Knitters often find it difficult to transition into crochet because it requires a different way of thinking about your fabric as a whole. It might be fair to say it’s less precise. It’s a little but wonkier. It’s also a little more forgiving, and I think it lends itself better to free-form experimentation than knitting does. Working only one stitch at a time gives you the freedom to put that stitch wherever you please – and there are about a million places one could potentially insert one’s crochet hook and pull up a loop. It can be hard to describe which loop you’re referring to when writing a pattern, and often requires some interpretation when you’re reading a pattern! Though there are a limited number of gestures comprising the basic crochet stitches, there are a mind-boggling number of ways that one could combine chains, single crochets, double crochets, and half-double crochets, depending on exactly which loops you decide to grab.
Crochet chart example from By Number 19.
Knit chart example from knittingobsession.com
I think the origin of most confusion pertaining to crochet comes down to this fact: crocheted stitches are staggered, rather than stacked atop one another in a grid formation. That is why many new crocheters find their early swatches biasing one way or the other, and that is why it’s hard to produce a crocheted fabric with perfectly straight edges. That is why knitting charts are drawn on graph paper, and crochet charts usually look more like hand-sketches, even when they’re produced by a computer.
But before you can experiment, you need to know the basics. To get you started, use the visual guide below to help you find your place in crochet.
We’re going to talk about yarn microns and softness, I promise. But first, we have to establish some standard of comparison. We’ve chosen the hair on your very own head as a place to start. Have you ever heard the term “hair shirt?” Apparently, monks in the middle ages would make shirts out of hair and wear them under their clothes as a subtle form of self torture. These were itchy and coarse enough to scrape the skin and cause minor bleeding. Yikes! If you run your hands through your own hair, you won’t find it so very unpleasant, but have you ever gotten a piece of your own hair caught on your eye? Or on your own tongue? Of course you have, and very unpleasant it is, too. And once you cut it, there is a sharp end that pokes into your skin in a nasty way.
What does this have to do with yarn and microns, you ask? Well, let me tell you. Since it isn’t pleasant or practical to make clothing or other fabric from our own hair, human beings began to consider using hair from other animals. Something softer and more comfortable. They looked around them and thought, “Horse hair? Nope; too coarse and not enough of it. Cow? Surely not. Goats? Well, their outer hairs are at least as bad as our own, but they do get a nice soft under coat in winter. Not much of it, but great if we can get it. Hmmm…maybe sheep?” And the rest is wooly history.
But that still doesn’t explain the whole micron to softness connection, right? Well, let me give you just a little bit more history and it will become clearer. When humans first started using sheep fleece for clothing, the sheep hair wasn’t as soft as we’ve come to know it. It was just a darn site better than horse or cow or human. These early sheep hair gathering humans began to notice that some of their sheep had hair that was softer to the touch than others. So, some humans started breeding soft haired sheep to other soft haired sheep and creating breeds with fine, soft wool.
As the breeds got established, even within breeds there could be variance. Just like human beings, sheep can have finer or coarser hair than their wooly cousins. The climate where they live, their diet, and how clean they keep can have a great effect on the softness of their hair. And if the softer wool was more prized, the breeders should be able to get a higher price for it, right? Of course. So, who gets to determine how much a particular fleece should be worth? Well, the buyers, of course.
But, rather than having each and every person who wanted to buy a fleece fondle each and every fleece available, experts with sensitive finger and a vast experience of wool would run a few lock through their fingers and give it a grade. Coarse, medium, fine, super fine, expialidocious, a fleece would get a grade, and price would be agreed between the seller and the buyer based on that grade.
Now we have microscopes and lasers that are capable of measuring the exact diameter of a single hair from an angora rabbit. The unit of measure is the micron, which is one millionth of a meter or 1/25,000 of an inch. Really, really tiny, right? Well, yes. And this is where the softness part come in.
This chart shows a human hair as the largest fiber at 70 microns, and an angora rabbit hair as the smallest at 13 microns. You can get a better view of it in our newsletter.
We are able to distinguish the size and texture of small things, but not infinitely small. There is a limit to the diameter of fibers that we can feel. As we noted above, a human hair is coarse enough, and sharp enough if cut, to be clearly felt. But sheep have hair that is thinner in diameter than human hair. Some breeds of sheep even more than others. As the diameter, in microns, of the individual hairs gets smaller, we are less abel to distinguish one fiber from the bunch of fibers. The feel starts to blur into a single sensation rather than a thousand separate ones. The more we experience this blurring of sensation of individual fibers, the more we experience it as soft.
There are other factors that determine softness. The length of the fiber, how curly or crimpy it is, how sharp the cut ends are, how tightly it is spun, etc, will all have an impact on how much we can feel an individual hair out a bunch of hairs. But the size of the hairs is the biggest contributing factor.
This is why we like to feel a yarn before we decide whether we want to make something that’s going to go next to our skin. You’re probably aware that some parts of the human body have more, and more sensitive, nerve endings than others. Fingers rank really high in the number and sensitivity of nerve endings. But fingers can’t tell you how something is going to feel on the underside of your chin. This is why we encourage you to gently run a skein of yarn against your neck or under your chin if you’re planning on making a cowl out of it.
Also keep in mind, it’s not just a marketing ploy to get you to value baby alpaca more than merino. Baby hair on any animal is going to be finer than on an adult. And extra fine merino is not a subjective assessment. It’s smaller in microns and, therefore softer.
A ball of yarn is one very long piece of string with two ends. One inside, buried down deep in the middle, and one wrapped around the outside. You can start using the yarn from either end, pulling from either the inside or the outside. I know it’s going to come as a shock to you, but I have opinions about this.
You may have heard me say it, or you may have learned it elsewhere, but for those of you who don’t know, yarn is only held together by the twist. If it were not twisted, it would be just roving and would fall apart with even gentle tugging. The way a quantity of yarn is lumped together is called the put up. Go here for a great graphic that explains more about put up. Every time you change the put up, depending on which way you wind it, you either add or subtract twist. Going from the reeling machines into cones at the factory, going from cones to hanks in the warehouse, or going from hank to ball in the shop or at home, adds or subtracts twist. And so does knitting or crocheting.
I have a really hard time working with single ply yarn because wrapping the yarn around my needle or hook in a counter clockwise motion, as is customary here in the western world, takes away the twist and makes my yarn begin to fall apart. Working from the outside end of a ball of yarn will add twist if the yarn comes off in a counter clockwise motion, and add twist if the yarn comes off the ball in a clockwise motion. Either way, adding or subtracting twist can affect your gauge.
Working from the end in the middle of the ball will preserve the twist. It also allows your yarn to sit still and not roll around. It may be becoming clear what my opinion is. I like the center pull put up. To address the pros and cons, though, there are a number of accessories you can use to make which ever end you want to work with, work for you.
The simplest yarn bras come a variety pack with three sizes in three colors.
If want to use the inside pull out up, but you’re worried about the center of the ball collapsing, a yarn bra will be your best friend. You can read more about yarn bras here in Kate’s review guest blog. The gentle pressure of the yarn bra holds everything together and you can knot or crochet along in the confidence that nothing is going to fall apart on either end.
The big, four-armed thing hanging on the wall is a swift, which holds a hank of yarn while you wind it into a ball. the covered bowl below is perfect for keeping your yarn tidy and within reach. Isn’t it beautiful?
If you want to use the outside pull put up, you have two challenges. First, you have to let the ball roll around to compensate for the twisting motion the yarn makes as you pull it. This keep your yarn from getting over or under twisted as you work. Second, you have to keep your ball from rolling away out of reach, or around in the cat hair on the floor (not that I think you have cat hair on your floor!) or under the couch where you can’t reach it. The perfect solution is a yarn bowl. You can see some great yarn bowl ideas here. And, of course we have Francis Farley’s beautiful bowls here in the shop. A yarn bowl will contain the yarn where you can keep it tidy while still allowing the ball to twist freely.
So, opinions aside, which ever put up you like, inside pull or outside pull, a simple accessory can make or break your experience.