Sunday, June 26, 2016

Weatherproof fabrics from woolen and worsted yarns

Woolen yarns have good fill, but low density.   Worsted yarns have higher density, but less fill.  Thus, knitting weatherproof fabrics from the different kinds of yarn present opposite challenges.

The woolen yarns must be knit so finely and firmly that the yarn fibers are compressed together. And, the worsted yarns must be knit so finely firmly that the yarns in the fabric lay smoothly along one another with no gaps where the needles were used to form the loops.  How can this be done?  With levers!

Knitting needles are levers used to move loops of yarn. With hand held needles, the leverage is about 1:3 and the effort comes from the small muscles of the hand. Using hand held needles to apply the force required to firmly compress the yarn so that it produces weatherproof fabric can be accomplished for a few stitches.  As I started this adventure, I certainly knit a great many 2" by 2" swatches that were weatherproof - but each swatch was a great effort. It was not a practical way to knit weatherproof objects.

At the end of knitting hundreds of swatches, I was absolutely convinced that weatherproof fabrics were possible, but that they could not be reasonably knit with hand held needles.  Thus, my adventure with long DPN leading to knitting sheaths.  By circa 2003, I was well aware of the limits of knitting with hand held needles.  At that point, I had worn out several sets of  high quality, size US1, circular needles. This included 2 sets of Addi Turbos. I knit samples, measured, logged the results, and did the math.

I tried long needles, and  that only resulted in holes in my wife's new leather couch.  I asked around  about knitting sheaths, and was told a lot of what turned out to be nonsense. I was told they were not really useful and that they were too hard to make - the old knitters knitting seaman's and cabman's clothing did not have the technology to make knitting sheaths.  I was told many things about knitting sheaths that were FALSE!  Knitters believed myths about knitting sheaths and made up things to support their belief in the myth that knitting sheaths were bad. This tsunami of  lies destroyed my confidence knitters knowledge of  knitting technology.

First, only Bronze Age technologies are necessary to make a very useful and helpful knitting sheath.  All that is needed, is a scrap of wood, a knife, a nail, and a candle. Second, knitting sheaths allow knitting much tighter with much less effort.  Third knitting sheaths transfer the effort from the small muscles and tendons of the hand and wrist to the large, powerful muscles of the shoulder and upper arm.  Knitting sheaths allow knitting fabrics that are much tighter than what can be produced with hand held needles.

With a knitting sheath and long needles, it is fast and easy to knit woolen yarns so finely that the yarn fiber are compressed together.  With a knitting sheath and long needles it is fast and easy to knit worsted yarns so tightly that the yarns lay smooth along-side each other.

If  weatherproof fabrics are knit using hand held needles, there will be a strong tendency to increase the tension of the yarn between stitches.  This leads to stiff and board like fabrics that are unpleasant. While the stitches must be formed around fine needles, the tension of the yarn should be just snug enough that the yarn wraps smoothly round the needles.  While I knit weatherproof fabrics with a knitting sheath, the yarn flows smoothly and easily though my right hand.  I make sure that yarn streams out of its cake freely and easily so there is not much tension in the yarn as it flows through my hand.  I do not knit "tightly", I use fine needles to knit finely. I have come to this by knitting many different yarns on many different needles.

By using finer needles, I can produce fabrics with better drape and than if I had knit the same yarn to the same spi/rpi using a larger needle with tighter yarn tension. Finer fabrics are not about knitting tighter, they are about knitting finer.  On the other hand, if  I swave (curved needle rotating in a knitting sheath) a firm fabric, one may be able to knit the same gauge with hand held needles of the same size by doing a few stitches at a time, and resting.  However,  it is not possible to knit the same fabric on needles that are 2 US sizes larger.  Swaving easily produces fabrics that are denser than can be routinely knit on hand held needles of the same size.  Swaving easily produces fabric faster than can be done with nal binding, which will also produce weatherproof fabrics.

Swaving and using long DPN with a knitting sheath produce similar amounts of leverage for the knitter, and hence can produce similar fabrics on the same sized needles with the same yarn.  However, swaving is more convenient for small objects such as gloves, mittens, and socks, and the long needles are more convenient for larger objects such as sweaters, dresses, pants, and shawls.  See for example Weldon's Practical Knitter.  Many of  those patterns are traditional, and  had long produced been produced using a knitting sheath.  See Mary Thomas's Knitting Book, Chapter on Knitting Implements, Ancient and Modern)  However, using hand held needles per Weldon's First series, those patterns were not practical.  Many of the patterns in Weldon's knit at the stated gauge, with the stated yarn and hand held needles would cause carpel tunnel syndrome.  Likewise we know from the finess of the knitting that most of the objects in photographs in Gladys Thompson were knit using long needles and a knitting sheath.  Mary Wright did knit an authentic replica of a Cornish gansey on circular needles, and then she had wrist surgery for CTS.  A while back 6 knitters had an authentic  gansey knit along.  Afterward,  5 of the knitters had wrist surgery, while the knitter using a knitting sheath knit another gansey, and matching hat, socks, mittens, and scarf.  That is all 6 of the knitters that I know that knit ganseys at a weatherproof gauge on circular needles needed wrist surgery afterward.  This is why most modern knitting is at a less than weatherproof gauge.

Just as in the Brexit vote where 52% of the population could not discriminate between good economic truths, and a false marketing slogan, I find that many (most??)  knitters disregard objective evidence in favor of old myths about knitting sheaths.  I worked on Limits to Growth (Meadows, 1972), so I have problems with economics that assumes growth, but much of economics is measuring, recording, and doing math. Economists get a lot of stuff correct.  To ignore the collective wisdom of economics on Brexit was foolish in the extreme.  The Brexit vote challenges economic's  assumption that people act to enhance their own economic self interest. Today, it is clear that sometimes people act on myth -- even when more rational actions would be more to their advantage.

If I needed to produce a weatherproof fabric from that 6-ply worsted spun yarn, I would drop down to  2 mm spring steel needles.  With 2 mm needles, I can easily and rapidly produce weatherproof fabrics from that yarn either by using long needles with a knitting sheath or swaving.  It is worth noting, that my  2 mm stainless steel needles are not stiff enough to produce a weatherproof  fabric from this yarn.


Stacey Barber said...


Have you considered running your theories on fabric/yarn construction by a textile engineer? It seems to me from your blog posts that your interests may be similar to an industrialization of textile production in a home environment and the scientific principles related to such, a textile engineer might have some valuable insight for you. If you do ever get into a meaningful dialogue with, for example, a university professor or some such expert, please report to us your findings, with citations, of course. I think that that would be very interesting to read.

Aaron said...

Done! She said, "Wow, I did not know that could be done by hand!"

Many commercial sports fabrics are knit from fine yarns. Many of the knit synthetics sold by Patagonia or Marmot are as warm as the things that I knit. However, if you are wearing one when you get caught in a fire, you will be toast with the melted synthetics as a flaming jam.