Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Aran Knitting

Aran yarns were traditionally 10-ply, 500 ypp worsted spun. This was twice as heavy as modern sport weight, and ~ 70% heavier than worsted (e.g., 6-ply).  Aran was more what we would call weight 5,  "Chunky" or "Bulky", or even Super Bulky.  I know, I know, I have bins of  'Pure Wool Aran' from Yorkshire, that is only 772 ypp, but it is also, only 4-ply.  That is not a yarn that can be knit up into a functional seaman's sweater. I have knit it on finer needles, and never found a point where it became weatherproof.  Some of that 'Pure Wool Aran' does serve very well for baby clothes for a family living in San Francisco's Outer Sunset District.  It was knit by the children's grandmother, who was born, and raised in Siberia/ USSR.

Aran sweaters were used for fishing and whaling, even near the Arctic Sea ice.   Key advantages to producing a thick yarn from many  plies is that it can be knit tighter, without becoming stiff and board like. Thick yarns produced with only a few plies,  such as Peace Roving, Lopi, and  MacAusland, are easier to knit into weatherproof fabrics than yarns such as the modern commercial 5-ply, but weatherproof fabrics from yarns with few plies tend to be stiff and have poor hand and drape.  I put up with such fabrics for a long time, because I could knit them, and my LYS did not carry multi-ply yarns with a soft ply twist.  This is why I had to learn to spin, spin fine, spin fast, and produce better multi-ply yarns.   If you need a very warm fabric, then knitting it from a yarn with many plies produces better hand and drape, greater durability, and better warmth.

In contrast, modern, commercial  5-ply sport weight yarns tend to have so much  ply twist that they have poor fill, and tend to be difficult to knit into weatherproof fabrics.  Knitting weatherproof fabrics from high ply twist yarns such as Frangipani is a high effort endeavor. To the best of my knowledge, it requires a knitting sheath.   It is not always worth the effort.  In fact, for some applications, the stiff fabric can be protective.  Many of the fishermen wearing Arans would have been handlining 100 lb cod from the deck of the boat.  They braced against the rail and as the ship tossed, they would have been tossed against the rail, with great force. The net/ cable pattern typical on a Aran sweaters provided padding. (Do not even think of disagreeing unless you have handlined 100 lb fish on-board in rough weather.)   A stiff sweater can cushion a blow from a spar when sailing in foul weather, or arrest a slide (yard sale / garage sale) on an icy ski slope and thereby avoid a long climb back up the hill (while sore) to gather gear. It can also protect in rock climbing.

The best path for very warm knit fabrics leads to a yarn with many plies and soft ply twist.  I learned this from the old Lion Brand Fisherman's Wool, which was easier to knit into very warm fabrics than British Breeds,  Wingham's and etc..

The Lazy Kate set up for 10-ply Aran yarn.

The singles are 5,600 ypp semi worsted (dized off of a drum carder) of Anna Harvey's Rambouillet. Knit on 2.38 mm needles at 6 spi by 8 rpi, it has about the same density as the 14 ply, but is knit on 2.38 mm needles rather than the 3.2 mm needles for the 14-ply.  The difference between this and the 14-ply knitting in the last post is the thickness of the fabric.  The 14-ply in the last post is thicker and about 28% warmer. On the other hand, this fabric, is more than twice as warm as anything I have knit from commercial, ~1,000 ypp 5-ply (even LB FW).  Yes! you read that right! I knit 10-ply, 500 ypp on needles that my Susan Bates "Knit-Chek" assures me are US1. Yes, it is an extraordinary measure, but extraordinary measures are how one stays warm in extraordinary cold.

Aran Swatch from
handspun 10-ply
@ ~ 500 ypp  
 Swatch of 'Pure Wool Aran'
Commercial @ 772 ypp
both  swatches show 21 stitches on top needle, both knit on US1 needles.
'Pure Wool Aran'  has more stitches per inch, but is best
suited for baby clothes in SF
(Yarns with grists that differ by 272 ypp, knit up up differently, but 
patknitter thinks that yarns that differ by 280 ypp are comparable!)  

The top swatch is a fabric that is ~twice as warm as the fabric that kept me comfortable for 4 hours in minus 10F temps with 40 mph winds (wind chill =>  - 40F). That is kind of wind that makes a parka snap and pop.   For the test, the sweater knit from LB FW  5-ply was my primary upper body garment with mittens and hat from same material. Lower body garments were Patagonia guide pants and medium weight poly-pro base layer.  I also wore one pair of hand knit socks under my plastic boots.  Test conducted at ~10,000 ft altitude.  Just me, sitting on a spare pair of socks, watching life unfold in the valley below.

At less than 50 stitches per inch^2, such a 10-ply Aran sweater can be knit ~60 hours.  (For true polar conditions, the 14-ply knits up even faster.)  With another 30 hours (35 hours for 14-ply)  of spinning to make the yarn, total production time is less than the ~100 hours required to knit a (less warm) sweater from commercial 5-ply.  And the objects from 10-ply/14-ply yarns are much more durable and comfortable than objects of similar warmth knit from yarns with fewer plies (e.g., Peace, Lopi, MacAusland).

One of my goals when I started spinning a decade ago was to be able to produce real 10-ply Aran yarns at a resonable pace.  Along the way, I was told, many times by many different people, "It can't be done!".  Well it certainly can be done.  People who did not know, pretended to know, and told me things that simply are not true.  Likewise, people that have not investigated the virtues of knitting sheaths, pretend to know, and say things that are not true.  They are lucky that Bolgia 10 is warm, not cold.

I have singles on hand (both semi worsted and true worsted) so, with a few hours of  plying, I would be ready to knit polar gear.  Then, the knitting can be done in cars, airports, train stations and quays.  I already have Arctic caliber socks, mittens, hats, and etc. And, I already have sweaters that have been tested at wind chills colder than minus 40.  I could gear up, and be ready to go full Arctic with hand knit clothing, PDQ.  I am not bound to California.

The real trick to staying warm is to make sure your mittens do not blow away if you drop them.  That is how my dad froze his hands on the East Wall at Arapahoe.  As he finished strapping an injured and cold skier into the sled, hand he had to grab it and hold it with his bare hands, even as his mitten blew away.   In the few minutes before we could get off the steeps, and dad could put on a pair of mittens from my pack, he had frostbite on both hands. As a member of the National Ski Patrol, dad skied it all, and I skied with him, from Dawn Patrol to Last Sweep, regardless of the weather.  I grew up in the high country of Colorado and Wyoming.   We did all of the 14,000 foot peaks.  All things considered, it was a good place to learn how to play outside and stay warm and safe.  Later, I did forestry research in the Adirondacks, and spent weeks every year outside in the snow in a climate very similar to that of Wisconsin (with more  snow.)  Along the way, I climbed all the Adirondack High Peaks -  most of them solo.  I have been to the Annapurna Sanctuary.   I have walked from Paradise to Muir Camp  (2,000 feet above snow line)  in flip-flops. Most of my ski trips in California included a night or two of snow camping.  And, I have skied over several of the California passes in the winter, when they were closed because of snow.    All in all, my tendency to play outside in all weather, gave me practical experience in how to stay warm.  I test and compare, and choose what works, not what people say works. Today, the knit objects that I make are much, much warmer than any of the knit objects that we had when we skied the high country and backcountry of Colorado,  Wyoming,  Adirondacks, and Idaho.

It is like spinning - I do what works, and the result is hand spinning that many say is impossible.
 (Who else handspins '500 ypp, 10-ply' in practical quantities?  )   In knitting, I do what works and the result is that I do things that many do not accept as possible.  Their lack of understanding is not my problem.   They should have chosen better teachers.

Aran Yarn
The Classic Yarn for Warmest Woolens

Just over a pound of 
hand spun and plied,
 semi-worsted spun, 500 ypp, 10 ply 
(there are ~ 5,600 yd of singles in the 3-cakes/ ply twist takes up ~10%)
Fiber from Anna Harvey's Rambouillet 

(If I was planning a season of fishing on the Finnish Sea, I would spin it worsted!)

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