Sunday, April 29, 2018

Knitting is hard work, use good yarn to make the product worthwhile

Somebody said “Shetland wool”, and the first thing I thought of was jumper yarn as in: (  This turns out to be about the grist of yarn called for in Gladys Thompson’s patterns for Sheringham & Norfolk ganseys.  She lists Paton’s 4-ply Beehive fingering in the pattern, but the grist is about the same as the above.  The 4-ply Beehive is a little rounder, firmer yarn than the 2-ply jumper yarn, so the 2-ply Jumper has more fill and is warmer than the (no longer available) Beehive (unless the 4-ply is more tightly knit).  The 4-ply allows the pattern to pop and is usually cooler to wear. (These days, the only way have a yarn like the old Beehive is to spin it yourself or have it custom spun.)

Either way. I knit such yarns for such fabrics on ~1.65 mm, long needles. I use pointed needles for patterns full of cables (or lace) and blunt needles for plainer knitting.  Gauge is ~ 12 spi by ~20 rpi.  The pointy needles are 14” long, work well with either a knitting belt or a knitting sheath, the blunt needles are 18” long and long want a knitting sheath.  However, this is not really about needles or knitting sheaths, this is about yarn.

This is not an “I am so smart rant”!  It is a “knitting is hard work, and therefore it deserves good yarn rant”. I repeat, this is a “knitting is more work than spinning, so knitting deserves good yarn!" rant.  
Spinning yarn for a fine jumper (sweater) takes about 20 hours for jumper weight or 40 hours for a 4-ply like Beehive at ~ 2,500 ypp (same weight yarn, but the 2 yarns have different virtues.  Knitting is the issue; a slow knitter like myself takes 250 to 300 hours to knit such an object. I am well aware that a good commercial knitter can knit that many stitches in a week. However, the objects knit by the commercial knitter will not be as warm or as durable as what I knit. I do not even bother with any stitch pattern with the 2-ply jumper yarn – the patterns are hardly visible and do not have much effect on performance/wear ability.  With a tight, worsted spun 4-ply, and high ply twist (very durable) something like a “plough and furrow” pattern adds to the stretch of the fabric, thereby making the garment more comfortable and more durable. And, with that firm, round (4-ply) yarn, the stitches in the pattern really pop, making the pattern clearly visible. Also, for weaving, I usually have kilos of handspun 5,600 and 11,200 ypp singles, so if I get inspired, I can ply-up handspun yarn for such a jumper very quickly.  But, those are weaving singles, and they have a lot more twist than most singles used for knitting yarns – even sock yarns.  Those high twist singles need more ply twist than softer spun singles and do result in harsher knit fabrics. On the other hand, fabrics from high twist yarns last much longer. Twist holds yarns together, and (within reason) more twist means more durable.  Most modern commercial yarns for recreational knitters are spun and plied very softly – this results in a very soft fabric, but also a fragile fabric. If I am going to put in the time and effort to knit a fine object, I want it to last.

In fact, I am likely to knit something myself, precisely because I want the object to last – e.g., I only want to carry one pair of socks, and I want them to endure the entire hike, or I only want to take one sweater, and I want it to endure a voyage across the Pacific.  (Iron men in wooden boats need firm fabrics to buff off the rust and all that.)

My point is that there is much more to yarn than some scale from 0 (lace) to 6 (bulky). 
We were talking about Shetland Jumper yarn, and I love Shetland wool.  I think it is a great compromise. It is fine enough to be very warm for its weight, it takes dye well, it has significant luster, spun woolen it is soft, and spun worsted it has a nice silky feel. On the other hand, Merino and Rambouillet can be softer and warmer for the weight. Rommey and Cotswold can have more luster, a more silken feel to the worsted threads, and take dye better, and be more durable.  Shetland wool was used for Hillary’s ascent of Everest because it was an excellent compromise between warmth and durability.  These are properties you may not need, but they are worth knowing about as you select a yarn, because knitting is a lot of work, and you should select the correct yarn spun from the correct fiber. These days climbers on Everest do not use wool except for frame knit Merino sock liners and Merino long underwear.  When we were there, they used local, loosely spun and loosely knit socks, which were very harsh, (and not very warm).

However, what fiber would I choose for a “jumper” to wear sailing on – San Francisco Bay?  I chose Romney. It is strong, very lustrous, easy to spin worsted, and easy to knit into a weatherproof garment that will withstand heavy use for years and still look good. Certainly, Shetland would work, but Romney is a better compromise for the use.  What fiber did I choose for a fisherman’s sweater for my wife? Rambouillet – it is soft, and my wife is very gentile to her clothes, and she does not go out on boats much. 

Wool fibers have 2 ends; the butt and the tip. In the old days, worsted spinners, were careful to feed wool fibers into the spinning draft butt-end first. This gave worsted thread a very smooth surface, very uniform diameter, and exceptional luster. With mechanical wool processing starting circa 1850, endwise orientation became random. It was still called "worsted" but it was a different kind of thread.  It had much less luster, and it lost a good bit of its silken feel. This was most important for the weaving of very fine twills, that can be tailored into garments that make royalty seem radiant.  A long time ago, I did some experiments on orientation of fibers in worsted spun threads and decided that worsted threads with random end orientation was actually stronger under wet conditions. I talked this over with some spinners that I trusted, and since then threads that I expect to get wet are spun like commercial worsted yarns with random fiber end orientation. If I am thinking about something like lace that really needs maximum luster, I do make sure that all the yarns are spun butt-end first. 

In the evening, my wife and I often watch the news and a DVD. I often knit as we watch.  If I do the tricky parts in the morning’s light, I can have a fine (12 spi by 20 rpi) sweater in 3 months of watching TV, and my only cost is a half a kilo of fiber and some time spinning. (I can spin 5,600 ypp singles in front of the TV, but not 11,200  ypp.) Sure, I can (and do) buy frame knit Merino sweaters for $50 from Costco, but my hand spun/ hand knit sweater will last 20 times as long, and the sweaters I knit, do not mind being washed in water. (An advantage in a time of global warming when one expects snow and gets mud.) While the commercial Merino jumpers are softer, my worsted spun fabrics have a smoother, more silken feel, and the worsted spun yarns are more lustrous. In 4-ply, with a pattern, they are even rather dressy. Also, the knitting helps me remember what Rachel Maddow said. Knitting is like taking notes or doodling.

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