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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!