Do you do it? Or do you just dive right into a project?
As many of you know, I started this journey as a weaver. How closely you set your threads is the key to getting the fabric that you want. And once you know that you can build the rest of your calculations and get your yarn on the loom. But knitting isn’t quite like that is it? Most of us try to match the yarn in the pattern and if that yarn isn’t available in your collection or in your yarn store? What then? Some of my friends, and you know who you are dive right in with enthusiasm and the dream of a great new garment, but as they knit they realize, hey this is just too big or this is just too small. A shawl, a cowl or a scarf can be very forgiving. They don’t have to be a particular size. But what if you want to make gloves, mittens, socks or a sweater, fit does matter.
I’ve been having yarn spun for me for several years now. And one thing I know for sure is that a small mill spun yarn is very hard to get spun in those classic sizes of DK or worsted or sport. I can get a yarn that is on the line between DK and worsted. I can get a yarn that is between sport and fingering. So how are you supposed to use these yarns to make a published pattern?
You need to swatch! And you need to swatch any particular stitches that are in your pattern. If your sweater has a cable, swatch it. If your sweater is in a basket stitch or a double moss stitch, swatch it. What I hear people saying is, it takes time!! It takes extra yarn!! And you may be perfectly lucky and your garment may turn out the right size and shape without it. But what if it doesn’t? Then how much time have your wasted? How much material have your wasted? Will you rip it out or will you just set it aside in disgust?
Here is my current long term project. I want to make my first handspun sweater. I have a pattern in mind. It is a cardigan. It has double moss stitch as the body and the sleeves are cabled. I am using 2 lamb fleeces from my Blue Faced Leicester/Cormo crossed ewes. And I need to figure out if I want a 2 or 3 ply yarn. So I need to sample the yarn AND the sweater. And I need to determine the best way to process this fleece, whther to card or comb. This past Crafternoon, I knit my swatch out of 3 ply. I was also able to really get a grip on how to spin these fleeces to minimize the noils and bits of chaff. I am combing the wool and then spinning off the combs.
And as you can see, the resulting yarn (on the right) is turning out more lustrous and smooth than the carded yarn on the left.
So please, spend the time to swatch. You will be a happier knitter.
At this time of year, I like many people are thinking about their word of the year. It is a North Star or value or resolution. It marks how you want to spend your year. That is all good and I do come up with my word of the year each January.
But I want to talk to you about banishing a word this year. Let’s banish the word….stash. I’ve spoken to many of you in person about ejecting this word and concept from your vocabulary. When I hear people talking about their stash it is not out of pride. I don’t hear “You should see my stash! It is lovely.” More often I hear, “I can’t buy anything until I use my stash.” It is said in a kind of Eeyore voice. It is said with shame. Let’s banish that word! Let’s trash the shame!
I propose that we use the word, “collection” instead. You are the curator. It is your collection. Each skein and ball that is in your collection was lovingly acquired. Some with a specific project in mind and others just thrilled you with color or texture or softness. I think that if we change our language, we can change our outlook or attitude about the yarn that we have collected. We will be able to see those threads in a different light. We may even go through them and realize, “Hey! I’ve grown out of using this yarn, or this color!” Those parts of your collection can be donated or gifted. You have the power to make the choices, after all it is YOUR collection.
This year, let’s make the commitment to value our collections, to explore them anew and discover what you love about them and which ones need to find a new home. Let’s find some new ways of using what we have and making room to buy new skeins to augment the collection. If you would like to explore your collection in an organized way, you can subscribe to our Color Explorer eCourse. It is a 4 lesson course that helps you look at your collection from the viewpoint of color and allows you to make choices about what stays and what need to be removed from your collection.
It’s a proven fact. There is research. Yes, knitting and crochet does in fact enhance your health and well being. I know that when I am feeling low and tired, but still feel the need to “do” something, I take out my project bag and knit a few stitches or rows or repeats. I also take my knitting to meetings. Keeping my hands busy with knitting does keep my mind focused on during this meeting. Thankfully my boss is not bothered by this, in fact she does put out crafts and fiddles to keep hands busy and minds available for learning. I do have to say that I usually take “brainless” knitting that I can do without following a chart or thinking too much about what is being made.
I’ve noticed an uptick in the number of women, children and men who are knitting and crocheting, especially in the age range from 25-35. We even had a young man (13?) search us out at 3 fiber festivals this fall to buy yarn and roving. I can’t wait to see what he makes with his collection. So you can imagin how really happy I am to see a great article and a new book on the subject.
Here is what I’ve learned so far:
Repetitive motion induces a kind of relaxed state that is similar to the deep relaxation you feel after meditation or yoga
Knitting and crochet, after learned, will decrease your heart rate and blood pressure. It also reduces your level of cortisol, which is the hormone that gets released when you are under stress.
Studies are now showing that knitting and crocheting may reduce your chances of suffering from dementia.
An added benefit is that you are making tangible object so that your feelings of self esteem and accomplishment are increased.
Knitting and crochet are now being used in therapy programs for eating disorders and smoking cessation. These therapies work because of the relaxation and because your mind is focusing on something other than your addiction.
Knitting and crochet groups are popping up all around as the number of fiber crafters goes up. The benefit of adding social interaction while knitting is another added benefit.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what all those ways that yarn manufacturers, including myself, categorize the yarn. There are so many ways of speaking about the size of the yarn. The standard yarn weight information is set up in a table with discreet squares. But I’ve been studying this lately and I’ve noticed that there is overlap, a lot of overlap among the yarn weights. So it seems to me that this is really a continuum. Just look at the info about YPP, yards per pound, the overlap here is really large. Why is that? It has to do with the spinning process.
Was it spun in a woolen way with lots of air and softly spongy and so it has a bigger diameter? Or was it spun in a worsted way which compacts the fibers and aligns them all in one direction and so it appears thinnner. These two yarns could have the same YPP but a different grist or appearance and they will behave very differently. So use these as a guide, but the ultimate test is your own swatch. These two yarns were both supposed to be a DK weight. But the diameter is SOOOOO different. They knit up differently too. The green one knits like a lace weight yarn. It is our Heritage BFL yarn. And the turquoise yarn is Fingal’s and truly knits like a DK yarn. It is also made with BFL wool and both were made at the same mill. Go figure!!
This really comes into play when you are wanting to make that special sweater. You are wanting to use yarn from your stash, not go out and buy the yarn that the designer used. Or maybe that yarn isn’t available anywhere near you. This is when those standard yarn weights become important. And even more important than that, is to knit up a swatch. Not only a stockinette swatch but also a swatch in pattern.
But is a swatch important when it is for a garment that doesn’t fit your body, like a shawl or a cowl? Well, I think getting the gauge close is important so that the stitches look the same. You may not need to get it “exactly” right if it isn’t going to “fit” your body. What is important to do is to check the size of the finished project, because many times the photographs used in the pattern, may be on a mannequin and not a person. It may be made for an extremely small or large person, someone whose body is vastly different than yours. Sometimes making a swatch seems like wasting your time and a waste of yarn. You will probably only need 25-50 yards for a swatch. It will reduce the chance that you would need to frog your project. I think it is important to make sure that the stitches look right. You may be a looser knitter than the designer or vice versa. So changing your needle size will be just what you need to get your swatch to look like the picture. Those are important questions to answer and it is worth the time to figure this out before you jump into your garment.
I read the Artist’s Way in 1992 when my life took a total shift away from an abusive situation to one where I was the one in control of my life. It’s funny to say that now, because there are so many days when really I don’t feel like I’m in control. But really, I do decide what I am doing on any given day. Some of those days I may feel like not going to work, but I did decide to keep teaching in the public school system while growing Flying Goat Farm. I do decide if I am working or sitting on the couch or working while sitting on the couch. I decide if I will turn off the TV or when I will do the chores.
Anyway back to the Artist’s Way. I did morning pages for probably 2 years straight. I did them religiously. And they did help me find myself again. They helped me figure out my feelings and what my next steps were. I really like to write, but sometimes I decide not to write daily. To get back to that practice of writing everyday, I joined 750words.com. Along with daily morning pages, Julia Cameron you must commit to go on an Artist Date once a week. Man, I had such a hard time doing that. What to do? Where to go? I would go to the LA County Art Museum, duh. That’s a no brainer. I went to farmer’s markets. I went to funky shopping districts, like Main Street in Santa Monica, Melrose Ave or Brentwood area in LA. I went to a great bookstore like the Bodhi Tree (where I even went to a book reading by Cameron) or even to the nearby library to just look at magazines. But they felt disjointed and weird. I never really felt filled up by them, something wasn’t quite right.
I stopped doing the morning pages after I went back to teaching full time. In the summers I would dabble in the pages, but it wasn’t really lasting or nurturing for me. Now that I am closer to being a full time artist, I want and need to develop a habit of the pages. Writing morning pages helps me to build my daily intention. It is helping me become a better writing just by the shear practice of writing.
Back to artist’s dates. I intended our trip to Longwood Gardens to be a fun day away from the farm as part of a staycation since Bill was off from work. As soon as I stepped into the visitor center, I began to feel like this was an artist date. I saw shots for amazing still lives, colors and closeups that could make beautiful photographs. With each view of flowers, the water scapes, and tree houses with their almost art deco look, I was filling up inside. We strolled through the large greenhouse with it’s orchid room and green wall and delightful children’s garden. I took over 100 photos.
Oh boy, we ate lunch at 1906 Restaurant. Lunch was artistically and physically filling. An amuse-bouche of yellow tomato gazpacho. Bill had mushroom soup that was creamy and earthy. I had the crispy salmon. Oh the skin was so delicious and the meat itself was succulent and juicy. The salmon was served with a succotash and lime “essence”. This foam tasted of tart refreshing lime and enhanced the vegetables and the salmon. I need to learn how to make that! It would be good on any recipe where lime juice by itself doesn’t give enough of a taste punch. For dessert we chose the sorbet trio: cucumber with mint, elderberry flower with pear and orange water with tangerine. Each was unusual and so, so good.
When we left, we were full of new inspiration and new motivation. We will definitely go back to Longwood for seasonal artist dates. Click here for information about the gardens.
Most makers I know have a stash of one kind or another. It may be beads, fabric, yarn, roving, threads, magazines, papers or all of the above. Yes, I do have a stash. Even though I dye my own yarn all the time, I also buy yarn and roving that calls my name. Very rarely to I think to myself, “Oh I could dye that!” No, I would rather support my fellow maker and treat myself to another beautiful addition. Stash has developed a negative connotation, almost something to be ashamed of. I am changing my own thinking about this and looking at my stash as a collection. I’ve thoughtfully and artfully collected supplies over the years with which to express my colorful side and the creative force that lives within me.
One way to explore your sense of color is to explore your collection. This is how I find inspiration from my collection. This is like being an explorer or an archaeologist.
Want to explore more? Sign up here for my free 3 lesson Heart Your Yarn Collection ecourse. I will led you through this lesson and 2 others that will help you to sort out what you have collected and what additions will really make your collection sing. Four worksheets are included as well. If you have questions, leave a comment here.
[Tweet “Free Ecourse Be a Color Explorer and fall in love with your yarn collection all over again!”]
“I’m just learning, so I’m going to use cheap yarn/roving until I know what I’m doing. I don’t want to waste it.”
I hear those words all the time in my spinning and knitting classes. I even said it myself when I was learning how to knit socks. Before I had the yarn business, I wanted to knit socks, everyone was doing it. So I went to a craft store and bought yarn and needles and the book “My first socks” or something like that. I knit and knit and knit. I was just about to the heel, when I met Ellen. We roomed together at a SOAR retreat in 2007. She saw my sock and said, “You need to get good sock yarn. That yarn will just not do.” So at the vendor booths the next day I bought a skein of really teeny sock yarn. I was totally scared. I had to buy smaller (#1) double pointed needles, too. Ellen shepherded me through the casting on of 62 stitches and making the K2P1 ribbing. But that was as far as I got that weekend. At home I again reached the heel. Ellen coached me online and I was able to get through the instructions for the short rows of the heel. I could pick up the stitches easily and finish up that first sock. I cast on the other sock and soon completed that sock. What I learned was that Ellen was right. The socks turned out so well. I was kept engaged because the hand dyed colors kept changing through the socks. Yes, making those socks was more enjoyable. The colors were better. The end product was actually wearable, not 6 sizes too big.
Since that time, I tell my students to use the “good stuff”. It is like taking out that silver and china and using it! Don’t save it for “later” and never, ever use it. Enjoy what you have! Don’t deprive yourself until you are a better knitter or crocheter or spinner. Use it today! Because if you don’t and continue use the wrong yarn or roving, you may just give up before you get to be a better knitter (spinner or crocheter). It becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. And you will think to yourself, thank god I didn’t use the good stuff when I had no business even trying to learn to ____ (fill in the blank with spin, knit, crochet). So pull out that beautiful yarn, buy that gorgeous roving and USE IT!!
How do I get alpaca fiber? Alpaca is available as a commercial top for spinning or you can go to your local alpaca farm and buy fleeces. Fleeces are sheared from the animals once a year. They are usually graded at the time of shearing into 3 to 7 grades. The prized fleece is called the “blanket”. This is the fleece that is on the body of the animal. In the best animals, this blanket fleece is even with very little medulated fiber. The seconds and even the thirds come from the neck, legs and bellies of the animal. This fleece has more medulated* fiber and it is also of more variable lengths. This fiber can be harder to spin, but it can be blended with wool to make a lovely, more elastic yarn. Be sure to ask the fiber farmer about their grading practices and know what you are getting. If you are buying at a festival fleece sale, you cannot usually lay out the fleeces to look at it. In that case, put your hand in a different parts of the fleece and feel. You can take a small pinch of the fleece to see what the staple length is. Do this sparingly, no one wants a fleece that is all torn apart. There is an etiquette to this at a fiber show. You can ask the fleece show volunteers to help you determine a good fleece if you are new to alpaca fleece buying.
How do you clean and prepare an alpaca fleece? Alpaca does not have any lanolin or grease in their fleeces. But the animals do like to give themselves dust baths. So there is dirt and dust in the fleeces, generally. You can wash the fiber before or after you make it into yarn. I would test a small amount of the fleece to find out the level of dirt. If it is very dirty, then wash it before you spin it. If it isn’t very dirty, then you can spin it first and then wash the yarn. Care must be taken to wash the fleece carefully so that you don’t felt or just knot up the fleece. Fill a basin with moderately hot water (180 degrees) with some mild detergent like Orvis paste or Synthropol. Leave undisturbed for about 45 minutes to an hour in a place that will keep the fiber relatively warm. Gently lift the fleece out of the water and dispose of the dirty water. Refill the basin with warm water for a rinse. Leave again for 30-45 minutes. Lift out. Look at the water, is it dirty? Feel the fleece does it feel soapy? If yes to one or both of these questions, then repeat the rinsing step until the fleece is clean and does not feel soapy. Depending on the amount of the fleece you are washing, you can spin out the water in a washing machine or a salad spinner. Leave to dry. When it is dry you can prepare the fleece for spinning. For Huacaya you can card the fiber into rolags or batts and then spin. For suri, you may need to flick the locks to open the fibers. Then you can card the fiber or you can comb the fiber to prepare it.
How do you design a yarn to take advantage of the best characteristics of alpaca while minimizing it’s foibles? As I wrote in a previous post here, alpaca fiber is very warm and insulating. This is because of the way that it is formed in the folicles. The medulla or inner portion of the fiber has small air sacs. Judith Mackenzie in her book, The Intentional Spinner, says these are a little like bubble wrap. The sacs hold in the warmth of the wearer. This hollowness contributes to its tendency to static electricity and clinginess of the fiber. Alpaca itself is also more slippery than wool is, so you will need to adjust your tension on you wheel to achieve a good twist and take-up. When spinning the fiber, you need to add more twist than when using wool to make the same yarn. But you also need to take care that the yarn is not overspun and therefore stiff and dense. Yarn made from Huacaya will bloom when you wash it and it will give you a halo effect. Most of the alpaca top or roving that you will find commercially are made from Huacaya, since it is more prevalent than Suri. Suri fiber has no crimp and no elasticity. It does have great sheen though and you can find fleeces from local alpaca farms to use for yarn. Suri is much more difficult to spin according to Deb Robson in her book The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook. Yarn spun from Suri may look even and balanced while you are spinning it. However when it hits water, any imperfections will become evident. This is because it tends to resist being adequately spun. When this yarn is knit or woven you will see the imperfections and you may see some curling. You will need to practice with this fiber to get the results that you want in your final fabric.
Flying Goat Farm Superfine Alpaca top is made in Peru from 100% Huacaya. It has a micron range of 24-26 microns . I hand dye the top to make colors that will inspire and thrill you. You can see some of them here.
*Medulated fibers are ones that are a little more coarse. They tend to not take dye well and can feel prickly.
Remember I said it was really warm. When you consider making a garment with alpaca, consider the warmth requirements of the wearer. Don’t make a sweater for someone with hot flashes, just sayin’. But that same lovely person, may have cold feet, perhaps a nice pair of alpaca socks would be a better choice.
Alpaca yarn, when knitted, produces a drapey, dense, relaxed fabric. This is amazing with the right garment, but this characteristic can be challenging as well. Drapey and relaxed fabric can also stretch out of shape and a dense fabric can be too warm or too heavy.
What kind of stitches work with 100% alpaca yarn? In stockinette, it will show off any variability in your knitting. So if you are not a consistent knitter (I can be very inconsistent), you should consider paring this yarn up with textured stitches like moss or seed stitch. Because the fiber tends to be very heavy and dense, a pattern with cables is going to be too heavy and the garment may pull out of shape from the shear weight of itself. A lace pattern might be a better choice. Still because alpaca is not elastic and is not resilient, a garment made with 100% alpaca should have enough stitch structure to hold the fiber in shape. You are probably saying to yourself, I’ve seen lovely alpaca sweaters. Yes it can be done. You just might want to consider a yarn that is a blend of alpaca and loftier, more elastic wool. A blend like that will allow you to make your cables and reduce the density of the sweater in the end. And an alpaca wool blend yarn can help your lace stay in it’s original size and shape.
Finally washing, when you wash an alpaca garment, take care not to pull it out of shape. Support the weight of the wet garment, so that it doesn’t stretch. And block carefully. The fiber itself won’t spring back like wool will.
Flying Goat Farm has a 100% alpaca yarn called Nimbus. It is 2-ply, sport weight yarn. We sell skeins of 200 yards. It is made with superfine alpaca fiber grown and milled in Peru. This yarn is next to the skin soft. It has a slight halo to the yarn. It is perfect for a cowl, shawl or scarf yet strong enough for hand warmers, socks or a hat. It would look great as a luxurious shawl to wear to the symphony. It is light weight enough to provide just enough warmth on a chilly spring or summer evening outing. It is perfect for a complicated lace pattern, yet will look fabulous in a seed stitch cowl that you can wear on the ski slope. It is soft enough for a newborn baby sweater too.
Just one look in those eyes with their long, long lashes and everyone falls in love with an alpaca. Of course that is right before they spit on you. I have been smitten as well. I do not personally own any alpacas. They have been offered to me, and I have just always said no. Why? I love the fiber. I love the animals. Because it is just the two of us, I didn’t want to add another species that would require a different knowledge base and time schedule to care for.
Alpaca descended from Vicunas that were domesticated by the Inca in ancient Peru. The largest flocks and alpaca fiber mills continue to be in Peru. In the early 80’s, some Americans started to bring alpaca into the states. They became a rage and the value of the animals went sky high, some even attaining the price in the tens of thousands for a single animal. Not all alpaca owners had the knowledge base to work with the fiber in the states. So much of it is being sent back to Peru for processing. In the last few years, some alpaca owners have started their own fiber mills to make yarn from alpaca here in the states.
There are 2 different types of alpaca. The Huacaya (wa-ki-ah) which is the most numerous has a fine crimpy fiber that is 4-6 inches long. The fiber can be extremely fine or not. It can be highly crimped or not. The crimp is not the same as the crimp of wool. It doesn’t provide memory or the ability to “spring back” into shape. The crimp of alpaca probably does contribute to the overall feeling of softness. The other alpaca type is the Suri, which grows really long straight, silky fiber. It looks a little bit like Cousin It. But there isn’t yet a lot of yarn or spinning fiber yet available commercially made from the Suri, it is a boutique item. The fiber is reallly too long to be put through a mill. So it needs to be cut into shorter bits, like silk does.
Huacaya fiber is very strong. It can be very fine as well (18-26 microns). It is a hollow fiber. This hollowness gives it the property of being lightweight but very insulating. The fiber pulls heat from you giving the impression that it is cool when you touch it. Although it is cool to the touch, alpaca is many times warmer than wool. Like wool, it is water loving and will absorb water and wick it away from your body. There are several grades of alpaca. The saddle area is the prime fleece of an animal. The leg and neck fleece is considered 2nd or 3rds, because it has more diverse staple length and crimp. The fleeces do not have luster, they have a more matte finish. The fleece comes in 22 different colors from bright white to cinnamon brown and deep, dark black and many different patterns, such as belted and spotted. There is no lanolin on this animal. They do like to take dust baths, though. So you need to wash out the dirt from your fleeces. The fiber itself is very smooth with a low number of scales. It does not felt readily, but will felt with extra agitation.
With all these properties, spinners of alpaca can counteract the lack of elasticity by spinning it in a worsted way. That will give your resulting fabric more structure and less stretching out of shape. You may want to spin it in a woolen manner. That yarn will be extra insulating and soft. The resulting fabric will show less stitch definition. Pick a stitch that has more structure if you don’t want your knitting to stretch.
Flying Goat Farm carries superfine alpaca roving to spin or felt. The fiber is an average of 26 microns and will make next-to-the-skin soft yarn. Each 4ounce portion is $15 plus applicable taxes and shipping. Click here to see some of our colorways.
Tune in next week to learn about alpaca yarn and how to use it. Do you have alpaca questions? Leave a comment or contact me firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll answer it next week.