Spin-Off into the Printed Silk Cardigan

A note from Kathleen: One of my LYSes here in Spokane is Paradise Fibers. They stock roving of all kinds and myriad knitting, spinning, and weaving supplies. I recently bought some Tussah silk there to make a Fleece Dog version of my dog Poppy. As I was feeling it, I wondered how you could possibly spin these gossamer strands of silk into yarn.

Well, enter Spin-Off editor Amy Clarke Moore, who could probably spin zip-ties into the softest of yarn for a sweater! Amy set out to make her own version of a high-end yarn to knit the lovely Printed Silk Cardigan (which we featured in our Decade of Interweave Knitting post, too; it's a classic). Here's her story.

Silk into Yarn

I fell in love with Connie Chang Chinchio's Printed Silk Cardigan (PSC) in the Spring 2008 issue of Interweave Knits after seeing the Knitting Daily galleries of my co-workers wearing it. The cardigan fits wonderfully into my Sense and Sensibility fantasy life and being made of pure silk, it would be not only elegant, but warm. I decided I wanted to make one for myself. I have to save up for things I want, making sure that important things like the mortgage and the groceries are covered first. So, even though I wanted to make the PSC, I knew I didn't have the funds to purchase the yarn. Also, I'm a spinner—and my recent experience with my Dad's cardigan taught me a valuable lesson—I prefer working with handspun yarn, even if it isn't perfect.

When I got the fever for the PSC, I darted down to the Knits office to see if I could try on the sweater—I had just missed it—it had left the building on a trunk show tour. I asked if they had any yarn left over from the project. They gave me the remaining yarn—a tiny ball of pure perfection. Fiesta Yarns La Luz is gorgeous and well worth the $25-a-skein-price-tag (and let me tell you, I can especially appreciate the cost of the yarn after attempting to replicate it!).

1½ pounds of Tussah silk before it was dyed My brillo-pad Tussah silk swatches
(honey-colored), Merino (green), and Fiesta Yarns La Luz (cactus bloom).

With the yarn sample in hand, I started spinning and knitting swatches. I began by raiding my stash and sampling fibers—I started with wool and quickly moved on to silk—gravitating toward Tussah and bombyx combed top ("combed top" describes a way of preparing the fibers for spinning). I made a whole stack of small skeins of yarn and swatches.

At first my silk samples had too much twist—the swatch had nice stitch definition, but felt like a silk brillo pad. Having knit up a swatch with La Luz, I knew that part of the appeal of the cardigan was the drape provided by the very softly spun silk singles (singles is a yarn that is not plied—it is composed one strand of yarn rather than multiple strands).

I experimented spinning a fat, silk singles yarn and realized that this project would challenge me (that's a good thing, right?). I can spin a consistent, thin yarn pretty easily—but a consistent fat yarn is harder for me to achieve. And spinning pure silk has always been a bit of a struggle. [What's that? You thought I must be an expert spinner to be the editor of Spin-Off? Oh, well I hate to disappoint, but the truth is that I spend a lot more time in front of my computer than at my wheel (not that I'm an expert on a computer, either, yikes!). Anyway—I still have a lot to learn when it comes to spinning. I find the more I learn about spinning, the more I realize I have to learn.] I had to really work at not putting too much twist into the yarn and drafting out a consistent amount of fibers so that the diameter of the yarn didn't change dramatically. I had to settle for the fact that there would be slubs in my yarn.

Finally after a lot of experimenting, I felt good about my ability to make the yarn and I set off to buy enough fiber. I decided on Tussah silk instead of bombyx silk. The Tussah silk is made from the silk of wild silk moths that have a varied diet rather than cultivated Bombyx mori silk moths that eat only Mulberry leaves. Tussah silk is not quite as smooth as bombyx and it has a beautiful honey color. It is also less expensive.

I wanted a blue cardigan—and so I dyed the 1½ pounds of Tussah silk top (before I spun it) with freeze-dried indigo. That is a whole story in and of itself—turns out that dyeing silk top is not advisable because it is too big of a surface for the dye to adhere to, and so the dye never really bonds with the fiber and consequently, it rubbed off on my hands as I spun and knit the sweater. I recounted this tale to Judith MacKenzie who said I should have dyed the yarn after it was spun instead of the pre-spun top. Spin and learn, right?

I started spinning by taking a length of the top and splitting it in half length-wise and then predrafting the top to open up the fibers and get them closer to the diameter I wanted for the yarn. I used my largest whorl on my Lendrum double-treadle wheel so that I wouldn't introduce too much twist and spun slowly to try to create a softly spun yarn. I had to work slowly and carefully to make the yarn that I wanted. I stopped and measured the wraps per inch frequently and adjusted my spinning to match the sample of La Luz as closely as I could, and then knitted up samples to make sure my yarn would knit up to gauge.

For a little bit I hovered in indecision—I know that most experienced spinners recommend spinning all the yarn for a project before starting to knit. But even though I had knit up many little swatches, I was feeling nervous about completing all the spinning before I started the cardigan. What if my calculations were wrong and I needed a slightly thicker or thinner yarn? So I spun up 500 of the 1,760 yards needed and started knitting. I have about fifteen inches of the back done so far—it is soft and drapey—it'll be warm. There are slubs throughout, but I love the texture they add to the fabric.

Left: Indigo singles on my niddy-noddy (a niddy-noddy is a skeining tool)

Below: Work in progress—the back of the PSC

While my progress on this sweater has been slow, I have enjoyed every moment immensely—every time I pick it up, I have the pleasure of silk slipping through my fingers. I've lingered making it in the same way that I slow down when nearing the end of a good book—I don't want the experience to end.

Best wishes,

Amy

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