Fiber fundamentals

All yarn is made from natural or synthetic fibers. Different fibers have different qualities — some good, some not so good. Often, to offset an undesirable characteristic, yarn manufacturers combine different fibers. (A blend is a yarn made from fibers of different origins — for example, wool/cotton, wool/silk, alpaca/cotton.) More than anything else, the combination of fibers in your yarn determines its ultimate look, feel, and wearable comfort.

Yarn consists of one or more strands called plies. Plied yarns are made from two, three, or four plies of yarn twisted together. Multi-plied and firmly twisted yarns are usually strong, smooth, and even. Lightly twisted plied and single-ply yarns are closer to their roving (unspun) state and, though sturdy enough when knitted up, can pull apart into strands if they're over-handled. They also can be slightly uneven, have more loft and softness, and be warmer than their twisted sisters.



A fabric's hand is how it feels to the touch. Just as pieces of woven fabric from silk or wool differ in drape (how it falls) and softness, so do knits from different fibers. But fiber isn't all that accounts for drape and softness. The size of the needle you use with a given yarn affects the feel of your knitted piece. The larger the needle and looser the stitch, the softer and drapier the fabric. The smaller the needle and tighter the stitch, the stiffer the fabric.

Woof and other fteece yarns

Wool (made from the fleece of sheep) is the queen of yarns, and it endures and remains a popular choice for knitters for a number of excellent reasons.

Wool is a good insulator — warm in winter, cool in summer. It can absorb lots of moisture without feeling wet, and it absorbs dye beautifully. It's resilient — the fibers can stretch and bend repeatedly but always return to their original shape. It's soft, relatively lightweight, and beautiful to look at. And, key to beginning knitters, wool is easy to knit with because it has just enough give. It also can be pulled out and reknit easily, a bonus when you're just learning the basic stitches.

Although all wool yarns are wonderful to work with, they vary tremendously depending on the breed of sheep or combination of breeds they come from, how they're spun, whether they're plied or single stranded, and whether they're treated for washability or not. Following are some of your wool yarn options:

I Lamb's wool: This wool comes from a young lamb's first shearing. It's softer and finer than wool from an older sheep's fleece.

I Merino wool: Merino wool is considered the finest of the fine breeds. Long, lustrous fibers make a soft and exceptionally lovely knitted fabric.

i Pure new wool/virgin wool: Pure new and virgin refer to wool that's made directly from animal fleece and not recycled from existing wool garments.

i Shetland wool: Real Shetland wool is a traditional 2-ply heathery yarn that's made from the small and hardy native sheep of Scotland's Shetland Islands and used in traditional Fair Isle sweaters. It's usually available in sport or fingering weight (see "A weighty matter" later in the chapter for an explanation of weights). This wool originally came in sheep's colors, including all shades of charcoal and deep brown to white. Shetland wool is now also available in an extraordinary range of beautiful dyed colors.

i Icelandic wool: This rustic, soft, single-ply, medium-weight to heavyweight yarn was traditionally available only in natural sheep's colors (black, charcoal, light gray, and white). Today, it's also available dyed in bright jewel and heathered colors as well as in a lighter weight appropriate for thinner, "indoor" sweaters.

i Washable or "superwash" wool: This wool is treated chemically or electronically to destroy the outer fuzzy layer of fibers that would otherwise felt or bond with each other and shrink in the washing machine.

Sheep aren't the only animals to provide fibers for yarns. Fuzzy mohair and luxurious cashmere come from Angora and Kashmir goats, respectively. Warm, soft alpaca comes from members of the llama family; alpacas are small, South American cousins of the camel. The belly of the musk-ox provides the lush and exceptionally warm and light qiviut. Lighter than air and fuzziest of all, angora comes from the hair of Angora rabbits.

Silk, cotton, ('men, and rayon

Silk, cotton, linen, and rayon yarns are the slippery yarns. Unlike rough yarns from the hairy fibers of animals, their smooth and often shiny surfaces cause them to unravel quickly if you drop a stitch. These yarns are inelastic and may stretch lengthwise over time. Often, they're blended with other fibers (natural and synthetic) to counteract their disadvantages. But silk and cotton, even in their pure state, are so lovely to look at and comfortable to wear that they're well worth knitting.

Synthetic yarns

Originally, synthetics (nylon, acrylic, and polyester) were made to mimic the look and feel of natural materials. Just as wool yarn is spun from short lengths of carded fibers from a sheep's fleece, synthetic yarns begin as a long filament made from artificial, usually petroleum-based ingredients cut into short lengths and processed to look like wool yarn.

Knitters give mixed reviews to 100-percent synthetic yarns.

i On the plus side: All-synthetic yarns are inexpensive and hold up well in the washing machine. For people who are allergic to wool, synthetics make for a look-alike substitute (at least from a distance).

i On the downside: All-synthetic yarns don't have the wonderful insulating and moisture-absorbing qualities of natural yarns and therefore can be uncomfortable to wear. For the same reason, they can make your hands clammy when you're knitting. They pill more readily than wool or other fibers, and once exposed to heat (a hot iron is deadly), they lose all resilience and become flat.

These complaints and synthetic yarns' dubious reputation have encouraged manufacturers to come up with new and better applications for synthetics. Perhaps the best use for synthetic yarns is in combination with other fibers. Manufacturers now engineer blended yarns for certain qualities. For example, nylon is extremely strong and light. Nylon adds durability when blended in small amounts with more fragile fibers such as mohair. A little nylon blended with wool makes a superb sock yarn. A little acrylic in cotton makes the yarn lighter and promotes memory so that the knitted fabric doesn't stretch out of shape.

Straddling the border between natural and synthetic are soy, bamboo, corn, and other unusual yarns made using plant-based materials. Spun into microfilaments that are extruded using a process similar to that employed for acrylic and other synthetic yarns, these fibers have become increasingly popular in the past few years, particularly in yarn blends such as soy/wool, bamboo/silk, and even tree-, corn-, and seaweed-derived fibers.

Novelty yarns

Novelty yarns are easy to recognize because their appearance is so different from traditional yarns. Their jewel colors and whimsical textures can be hard to resist. Eyelash yarns, for example, feature tiny spikes of fiber that stick up, resembling eyelashes. Following are some of the more common novelty, or specialty, yarns you'll come across:

i Ribbon: This is usually a knitted ribbon in rayon or a rayon blend with wonderful drape.

i Boucle: This highly bumpy, textured yarn is comprised of loops.

i Chenille: Although tricky to knit with, the attractive appearance and velvety texture of this yarn make your perseverance worthwhile. It's usually available in rayon (for sheen) or cotton.

i Thick-thin: Often handspun, these yarns alternate between very thick and thin sections, which lends a charmingly bumpy look to knitted fabric.

i Railroad ribbon: This ribbon-style yarn has tiny "tracks" of fiber strung between two parallel strands of thread.

  • Faux fur: Fluffy fiber strands on a strong base thread of nylon resemble faux fur when knitted. It's available in many different colors.
  • quot;Traditional" novelty yarns: Long before shiny synthetic eyelash and faux fur yarns became popular, knitters had other types of yarn at their disposal to create special looks in their knitted items. Tweeds, heathered, marled, and handpainted yarns all create more subtle effects than modern novelty yarns do and can add lovely variety to your knitting basket.
  • Tweed: Usually wool, this yarn has a background color flecked with bits of fiber in different colors.
  • Heather: This yarn has been blended from a number of different-colored or dyed fleeces, and then spun. Heather yarns are muted in color; think of them as the yarn equivalent of watercolors.
  • Marled (ragg) yarn: This is a plied yarn in which the plies are different colors.
  • Variegated yarn: This yarn is dyed in several different colors or shades of a single color. Hand-dyed yarn (often called handpainted) is very popular and knits up in a series of random color repeats that would be difficult to imitate using even a large number of different-colored yarns.

Some novelty yarns can be tricky to work with. Others — like those with no give, complex textures, or threadlike strands that are easy to lose when you knit from one needle to the other — can be downright difficult. If you're dying to work with a novelty yarn, start with a variegated dyed or painted single-ply yarn. These give lots of color variation and interest, but the strand of yarn is itself easy to see. Identifying individual stitches in highly textured yarns is difficult, if not impossible, making it hard to fix mistakes or rip out stitches.

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