Sunday, November 07, 2010

The state of yarn

Knitters talk about how warm a lace shawl is -- that is silly.  Lace shawls are only "warm" in the context of a very mild environment, generally the result of central heat and heated transport.

Ladies that think lace shawls are "warm" have been the primary market for yarn mills for the last 100 years.  The yarn companies have adapted.  For the last 100 years, few people have worn hand knit work clothes, and the wool industry has adapted.  The ladies want softer yarns, so the yarn companies make softer yarns. Now, if you go to a ski resort, you do not see wool sweaters on the ski slopes, you see them in the (heated) restaurants and in the (heated) lodge in the evening sitting by the fire.  Nobody is asking for the more durable fibers, so the wool industry stops growing them, and the yarn industry has stopped spinning them into yarns for hand knitting.

The result is that there are likely 20 good yarn stores within 30 miles of my house, and not one of them carries a a single yarn containing any of the high luster, traditional British long wools. Even if I mail order "5-ply gansey yarn" from the UK, none of the 4 brands in my stash have any long wool in them.  However, if we look at the pictures in Gladys Thompson's Patterns for Guernseys, Jerseys and Arans, we see that high luster long wool was used for every object except the Aran patterns.  This tells us that yarns really have changed in the last 55 years since GT was first published.  What does this mean?

It means that if you buy a "5-ply gansey yarn", it will be spin from fine, short fiber.  It will not be nearly as durable as a yarn spun from long wool. The fibers are thiner and will not tolerate abrasion as well as the coarser long wool fibers.  The fibers are shorter and more likely to pull out of the yarn, and the yarn will fall apart if the object is worn for an extended period of time while wet.  To hold the shorter fibers in place the yarn has more twist and ply and thus is stiffer and requires more effort to knit into a weatherproof fabric.  On the other hand, the high twist yarn shows off cables even when knit loosely. These are yarns that have evolved to meet needs of personal adornment, rather than the practical needs of a waterman.  These are yarns of status rather than for warmth.

Seeking more durable yarns for outer wear, you are likely to find MacAusland's Woolen Works and Cottage Craft in the Atlantic Provinces of  Canada.  These are 2-ply and 3-ply yarns that are spun semi-woolen or semi-worsted. With their coarser fibers and woolen nature, these yarns do have a certain itch factor when worn next to the skin. With their thick plies, these yarns require great effort to knit tight enough to be weatherproof.  And, when knit tight enough to be really warm, these yarns produce a fabric that is stiff.  On the other hand, I have worn sweaters that were hand knit from these yarns to keep me warm and comfortable while pruning apple trees in fierce storms. With their coarse fiber, these yarns are relatively durable. And, over all, they are the most comfortable garments that I have ever worn skiing.

What were the virtues that caused the old knitters to use long wool 5-ply gansey yarn when knitting "ganseys"?  First there was cost, long wool was plentiful and less expensive.  There was durability; both the thickness of the fiber and the length of the fiber contributed to produce a very durable fabric that was tough enough to be workman's clothing in an industrial environment (ships).  The yarn was very supple which allowed it to be knit tight enough to be weatherproof and yet the fabric remain flexible and elastic, and thus very comfortable. The worsted spun structure resulted in a smooth surface, that while not soft, was pleasant to the touch.  Thus, it produced a relatively thin fabric that was light in weight, flexible, and very durable. This met the needs of a sailor working in the rigging above deck, or sleeping in his hammock, or indeed anyone working on the water.

There are a lot of farm stores selling yarns spun from long wools. Some are even an appropriate "sport' weight.  However, they are 2 and 3-ply, which do not have the durability or suppleness of 5-ply. Further more, the the fibers for these yarns "have been through the mill".  That is, they have been commercially processed to remove vegetable matter, and subjected to aggressive picking and carding.  This is much harder on fibers than hand combing.  Thus, the fibers in the yarns sold by "farm stores' tend to be shorter than the fibers in the fleeces sold by the same farm stores.  There are two reasons for this.  The fleeces with shorter fibers tend to be the ones sent to the mill for spinning into yarn, while fleeces with longer fibers are sold to hand spinners.  And, mills tend to break fibers.

Thus, at this instant, if you want to understand why people made such a fuss over British seaman's ganseys, you are going to have to hand spin your own yarn and knit it yourself.  In fact the whole British tradition of  knitting yarns consisting of long wool spun into fine singles and plied up into 3-ply fingerling, 4- ply, and 5-ply is well worth investigating for anyone that is interested in light weight, but very warm and supple clothing.  


Meg said...

I wonder too if the larger scales of the luster wools might not contribute to the ability of the yarns to shed water. Just a thought.

Aaron said...

This is a question that just kicked my ass this summer.

What I can say is that relatively fine fibers such as the current Wingham's gansey yarn can be knit to form a fabric that I can lay out on a table, pour half a bottle of water on to, talk for a while, carry the water to the sink in the gansey, and the table will still be dry. That is fairly weatherproof by any standard. It is a demo that draws shrieks and shouts from any group of experienced knitters.

Ben David said...

If fuzzy, short-staple handwool sweaters are just for show at the ski lodge - why not look at the weatherproof knits that ARE being worn on the slopes (or for other winter activities)?

While I understand the historical interest, it seems that yarns that incorporate modern synthetic fibers can approximate this performance profile.

Modern synthetic fibers can be as long and resilient as the manufacturer wants - which lets them be spun tightly or loosely. Modern finishing and texturing techniques improve their wicking performance.

Many of these yarns are spun very fine for the knitting machine - which produces a thin, yet weatherproof fabric. But this just means they can be plied up to your 5-ply ideal without getting bulky.

To reproduce the performance, suppleness, and long staple length of a gansey - consider setting aside accuracy (or snobbishness) and knitting a yarn with some Orlon or other modern fiber.

While the lower-quality blends use short-staple wool, there are some higher-quality yarns. Take a look at the blends sold as "affordable cashmere" - supplementing a long, high-quality wool with long, high-quality synthetic fibers to bring the cost down.

And look at machine-knitting yarns for long-fiber, non-fuzzy, tightly-spun yarns.

Aaron said...

We are coming up to peak oil. Peak oil is not just energy, is it cheap feedstock for making synthetic fibers. I want fibers that will be available after peak oil - that means natural fibers.

The IPCC AR4 understated Arctic Sea ice loss by 2 orders of magnitude. Arctic sea ice affects all climate calculations and thus all IPCC climate calcs are likely off by a similar factor including ice sheet decay. This becomes clear when I look at the physics that were left out of the IPCC AR4 ice sheet models. Thus, I expect sea level rise to be much faster the IPCC projects.

Petro-chemical and organic fiber production facilities are mostly near sea level. Any sea level rise will inhibit global production of synthetic fibers. I expect sea level rise to disrupt and raise the prices of synthetic fiber within 20 years, i.e., by 2030.

This blog is an effort to spread knowledge that will help people adapt to a world where synthetic fibers are very expensive.

I have used many of the synthetic fibers. The all have great virtues. Each also has vices. Likewise the different wools, each has virtues and vices.

However, because oil has been very cheap, the synthetic fibers have been cheap. This cheapness has tilted the commercial playing field in favor of the synthetic fibers. I try to remind people that wool does some things very well.

5-ply yarn is not my "ideal". It is an application of physics to produce a more supple yarn from coarse wools that are very durable. I saw the solution, but had to ask the question "What problem were they solving?" The problem was not obvious, because modern 5-ply yarns were no longer made from long wool. It turns out that fine plies are a good solution to a real problem. The synthetic fiber industry does it often.

A while back, I was wearing one of my ganseys when I was caught in a very bad fire. It burned the pills off of my gansey so that it looked new. If I had been wearing Orlon (acrylic), I would have been toast. That sweater not only kept me warm in a week of freezing rain, it kept me safe in a fire. We have forgotten just how good a fiber wool is.

Leigh said...

Aaron, I have also started researching the old sheep breeds and am a new(-ish) spinner up in Oregon. Thanks so much for posting about the Black Welsh Mountain wool on ravelry - I just got a couple pounds of it and am experimenting. Your blog is really interesting - I knew yarn (particularly commercial yarn) had changed over the years, but did not know how much that affected its usefulness and longevity. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

Leigh said...

Aaron, Thanks for sharing your knowledge and also for posting on Ravelry about the Black Welsh Mountain wool. I just got 2 lbs of it and would like to make a sturdy outerwear sweater from it. Someone recently told me not to try since it would be 'too itchy'. That just seemed wrong, especially since I want a work sweater, so hearing a different view on the longevity of the sturdier wools was really helpful. Any tips on spinning it? Have you done 5ply with the BWM? I have a thick two ply right now and holy smokes is it ever 'sturdy' - not very flexible. Spin thinner and with more plies? From your blog it sounds like that is the key.

Leigh said...

LOL I just figured out that my posts didn't disapper - you're moderating. DOH! Email me direct if you'd like -

Aaron said...

I do not have any BWM wool in the stash, and do not think that I have written about it.

I look forward to hearing what you think of BWM.

My guess is that if you spin it woolen and try to wear it near the skin, it will be itchy. On the other hand, spun worsted and used for outer wear, it will be spectacular.