Yarn Behavior

This is a sample from The Knitting School Newsletter that went out this morning. For complete content sign up for news in the side-bar.

All rights reserved. Copyright Helen Sharp 2017


Yarn. This is usually the catalyst for a knitting project. You find a yarn that just makes you want to get on the machine and start knitting. It is like paint to the artist, like plants to the gardener. But just as an artist has choices – oils, acrylics, water-color, conte, depending on the mood they want to create, the feeling they want to evoke, you have some things to consider too.

Not just color, not just cashmere-or-cotton. Yarn brings so much more to the table. Loft, weight, drape, sheen, halo, softness – these are all qualities that yarn can offer. What about function? Breathability, stretch, warmth?

As important as all of these qualities is behavior. Does the yarn behave in the way you want it to, in the fabric you want to use?

merino cableslub cable

cashmere finishedwool cable

Here is the same cable in four different yarns: merino, lambswool slub, cashmere and 100% wool.  Look how the cable changes with the yarn choice, from crisp to soft to fuzzy.

You might be surprised by the notion that yarn can have such an impact on the finished garment. Better to be surprised now than after you have made it. Ask me how I know!

I designed a garment for a hand-knitting publication a few years ago. They sent me a yarn of their choosing for the project, one I had not worked with before. I made tension swatches and did the math and knit the garment. As I was knitting, I began to get a sense of unease about the yarn. It was super stretchy and quite heavy. When the garment was finished I put it on the mannequin and it immediately grew by 8-10″. I was horrified. I sent an image to the publication asking what to do, we were up against a tight deadline – no time to reknit. They said they would deal with it at their end. When the magazine came out, I was slightly mortified to see the garment on the model, with the sleeves rolled up about three times and the bottom of the sweater cut out of the image (it must have been down to her knees!).

For two decades I ran a design service supplying the garment industry with sweater designs. I tended to work with the same yarns over and over precisely because I knew how they behaved.

I used a 2/28 Italian Merino that I could use single-end on 12gg and add more ends, all the way up to 12 ends on the bulky machine. It was smooth and clean looking with excellent recovery, meaning that it held it’s shape beautifully in both single bed and rib structures.

merino ends

merino using 1 end (12gg), 3 ends, 6 ends (6gg) and 12 ends (3gg)

Another favorite was a merino lambswool from Scotland. Unlike the Italian merino, the lambswool required wet-finishing (washing after knitting to remove the waxes and oils that are processed into the yarn for machine knitting). The wet finishing brought out the best in the yarn, plumping it up, softening it and brightening the colors. I loved both of these yarns because they had awesome color palettes and were offered as a stock service (meaning that all colors were kept in stock so there was no waiting and minimums).

I also loved how they behaved and since my job was to generate idea after idea, never repeating the same design twice, familiarity with the yarn eliminated the surprise element and allowed me to just focus on my fabric development.

cashmere 3

Here is 100% cashmere right off the machine, steamed and wet-finished  (L>R)

Of course I was always seduced by the novelty yarns and every season would check out what the spinners had to offer. I fell in love with many new yarns over the years, linen/cotton from Italy, cashmere from Scotland, a gorgeous (and expensive) baby mohair/lycra blend that came in the most seductive color palette.

This yarn in particular held a few surprises. Texture tended to get lost in the fuzziness, but stripes and fair-isles took on a hazy quality that looked very fresh. Getting the tension right was a challenge because of the lycra, and steaming was fun because the first shot of steam caused the fabric to shrink to half size.

fair isle 1fairisle2

fair-isle knit in four different yarns. L>R 100% cotton, lambswool, tweedy wool-blend from Italy, that fuzzy mohair/lycra I was talking about

The main point I want to make here is to encourage you to take some time to get to know your yarn. Knit it up in a few different structures to see how it performs. Make some bigger tension swatches to get an idea of drape, heaviness and stretchiness. It may require buying extra yarn, but will save money in the long run by reducing disappointment and failure (well, we can’t completely eliminate these things – knitting has a mind of it’s own after all!)

And by the way, knitting the little cables swatches for this newsletter reminded me how hard cashmere is to work with – so weak and brittle. It took several attempts to get a good-looking swatch because the cables kept bursting. The merino, on the other hand, was a dream to work with. 3-over-3 cable? No problem!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *