The type of fiber you choose for your knitting affects every aspect of your creation: your creation’s physical characteristics, such as warmth and appearance, are all dependent on its fiber content. In addition, choosing your yarn wisely allows you to avoid actual or potential allergens, make weather appropriate garments, and keep the heirloom sweaters out of the washer and drier.
First, let’s review the factors you should look at when picking out yarn for a project.
1) Washability. If you’re knitting for children or others who prefer that everything be washer and drier safe, you don’t want to pick an animal fiber which will be felt when exposed to hot water and agitation. (Not all animal fibers fall into this category: superwash wools and some blends are safe. Check your yarn’s label to be sure.) On the other hand, if you are knitting a project which involves felting, you’ll want to stick animal fibers which will felt.
2) Blockability. Blocking, the act of dampening and pinning out your knitting so that it assumes a desired shape or openness (in lace knitting), is important to achieving a polished, finished look. Lace, particularly, should not be knitted in yarn which does not block well.
3) Softness. Many wools and mohair can be itchy, and cause skin irritation. For clothes worn close to the body, you should select a fiber like merino wool, alpaca, or cotton which is gentle on skin.
4) Warmth. A cotton sweater isn’t the best for heavy winter, just as an alpaca vest in the midst of high summer should be avoided at all costs.
5) Drape. Cotton and linen are much heavier and less lofty than animal or man-made fibers. Where wool is springy, cotton will stretch out and lay flat. Correspondingly, a cotton garment is often much heavier than a wool garment, which you should consider before trying, say, a cotton sweater coat.
Now that you understand all the factors that go into choosing a yarn, let’s look at the most common fibers in commercial yarns today.
1) Man-made fibers: These are easy to mass-produce cheaply, and are easy to find in your local Wal-Mart or Hobby Lobby. They have some advantages: they’re washable, inexpensive, and easy to locate. They are also less allergenic than animal fibers. However, man-made fibers do not block at all, they do not felt, and they neither sustain warmth well in cold or breathe well in heat. Novelty yarns are often made from man-made fibers. Examples:
Acrylic: Yarns like Red Heart or Caron Simply Soft
Polyester: Yarns like Lion Brand Fun Fur.
Nylon:Yarns like Patons Allure.
2) Animal fibers. These retain heat well, felt unless treated or less than 75% of a blend with a non-felting fiber, and are generally springy. However, some may have allergies to animal fibers, or sensitivities to rough fibers like wool or mohair, so it’s always best to ask beforehand about fiber allergies if you’re giving a gift. Very blockable: great for cables, lace, or anything you can dream up! Should be washed by hand with a gentle cleaner like Eucalan. Examples:
Wool: Yarns like Cascade 220 or Knitpicks Wool of the Andes
Merino Wool: (A special breed of wool – very soft.) Yarns like Filatura di Crosa 501 (which is superwash) or Knitpicks Merino Style.
Mohair: (Mostly in blends; has a distinct feathery halo.) Yarns like Rowan Kidsilk Haze (70% mohair/30% silk) or Brown Sheep Lambs’ Pride Worsted (85% wool/15% mohair).
Alpaca: (Very soft and warm, less allergenic than other animal fibers.) Yarns like Misti Alpaca Worsted.
Angora: (Soft with a gentle feathery halo; also often in blends.) Yarns like Lorna’s Laces Angel (70% alpaca/30% wool) or Artful Yarns Serenade (70% pima cotton, 30% angora).
Silk: (This should be dry cleaned.) Yarns like Fiesta La Luz or Alchemy Silk Purse.
3) Plant Fibers. These drape wonderfully, are washable, and respond moderately well to blocking. Cables don’t pop as much in plant fibers, but lace still looks lovely. Plant fibers are more breathable and not usually allergenic. Examples:
Cotton: Yarns like Patons Grace or Tahki Cotton Classic.
Linen: Yarns like Louet Euroflax.
Bamboo: Yarns like Southwest Trading Company Bamboo.
There you are! You’re all prepared to shop for yarn (who isn’t?) – the yarn that will make the project of your dreams a reality.