As I work my way through the Christmas gifts and other projects, the subject of wool and the different characteristics of wool is very much in my mind. All the projects I am currently knitting are pure wool (with the exception of the socks with nylon added). I wondered why that was. I think there are two reasons:
- The yarns I have selected have the characteristics I want to produce the desired fabric of the finished garment; and
- A lot of the projects I’m knitting (in particular, the hats) will see vigorous use, and must be able to stand up to abuse and wear and tear, and particularly the unique conditions of hat wearing – being stretched across a very warm (and often moist) head, and still retain its shape and elasticity. Wool is absolutely the best material for this purpose because it is durable, elastic, breathable and warm, and can handle a bit of water if rained on.
The inadvertent consequence of choosing different wool yarns to knit is that knitting each of the projects has also highlighted to me just how different wool yarns can be, depending on sheep breed, processing method and spin.
Take the hat that I have just completed:
This is a commercial New Zealand wool yarn that has since been discontinued. Judging from the way this yarn feels and behaves, the wool used in this yarn would come from composite sheep – multipurpose types that are raised for both meat and wool in New Zealand. They are not a particular ‘breed’ as such, but a mix of breeds that are combined to create sheep suited to the climate and conditions where they are farmed. Different breeds of sheep perform better in different environments, be it hill country, on the flat, in wet conditions or dry, etc., and farmers here often specifically combine breeds of sheep so that their progeny are able to thrive in the conditions they are farmed in. It is the same concept that has brought about the different breeds in history – each sheep breed was developed in its time to be the ideal animal to raise in the conditions it lived in. Unfortunately, (in the view of this knitter), a changed world means that the majority focus now is more on the animal’s ability to produce meat rather than quality of wool for hand knitting purposes.
Back to the yarn – it is a natural colour, spun semi-worsted to an aran/worsted/10 ply weight. It is a perfectly acceptable workhorse yarn, which will wear very well. It has that ‘standardised’ feel, nothing special to write home about, but it is still wool, with all the properties that make wool amazing nonetheless.
The 3-ply has given the yarn a roundness and a smoother quality to the fabric than the next yarn that I used…
This yarn is very different to the first! I could tell from its handle the minute I started knitting with it! It is from a blend of the fleece of Corriedale and Perendale sheep, carefully selected for suitability for hand knitting. It is Ashford Tekapo, a lofty semi-worsted spun yarn. Two singles that are plied together in a lively twist to form a DK weight yarn (personally, I use this yarn like an US worsted weight). When examined more closely, I found that the singles are minimally twisted before plying. Yet the yarn is extremely elastic and feels lively in hand, with a wonderful squish and comfortable handle that makes it a delight to knit with. I suspect that has to do with the quality of the original fleece in addition to the twist put into the plying process. It is not a superwash yarn either, which has preserved the characteristics of the fleece. It is not super soft, but it is not scratchy or coarse. It is ideal for outerwear.
The resulting fabric is lofty (not dense) and has a rustic look that I particularly enjoy. That energetic 2-ply creates a fabric with more texture than a 3-ply. If you compare the photos of the hat below with the hat above, I think the difference in the fabrics due to the differing spin methods is quite noticeable. I would add that the characteristics and quality of the original fleece selected also plays a large part in the end result.
It will wear very well. I think the thing that I love about this particular yarn is that it feels like fleece/unprocessed wool. If you have ever had the privilege to bury your hands into freshly shorn fleece (or even while it is on the sheep’s back), the feel that you get is much like knitting with this yarn and the fabric that forms in your hands. Minus the greasy lanolin and vegetable matter of course! I shouldn’t be surprised. Ashford is a company that is primarily known for its amazing spinning wheels. It does go to say they should know a fair bit about spinning a good yarn! Mental note to knit more with this yarn!
What interests me a lot about the wool yarns I have been knitting with is that I am particularly enjoying the yarns where the character of the fleece of origin is preserved in the yarn. Perhaps it is because it makes me feel more connected to its origins, the sheep itself?
Incidentally, the subject of different wools and their characteristics was one of the fascinating topics of the Wovember campaign this year. If you’d like to read more about wool and its yarn, visit Wovember and have a browse! Just start at the top and scroll down… 🙂