Educate me on yarn please
March 10, 2014 12:32 PM   Subscribe

How the hell do people knit with/wear wool without wanting to scream from the scratchy awfulness? How can I tell from squeezing a ball of yarn whether or not it will be a good yarn to knit with in terms of comfort and longevity, etc.

So I have taken up knitting, enjoying it rather a lot, learned to knit continental style which is hella faster than the way I had been knitting, and I am finishing my first pair of socks with moderate success. Looking to knit some larger, more complicated items, and in most of the patterns I see there are so many recommendations for using wool and why it is the best. Well, when I am looking at yarn I always touch/squeeze/fondle the ball of yarn and the wool one always feel awful and scratchy and itchy. Does the wool magically transform after it is knit to not be sandpapery itch makers? And if not wool, then what? Acrylic wool is sort of sad and squeaky and just seems lame and cheap. Aren't natural fibers supposed to be best? Cotton yarn is what I have been using for my socks and it is soft and nice but I have the sense there is some reason why I shouldn't continue to use just cotton yarn.

And yes, I know I need to choose yarns with a similar guage or something to the wool suggested in the pattern, yadda yadda... Apparently I'm supposed to knit a test swatch or something and then measure it to check the size and adapt it as needed...? Doing THAT correctly is a whole other issue.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (25 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Some people are just more sensitive to wool than others. If you don't like the way it feels just touching the ball, you aren't going to like knitting with it or wearing anything you make with it. It's not a character flaw! It just doesn't agree with your skin. Me, it doesn't bother at all. You might consider other natural fibers like alpaca (softest yarn ever!) or bamboo. And if cotton is what you like, there is nothing wrong with that.

PS, I hate acrylic too. Cheap and squeaky are great descriptors.
posted by cecic at 12:39 PM on March 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

I wear a long-sleeved t-shirt under wool sweaters.
posted by desjardins at 12:40 PM on March 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Some people are allergic to wool. You may be one of those people. You may also just not have found nice enough wool. Where are you finding your fiber, and have you felt many different types of nice (say, over $10/skein) wool and still found it scratchy and gross? If yes, you may just be allergic.

In general, yarn with multiple plies will hold up longer than single-ply yarn.

Cotton is fine, but it doesn't have much give and it can hurt your hands to work with after a while. It also doesn't block well for items like lace. However, there are a ton of other natural fibers out there -- silk, linen, alpaca, cashmere, llama, angora, mohair, and more.

Knitpicks has some natural and (comparatively) affordable options in linen, silk, and cotton -- watch for other fiber content, but any of those might work better for you than wool.

The test swatch is a very good idea and will save you a lifetime of ill-fitting knitted goods.
posted by pie ninja at 12:45 PM on March 10, 2014

I'm with you on the wool thing - I don't know how anyone can wear the stuff! some people are just more sensitive to it. A kind friend knitted me a gorgeous scarf that I was never able to wear for more than a minute before my skin started crawling, though it felt fine to her. I would avoid any yarn that you don't like the feel of.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 12:45 PM on March 10, 2014

I'm allergic to wool so I basically only use it for other people or if it's a small percentage with a high blend of other stuff. That's my suggestion for you - blends with low wool content or alpaca instead (LOVE LOVE LOVE).

I *think* the main reason that people don't necessarily recommend all cotton for socks is that it doesn't always wear well. Again, a blend with some nylon in it (or wool, I know I can do wool socks but never a sweater or something) will be a good option.

I totally know what you mean about squeaky yarn! It's the worst. There are, however, some nylon yarns (or other materials) that manage to avoid that. I just feel everything and judge how much I'd like it touching my neck or my wrists.

As for swatching - take the count they want and cast on a few times that many stitches. IE 4 per inch, maybe 20 or so? Then knit stockinette until you have about 2 or 3 inches. You want to be able to measure stitches that aren't too near the cast on or the needles. Then line up your ruler with the start of a knit V and see how many you have in an inch (or whatever measure they give you). Too many? Bigger needles. Too few? Smaller.

Hope that helps!
posted by brilliantine at 12:46 PM on March 10, 2014

If it's a garment -- wear with something underneath. You're not meant to wear heavy wool sweaters next to your skin. It's outerwear.

If it's an accessory (hat, scarf, mittens, etc), I tend to choose my fiber based on how close the item will be to my face and what properties the fabric needs to have. For instance I hate the feeling of alpaca's long hairy fibers close to my mouth and nose, so I'd never make a scarf or cowl out of alpaca. Cashmere will pill like crazy, so don't knit cashmere mittens. If it's a hat and it's going to be touching my forehead and ears, I tend to err on the side of a softer fiber even if that means it might pill faster. How much friction is a hat really subject to, anyway? They also typically take less yarn, so they're good for a splurge fiber.

For garden variety knitting that doesn't need special attention paid to it I tend to pick merino wool over lambswool. In my experience, it's a lot softer and less itchy than the alternative.

A wool/acrylic blend is also good -- there are some very soft acrylics out there, and IMO you really get what you pay for. That pound of Red Heart for $2 looks attractive in the store, but when you get it on the needles or try to wear the resulting item, you'll wish you'd spent the extra $3 for a higher grade acrylic or a blend. In my experience acrylic is a good option for gifts, when you're not sure the person will properly care for the item.

Baby yarn might be worth looking at, too, though it isn't usually attractive unless you really love knitting pastels. If a yarn company came out with a baby yarn in a wide range of colorways, I would be all over that.
posted by Sara C. at 12:50 PM on March 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

Where are you buying your yarn? There's rough scratchy wool and there's lovely squishy soft wool, and you'll find the nicer stuff at specialty yarn shops rather than big-box craft stores.

Of course, there's always a possibility you could have a wool sensitivity or allergy, in which case even the softer wools might feel itchy and nasty to you. You may want to check out No Sheep For You, which discusses non-wool fibers at length and will help you figure out good alternatives.

The reason cotton yarn is not often recommended is that it's heavy and tends to stretch out too much. Ever had a pair of jeans that fit perfectly right out of the wash but look pathetically saggy by the end of the day? Cotton does that. Wool tends to spring back, and won't stretch out under its own weight. I personally love the feel of cotton knits, but they can be tricky.

Malabrigo is the wool yarn I recommend to just about everyone: it's super soft, comes in beautiful colors, and is widely available. I like their Twist yarn and their sock yarn; their single ply yarns tend to get really fuzzy with wear. If you don't find Malabrigo soft, you may just be sensitive to wool.
posted by Metroid Baby at 12:50 PM on March 10, 2014 [5 favorites]

What yarns are you using? If you want to try again with wool, here are some things to think about:

- Wool's "softness" is mostly a function of fiber staple length, crimp, and diameter, characteristics specific to breed. The shorter, more finely crimped, and thinner each individual fiber in a fleece, the softer the wool will feel. Merino is generally the softest, finest widely-available wool; you'll see it listed in the fiber content (it's enough of a perceived benefit that it will often be a part of the yarn's name, too).

- Yarn construction can also have an effect on the softness. In general, a tighter spin means a harsher feel; a softer spin means a softer feel. However, twist also contributes strength, so it's a balancing act between softness and ability to wear well. Singles yarns that look like one puffy strand will feel very, very soft, but they'll pill/fall apart quickly. Singles yarns with more twist in them feel dense and compact.

- One way to get around the twist softness/strength issue is by putting more plies into a yarn, or making up a larger yarn out of many smaller, thinner yarns, which can take more twist without feeling rough. In general, the more plies a yarn has, the smaller the twist bumps and the softer it will feel. A four-ply is softer than a two-ply, and so on. Cabled yarns with many plies - if you tease apart an end, you'll find 16, 24, 32 tiny threads - will feel very polished and soft against the skin.

- Sometimes superwash-treated wools are easier to wear for the wool-sensitive. The process that makes wool machine washable strips the tiny scales off the hairs, which can make it less irritating.

All that said, you don't have to knit with wool if you don't want to. Wool is usually prized for its elasticity and breathability, which is why people like it for socks. You can totally make socks with plant-based yarns if that's what you like, but I'd suggest looking for yarns that have some spandex or lycra content for bounce.
posted by peachfuzz at 12:51 PM on March 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

I might guess that you're buying chain-craft-store yarn. Treat yourself to a trip to a local indy yarn shop, pet lots, and pick out a skein or two of wool. Knit up something simple then wash it. It'll be like a whole new world has opened up to you.

If the heavens don't part and cherubs flutter around your new wool item? Eh, keep going with the cotton. Wool doesn't hold onto odors or moisture the way cotton does and it's warmer than cotton, so there are some reasons to go for wool in socks. But it's personal preference past that.

And as for people being allergic to wool, what you're allergic to is the lanolin oil. In superwash wool that is totally removed. Scratchy sensitive skin is another thing altogether.
posted by fontophilic at 12:55 PM on March 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

I have wool items purchased from the UK, a blanket, sweater, and half cape, and none of them are one bit scratchy. Someone told me the wool there is treated differently than here (US) and seems to me they said *less* lanolin is washed out, leaving it softer.

But I distinctly remember wool sweaters of my youth being scratchy so the UK wool items were a revelation to me.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 1:00 PM on March 10, 2014

Assuming you're not allergic, wool can be totally awesome and comfortable to wear, and it's not always obvious from what the skein of yarn feels like to start with.

Wool that has finer fibers will feel really soft to the touch, but that usually goes along with shorter fibers, and that kind of yarn may not last all that well in a finished project (the shorter the fiber, the more likely it will pill. A lot.) Coarser yarn will probably hold up better, but is going to feel scratchier. So you've got to pick a good balance for your project based on what you'll be doing with it. Sock yarn usually has some nylon spun in with the wool to improve its strength, since that's probably the heaviest-duty thing you're ever going to make by hand with yarn.

Washing your wool (especially with a good no-rinse wool wash) and wearing your work will make it softer over time. And also make it pill. Most big box stores only stock the really heavy-duty kind of wool, which can soften up pretty well, but it'll take a while and you may not want to use them for things that'll be on your neck, for example. If you want to touch some soft wool yarn, I second the suggestion that you touch some Malabrigo at a local yarn shop. Their single-ply yarns are beautiful and ridiculously soft, but pill horribly, so best used on something that doesn't need a whole lot of handling to wear.

Cotton's not awful for socks, but just like ones you buy in the store they stretch out with use and don't keep your feet as comfortable as wool socks (at least, in my experience.) Wool socks are pretty awesome, and there's something special about having socks that you've made to fit your feet exactly. I love wool sweaters, but always wear a shirt underneath not so much for the scratch factor but also because it's a pain to wash them and having a clean shirt underneath allows me to go longer in between sweater wash days.

Every kind of fiber has its own properties; here's a list of kinds of fiber that might be helpful. Some are stretchier, some are sturdier, some are warmer, some are heavier, some are fluffy, some are drapey, some hold dye well, some felt well or won't felt at all, and every property has its use somewhere.
posted by asperity at 1:01 PM on March 10, 2014

Sensitivity to wool is a really personal issue, but within the generaly category of "wool" there's a huge amount of variation between the really scratchy ones and the soft buttery ones. Go to a specialty yarn shop and feel up some merino wool, or merino blended with bamboo or cashmere. If you still find this scratchy, you may not be able to wear wool at all, or you may only be able to wear it on less sensitive parts of your body (I can generally wear most wools, but if it's against my neck it has to be a very, very soft wool.)

There are two books you may find useful!

The Knitters' Book of Yarn

The Knitters Book of Wool

They have really good explanations of the properties of different kinds of fibers, and what fibers are good for what different projects.

Personally, I like cotton for certain projects but not others -- it doesn't have as much stretch as wool so it's a bit harder on the hands when you knit, and it's also not as warm as animal fibers are (which makes it nice for summer wear but not so much for winter wear.)

There are some acrylics that are actually pretty nice, like the higher-end Lion Brand acrylics, and the Knit Picks acrylics/ blends. And besides acrylics, you can look at silk and rayon, and other animal fibers that aren't wool -- alpaca is nice and soft. I find mohair more scratchy than wool, but your mileage may vary.
posted by Jeanne at 1:02 PM on March 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh, and if you're looking for a good cotton-based yarn for socks, I really love Crystal Palace's Panda Cotton. Zero wool, doesn't stretch out, and the Panda Cotton socks I've made have outlasted several wool pairs.
posted by Metroid Baby at 1:02 PM on March 10, 2014

There are all different kinds of wool and it will have different feels depending on the breed of sheep, the way it's spun, etc. Here's a good overview.

Personally, I can wear highland wool (not particularly expensive) and have no problems. Other people may be more sensitive.

Alpaca is a nice fibre that rarely seems to make people feel itchy and has a lot of the nice drape and sturdiness of sheep's wool.

One of the reasons I don't like knitting with cotton or acrylic so much is that you can't spit splice it or join it as easily.
posted by Kurichina at 1:06 PM on March 10, 2014

Definitely go to a nice yarn shop and touch lots of yarns! The regular/superwash difference is worth noting: Cascade 220 and Cascade 220 Superwash feel quite different. (Cascade 220 Superwash is a nice yarn that doesn't cost too much, might be good to try out to see if you can knit with wool.)

(Oh, and here's a nice, if overly particular, article about making gauge swatches.)
posted by epersonae at 1:10 PM on March 10, 2014

Nthing possible wool allergy which has perhaps not yet been identified.

I was in my thirties before I realized I was actually allergic to wool. For most of my life, I just thought the itchiness of wool was a textural thing. My mother was a very tolerant mother who never made me wear anything I didn't like and she sewed a lot of my clothes from scratch and I was just spoiled to a degree I did not really appreciate. In my thirties, I bought some very lovely high quality (on steep discount) reversible coat with cotton on one side and wool on the other. It took me some weeks/months to realize that every single time I wore that coat I required more antihistamines -- and it did not matter which side I wore inside and which side I wore outside.

I have considered taking up knitting or similar to make custom clothes in part to accommodate all my various allergies. If I did so, I would just learn every trick in the trade to substitute cotton, silk and other things I tolerate well for the recommended wool, acrylic, whatever.

Best of luck.
posted by Michele in California at 1:24 PM on March 10, 2014

Wool softens over time with proper washing. Yarn when first bought hasn't been washed, but once it has been blocked as a piece and soaked in a nice wool wash, it feels very different. It needs to be washed appropriately. Sometimes it can also be the quality of the wool or even the type of wool. Merino is going to have a different feel than alpaca, for instance.

You might like the superwash variety as well, which is wool treated in such away that it can be machine washable. Most sock yarns should come machine washable, anyway.

Cascade is a very impressive yarn for its price point and for its variety. I knit so many things with varying Cascade yarns. You might also find that blends are easier for you -- like wool yarns with some silk or nylon in them.

I knit with a lot of wool because of the types of things I knit, but I also knit with lots of yarns that are synthetic or blends. I'd strongly recommend going to a very well respected area yarn shop and speaking with the people who work there about your experience with wool. They may be able to assist you in finding ether a wool or wool-blend yarn that doesn't have that feel or help you find a good substitute yarn that isn't wool for projects that would normally be made out of wool.

I will admit that I have the gauge swatch hate. I almost never make one. When I do make one, it is typically for sweaters or typically when I need to do something to the pattern itself -- like a sweater pattern that doesn't come in the size I need and I need to figure out if I can use bigger needles and the largest pattern size written for what I need or if I need to change the pattern completely. For things like hats, blankets, scarves, dish towels, I don't bother at all. For socks I may if there's a design to the pattern, but even then not usually because I try them on the actual feet as I'm going along with them.
posted by zizzle at 1:28 PM on March 10, 2014

Chiming in with love for Cascade Superwash (I knit stuff for babies out of Cascade Superwash) and Malabrigo (I knit stuff from me out of Malabrigo). I have a lot of store-bought and homemade wold stuff that is very soft (I love lightweight merino sweaters, for instance). But I also have some really scratchy wool stuff - my zip-front Icelandic wool sweater is one of my most prized possessions but I don't wear it without long sleeves and preferably a collar underneath, because it is super-scratchy. Wool is not a monolith. And it's not as simple as "good wool is soft, bad wool is rough." There might be wool out there that you like, if you shop around.

One method I've heard of and very occasionally used for figuring out whether a yarn is going to irritate my skin is the "bra test." Take a few inches of the yarn and stick it in your bra all day. You can also tie a piece around your wrist if you're not a bra person, although then it tends to get wet when you wash your hands, etc.
posted by mskyle at 1:47 PM on March 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is my favorite yarn: Plymouth Encore worsted. It's a blend of 3/4 acrylic and 1/4 wool. Don't let the acrylic fool you. It's very soft and not scratchy or squeaky. It's actually sort of cottony, but without the stiffness and heaviness of cotton. It's SUPER easy to work with.

But if you are like me, ANY wool may drive you crazy after a while. I can't wear smartwool, for example. It drives me nuts.
posted by peep at 1:49 PM on March 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't think anyone else mentioned specifically, but when shopping some people will tuck a ball of yarn under their chin or against their neck for a few minutes to check for prickly wool, since that skin is probably more sensitive than your hands. (Please keep in mind that the yarn shop owner may not like this practice, especially if you are wearing makeup or perfume.)

Otherwise, my other advice is that alpaca content can also cause knitted items to be itchy, unless it's specifically advertised as baby alpaca or from a trusted source that cleans it very well. Cheap alpaca has scratchy guard hairs that stick out and poke you. I have a wool/alpaca blend hat that makes my forehead itch even though I can usually wear mass market wool (like Cascade 220) against bare skin.

I only do the full-on swatch when knitting a sweater, since I don't want to be disappointed by a sweater that doesn't fit.
posted by cabingirl at 2:05 PM on March 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

As someone who is especially sensitive to wool and tried and tried to knit with it, spending tons of money -- don't bother. It only gets worse. Honestly, the idea that people find merino or alpaca or even cashmere to be pleasant to touch boggles my mind, as I experience it like a million tiny knives every time I touch it (my husband marvels at my ability to detect wool content in sweaters at the store now that I've practiced -- if I buy something with even 5% wool it's just going to itch constantly regardless of other layers, etc.)

As someone who likes knitting, I've pretty much had to accept how limited my options are -- the non-wool stuff by and large just isn't as nice to work with as the wool stuff (as far as how it actually works, not as far as touching it), but at least I can touch acrylic without it being painful.
posted by brainmouse at 3:23 PM on March 10, 2014

My best friend and test knitter has your problem, even breaking out in hives with some wools. What's worked for her, and what I'd suggest for you, is going into a yarn shop--not a craft store--and asking what the softest all-merino yarn they carry is. But a ball of that and see if you can handle knitting with merino. If you can, that's awesome--there's a ton of super nice yarn that's merino, and you can just avoid the stuff that isn't. If that doesn't work for you, you should probably avoid sheepy fibers, and also check out the book No Sheep For You by Amy Singer, which is all about knitting without animal fibers.

Wool yarn--and all yarn, to some extent, in my experience--does, in fact, soften up some after being washed and worn a bit, especially if you condition it when you wash it.

Figuring out fabrics for comfort and longevity is harder, unfortunately. More plies to the yarn will almost always mean that it will wear longer and take more abuse. I knit almost exclusively socks, and don't bother knitting them in anything that's not at least two-ply. Singles just wear through too fast to justify that kind of effort. Comfort is a personal thing--a lot of people wear tee-shirts or shells under their sweaters, and some people who can't tolerate wool of any sort on their torso are just fine with it in their socks. You'll have to experiment some to see what works for you.

There's a MetaFilter Ravelry group--if you wanted to ask for help from people who are known(ish) quantities, you could ask there. Also, reminder to myself and everyone else: we have that group! We should use it more.
posted by MeghanC at 4:43 PM on March 10, 2014 [4 favorites]

If you live or work in high humidity, that can be a cause. Angora is like a hair shirt for me in humid weather, but in dry air conditioning, it's suddenly soft angel feathers. A tightly spun smooth wool is better than anything fluffy if it's to be worn in humid conditions.
posted by viggorlijah at 5:53 PM on March 10, 2014


(spoiler space)

I have good luck with Caron Simply Soft acrylic yarn. Not the usual stuff at all. I don't recommend it for socks (disclaimer: I do not knit socks ever), but they do have DK weight yarn in colors that are not pastel.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:29 PM on March 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Mohair really makes me itch, regular lambswool can, but cashmere and merino are absolutely fine on me - and I have eczema. Merino tends to be quite soft as well, so might be easier to knit with. I tend to wear merino jumpers from Uniqlo, and wash them in the machine with specialist wool detergent - I wonder if the itchiness might be partly because wool is absorbent and detergent can cling to it if it isn't really well rinsed?

My yarn of choice for crocheting is Wendy Jubilee, which is 70% acrylic 30% wool. I get pretty bad dermatitis on my hands and it hasn't been a problem, nor is it squeaky, and it comes in really pretty muted colours. However, it's been discontinued. Maybe a similar blend would work for you?

I've heard good things about cotton and bamboo yarn, though I haven't used them myself.
posted by mippy at 11:03 AM on March 11, 2014

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