Knitting and yarn-making: post-apocalyptic survival skills.
November 21, 2015 1:25 PM   Subscribe

Looking for resources on the the finer technical aspects of working with natural wools and yarns.

I met up with a yarn artisan and fellow yarn nerd yesterday at the craft fair where she was selling her latest materials. I'd brought along the cowl I'm knitting with the skein of handspun merino wool I got from her last year, and a skein of alpaca, to show her - she was thrilled! While talking about our mutual keen interest in all kinds of natural wools, she gifted me with a ball of mink yarn. I had seen it online before but never locally, and thus I'd never felt it - i expected it to be much softer but it wasn't as soft as alpaca. Really haven't heard anything about it until recently, and little at that.

While discussing her abundance of chunky one-ply handspun merino and its uses, I expressed concern about it pilling/haloing/falling apart if I made it into a blanket. She indicated that in her experience it does halo somewhat (a general blanket-haze of fuzz) but it doesn't pill and doesn't fall apart. It also felts fairly well, so she pre-felts the yarn a bit (involving a vigorous wash) as part of the post-spin treatment prior to sale, to keep it together better in the end product. She's had blankets made from the stuff that have been on her couch for over a year so far and are holding up great.

I've worked in two-ply alpaca and noticed it also halos quite a bit, and she said that the alpaca doesn't felt as well, the shorter fibres and finer texture tend to lead to alpaca knits loosening over time. I mentioned having made a tunisian crochet skullcap type beanie for my husband using a higher-ply yarn of alpaca, and was concerned about it loosening up too - she said the tunisian stitch and the higher ply would keep it together well.

I've known several other spinners over the years, a few of whom have sold me custom yarns of angora rabbit and silk blends, alpaca, and so on. The angora is the softest stuff I've ever had, and they blend it with silk for strength. I've included a large stripe of it in the last lap blanket I made... sooooo soft. I have no idea how it will wear over time though, whether it will felt shrink if it gets washed etc. (I would never be careless with anything I so painstakingly knit, but my well-meaning husband has been known to toss all things in the wash without a second thought).

So my question - are there any good resources out there that nerd out on natural yarns and fibres? Anything discussing how the materials take to felting, how the fibres wear over time / shrink when washed, their softness, their ability to take dye, the pros and cons of blending different fibres, the results of blending and techniques that can be employed?

I will also gladly take anyone's own anecdotes, experiences and comments on same, thank you!
posted by lizbunny to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (5 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Have you seen The Knitter's Book of Yarn?

There are several Ravelry groups for indie spinners and dyers, and some of them can get delightfully nerdy about different fibers. Join them and ask for opinions, or just lurk and soak up the knowledge.
posted by Metroid Baby at 1:42 PM on November 21, 2015 [6 favorites]

You may enjoy Clara Parkes's books, The Knitter's Book of Yarn (detailed discussions of various yarn structures and the effects they have on whatever you are making out of the yarn) and The Knitter's Book of Wool (same level of detail but about types of wool in particular). Carol Ekarius and Deb Robson have also written an encyclopedic treatment of animal fibres entitled The Fleece and Fibre Sourcebook, which will teach you about their different traits -- crimp structure, staple length, strength, and the authors' informed suggestions about what the most suitable applications are for different fibres. Carol Ekarius's The Field Guide to Fleece is similarly informative.

If you have the time and energy to commit to a new hobby, in my opinion learning to spin will be more instructive than any amount of reading you can do -- there is no better way to develop a sense of any given yarn's properties than by knowing how to make yarn yourself. You don't need to obtain a spinning wheel; a spindle will do fine. Abby Franquemont wrote an excellent book about spinning with spindles, Respect the Spindle, and her blog archive is worth reading from front to back even if you aren't planning on learning to spin. I also enjoyed Judith MacKenzie-McCuin's book The Intentional Spinner and Amy King's Spin Control, which include a lot of technical information about how to get particular results from your tools that you may not be too interested in, but they also will give you a thorough overview of the variety of yarns it is possible to make and what they're best for. The Spinning Loft is a web store that will sell you a sample pack of bits of different fleeces so you can see what's what and experiment a bit without making any major commitments.

My favourite yarns are the ones I have spun myself, which is both gratifying and terrifically inconvenient if I just want a sweater amount of yarn available to get started on a new project immediately on the spur of the moment with no additional planning required. Right now I am working on a suite of fingering-weight yarns for small stranded colourwork projects: I bought a few ounces of a few colours of Shetland wool roving (an airy preparation where the wool fibres are all jumbled up and pointing every which way) which I am spinning into thin singles, then plying with a little more twist than necessary to "balance" the twist in the singles to create a yarn that is lightweight for its diameter, surprisingly elastic, and excellent for gloves.
posted by there's no crying in espionage at 1:49 PM on November 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

Fleece and Fiber Source Book, by Carol Ekarius.
posted by jacquilynne at 1:50 PM on November 21, 2015

I can recommend any of Judith MacKenzie's videos - they're videos for spinners, but if you're interested in the finer points of how fibres behave... You will probably want the control of spinning your own eventually :) So you can get just that perfect custom blend, just the right amount of twist for softness and durability, just the right amount of plies for round popping cables or for crisp open lace... Yeah, spinning has taught me tons and tons about how yarn works.
posted by Gordafarin at 2:52 PM on November 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

A sampler pack is a great idea, woolgatherings on etsy offers a wonderful one.

And as mentioned above, is a great resource. In particular, there is a group called A Spinners' Study that picks out a breed each month and some of the members go through the entire process, from prepping the fleece to spinning, and then report back on their findings.

If you're curious about one of the softest imaginable fibers, read up on vicuna and qiviut. I have yet to have the pleasure of playing with either but this etsy site occasionally has little samples of vicuna available for petting.
posted by kattyann at 9:42 PM on November 21, 2015

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