom I have some personal connection. Once I modify the Phoenix, it will be a great pleasure to wear it, knowing it was Melissa’s first pattern and that I played a role in testing it. I look forward to making the yoke adjustment and wearing my Phoenix before the winter sets in.

I knit the Phoenix pullover using Kraemer Yarns Naturally Nazareth Worsted, in the Tadpole colourway.

You can see my project page for the test knit here.

And if you are interested in the Phoenix Pullover pattern, be sure to follow Melissa, check in with the Knitting the Stash ravelry group, and watch her fine videos for news of the pattern release.

What Did We Do Before Stitch Markers?

LBHandknits

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In a coffee shop the other day, with a sweater-in-progress sprawled across my lap, I noticed a woman at the table beside me glancing at my needles wistfully. When I caught her eye and smiled, she told me this devastating story:

She had brought her knitting that day as well, but was not be able to work on it. She had reached a crucial point in the pattern where stitch markers were required, and she’d forgotten to bring any. Surely I didn’t happen to have extras?

Sadly, I did not. But happily, I did have scrap yarn. And minutes later, I had fashioned for her a set of perfectly functional stitch markers, by knotting several short strands of yarn into rings.

Having done this for people several times now, the solution always seems to surprise the recipient. And their surprise, in turn, surprises me - as I wonder, what did knitters here do before commercially produced stitch markers (which surely must be a relatively recent thing?) were available.

I do not pose this question in criticism; I am genuinely curious. Because as far as I know, in much of continental Europe, tying scraps of yarn was the normally done thing for quite some time. Even as recently as 2010, when I last lived in Austria, I recall seeing knitters do this rather than use store-bought stitch markers. But then again I suppose 2010 is not all that ‘recent!’ Things change, and cultural memory can be short.

On the other hand, it is true that some knitting cultures seem to be more notions/gadgets oriented than others. Cable needles, colourwork rings, progress keepers, needle gauges, darning mushrooms, yarn winders… Strictly speaking, the job can be done without the use of these task-specific tools, yet in some knitting traditions they are perceived as essential and have existed for decades if not longer, whereas in others they have not been traditionally used at all (I was taught to darn socks over a glass jar, to wind yarn by hand, to knit cables and colourwork freehand, and to measure needle diameter using pinch-calipers).

So, for those of you who learned to knit BRE (before the Ravelry era), I am wondering - what did you do regarding notions which we consider essential today? Did they exist in your region/ knitting culture? If not, what was used instead?

And as far as stitch markers, admittedly I prefer to use pre-fab metal rings to the yarn-knot DIY method. But in a pinch, it is good to have alternatives - which in the past, have also included paper clips, safety pins, washers, even blades of dried grass!