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Year of natural fibres: Cotton and linen

In my previous fibre feature, I mentioned how for years, I turned to cotton as the main non-wool, non-acrylic yarn available to me. I also hinted at how this may not really have been the best strategy, since cotton and wool are… well… different. Both lovely, for sure, but really not good substitutes. Now, with spring in the air (at least, my trees are in bud, spring can’t be far behind… right?), it seems like a good time to focus on cotton – and its fellow plant fibre, linen – both of which make wonderful warm-weather garments. Here’s how you can make the most of what was for so long my very favourite yarn.


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What’s it like?
You know cotton, of course. It’s in your t-shirts, your underwear and your bedlinen as well as your knitting basket. Like wool, cotton is highly breathable, but it’s also smooth and cool to the touch – hence its ubiquity in all the above products, in which comfort next to the skin is of primary importance.
But in knitting, we need to pay attention to some of its other qualities. For starters, where wool rejoices in great elasticity and memory, cotton… doesn’t. It has no natural stretch; of course, like anything else, you can use ribbing to create snugness, but beware the weight of the cotton doesn’t stretch it out flat. Because, oh yes, weight is the other issue, and a very dangerous partner with that lack of elasticity. Ask me some time about the fabulous bias-knit ribbed sweater I made that lost all its divine curve-hugging cleverness in short order because, hm, could it be because it was made in heavy, inelastic cotton? Similarly, I’ve seen many an aran jumper made in cotton; gorgeous, of course, lovely and soft to wear, but after a few hours (never mind a few days) the hem is racing the cuffs to your knees. Not a great look. A common strategy is to accept this, and simply wash and tumble dry it after every single wear to shrink it back to size. This works, I guess. But maybe it would be better to stick with merino for the heavy aran knits, and use cotton in designs that work with its nature, not against it?
Another objection commonly made against cotton is that it’s hard on the hands – because of that lack of give. Personally I’ve never found this a problem, possibly because of the types of cotton I tend to favour. As with wool, there’s cotton and then there’s cotton; but this time it’s not so much about the source, more how the fibre is spun and treated. Cotton ranges all over the softness spectrum, from soft, slubby yarns that are utterly delicious to wear in a snuggly jumper (but that tend to shed fine fibres all over the show while you’re knitting) to hard, unforgiving “dishcloth cotton” that gives the fibre a bad name. (It shouldn’t. This type of yarn is typically cheap and colourful and heaps of fun to use – as long as you’re only using it in small quantities, and ideally, for decor items or bags rather than garments.)
And then there’s mercerised cotton; this is cotton that has received chemical treatment to improve its lustre and affinity to dye. Mercerised cotton typically has a pearly finish and is sold in rich colours; it can be almost silky in both look and feel, and is a world away from that dishcloth cotton that is so frowned on. With the lovely glossy finish and soft drape, it is particularly well suited to crochet.
If you find cotton hard on the hands, linen might be a challenge for you: it’s even less elastic, and on top of that, can feel distinctly drying. Perhaps for that reason, there aren’t a lot of linen yarns on the market – especially not pure linen. Yet those that exist are frequently much beloved of knitters. Now why would that be?
What’s it good for?
Linen has a certain cool elegance that is pretty irresistible once you get to know it. It drapes beautifully, making fabulous lace that’s quite different to the more common wool and silk lacework. And wrapping yourself in linen, such a classic and rather posh summer textile, is a great shortcut to feeling like Grace Kelly swanning around in Monaco… or maybe that’s just me and my overactive imagination.
Cotton, well, cotton can be your best friend. Cotton washcloths and dishcloths are cheap, quick and fun to make, and lovely to use. (Really – don’t knock it till you’ve tried it! I was a sceptic and am now completely converted to the knitted washcloth cause.) Cotton will also probably be your first port of call for a light summer top, or cardigan. And – although I really don’t recommend using it for heavy cabled projects! – cotton can also make deliciously cosy but non-sweaty jumpers to snuggle in over winter. Being so gentle on the skin, it’s perfect for children’s wear and baby blankets. And of course it’s the crocheter’s staple.
I really don’t think I need to tell you what to use it for; but I will remind you of what it’s not ideal for: socks (unless you have a plan, such as using shirring elastic, to keep them up), and other projects where stretchiness is of the essence; and any giant garment where the weight of the yarn is going to overcome all hope of maintaining the original shape.
Try it out!
Ah yes, the interesting part of this feature: the discounts. We’re offering 10% off some of our favourite summer yarns (just use the code YONFCOTTON at checkout).
Vinni’s Colours Nikkim: No, you’ve never heard of it. But this has been one of my personal favourites for years, and I’m very excited to be offering it to you. Vinni lives in Cape Town, my home town, where she dyes fantastically soft cotton and bamboo yarns in the most astonishing array of colours. You’ll see. It’s brilliant. And cheap. And with this offer, even cheaper. This loosely plied cotton is fab for washcloths, because of the lovely bright colours (including some variegated shades), but also soft enough for garments.
Vinni’s Bambi: This is in the soft, slubby cotton family (and organic too!) – but with a twist of bamboo for added interest. Again, beautiful, subtle yet saturated colours. Totally yummy. I’m planning a blanket for baby Claudia in this.
Handmaiden Flaxen: A slightly tweedy looking laceweight silk/linen mix, gorgeous for summer wraps. Plenty more colours are on the way! A lovely yarn, soft on the hands and with an unusual texture.
Claudia’s Linen Lace: This is something of a cult favourite, as one of the few pure linen yarns on the market. Try washing the skein before winding it, to make it gentler on your hands; once knitted up and blocked, you will be amazed at how much softer the finished product gets. And is it worth it? Oh yes.

2 thoughts on “Year of natural fibres: Cotton and linen

  1. I am currently knitting a giant Aran cardigan out of Bambi. I was also worried about the sagging as it’s already quite heavy at only about 20cm of the back done, but Vinni says the cabling (and there’s lots of it, it’s cable madness) should retain the shape and stop the sag. She pointed me at a jersey she’d knitted for her husband from Bambi and it seemed fine.
    I’ll keep you posted on the results, the yarn and pattern combination might refute your statement of “no cotton for Aran jerseys” :).

  2. I’ll be interested if it does – those I’ve seen have not been rescued by cable madness. In fact the cables, since they add so much to the weight, can add to the problem. But good luck!

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