Which Yarn Should I Use? Tips from the Knitwear Design Workshop

Shirley PadenRenowned designer Shirley Paden has just come out with a new book, Knitwear Design Workshop: A Comprehensive Guide to Handknits. And we're not kidding when we say "comprehensive"!

Shirley provides you with everything you need to confidently and successfully design own knitwear—from worksheets to math formulas, yarn information to stitch pattern dissections, schematics to finishing techniques. (To see more about Shirley, click here to see her video on our Facebook page!)

Now that we're getting into spring and summer knitting (and starting a new knit-along!), it's time to put the wool away for a few months and turn to some warm-weather fibers.

Shirley shares some fascinating information about vegetable fibers, which I thought I'd share with you. Any of these fibers are good choices for warm-weather knitting.

All about Vegetable Fibers by Shirley Paden

Cotton comes from the bolls of cotton plants. It is grown throughout the world and processed into many different grades. At the high end are Egyptian, Sea Island, and Pima grades, which have long staples that produce fine, lustrous yarns. At the lower end is matte cotton, which resembles string. Cotton is a popular choice for clothing in warm climates because it absorbs moisture and dries quickly, therefore producing a cooling effect on the body. It is nonallergenic and easy to care for-it's actually stronger wet than dry, which facilitates laundering. But, because cotton is a nonresilient fiber, it will stretch. Cables or other dense pattern stitches that add weight may not be suitable choices for cotton yarns. Cotton is moth resistant, but may mildew in wet climates.

Mercerizing, invented by John Mercer during the nineteenth century, is a process of treating cotton with sodium hydroxide (lye) and then stretching it. This makes the cotton smoother, less fuzzy, more lustrous, and less likely to shrink than untreated cotton.

Linen (Flax), one of the oldest known textile fibers, is derived from the stem of the flax plant. Linen is sturdy and durable, and like cotton, is comfortable to wear in hot climates because it draws moisture away from the body. It is also easily laundered and moth and perspiration resistant. But linen is also a heavy and nonresilient fiber that can feel stiff (although it softens with repeated washing). It is usually spun into very fine yarns to compensate for its weight. Unlike cotton, linen is weaker when wet and prone to abrasion. Linen is usually blended with other fibers to offset these drawbacks. Ramie is a linen-like fiber made from the stem of a nettle called China grass. It has a long history in Asia, especially in China. Like linen, ramie is a strong, durable fiber. It is easy to wash, but stiff and nonresilient. It is usually blended with other fibers. Ramie is mildew resistant.

Clockwise from upper left: Hemp for Knitting Allhemp6, Classic Elite Soft Linen; Tahki Stacy Charles Cotton Classic; Berroco Bonsai (bamboo)

Allo, hemp, jute, and sisal are vegetable fibers that are heavier and coarser than linen and ramie. They have been traditionally used for twine, rope, netting, and burlap. Today, all of these fibers can be found either alone or blended with other fibers in knitting yarns.

Allo comes from the bark of the girardinia plant grown in Nepal at the foot of the Himalayas. It is naturally antibacterial and mold resistant. Historically, it has been used to make rope. Today, it is dyed with natural dyes and knitted into vests and fine shawls.

Hemp comes from the outer fibers of the hemp plant. It is considered the strongest natural fiber and is softer, more insulating, more absorbent, and more breathable than cotton. Fabrics made of hemp last longer than their cotton counterparts. It is used alone or blended with silk, cotton, rayon, or allo.

Jute comes from the stem of the jute plant and was historically used for rope twine and burlap bags. It can be mixed with other fibers, both natural and synthetic. Jute is fire and heat resistant, but it loses its strength when wet and is also prone to microbial attack. 

Sisal comes from the stem of the Agave sisalana cactus plant. Because it is strong, durable, stretchable, and resistant to deterioration in salt water, it has been traditionally used for agricultural twine. Today it is also used for handknitted massage gloves and washing mitts. It is blended with wool or acrylic to produce a softer yarn.

Bamboo comes from a group of woody evergreen plants that comprise the largest member of the grass family. There are about 1,000 species of bamboo that grow in diverse climates, from the cold mountains to the hot tropics. Bamboo is notable for its soft feel and natural antibacterial properties. It is highly absorbent and is therefore available in a broad color range. Pure bamboo is nonresilient and has a greater tendency to stretch than other plant fibers and is therefore often mixed with wool to add resiliency. Pattern stitches that contract lengthwise, such as slip-stitch patterns, are a good choice for this type of yarn. Open and stretchy stitches, such as lace, may stretch lengthwise.

Now you're set to choose a yarn to use for the knit-along or for any warm-weather project! And why not try your hand at designing? I haven't designed a whole sweater yet, but I've made many modifications to existing patterns, and I sure wish I'd had Knitwear Design Workshop and Shirley Paden to guide me on my journey!


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