Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Knitter's skills

How can I call myself a good knitter if I have not worked with a wide variety of  different yarns??

By wide variety of yarns I mean everything from Peace roving and Lopi to fine hoisery yarns suited for knitting blue stockings for a duchess or a gansey for a submariner. That calls for a trip to the local yarn shop.  

We know that 6-ply, 1680 ypp, spun from long wool makes a nice lustrous sock for everyday wear.  Do we see any in our LYS?   So, if we are going to be the kind of knitter than can knit "blue stockings" for suited for a duchess (and perhaps her queen), we are going to have to spin the yarn ourselves (or find a spinner that can spin such yarns.)  

One thing that I have learned from patknitter is that even modern knitters that consider themselves excellent and sophisticated knitters have no idea how different the fabrics from plied yarns and cabled yarns can be.  Cabled yarns have become rare in LYS and are rarely hand knit these days. 

An easy path to cabled 1,680 ypp yarns is to buy commercial 2-ply warp yarns, and cable them up. It is a very nice yarn, but it is not the classic yarn for "blue stockings".  No, for real blue stocking we need long wool, worsted-spun at high twist singles with a grist of 12,000 to 15,000 ypp (~28 m/g). Then, such singles are used to construct 6-ply yarn. Such fine, high twist, long wool singles are not routinely in your LYS. Even in commercial channels, fine singles from long wool have become rare.  Today, wool singles of such grist tend to be spun from fine (short) wool.

How many spinners do you know that can produce such singles, and ply them? (There is a certain knack to producing 6-ply from such singles.  Not even the Big Blue Book will get you there.) In the past,  it was common for wools like Shetland and Suffolk to be spun at their spin count (more than 30,000 ypp) so spinning them at 15,000 ypp was easy spinning. Not so much anymore, but a good knitter should know how yarns constructed of such singles behave. Thus, in learning by doing, we need to at least knit swatches of fabrics from such yarns.

Where do we get the yarn?  LYS?  Not likely, in the same way that you are not likely to find $100,000 jewels at your local Zales Jewelry store.  That does not mean that such jewels do not exist, just that such jewels are somewhere else.  Likewise, some yarns are not in your LYS, even as extended by mail order.  

In fact, the knitter with focus, may have to make some of their own yarns.

Some of these yarns may not be easily produced with commercially available hand spinning equipment.  Many spinners do produce singles at those grists in small quantities from fine fibers, but ask them to spin such yarns from long wool, and they will think you are crazy. A few spinners can produce such singles from long wool but ask them for enough yarn to knit a pair of fine hose, they will think you are crazy.  Truth is, it may be faster to spin it yourself -- even with the time required to learn the spinning skills and make the tools.   If you want the yarn, you have to make the tools to make the yarn.   Thus, making spinning tools becomes the path of the focused knitter.  In this context, good wood turning skills become part of the necessary skill set of the focused knitter.  These days, spinning your own yarn seems to be the only way to be able to knit a full spectrum of yarns.  And, unless one has knit a full spectrum of yarns, one cannot consider oneself an expert knitter.

This is silly. Wheel makers should be making such wheels, but they are not. Folks like AA did try selling such wheels at one time, but modern spinners did not know how to use them and returned them.  The old CPWs, earned their reputation as DRS wheels that could produce fine worsted singles, but they have all (or at least the ones I have seen) been fixed ( a change of millimeters)  so they will easily produce fat singles, which limits their capacity to produce thin singles.

I have a fast wheel, so if I want 6-ply, worsted spun, long wool yarn at 1,680 ypp, I can sit down and spin it. Even with a fast wheel it is slow work. The 800 yards of finished yarn for a pair of hose, takes me  about 20 hours.  Spinning this yarn for a sweater takes the better part of 2 weeks, which is nothing compared to the 10 or 12 weeks that it takes to knit a good sweater from this grist of yarn.

Certainly, a good knitter should have worked with the commercially available 6- strand cabled 840 ypp yarn and know how the produced fabrics differ from the fabrics produced by knitting 5-ply, 1,200 ypp gansey yarn. This is as basic as diagramming sentences is to an English major. The astute knitter, will have acquired and  knit real 10-ply Aran yarn, in the same way that the astute English major will have read Chaucer.  The old school  knitter, will have knit Paton's 4-ply Beehive (or comparable) and drawn conclusions in the same way that the old school English major will have explored Shakespeare from comedy to tragedy to sonet. 

Still, some knitters that brag that they are accomplished because they have knit 3 different brands of 5-ply yarn, all sport weight, and all of the same construction. That is like saying that you know wines, because you have tasted all the brands of white wines at the local 7-11.  There is a universe of wine, and there is a universe of yarn - and in many ways, the two universes are about the same size.  

Grapes vary by variety, region and year.  Wools vary by breed, region and year. Wine makers and spinners are both important to the final product, and they learn, mature, and retire.  Some vintners focus on quality, and others focus on uniformity.  Likewise for wool mills.  Many of us buy our wine on the mass market and we miss many of the fine and reasonably priced local wines that are not produced in quantities large enough to be of interest to national distributors.  Likewise, many specialty yarns are not going to make it into national distribution.  

How do I get the yarn that I want for my next sweater? I think about the likely uses of the sweater, until I have a definite fabric in mind. Can I get a yarn to make that fabric from one of the commercial mills?  This is different from the old days when a knitter might have half a dozen hand spinners within 10 minutes walk, any of which would be willing to spin a few hanks of a special/custom yarn.  The easy availability and diversity of fine yarns facilitated the age of great knitting.   Yes, our commercial yarns are more consistent, have more and brighter colors, and they have better packaging, but are they better yarns?  I am likely to end up spinning the yarn that I want.

The core skill of a knitter is to be able to knit the needed fabric, and in a great part, that is a matter of finding the right yarn and the right tools.

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