It feels like yarn has come full circle. Before superwash, before acrylics, most yarn was produced from untreated wool. But by the time I was a child in the seventies in my grandmother's "wool" shop there was hardly a natural fiber to be found. Acrylic ruled: customers said that wool was too scratchy for their children to wear and too difficult to wash.
The wool industry fought back with machine-washable wool and superfine, supersoft merinos. Wool was back, with some help from chemical processing. And now the untreated, single-breed yarns are making a comeback too. But what's the benefit, why choose untreated wool?
Untreated wool keeps you warmer than superwash wools. I used to think that my sweaters couldn't keep me warm outside, especially when it's windy. That was until I forgot my coat on a late November trip to a seaside town here in the UK. What I did have was my Rogue sweater, knitted in Rowan Magpie Tweed, a lofty, untreated wool which I'd knit at a snug gauge. Walking towards the wind-whipped beach, wearing my sweater and wondering how many minutes I could last the weather, I began to realize that the cold wasn't getting through; I was warm!
Why is untreated wool warmer? Wool fibers all trap air in their core, but the smooth, sleek fibers of scale-less, resin-coated superwash wool can't hold onto the air between the fibers as well as the rougher, jumbled fibers of untreated wool. The scales help them hold tight to their neighboring fibers, keeping the warmth in and the cold out. I'd always wondered how fishermen, in their highly textured knitted ganseys, didn't die of exposure!
There's something for everyone. From kitten-soft to rough as a scourer, matt to lustrous, clearly defined stitches to blurred and cohesive, hazy to hairless, dense to drapy: wool has it all. The length, diameter, shape and scales of the sheep's fibers vary by breed. All these factors interact to produce a whole heap of variation to choose from.
It's fantastic for colorwork. Wool fibers resist the formation of gaps between color changes, in part due to their elasticity. The wool fibers are stretched as you knit, but their internal structure works to pull them back to their original shape. This leaves the fabric under a tension which reduces the gaps. Add in the scales on the outside of the fibers, which catch against each other and hold neighboring fibers together, and you have a fabric which is far more forgiving of inconsistent tension or over-long fair-isle floats than a smooth fiber.
You can have more control over who gets your money. Producers of single-breed yarns tend to be small businesses. Some of them keep their own flocks or often they can tell you where the wool for each batch of yarn comes from. I'm not anti big-business, I believe we have it to thank for much that's good about the modern world. But that doesn't stop me wanting to support small businesses too! Plus I know that my purchases are promoting diversity by supporting lesser-known breeds.
Don't they shrink unless you hand wash them? I make a lot of squares as I'm trying yarns out for YarnSub, and many of them have been put through the hand wash cycle in my washing machine. So long as I make sure that there aren't long tails of yarn left to thrash about and start felting, and so long as I don't forget to take them out within a couple of hours of the cycle finishing, they come out beautifully. I don't just mean they look okay, I mean they are as improved as they would be if they were lovingly washed by hand in the sink. They don't need to be dried in the folds of a towel as you would after washing in the sink either. They're ready to be pinned out. If you're not sure if you can trust the hand wash cycle on your machine, just knit a swatch and try it out. (But yes, if your untreated wool gets into any other wash cycle by mistake, it will almost certainly be ruined.)
Isn't untreated wool itchy? It is true that when you see a wool described as a 'rug yarn', then it might be best avoided unless you have some pots to scrub! Or a rug to make. But the fibers of different breeds have a wide range of diameters, and the finer the fiber the more likely it is to yield against your skin and so feel soft rather than prickling it. Look for the fiber that matches the needs of your project. And if you do need soft wool, it's not just Merino sheep that you can turn to. Blue Faced Leicester, Cormo, Corriedale, Falkland, Peruvian Highland, Polwarth and Rambouillet are all breeds that produce very soft wools. Plus many of the big brand untreated wools, which don't specify a breed, are very soft - but with more body than a superwash yarn and less of a soapy feel.
What if my next project is for a newborn baby? Okay, when I was a new mum I could hardly separate my washing into whites and colors let alone think about the hand wash setting on my machine. I admit in this case there's a good argument for choosing something machine washable!
New mothers aside, as well as the practical reasons for using untreated wool, it's the stories behind it that keep me intrigued. Few of us need to knit now (except perhaps for our sanity). The garments that we make are more than just a hat or sweater, more even than a soft hug for their recipient. They remind us of what was passing in our lives as we worked their stitches and they are proof of our capacity for loyalty and dedication to a task. I love the emotional aspect of knitting - and breed-specific wools almost always come with a back-story that enhances the experience. I love knowing that by using a particular yarn I've become part of the story too.