Knitting With Wool Yarn
Once upon a time, I spun my own yarn from the fiber of our sheep, dog, angora rabbits, and angora goat. I would go to sheep and wool festivals and buy cashmere, silk, alpaca, lama, and have a grand time spinning them into yarn. I don’t have the time nor the access to fiber like I used to so now buy commercially spun yarn but I learned a lot about how fiber affects the yarn and what properties and qualities are brought to the finished yarn.
I would like to talk about the universal fiber, wool. Wool is a term that refers to many types of animal fibers. The most widely known is the fiber from sheep. Wool has very unique properties. It has great insulating ability which keeps in warmth, or in hot climates, keeps out heat. It is naturally flame retardant. Instead of flashing into fire when a match is applied, it will smolder often extinguishing itself. Sheep’s wool makes excellent sock material as it is absorbent and will keep the wearer warm even if it gets wet. Scotsmen in the highlands would remove their kilts and soak them in streams and put them back on to keep out wind and stay warmer. Not many man made fibers can boast these attributes. It has three major drawbacks. Some people are allergic to the proteins in the wool, the fiber is attractive to clothes moths which eat it and cause holes, and one must use care in washing items made from it to prevent felting and shrinkage. There are several treatments to avoid clothes moths, like storing woolens in the freezer, or moth balls, or many herbal remedies. There are no answers to the allergy except not to wear wool. And below is how I wash woolen items.
Wool varies in texture and use depending on the breed of sheep it comes from. There are sheep specially bred to produce the finest, softest wool. The best known breed is Merino. Incredibly soft yarn is made from Merino fiber. Ramboulet is another soft wool breed. Yarn made from these types of fiber can be worn next to the skin with very little discomfort in the way of scratchiness… unless one is allergic to wool. The very finest and softest Merino is called Cashwool. It is as soft as cashmere. On the other end of the spectrum is very coarse, thick fiber used in making felt and rugs. All the rest in between types range in softness and are what makes up the bulk of knitting yarns. Of course, there are also a great many blends using wool as one of the components. Wool always adds it’s properties to the blend.
Wool of all types can be spun soft and airy, hard and strong. Softly spun lofty yarn is the warmest because it traps air between the fibers and this aids in keeping the wearer warm. Tightly spun yarn is very strong and is not usually used for garments but for weaving rugs and other applications that require strength.
Sheep’s wool comes in natural colors of white, cream, black, shades of gray and occasionally brown. It also dyes well with either natural vegetable dyes or chemical dyes. As long as someone is not allergic to it, it is a versatile choice of yarn to knit with.
As mentioned previously, woolen garments need to be washed very carefully. Unless the garment is made from yarn that specifically states it is machine washable, don’t wash wool items in the washing machine. The soap, agitation and changing temperature of water will make woolens felt and shrink, thereby ruining them. Machine washable wool is usually merino mixed with at least 10 percent nylon to prevent it from shrinking during machine washing. These are the only items that can go into a washing machine. Other products need to be hand washed. Fill up a basin or sink with lukewarm water. Add your favorite clothes soap…enough to make a little lather. Gently immerse the article in the water avoiding agitating or rubbing the fabric together because that will cause it to felt and shrink. Let it soak for a time and gently squeeze the soapy water through the fabric, being careful not to be too rough. Treating the fiber roughly will cause the shrinkage. Lift the garment out of the water, carefully trying to support the weight evenly.. I usually put it in a colander to drain while I change the water. Make note, by feel, the temperature of the water you are dumping. It doesn’t have to be exact, but the rinse water needs to be close to the same temperature or the wool will be shocked into shrinking. Gently squeeze the soapy water out of the garment, do not wring it out, again, this roughness will cause felting. Lay it gently in the water and let it soak. Repeat this process until you are satisfied the soap has been rinsed out. There are 2 ways one can remove the excess water to facilitate drying. One is to do something called “wuzzing” and the other is to use the spin cycle of the washing machine. Wuzzing is an old practice and it is similar to what happens during the spin cycle. Put the garment in a pillow case, take it outside and quite quickly, rotate it through the air above your head or at your side to cause the water to fling out. Keep doing this until no more water comes out. To use the spin cycle, put the garment in a pillow case and into the washer, add something to balance the machine and turn the spin cycle on. When the cycle is over, remove the garment. It is now ready to dry.
Lay a towel or towels on the floor and place the garment on the towel(s). Arrange it to the shape it should have, or in the case of a sweater, to the dimensions it was knit to. Smooth out any wrinkles and let it air dry. This is called blocking and it needs to be done every time the article is washed.
With proper care and protection from moths, wool articles can last quite a long time. It is still one of my first choices to work with for winter wear, either all wool or blends. If you haven’t ever worked with it, try it. You’ll then become part of a tradition of wool working that is a few thousand years old.
write by Mirabel