Ok, you’ve selected a project, picked up your needles, and you’re ready to choose a yarn to begin your project. You arrive at the store and find something you like, but why cotton instead of acrylic, and does it make a difference if you’re trying to knit a blanket or a hat?
The answer is a resounding yes.
Good yarn choice is vital to the success of a project. Highly absorbent materials like cotton are great for making a bath rug, but not so good for that hat you plan on wearing during the rainy season. This week, I’ll be exploring common fibers and characteristics that will help you substitute yarns with a little more confidence.
Let’s get started!
Acrylic is one of the most common materials you’ll find at a craft store like Michael’s. Acrylic is a completely synthetic material, and isn't much more than long threads of plastic spun together. This makes it pretty durable and inexpensive.
Because it is so highly processed, it is excellent for kid’s toys and home goods like afghans and pillows, and you’d be hard pressed to find acrylic that isn’t completely machine washable. It’s also safe for folks who have lanolin allergies and are not able to wear wool.
Besides it’s obvious environmental impact, acrylic does not drape well, nor is it very warm. When looking at yarns for beanies, gloves, and sweaters, it’s best to stay away from acrylic or acrylic-heavy blends.
Nylon is a fiber that you won’t usually see on it’s own, appearing as a reinforcing material for fibers that may not stretch well independently. Nylon and wool blends are very popular in sock yarns, and you will see nylon as a major percentage of novelty and eyelash yarns.
Wool is one of the oldest and most common materials available on the market, as it is a natural fiber that’s relatively easy to produce both by machine and hand. It’s a nice balance of warmth and durability, and naturally water-repellent, with some wools treated for machine washability. Brands may vary, but machine washable wool will usually be labeled as easy care or superwash.
As a natural fiber, wool has a smaller footprint, and can easily be found from sustainable sources, if you’re willing to spend a little more per skein. Additionally, quality wool isn’t itchy, and will soften with use, giving your project a more lived-in feel. Wool comes in a wide variety of weights, but is not very good for warm weather projects, such as light shawls or summer tops.
Alpaca is a luxurious yarn spun from the fleece of the alpaca animal. It’s beautiful drape means it can be blended with other materials to make a yarn that’s easier to care for. Alone, it is durable and lightweight, great for sensitive skin.
Suited well for baby knits, alpaca can over drape at times. When selecting this yarn, it is important to consider how it hangs after a few washes. For items whose shape is an important part of fit, quality wool and alpaca blends are well to do.
Cashmere is a cadillac choice for truly beautiful garments. Known for it’s cloudy, fuzzy appearance, cashmere also gets softer with wear. Because of the fuzz, it pills easily, but can be shaved using a sweater shaver or razor. This kind of yarn is very expensive, especially when considering the cost of dry cleaning for care. For a more affordable option, cashmere and wool blends can ease the fussy maintenance while bringing the cost of a garment down.
Cotton is best known for its absorbency, making it an ideal material for goods like coasters and dishcloths. Cotton doesn’t stretch well, so anything with a fixed shape like rugs or purses are ideal for this material. Keep in mind that cotton doesn’t maintain drape very well, so any garments made with it are likely to eventually weigh themselves down, and the amount of time this takes will vary by the pattern.
That doesn’t make cotton unwearable though- items like lacy shawls are made delicate and breathable with a quality cotton yarn. Cotton is popular for table runners, mats, and doilies not only because of the natural tones of cotton, but it’s toughness and rigidity. Washcloths are popular for cotton because, like acrylic, it is completely machine washable.
Linen yarn is a little less common, but stunning when used well. Linen is an odd yarn- it has the durability and thickness of wool, but isn’t very good at insulating. This makes it ideal for warm weather garments and functional home goods like towels. Made from the flax plant, linen is highly absorbent, and its lightness allows it to dry quickly. Linen does wrinkle easily, and most yarn you’ll find is not safe to iron.
Bamboo is touted as one of the most sustainable fibers used in clothing today, but there isn’t a isn’t a lot of evidence that this is true. A quick google search of the brand of bamboo yarn you're looking at will tell whether it is separated mechanically or chemically.
Chemically separating bamboo dissolves certain parts of the plant using multiple stages of bleaching, much like rayon and some acrylics. If you’re looking to use bamboo as a sustainable option, make sure that you’re getting the mechanically separated fiber. This yields a higher price tag, but the quality of such labor-intensive methods of creating bamboo fiber is certainly worth the wear you’ll get from the garment.
Whatever yarn you choose, it’s important to think about the characteristics you’ll need before choosing a fiber. Before purchasing, it may be helpful to ask yourself the following:
Is it easy to work with?
Will it stretch or pill after a few uses?
Does it work with the pattern I’ve chosen?
What size needles will I need to obtain the gauge I need?
What kind of care does it need?
Considering these before you cast on will save you time and energy when making your next project.
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