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!
Rowan Magpie Tweed
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
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
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.
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