Merino Blends: Taking Advantage of Fiber Characteristics
Wool from sheep can be soft or strong, silky or coarse, lustrous or matte, easy to felt or difficult to felt—it depends on the breed of sheep. The wool from Merino sheep is often considered to be the softest of sheep wools. That defining softness is due to the fineness of the individual fibers: about 18–24 microns in diameter. (By comparison, cashmere fibers are around 11–12 microns in diameter and wool from Romney sheep runs 29–36 microns in diameter.) For knitting projects, merino wool is definitely next-to-skin comfortable.
Other characteristics of merino wool include good warmth, reasonable strength, pretty good elasticity, modest luster, no inherent drape, and very easy feltability. Below is a full list of characteristics of fibers used in knitting yarns.
Characteristics of Fibers
- Softness: This characteristic is in the hands of the beholder: What feels good next to the skin of one knitter may not feel that way to another knitter.
- Warmth: An especially valuable characteristic for cool-weather garments.
- Strength: This refers to resistance to tensile (pulling) force.
- Luster: Does it shine? Typically, lustrous fibers (silk, adult mohair) dye vibrantly.
- Elasticity: Does the yarn/knitted fabric spring back to its original shape after it is stretched out? How much does it stretch out per pull, depending on the strength of the pull?
- Drape: How does it hang? Does it flow?
- Halo: Some yarns create a glow of fibers that stray from the central yarn.
- Feltability: With agitation and with changes in water temperature, knitted fabrics can become stiff and sometimes the stitches are obscured. Different fibers vary in the amount they shrink when felted.
Blending Merino with Other Fibers
Many of the designs in this issue are created from yarns that are a combination of merino wool and other fiber(s). The “other” fiber will add its own characteristics to the resultant yarn.
- Highland wool (Hydrangea Cardigan) is generally raised in Peru and is probably derived from Corriedale sheep. It is not quite as soft as merino, but it is stronger than merino, it is warm, and it has good elasticity.
- Baby camel down (Rose Bush Pullover), yak down (Thyme Hat), and cashmere (Geranium Shawl) are all the delicate undercoat of dual-coated animals. They are exquisitely soft, very warm, and modestly elastic. They drape better than merino wool. They can produce a subtle halo to yarns and knitted fabrics. These fibers come in natural shades of brown and gray (as well as white), so they may mute the colors of dyed yarn.
- Mulberry silk (Buds Pullover; Iris Cowl; Eucalyptus Pullover) and tussah silk (Gardenia Stole) are fibers from the cocoons of silk-producing moths. Mulberry (or bombyx) silk is very white; tussah is a very light golden brown. Both of these silks are very strong, marvelously lustrous, and soft. I have found silk to feel cool in warm weather and warm in cool weather. These silks have imperceptible elasticity, which means they drape fabulously.
- Mohair (Hydrangea Cardigan) is the fiber from Angora goats. The characteristics of mohair are very dependent on the age of the animal. Kid mohair (first and second clips) is the softest, has respectable shine, and isn’t particularly elastic, but it drapes well. Yearling mohair (third and fourth clips) can be very much like kid, but it’s a little stronger and a little more lustrous. Adult mohair (from goats over two years old) is very strong and very shiny, has no elasticity, has excellent drape, and resists felting. Regardless of age, mohair is a wonderfully warm fiber.
- Nylon (Cattleya Pullover) is a synthetic polymer often added to wool yarns to increase the strength—and, therefore, the durability—of the yarn and knitted item. It has some elasticity and some luster, but it is not particularly warm, nor does it take up moisture as well as wool does.
- Superwash merino (Cattleya Pullover). Wool fibers are covered in scales so that adjacent wool fibers will stick to each other. This feature allows wool yarns to be spun with relatively low twist, and it’s also responsible for some of the springiness and feltability of wool yarns. A superwash wool is one that has either removed the scales on the wool fibers or covered them up. Therefore, superwash wools may need a bit more twist, and the resultant knitted fabrics will not have as much elasticity. Most superwash wools are machine washable and will not felt, though, so they are an easy-care option. Quite often, superwash merino is combined with nylon for easy care and durability.
- Alpaca (huacaya, suri) adds warmth and softness and improves the drape of the knitted fabric. It felts as well as, if not better than, merino wool.
- Angora (from Angora rabbits) is unforgettably soft and fantastically warm! It felts very easily and produces a distinctive halo.
- Cotton is cool, with very little elasticity. Some of my favorite sweaters are merino-cotton blends. In equal percentages, these yarns make items that are perfect spring and fall garments.
- Bamboo rayon and lyocell are synthesized fibers that are derived from natural sources. They are very silk-like: they’re shiny and strong, and they drape well and have no elasticity.
In addition to the inherent characteristics of these fibers, the relative ratio of merino to other fiber has a significant effect on the nature of the knitting yarn. For example, a yarn with only 10% of one of the luxury fibers (camel, cashmere, yak) can produce a significantly softer yarn than merino alone. When the percentage of the blended fiber is increased, the characteristics of the blended fiber start to dominate. I have worked with merino-silk blends ranging from 10% silk to more than 50% silk. That 50/50 merino-silk blend positively sparkles in sunlight. I have also worked with merino-mohair blends ranging from 10% mohair all the way up to 80% mohair; my impression is that when the mohair gets to be more than 50% of the blend, the resultant yarn acts much more like mohair than like wool: super shiny, with magnificent drape and halo.
- For softness: Add silk, cashmere, yak down, camel down, kid mohair.
- For warmth: Add cashmere, yak down, camel down.
- For strength: Add a stronger wool, silk, nylon, mohair.
- For luster: Add silk, mohair.
- For elasticity: Add a more elastic wool.
- For drape: Add silk, mohair.
- For a gentle halo: Add cashmere, yak down, camel down.
- For a pronounced halo: Add mohair.
For feltability: Merino felts easily all by itself, and blended fibers tend to go along for the ride. Merino-mohair blends can create a bit of a boucle effect when felted.
As wools go, merino is quite luxurious. Blending merino wool with other fibers can enhance, increase, or otherwise modify the pleasing nature of merino yarns while retaining its luxurious softness. We knitters are lucky to have so many options.
AMY TYLER lives in northwestern Lower Michigan. From there, she travels around the country to teach spinning and knitting. You can find more information about her work on her website.
Fournier, Nola, and Jane Fournier. In Sheep’s Clothing: A Handspinner’s Guide to Wool. Loveland, Colorado: Interweave Press, 1995.
Hochberg, Bette. Fibre Facts. Santa Cruz, California: Bette and Bernard Hochberg, 1981.
Irwin, Bobbie. The Spinner’s Companion. Loveland, Colorado: Interweave Press, 2001.
Larson, Kate. The Practical Spinner’s Guide: Wool. Fort Collins, Colorado: Interweave, 2015.
Parkes, Clara. The Knitter’s Book of Wool. New York: Potter Craft, 2009.
Robson, Deborah, and Carol Ekarius. The Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook. North Adams, Massachusetts: Storey Publishing, 2011.
This article was originally published in Interweave Knits Spring 2019.
Get the article, the projects, and more in the latest issue of Interweave Knits!