New Year’s Resolution: No Superwash

It’s ubiquitous, superwash wool. Superwash refers to wool that can be machine washed (and possibly dried) without fear of it shrinking and felting to Lilliputian sizes, thanks to one of a couple chemical processes. The first is a chlorinated bath that removes the “scales” from wool fibres, smoothing them out and taking away their ability to lift up and then stick to each other, which is essentially the process of shrinking/felting. All hair has scales, by the way, even human hair–it’s overlapping layers of the cuticle, which is the outermost part of the hair shaft. Wool, especially certainly breeds like Merino, has lots of scales and is especially prone to felting.

Another way to remove the risk of felting is to coat the wool fibres with a polymer, sort of a plastic outer layer that covers the scales. This is all well and good, and superwash has certainly been a boon to the wool industry in general(and has its uses), but it’s not without problems. First, both the chlorination and polymer processes are quite toxic. That last link also gives some info about a less toxic variation of the polymer process, but I’d like to move on to other issues with superwash:

It kind of makes the yarn suck. I know, I know, them’s fightin’ words, but hear me out. Because there are no scales, the fibres become quite slippery, which explains superwash yarn’s tendency to GROWWWWWW when it’s washed. It can be cajoled back to normal size again, but generally not without the use of a clothes dryer, and it adds an extra layer of complication to something that must be blocked (like lace). It also changes the hand feel, especially if there are polymers involved. It’s taking wool and making it, well, more like acrylic. I’m currently knitting a pair of leg warmers from gorgeously dyed gradient wool, but the feel is absolutely terrible in my hands. Superwash strikes again. (Though it should be noted that this varies greatly among mills/producers. Some superwash yarn still feels quite nice.)

While superwash is a handy quality in commercially produced items like my merino base layers for winter sports, I have to ask myself, do I really need machine washability in my handknits? Most of what I knit will be hand washed anyway, especially the lace, and I even hand wash my socks. I don’t need the superwash quality.

So, I end up with my New Year’s Resolution for 2018: I will not be buying any superwash yarn or fiber this year (though I’ll knit with the stuff I already have). Primarily for the environmental benefit, but also because I just don’t like the stuff as much as untreated wool. This may even be a challenge, because superwash is everywhere, and people seem to look for it on the label even if they don’t end up chucking their finished items in the washing machine.

Feel strongly about superwash? Got a nice untreated wool yarn to recommend? Leave me a comment.

Posted in Knitting, sustainability, wool | 4 Comments

“Darn my socks”

This was an actual quote to my dad to my mom, circa 1982-ish, as he dumped a pile of hole-y work socks (cheap black cotton dress socks) in front of her. My mom assumed he was joking and started laughing, unable to stop for a few minutes, during which time my dad got more and more angry. “Oh my god,” she said, “you’re serious, aren’t you?” He replied, “My mother always used to darn my socks.” “Send them to your mother, then!” (cue more laughing)

I’m with my mom on this one–on a number of counts, but certainly on the futility of spending time darning cheap socks from Sears that come in a pack of ten and wear out fast. Especially when the wearer is a fairly successful physician and can certainly afford to buy another 10-pack. But hand-knit socks? Well, my friends, time to learn the fine and ridiculously easy art of sock hole repair: darning. Interestingly, the word “darn” is one of the few words in English to come from a Celtic language, specifically Breton (meaning piece or fragment). Unless, that is, you subscribe to the theory that it comes from an Anglo-Saxon term, but I’ll let the linguists duke that one out.

It takes a long time to knit socks. I may be a particularly slow knitter, but even the fastest knitters spends considerably more time knitting a pair of socks than it would take to buy them, even counting the drive to the mall. Handknit socks are worth repairing when they inevitably get a hole from wear and tear, a snag, or even a moth attack. Recently I noticed a hole in my favourite pair of hand knit socks:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Still not quite sure how it happened, but the socks haven’t been worn heavily so I’m leaning towards a snag on something. I decided to mend the hole but first, had to get the proper tool.

Enter the darning mushroom. It’s a variation of the darning egg, essentially an egg-shaped wooden tool that may or may not have a handle to make it easier to hold. I’ve heard tell of people using lightbulbs, but the thought of tiny slivers of broken glass appearing in my hands and lap is less than appealing, so I looked for a darning mushroom. It’s an easy tool to use: push it into the sock in question so the hole is exposed across the rounded top, and use the “stalk” to hold on as you work. The top of the mushroom gives you a surface to push against and also see the edges of the hole and where you’re weaving (more on that below). I was lucky to find a woodworker just an hour or so north of Toronto, Sharon Burger(link is to her Etsy), who makes darning mushrooms out of salvaged local woods. I picked up this beauty in black cherry:

 

 

 

 

 

 

And then I got to work. I’ve seen some darning tutorials that advise seaming the hole and pulling it closed, like a sutured incision, but in my experience darning is meant to create a durable patch that will cover the hole without puckering the knit fabric around it. You do this by threading a yarn needle (I use my own handspun wool yarn) and weaving across the hole first in one direction (say, top to bottom) and then the other (right to left and vice versa):

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the end, you’ll have a new bit of wool fabric integrated into the sock. It’s generally visible (I suppose I could have used the original yarn for the sock from the leftovers I have somewhere, but it still would look different being woven rather than knit), but I think that’s part of the appeal:

 

 

 

 

 

 

End result? More months or even years of wear and new life for a hand knit item. No trip to the mall required!

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PSA: Free yarn for a good cause

My new favourite go-to website for workhorse yarns (eg, Cascade 220), is Yarn Canada. Just quick, unremunerated public service announcement that they are giving away $2000 in free yarn to individuals and groups who will use that yarn for charity work and good causes. Check it out!

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Another riding sweater?

So, ages ago, I knit a lovely riding sweater to wear when working the horses in cooler weather. I actually haven’t worn it that much, due to needing to redo the zipper, add a clasp at the top, and being reluctant to let something that took so much time to make become covered in pony slobbers. Despite this, I’ve decided to make another sweater for riding anyway; this one is specifically going to be for wearing at a clinic with my coach in Quebec next year. If it doesn’t get too filthy, I’ll also be able to wear it when I swing down to Montreal from the Laurentians on an off day.

What pattern, you ask? I have no idea. I do know, however, that it will be made with fleece from my barn’s new flock of fiber sheep. (This has all been very exciting, let me tell you.) I did a small swatch of semi-woollen, sport/DK-weight yarn from a BFLxRomney ewe by the name of Diesel, and it’s perfect light sweater material:

Diesel is closely related to the sheep that produced the Grand Champion Fleece at the Royal Winter Fair this year, so she’s got good genetics. The whole flock is young so I have to wait til next year for their fleeces, but I can’t wait. (Also, in case you’re wondering, sheep are DELIGHTFUL — seriously. Sweet and smart and hilarious.) Diesel (front) and her sister, Elisabeth:

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New article in Spin-Off

Happy to announce a new article in Spin-Off, profiling one of my favourite spindle makers, Malcolm Fielding of The Spindle Shop.

That’s my own spindle in the photo, in nearly metallic satin sycamore wood, in its home in a vintage library catalogue (where my growing collections live). Get your hands on a copy of the magazine and I hope you enjoy!

Posted in spindle, Spinning, supported spindle, Turkish spindle, writing | Leave a comment

New class!

I’m pleased to announce I will be holding my Beginner Spinning on a Drop Spindle workshop in Toronto later this month. As part of an event hosted by The Stop at Wychwood Barns, I’ll be teaching this workshop from 10a-12p on October 21. Drop spindle, fibre, and notes to take home are included in the class fee of $50. Spots are very limited so email me at lordal (at) gmail (dot) com to reserve yours!

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How many yards in this skein? Time for some MATH

I’m now a semi-frequent recipient of Chinese yarn, which is notorious for listing only the weight of the skein/ball on the label, and not the yardage. Chinese patterns seem to rely on weight-based requirements rather than the Western preference for yardage, so deciding whether the following heap of fine merino is enough to make Alcomar can be tricky:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I thought I might grab a clever little tool called a yarn balance, which helps you calculate yardage per weight of a particular yarn, but at $54 each, uhhhh… no thanks.

Fortunately, intrepid knitters before me have published a set of instructions for a DIY yarn balance, and I will quickly be acquiring the scrap bits of bamboo and plastic to make my own. I suspect that there’s about 400 yards in each 100g skein, given its light fingering weight, but I’ll report back once there’s been some sciencing…

 

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