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Chunky Yarn: the Knitterly Comfort Food?

LBHandknits

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Unlike more traditional yarn weights that endure stylistically, chunky yarn is one of those things, that tends to go in and out of trend in manic wavelets. A few years ago it seemed like everyone was knitting enormous sweaters and cowls with strands thick and fluffy. These days, the stuff has become rather scarcer - so much so, that it was actually a challenge to offer a decent list of easily available yarn substitutes for the Facing North collection.

Regardless of which way the trend has gone, I have always liked chunky yarn. Perhaps it’s because it allows me to try out ideas without too much commitment of time or labour. Or because it can make a winter wardrobe materialise, as if out of thin air, in a matter of weeks.

When I first got back into knitting sweaters after a lengthy break, it was chunky yarn I instinctively reached for, as if for a knitterly version of comfort food. I then proceeded to knit an army of sweaters out of Drops Eskimo. Most of them have since been gifted, traded, or sold, but the memory of that exhilarating sensation of fluffiness and speed, like a ‘welcome back to knitting’ embrace, remains with me.

In short, chunky yarn: As one knitting friend put it: ‘I always want to buy it, but never know what to knit with it.’ She meant in part that the choice of patterns for chunky yarns leaves something to be desired. But also that things knitted out of it - be they accessories or garments - can be somewhat tricky to wear. In part, Facing North was inspired by this sentiment, in that I wanted to offer a spectrum of everyday chunky-weight garments, from very basic pieces to more intricate and embellished ones, all tied together by a sense of casual wearability. But in making this collection, I also took the opportunity to really think about the experience of working with chunky yarns, and then wearing the finished objects. As with everything else, there are pluses and minuses. And here are my notes on both so far…

What I enjoy about chunky yarn:

. At the risk of re-stating the obvious, it knits up fast. Incredibly fast! As in: a basic raglan sweater in stockinette would take me a couple of evenings from start to finish. And beyond the designer and knitter benefits already mentioned earlier, there is simply a certain magic to being able to create something so quickly.

. I can knit with chunky yarn without looking at my work, much more so than with finer yarns. The larger stitches and needles are far easier for my fingers to parse. When working with chunky yarns, I can read books or articles and completely get absorbed in the text, all the while knitting without making mistakes. In that same vein, I can watch subtitled films while knitting, which does not really work for me with finer yarns.

. Practical considerations aside, there is something I just love about the feel of it. From the silky-smooth roving of Apple Oak Fibre Works, to the crisper Shetland of Jamieson & Smith, the sensation of the puffy strands gliding through my fingers, and the look of the knitted-up stitches, appeal to something in my brain.

. When wearing the finished garment, the cozy factor is high. My favourite chunky pieces are oversized and I like to wear them indoors, with the heating off, and with a hot cup of coffee in my hands. Something about the combination of these factors… just magical, and cannot be achieved with a finer yarn garment.

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What I find problematic about chunky yarns:

. They are inherently less economical than finer yarns - in the sense that you need more yarn to knit the same type of item. Whereas a fingering-weight sweater in my size would usually require three 100g skeins, a chunky-weight sweater would call for double that, which often translates to double the price.

. For the very same reason, garments knitted in chunky yarn will be heavier and will take up more space. Six 100g skeins means a 600g sweater - making it a less portable, packable, and weather-versatile article of clothing than its finer-weight brethern. It also makes the garment trickier to wear under a fitted overcoat.

. Finally, and this is rather more difficult to articulate, but I find chunky weight sweaters sub-optimal for active outdoor wear …and this is not because they are too warm, but rather the opposite! The larger stitches seem to be less prone to fusing together, and thus tend to let the wind through too easily when worn as an outer garment. To avoid this I suppose I could try knitting a chunky sweater below gauge; however I do not fancy making an even heavier garment!

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Looking over my notes, I suppose that for me the benefits and drawbacks are fairly well-balanced. I love chunky yarn, while recognising its limitations. And I appreciate the irony of mostly wearing my chunky - i.e. heaviest-weight - sweaters indoors!

As far as the availability of patterns… I actually think there are many wonderful ones out there. As with all garments, selecting the right amount of ease is important - but perhaps even more so with chunky yarns, as is being able to adjust the pattern to suit one’s proportions and personal style. But in any case, I hope Facing North offers another useful option this winter. The response to the book so far has been excellent, and I look forward to seeing how others interpret my ideas - as well as (I admit, rather selfishy!) which yarns they choose, in case there are any wonderful ones I do not yet know about! In particular, I am interested in ‘rustic’ (as in small production, minimally processed, breed-specific, etc.) options, and would welcome any suggestions.

As always, thank you for reading. And if you care to share your thoughts on knitting with chunky yarns, or wearing chunky-weight pieces, that would be most welcome.