The year of natural fibres: wool

Did you know that the UN had declared 2009 the International Year of Natural Fibres? True story. As you might imagine, this is right up my alley, so throughout the year, Purlescence will be featuring a series of natural fibres — all my favourite things to knit with — with mini-articles on each one, and special offers. I hope that by the end of the year the collected articles will form a useful guide to help you choose the best yarn for your project, and along the way, maybe the specials will encourage you to try something a bit different. (Scroll down to the bottom for details of those discounts.)
First up, we have the knitter’s stalwart, a fibre that — cue cheesy MC voice — needs no introduction: good old wool!

Of course, wool (meaning, just to be quite clear, fibre from sheep fleece; although some argue that mohair, angora and cashmere can also be called wool) is practically synonymous with knitting. Many of us grew up calling all knitting yarn “wool”, whatever it was actually made of, and many’s the yarn shop with a sheepy name. There’s probably not a lot I can tell you about wool that you don’t already know — and yet, it was only a few years ago that I myself learned just how different different wools could be. So bear with me, won’t you?
For a very long time, I myself didn’t like knitting with wool. The alternatives available to me (with very limited yarn store access, and frankly, very poor yarn stores on offer) seemed to be: acrylic and acrylic blends; scratchy pure wool; mohair; or a very limited selection of cotton. I would use pretty much anything except wool. That stuff itched. So when I could find and afford it, I picked cotton for pretty much every project, as it was smooth and comfortable to wear — never mind that it got heavy and stretched out hopelessly… wool just wasn’t an option!
Then I touched merino, and realised I might have been just a tiny bit underinformed about the whole big “wool” category.
I still love cotton, and silk, and all kinds of other fibres. But wool has certain qualities that do help to explain why it’s been the knitter’s staple for all these centuries. It’s warm, of course, and like all natural fibres it has breathability and helps to insulate the wearer in a range of temperatures. It absorbs a lot of moisture, making it great for both socks on sweaty feet and rainy day outerwear. It has natural elasticity and “memory” (more on that below). And despite my longrunning aversion, turns out, many wools are deliciously soft and touchable.
The most traditional wool used in knitting is from Shetland sheep, and while Shetland yarn has many lovely qualities (for instance, it comes in a great range of natural colours), I confess this is a yarn that I personally tend to avoid, as I tend to associate it with that hated scratchiness. Still, it has an earthiness that many knitters love and is of course closely associated with beautiful Shetland shawls and fair isle knitting; Shetland wool connects us to the history of our craft and for that alone, I love it. (If you want to use Shetland but fear the itch, try washing a swatch in Soak to soften it up; some knitters also swear by using a splash of hair conditioner.)
Bluefaced Leicester, another popular British breed since the early 20th century, is prized for its great softness. Spinners love it for another reason: the long staple length makes it particularly easy to spin. And besides being fluffy and delicious to touch, it has a gorgeous lustre.
Merino wool is widely considered the cream of the crop: astonishingly fine and smooth, it can be almost like cotton to the touch (even keeping the wearer cool in hot weather); in fact some people who have a sensitivity to wool find they are able to wear merino comfortably. It also takes dye beautifully, so many merino yarns are available in an endless array of shades. Not a British breed this, most merino comes from down south: South Africa (my homeland, yet it’s so hard to find merino knitting yarn there — but that’s another story), New Zealand or Australia.
Sadly, the Australian merino industry has been blighted with controversy because of the practice of mulesing: removing a patch of skin around the tail (without anaesthetic) to prevent flystrike. I’m sometimes asked why I don’t boycott Australian merino until the practice is eliminated (which it will be by the end of 2010). The answer: I am not a sheep farmer. I am not comfortable in taking a stand on what seems to be a very complex issue (mulesing may be painful in the short run, but flystrike is nasty). And most importantly, I don’t think there’s much to be achieved by boycotting a practice that is already on the way out. The battle is already won! But if you do feel strongly about this — well, just wait until 2011, and then dive into a vat of lovely soft merino. It’s not long to wait now.
Anyway, once you’ve chosen your wool, the question is: what’s it good for? Diehard traditionalists would of course say: everything. And that’s almost true, at least as long as you match the breed to the garment (Shetland for shawls or cosy Aran pullovers; merino for close-fitting sweaters worn next to the skin). With so many options, let’s focus on what it’s best for.
Possibly wool’s most distinctive advantage in knitting is its elasticity, making it perfect for cables and rib patterns (the knitted fabric will have great “memory”, returning to the shape originally created). It’s also perfect for Fair Isle colourwork, as the little fibres of the different strands will tend to stick to each other and keep the fabric fairly solid where colours change; this stickiness is especially vital if you’re doing something particularly bold, like steeking. (You know, I think this might be one of the few occasions when my love for merino might let me down. Never having been brave enough to steek, if I were to try it, I’d probably want to try a less supersmooth wool, like BFL.) And again, the elasticity is an advantage in Fair Isle as it will make it easier to block slightly puckered patches into shape.
Lace? Yup, wool can do lace too — very well as it happens, again thanks to that wonderful elasticity and the magic of blocking. A wool shawl will open out beautifully and stay there… at least until it goes in the wash.
Of course <a href="http://knitty.com/ISSUEwinter03/FEATfelthis.html"felting pretty much requires wool; nothing else will react quite so effectively to friction and hot water. (Take note laundryphobes: except for superwash — see below — wool is a cool-handwash-only product.) As a bonus, wool’s feltability means it’s easy to spit splice (see Eunny Jang’s steeking tutorial, linked above), leaving no ends to darn in!
And it’s hard to knit socks in yarn without at least some wool content to give them elasticity. (Though of course it can be done. Nothing is impossible to a determined knitter.) It goes without saying that hats, scarves and gloves are great friends of wool, as they’ll keep you warm and, best of all, dry when you most need it. (Any season that requires hats and scarves is a wool-friendly season!) So I guess it really is true… wool is perfect for anything!
Except when it isn’t. Don’t use wool if:
– you’re knitting for someone with any variety of sensitivity. Poor them… there are sadly many people out there who can’t wear wool. It might be that they have an allergy to lanolin (the oil naturally produced by sheep and present in sheep fleece and wool) or to all animal fibres (yowch! Not nice, although there is something to be said for an excuse to stash all the silk you can find). More common than full-on allergies are sensitivities, but don’t underestimate just how unpleasant these can be. If in doubt, ask your knittee to hold a skein or swatch of the intended fibre under his or her chin; the skin there is so sensitive, a few seconds is probably enough to determine whether there will be an adverse reaction.
– you’re knitting for a vegan. Nuff said.
Those are really the only two categorical wool prohibitions I can think of; beyond that, it becomes more a question of simply choosing the right wool. If you’re knitting for a child, for instance, it’s probably a good idea to use superwash merino. (“Superwash” means the wool has been treated to make it machine washable. Not so great for felting, but wonderful for everything else.) The washable part speaks for itself, but I recommend merino particularly because of how delicate kids’ skin can be – you don’t want to put them off wool for life, so merino is your best shot at convincing them it doesn’t have to itch! Oh, and wool also wouldn’t be my first choice for a summer tank top. But I bet there are hundreds of knitters out there ready to show me their woollen t-shirts and convince me of how great they are… so I’ll leave that up to your personal preference. And repeat the magic word “merino”.
So if I’ve convinced you of the joys of wool — or more likely, you never needed convincing — let’s go shopping. Using the code “yonfwool” at checkout will get you 10% off the following:
Fleece Artist Organic Wool: A gorgeous blend of merino and merino-cross yarn, and great value. Highly recommended for sweater knitting.
Fleece Artist Bluefaced Leicester 2/8: A loosely plied fingering weight BFL, soft and warm in the best BFL stylee. Great for lightweight but warm sweaters, or shawls.
Felt Me: Here’s your chance to try that whole crazy shrinking-on-purpose thing. A simple but colourfully dyed pure wool, meant expressly for making felted accessories.
Fleece Artist Sea Wool: Now we’re getting into the blends. This is a great example where wool is being used to add elasticity and warmth to a fibre (in this case, SeaCell, a new product made from seaweed) with very different properties. The SeaCell in turns adds a lustrous, almost silky quality to the yarn, as well as making it cooler to the touch. Great for socks, scarves etc.
Cariad Yarns’ Flimstone Bay: One of my absolute favourite yarns ever. The densely plied 80% lambswool content (wool from lambs is particularly soft and fine) makes for a gorgeously smooshy, robust base, with dashes of angora and cashmere upping the luxury factor. And look at those colours! Definitely a winter sock yarn, this, but also brilliant for gloves and (for maximum indulgence) sweaters.
Celtic Cardigan kit: Wool/silk is an increasingly popular blend, with the warmth of one balancing the cool elegance of the other. But the effect can vary dramatically depending on factors including the yarn weight and proportions of the fibres. This jacket looks and feels almost like it’s made of pure wool, but the silk adds drape that works particularly well with the simple silhouette.

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