Currently on my needles with enough yarn for a second long sleeve is the handspun Polwarth 2-ply wool from last summer’s indigo dye fructose vat.
The knit’s pattern is the popular 2012 Vodka Lemonade by BabyCocktails, Thea Coleman. Needle keeper shown is by @knitspinquilt.
Substituting a handspun yarn
Knitters have recently been discussing the financial accessibility of new sweater designs on social media, blog posts. For a bunch of reasons that I do not plan to unpack the discussion gave a slight nod to spinning as an option, and then moved right along.
Premise of this post: spinning yarn for garments is an option. Yes, even slightly pear-shaped yarn.
It was a simple idea really. In September 2014, a 1 lb bag of Polwarth combed top from a large commercial mill cost A$38.59 plus tax & mileage to/from The Fibre Garden in Jordan, Ontario.
Earl, the Spinolution Mach 2 wheel was a good choice for my easy default worsted-style yarn but I ran into a mechanical issue of the drive wheel knocking the frame.
Customer service was responsive. I was able to finish through to almost 1,400 yards of 2-ply 100% Polwarth wool but the wheel action changed. Time frame is August 2015 – December 2016.
Evaluating the handspun yarn
In addition to a big wheel action change, 2016 was my watershed year. The last 7 months were a special challenge. As a result, skeins 1 – 3 are finer weight (i.e. higher grist) than 4 & 5.
What the industrial yarn complex is very good at is giving consistent grist even between lots. And then there is my handspun sweater quantity (SQ) that we can follow Diane Varney & call a “coordinated yarn.” Her galley in “Spinning Designer Yarns”, 2003, p. 22 states:
Coordinated yarns come from spinning wheels not mills.
The text says how I ultimately resolved my issue:
Spin different sizes of yarn to be used in different parts of a garment, or in coordinating separates. For a bulky sweater, a lighter yarn may provide a more supple and comfortable ribbing.
The all-in number of 1,400 yards per pound is on the light-weight end of a DK mill-spun yarn. For a chart of yarn weights, grists, knit uses scroll through “Calculating Fibre Quantities for Spinning” by Felicia Lo here.
The yarn found its voice last summer when the Botanical Colors 1-2-3 indigo vat recipe (adapted from Michel Garcia) not only dyed all of my Orlando mohair bouclé but still had legs.
This was when I settled the question – there would be no separation; I had an indigo handspun SQ for sure.
You see a shift in grist – what does this mean for a knitted garment?
When hoping to knit with any non-standard yarn, I start by looking for a suitable pattern that will flex. As June Hemmons Hiat writes in Chapter 23 on Stitch Gauge:
Some projects require greater precision for a good fit, while with others you can take a more relaxed approach… (“The Principles of Knitting – Methods and Techniques of Hand Knitting”, 2012, p. 455)
The Vodka Lemonade cardigan has helpful notes on yarn character, and shouts ‘a more relaxed approach’. Over time, I have enjoyed knitting patterns from designers who also spin well. Even if the pattern itself features mill-spun, there is typically more attention paid to communicating about yarn choice. If a project database is accessible, a quick search using “handspun yarn” can also round out the information, offer inspiration. Many spinners work harder to shed light on the creative process in their notes. Handspun garments are rarely featured FOs on selling pages but information gathers slowly in the database itself.
Here the mill-spun given as the design sample is 1,100 yards Zen Yarn Garden Serenity DK for a 38″ bust size with ¾ length sleeves. Each skein is around 250 yards/ 100g or 1,100 yards per pound standard DK-weight.
With more handspun also with a higher grist, I have been able to extend the sleeve length (yes, winter is coming) & to knit the body straight with no waist shaping. Polwarth is soft, has bounce & drape so is a good choice for a next-to-the-skin garment.
Gauge is a snapshot
Leaving the standard consistent grist market, I swatched a first (thinner) yarn. The substitution stuck but one thing my snapshot swatch is not going to safely do for my knitting is where The Principles of Knitting advises next:
Information obtained from a swatch can also be used to calculate how much yarn you will need if you are designing something, or want to substitute a different yarn for the one called for in a pattern.
It’s possible to swatch within your handspun SQ. I will leave that intensity for a heirloom knit (or still not!).
The pattern sample yarn has 10% cashmere & 90% merino adding plumpness to the stockinette fabric with US#5/ 3.75mm needles. A suggested substitute that I know well is far less plump, drapey Elsebeth Lavold Silky Wool. The handspun Polwarth stitches ease when washed, blocked.
The single swatch got gauge nicely down 2 needle sizes to 3.25 mm. How I arranged the skeins was to use the lighter-weight yarn in the cardigan’s body, heavier-weight yarn for warm sleeves.
Getting real with the limits of my swatch, I like that this still-on-the-needles cardigan seems organically swingy & light. We do still need to read the pattern well, and this is where I think Kate Atherley’s article “On Yarn Substitutions,” here, is helpful:
After all, there are lots of yarns that are called Worsted, but there’s a lot of variance in how thick they are, and how they knit up. Same for Fingering, DK, etc. A yarn weight name is a category, it’s not precise enough on its own for yarn selection. (And those category numbers? Same thing – they get you in the right section of the yarn shop, that’s it! They’re ranges.) The stockinette gauge is what’s used on the yarn label, so that’s how you can identify more precisely what to buy.
The spinner is just only reading from that industrial wool complex & not still within it. They take the range, gauge information & still keep an eye out for variance within the handspun lot.
What happened? At the top of the sleeve, I weighed 87 g for each sleeve & measured as I went. Now at the cuff of sleeve 1, around 48 g is used. The stitch gauge is constant. I marked each sleeve increase in case I needed to rip back.
For Designers, Technical Editors
After many sweater pattern searches (and flops) for other handspun in my stash, I ask that you consider adding these points in your pattern landing space. If you are able to contribute longer articles, interviews, texts there is a need for spotlights on the creative process details as well.
- Materials specifications, including put-up & fibre content. Where you know yarn structure this would be very helpful as well, e.g. conventional plied yarns (single or how many?), chainette, cable, core-spun, etc. Yarn companies as a general rule give scanty clues about the structure of their bases. Journalism, texts that focus on yarn manufacturing trends seem to be on the decline. Your insider knowledge as a design professional is valuable.
- Yarn notes, texture suggestions. Kate Atherley articulates this point very well in On Yarn Substitutions, linked above.
- Yardage requirements within the size range. My last pattern purchase is Heverly Cardigan by Julia Farwell-Clay. It is a one-yarn fingering-weight design. The landing page broke out yardage per size, and this was critical to my purchase. The last 350 yard yarn package spans 3 sizes, including mine in the middle! Yarn combinations are especially difficult to eyeball when use shifts through a yoke, shawl construction and for borders.
Please understand that gauge is a limited tool at best when substituting off-market yarns because sometimes Life Happens, and also because spinners can do wonderful things with materials not available to conventional knitters.
Professionals have voiced strong opinions about customer skills (lack thereof), hand-holding. However, spinners who knit are expanding the tent beyond the mills, are able to add value themselves. Adding information diversifies your customer base, and is not hand-holding. Selma Miriam’s 1989 experience speaks to the craft’s possibilities:
She purchased handspun yarns for the first time when she couldn’t find soft, fine commercial yarns with which to make lace shawls and scarves, and then almost immediately decided that she had to learn to spin herself. “I had never knit with yarn that felt so good, alive, and beautiful in my hands,” she recalls. With a year she had… purchased a wheel and taught herself to use it… (“America Knits“, Melanie Falick, 1996, p. 50)
Handspun garments are sadly not always well-regarded even within spinning communities. Any that I have made have aged well, drawn me forward. A stalled project is out and in search of a solution as I type. These are barriers that can be eased, attitudes that can shift.
With luck, I will have an indigo fructose vat from The Yarn Tree’s kit to start new exploration & keep that puppy fed.