Friday, June 20, 2008

Good & Bad (But Not Necessarily Ugly)

So what important criteria do you consider when buying (or spinning) yarn? Is softness more important? Cost? Colour or multi-colours? Fibre content? Popularity with other knitters? Thickness: fine or heavy? Twist and ply: crisp, loose, single, fancy? I ask this question because I’ve seen some yarns lately that, although beautiful and soft, looked like they wouldn’t hold up worth a darn (hah! punny!) in a project that actually got worn and used. So what is the point of using a yarn that has absolutely no durability in a project that takes as long to make as something hand-knitted or crocheted? What a waste of time!

Durability is actually a combination of factors that all combine to help a yarn survive abrasion, snagging, washing and the like. The fibre content, length and thickness of individual fibres, preparation (parallel or more jumbled), thickness, amount of twist, number of plies etc. all are important. Of course some items see less of those than others: consider socks vs. a shawl. One is in your hot footwear being rubbed between your skin and the inside of your boots and the other is delicately slung around your shoulders. Socks need frequent laundering whereas a shawl may only get washed and re-blocked once a year, if that. A softly spun yarn made from short delicate fibres won’t hold up to hard wear in socks but may be just what you want in a shawl. Though I have discovered that lace shawls in particular are prone to snagging on things if you aren’t careful. Unless you keep your knitwear permanently in a mothproof storage bag in a dark closet, something is going to happen to it eventually! It’s inevitable.

However, creating your own garments or what-have-you means that you can choose carefully which yarn you will use, taking into consideration at least some of the nasty things they will be subjected to. That will at least reduce the chance of a short life for them, if not eliminating their eventual demise. For instance, I refuse to knit socks in pure merino wool. Pretty-squishy-yummy hand-dyed yarns of that type are available by the dozens but I won’t even consider anything without at least 25% nylon content or something similar to counteract the merino wool’s lack of durability. I don’t care if it means the yarn is not as soft as pure merino. My feet are more sensitive to bumpy stitches than to fibre content. (I knit tightly to compensate.) Add to that the criterion that sock yarn should be superwash too just to avoid accidentally creating socks for children out of adult ones after felting in the laundry. Commercial sock yarn with superwash wool and nylon either 70/30 or 75/25 lasts quite well both in wear and laundry. And it dyes really well too if I want the “handpaint” look. Why should I spend all my sock-knitting time on something that doesn’t hold up? Twenty years ago I used to knit socks from my handspun yarn but I don’t do that anymore just for that very reason. They were lovely socks but most of them wore out so quickly I couldn’t keep them repaired. I’m not especially hard on socks really but I walk a lot. And now that I knit them for other people too, I absolutely want them to last as well as they can. Or I’ll never be able to rest! Too many feet; not enough knitting. Yeah, I know I won’t stop anyway if only because I enjoy knitting them and my own sock drawer is full.

Another beef I have with yarns is the ones that are lovely in the skein but soon after knitting them up they pill like crazy. Berroco's Peruvia and the Malabrigo yarns are some of the ones I'd be particularly concerned about. (Though I hear Malabrigo is beginning to overcome the misfortune of the recent fire in their mill! Good on them.) These are all very softly spun singles. They don’t have the plying to help protect the fibres from being drawn out of the yarn. Those wisps ball up from abrasion which is what causes a pill. Some pills are pretty inevitable on any sweater but there is a limit to how much you (or the garment) can tolerate. You can pull them off or use one of those sweater stones or shavers, but eventually it either gets too bad to bother or too much fibre is removed and holes develop. Not good.

There are some really trendy yarns that I’m not tempted to buy. This is mostly because they remind me too much of handspun and for that I have the fibre, tools and ability to make my own. Noro in particular always surprises me with both it’s cost and popularity because it’s so crappy! Pretty colours and fibres but lousy quality. I certainly wouldn’t leave bits of sticks in my yarn when I’m spinning it anyhow, though some vm in a minimally processed fibre is inevitable. I also find some of their yarns harsh feeling but, since I’ve never used it, I suppose it’s possible that it softens enough after washing to be more acceptable. I guess I prefer to buy yarns that I can’t or won’t spin myself. I already have fibres and dyes in the stash.

While I’m on this rant, I’d like to reiterate my constant complaint about yardage in the ball. Most fingering/sock yarns and laceweights have considerable yardage because of their fineness. Recently I’ve noticed that most manufacturers have gone up to 100g balls, enough for a pair of medium-sized socks, from 50g, where you need two for anything more than small child size. But heavier yarns are dismally scrimpy in the ball, particularly bulky yarns. (Not that I use them hardly ever, rarely venturing much above sport weight.) If a pattern for a sweater calls for more than, say, 8 or 10 balls for a medium size, then the yarn should really be put up in larger skeins. I know the argument is that knitters just want to buy the exact amount for a sweater and not have leftovers but, come on — who wouldn’t rather have half a large skein left over than try to find eleventeen balls on the shelf with the same dyelot? Or another single ball months later when you run out on the collar or the last sleeve cuff? And who wants that many joins in a large sweater knit in the round when you can’t hide them in the side seams because there aren’t any? Perhaps I’m just used to the large skeins I get from my spinning wheel or the cones of yarn that I can buy for weaving. A mere 60 yards per ball the way some commercial yarns come just seems wrong. It wasn’t manufactured in short lengths — they had to cut it all up. Sacrilege!

Or is it just me and my skewed perspective?

So I’ve cast on a new pair of socks for Milord Son-in-Law even though I haven’t finished the A-Maizing ones yet. Naughty Damselfly. But I had to have something more mindless to work on at the guild meeting last night and on our little 4-day camping trip that we’re leaving on tomorrow. We’re meeting up with our kids at Lightning Lake in Manning Park. Unfortunately Nana decided not to come with us in the VW Westphalia after just having returned from a tour of the Maritimes. I think it’s the jetlag talking but they kept her pretty busy while she was away and, at 80 years and counting, she probably is pretty exhausted. She even met previously unknown-to-her relatives in Gander, Newfoundland! A trip of a lifetime for her. We’ll try to have fun dancing with the mosquitoes without her this time. Wish us well with the weather. You never know what can happen in the mountains.


Dotty said...

My first thought when selecting a yarn is appropriateness for the pattern - can I get the right gauge, does it need to block well, how will the garment be treated, etc. By then, I'll only have one or two yarns to choose from and then I select the colour. Price doesn't usually bother me because I can usually find the yarn at the price point that I need. I don't look for longevity in the yarn that I use. I don't expect to be wearing the same garment 5 years from now (changes in personal taste, style, body). Ditto for socks. I only use bulky yarns for hats/mittens/scarves so the low yardage doesn't bother me because I only need a few skeins at most.

magnusmog said...

I'm a newbie spinner so thanks for all of that useful information. Having just started knitting socks, it's good to hear you recommending the 25% nylon. It takes me ages to make a pair and I'd like them to last a while :)

Louisa said...

Dotty, you must knit much faster than I do! If it takes me nearly a year to finish an elaborate sweater, I want to wear it for a good long time to come. With expensive yarn or precious handspun I'll even frog anything I no longer wear and knit with it again. For me, durable yarn is important. YMMV as they say. ;)