Each individual hair on a sheep has small scales that can open and close in response to heat and moisture. Before these hairs have been sheared off, the scales help regulate the sheep’s body temperature and repel moisture away from the sheep’s skin. They serve the same function after the hairs have been sheared off the sheep and turned into yarn. The scales make wool “breathe,” which helps to regulate temperature and repel moisture away from the skin underneath.
These scales are responsible for the “scratchy” feeling of natural wool.The finer the wool, the smaller the scales, which means the finer the wool the softer it is to the touch. If you think you’re allergic to wool, you’re probably not, since wool is one of the most hypoallergenic materials we make clothes from. But some folks have fine textured skin that is more sensitive to even microscopic irritants…like wool scales.
These scales are also what make wool felt. The scales open up in the presence of moisture and heat. Agitating hot, wet wool tangles these scales together. This in turn pulls the hairs more closely together…which, in turn, tangles the scales more tightly together…which, in turn…you get the idea. The hairs get so tightly drawn together that the overall area will shrink 25-30% in both directions, while, at the same time, it gets thicker and denser. Then when the heat and moisture are gone, the scales close a bit and become bonded together forever, or near enough. Thus, felt.
Some of us do this on purpose to make felt. We knit or crochet or weave wool larger than we think we want it, then subject it to moisture, heat and agitation in order to shrink and thicken it. But we’ve all also had the experience of throwing something into the washer and dryer accidentally and ruining a beloved wooly object.
If only someone would invent a way to make wool impervious to the felting process. If only we could neutralize those pesky scales that make felting possible. If only…But wait!There is such an invention. It’s called The Superwash Process.
How many of you are old enough to remember the permanent waves of the 1940’s, or the 1960’s, or the 1980’s? They stripped away the top layer of each hair and chemically weakened the hair so it could be made flat instead of round. Thus, curls. The superwash process is similar. Manufacturers take raw wool and soak it in a vat of a chlorine based solution. (If you want to know more about the chemistry, you can look at the sites listed in the foot notes below.) This solution chemically burns off the tiny, delicate edges of the scales, leaving them even tinier and very blunt. After rinsing off the chlorine solution, they then soak the wool in a vat of polymer resin. Polymer resin is a generic category and includes chemical compounds such as nylon, and is similar to the resins added to the “wax” they put on your car at the car wash. It means plastic, and it slicks down what remains of the burned off scales so they can’t tangle with their fellows. Thus, superwash.
The result is a wool that can withstand exposure to heat, moisture and agitation without shrinking or felting. Superwash wool is also silkier to the touch, as there are no more protruding scales to prickle against skin. The smoother surface appears more lustrous than untreated wool. It also results in a wool that does not “breathe” the same way untreated wool does. Without those scales, superwash wool doesn’t regulate temperature or repel moisture the way untreated wool does. It also doesn’t last forever.
As I said above, a polymer resin is a kind of plastic, and will melt and deteriorate when exposed to heat. That means every time you toss your superwash wooly objects in the dryer, you are shortening the life of the resin coasting. Polymer resins will also get worn away with friction over time. This will either leave the stumps of the scales poking out, or pull the scales completely off, leaving a roughened surface on the core of the hairs. Your superwash wooly objects will have a longer, prettier shelf life if you treat them delicately.Wash them on gentle cycle in cool water, and don’t put them in the dryer.
Superwash wool seem like a great alternative to unprocessed wool. But remember that it has its own vulnerabilities and requires its own kind of special care. There are folks who have concerns about how the plastics, including polyamide, in our clothing may be affecting our health. So you may want to think about that as well and weigh convenience, durability and comfort when shopping for yarn for your next project.
We often get folks in the shop saying, “I don’t know what went wrong, but it just looks funny. Can you fix it?” Of course the answer is, “Yes, we can fix it.” But it’s not nearly as panic worthy as it seems. It’s almost always a stitch mount problem.
Stitch mount is the phrase we use to describe how stitches sit on our needles. If you look at finished knitted fabric, you can see that each stitch is a little loop laying flat with a stitch on either side of it, a stitch below it that it came out of, and a stitch above it that comes out of it. Edge stitches are a slightly different matter and we’ll discuss them another time. The interesting part, and the focus of our discussion today, is that, while stitches lay flat in the finished fabric, they are turned 90° to sit on your needle.
Stitches Are Cowgirls:
Let’s use an analogy.Imagine that all your stitches are little cowgirls.When they are standing facing you in your finished fabric, you can see that they each have two legs, and a head that is either bent away from you (a knit stitch) or toward you (a purl stitch).If your needle is a horse, all the cowgirls sit on the horse with the right-hand leg (your right, not theirs) on the side of the horse facing you.
The reason it works is that we have a consistent way of wrapping our yarn around our needle, or, in the case of continental knitters, picking our stitches with our needle above or below the the working yarn.Here in the west, we wrap our yarn in a counter clockwise motion around our needle, or place our needle above our working yarn and pick our stitch down and through to the loop.For a knit stitch, the yarn comes from behind both needles, makes its way around the working needle, and falls back behind again.For a purl stitch, the yarn comes from in front of both needles, wraps around the working needle and falls to the front again.Easy, peasey, cashmere squeezy.As long as we remember to move our working yarn from front to back if we switch from knitting or purling.(If we don’t remember, we wind up with yarn over holes where we didn’t want them, but that’s a topic for a different day.)
When your yarn follows a counter clockwise path around the working needle everything works out great.We don’t usually think about it.It just happens and we all ride along smoothly.Until it doesn’t.Things start to go pear shaped when we place a stitch on our needle in an out of the ordinary way.When we pick up dropped stitches, when we rip back rows and pick up live stitches or when we’re picking up stitches along the edges of things, we are putting stitches on our needles in out of the ordinary ways, and we can get our cowgirls mounted on the horse higgledy-piggledy with some having the right leg forward and some having the left leg forward.
Stitch Mount Correction Magic Trick:
Not to worry.You can always take an individual cowgirl off the horse, turn her so the correct leg is toward you, then gallop along.Or, you can take the cheater way and just knit or purl into the right leg side of the stitch, NO MATTER WHERE IT FALLS.If the cowgirl is sitting backwards on the horse, grabbing her by her right leg means working into what is now the back leg instead of the front.
Usually, if all your cowgirls are mounted on the horse in the usual manner (right leg forward), and you knit into the leg on the back side, you’ll twist the stitch.Conversely, if a cowgirl is mounted on the horse backwards and you work into the leg in the front, you wind up with a twisted stitch.When stitches are lying flat, their little feet are placed next to each other with a tiny space between them.When stitches are twisted, they will be crossed over each other…as if they really need the little cowgirls room.And twisted stitches are not bad.Like most things knitted, there are times, places and good reasons you might want to twist your stitches on purpose.Twisted stitches give depth and texture to your finished fabric.They are featured in some Aran patterns.They also thicken the finished fabric slightly.It’s actually quite pretty and can be warmer.You might want to try experimenting with adding patches of twisted stitches to liven up an otherwise smooth and bland stockinette piece.Twisting your stitches will also tighten up your gauge so be aware.
Knitting in the Middle East:
Remember above when I said, “Here is the west…?”Well, in the Middle East, where knitting was possibly invented a thousand years ago, they do it all backwards.They wrap their yarn in a clock wise fashion, work into the back leg of all their stitches, and all their cowgirls are mounted on their horses with their left legs toward you.Crusades have been started for less reason!But before we call them Infidels and start accusing anyone of doing it “wrong,” let me state here and now that there is no visible difference in the finished fabric.None.You can not tell by any method that one finished piece was knit in the clockwise manner and another in the counter clockwise manner.As long as, whichever manner you choose, you work into the right leg of every cowgirl for a smooth fabric and the left leg for a texture one, you are doing it right.
And that brings me to Combination Knitting.Yes, there are some knitters who swing both ways.and they have their reasons.Did you know that purl stitches, by their very nature, are looser than knit stitches?Yup.It has to do with the distance the yarn travels in the process of making a stitch.When you knit, the path from the base of the last worked stitch, around the working needle and through the loop is rather short and direct.When you purl, the yarn travels up and over the working needle before being pulled through the loop.This adds a tiny bit of slack between the stitches.This slack gets pulled into the stitches themselves as they snuggle together in your fabric, and the purl stitches will grow slightly but noticeably taller than the knit stitches.
Of course, all this is reversed in the Middle Eastern, Infidel, clockwise way of doing things.Their purl stitches are the snug ones and their knit stitches are the ones that grow taller.
In either case, the phenomenon is called Rowing Out, and it is a mark of an inexperienced knitter.Over the course of time, most knitters will make tiny adjustments in the tension of their hand to compensate for the slack, and their stitches, both knits and purls will become uniform and indistinguishable.
A Trick For Correcting Tension Issues:
Sometimes, though, the tension issues persist.Rowing out messes with your gauge and makes your fabric oddly uneven.The simplest solution is to practice Combination Knitting where you wrap your yarn counter clockwise on your knit stitches and clockwise on your purl stitches.This ensures that your yarn is always traveling the shortest distance between your stitches, and the circumference and height of all your stitches is constant.
It also means that some of your cowgirls will be mounted on the horse with their right legs forward and some with their left legs forward.Remember how to compensate for that?Yup.Just remember to always work into the right leg, NO MATTER WHERE IT FALLS for a smooth fabric.Or work into the left leg if you want to add texture.
The next time you run across a stitch that “look funny,” look closely and see if it’s just a cowgirl sitting backwards on the horse.And try working into the front and back legs to see what happens.Remember that it’s just string and you can always make a different choice.
Want to learn more? We have classes for beginner knitters and crocheters, as well as more advanced fiber artists. We also have social Stitch And Spin circles several times a week, and events throughout the year. For a complete listing of classes and events, see our page http://overtherainbowyarn.com/events/. Over The Rainbow Yarn is where your fiber dreams come true.
We get questions all the time about what kind of knitting needles to choose. The answer gets quite complex when we factor in types of projects, yarn, experience level, changing gauge over time, etc. To simplify the choice, let me tell you a little bit about a a bunch of needles and why you might have a preference.
First let me explain a little bit about what knitting needles actually do. In other crafts, like wood working or jewelry making, artisans use jigs. What is a jig, you ask? Let me tell you. A jig is a tool you use to make a large number of components precisely the same size and/or shape. If you are making a set of 10 dining room chairs, you’ll want to legs to be all the same length, right? And the chances of making 40 individual hand cuts precise enough? Slim to none. So a fine carpenter will build a back stop onto her table saw, line up all 40 piece of stock firmly against the back stop, clamp them all to the table so they can not shift, and make one pass with the saw blade. Voila! 40 identical chair legs. How about 1000 identical gold links to make a twisted chain? Use a metal rod of the precise diameter to make a jig. See how handy jigs can be to make a bunch of things all precisely the same? Oh, if only we had some sort of jig that could make all our knitting stitches the same diameter and uniform height. But wait…we do! Our jigs are called knitting needles and we use them for precisely the same reasons other artisans do. They even come in a variety of sizes so we can make a variety of precisely sized stitches. Clever, clever knitting foremothers to have invented such a wonderful tool.
The idea of a stitch jig, also called a knitting needle, is that we get as smooth and rhythmic as we can with our hands, and let the needles do the work of making the stitches all the same. The accumulated size and shape of our stitches is called gauge (number of stitches and number of rows per inch). The interplay between our hands and our needles determine our stitch gauge and, if the size and shape of our stitches change over time, it is almost certainly because of our hands, not our needles since our needles don’t change and how we move our hands may.
To help make the movements of our hands as smooth and uniform as we can, we can understand the properties of different materials, types and styles of needles, and choose accordingly. First, the big three…
This a pretty broad category all on its own. It includes aluminum, stainless steel, brass, powder coated, nickel plated, etc. In general, metal needles are inflexible and some folks find that they can cause hand fatigue. On the other hand, they also have less surface friction so your stitches will slide easily and quickly along the needle. If you want to knit for speed, metal is your friend and the slicker the better. Powder coated aluminum and brass are the least slick, stainless steel is in the middle, and nickel coated surfaces are the slickest and fasted of them all. Metal is also stronger than some other materials and can hold up to greater torque (which is force applied in an arc) and the weight of large heavy projects without bending or breaking. If you want to achieve a tight, firm fabric, like for a coat, you may want to use a slightly smaller needle than the yarn would usually call for to keep the stitches small and tightly packed. This will add to the force you need to use make each stitch. All that torque requires a strong needle. Holding the weight of an entire heavy Aran style sweater while you add the neck band can put a lot of weight on your needles and more fragile materials may not hold up to the stress. So, metal needles are what you want if you need speed and/or strength.
I can’t prove it, but I think wood was probably the material of the earliest knitting needles. Like metals, the wood used for knitting needles is also a broad category. Hard woods, soft woods, birch, rosewood, oak, pine, ash, etc., all have their properties. Also keep in mind, how or if the wood has been finished and with what. Wood, by its very nature, is more flexible than metal and this contributes to wood needles being, in general, not quite as smooth nor as strong as metal. It also contributes to wood needles being a little bit easier on the hands than metal. The wood will flex a little bit to conform to the hands, rather than the hands having to conform to harder materials. Weight, grain, hardness, finish and whether the wood is a single solid piece or laminated (which means many layers have been glued together before the wood is shaped into a needle) will all play a part in the strength and smoothness of knitting needles. The finer the grain of the wood, the finer it is sanded and the more satiny the finish, the slicker and speedier the needles will be. Finely finished rosewood needles may be comparable to powder coated aluminum for slickness and speed. Unfinished softwood will have much more surface friction and will be “grabbier.” Wood needles also need care and maintenance. Wood can dry out and the friction of yarn rubbing on your needles can rough up the surface. Oiling, waxing or otherwise conditioning your needles will keep them smooth and strong for a longer time.
Moving up the grabbiness scale, we come to bamboo. Bamboo plants are giant grasses rather than trees. They grow with such amazing speed that you can almost watch it happen with your naked eyes. Bamboo is considered an invasive weed in some places, but is so quickly renewable that it continues to be used for more and more things. While trees grow in more or less heavy, dense concentric circles in all their parts, bamboo grows with a lighter, airier, linear structure. Bamboo needles are easy on the hands since they bend and flex with our fingers and cause less fatigue with their own weight. But the surface friction is much higher. Bamboo is the grabbiest of all the surfaces. While this makes for much, much slower stitch formation and movement, it also helps keep stitches in place. When using a slippery yarn, like silk or viscose (also, by the bye, made from bamboo) or when starting circular knitting with very few stitches and many double pointed needles (like in the middle of a circular shawl) bamboo needles can help keep your stitches from sliding out of your control.
Metal, wood and bamboo are the most common and readily available, but they are not the only materials we can make needles out of. In our second section, we’ll be able to compare other materials to the big three.
Plastic needles are generally light weight, warm, and often super flexible. They are very easy on hands, especially in the smaller diameters, and are favorites among folks with arthritis and other sources of joint pain. They vary a bit in smoothness but are usually comparable to the slicker end of the wood needle spectrum. They require no care and feeding. They are not as strong as metal and don’t work especially well for high torque or heavy weight projects.
You may be tempted to class acrylic and plastic together because they are both synthetic materials, but their constitution and performance as knitting needles are quite different. Acrylic is more brittle and far less flexible than plastic. In the smaller diameters, they can snap in two with too much torque, though they can carry heavy weights. Acrylic needles are warm and light, and have a slight give to them that makes them comparable to wood with regard to hand fatigue. But, no matter how smoothly they are finished, they have a grabbiness comparable to bamboo. The best thing about acrylic needles is that they can be very, very pretty.
Ahh…ivory. Ivory is strong like wood, slick like metal, warm like acrylic, light weight like bamboo. The surface gets smoother from yarn passing over it. Ivory can dry out and should be waxed or oiled every now and again, but can last for years, decades, millennia even. The trouble with ivory? Well since the world has cracked down on hunting the animals that produce ivory, new ivory items are almost impossible to find. Which means that old ivory items are rare as well and very expensive. If you find genuine ivory knitting needles, try them out. If you don’t love them, send them to me!
Bone needles are medium weight, warm and slightly flexible so they are easy on the hands. When the surface is properly cared for, they can be as slick and fast as rosewood on the high end of the wood scale or brass on the low end of the metal scale. Bone is much more porous than ivory, and is much more likely to dry out and splinter so they need to waxed to keep them smooth and pliable. The materials, the bones of animals, are not as readily available or, rather, the availability is not taken advantage of by needle manufacturers.
Glass is heavy, brittle, and notoriously fragile. Glass knitting needles are inflexible and hard on the hands. They are strong enough to hold heavy weights, but do not tolerate high torque. And, though glass itself is smooth and satiny, glass needles have a surprising amount of drag. They are comparable to bamboo on the grabbiness scale. They can shatter if dropped and chip if banged against something hard. Why would anyone make needles out of glass? Because they are incomparably beautiful. If you love beautiful, fine tools, and if you can take great care not toss them around or put them in danger, they are delightful to look at and watch as you use them.
Hmmm…I don’t know what to tell you about what carbon knitting needles are made of. Carbon, obviously. But so is coal, and the lead in your pencil. So are diamonds. The best I can tell you is that the manufacturers call it a “high-tech carbon fiber.” Could be swiss chard for all I know. I can tell you the properties of carbon knitting needles. They are strong yet a bit flexible, light weight and warm. Because the material is fibrous in nature, they can split and shred like bamboo, especially in the smaller diameters. As a result, the tips are adapted with metal, usually nickel coated brass. They are easy on the hands, stand up well to heavy weights, perform admirable with high torque and have a smoothness comparable to the slicker woods. The join between the metal tip and the carbon shaft may be quite pronounced or so subtle as to be nearly undetectable. You’ll have to try one and see.
In addition to the material that knitting needles are made of, length and style of needle, sharpness of tip, and other factors can go into making a knitting needle so comfortable that your hands can make precisely uniform stitches. We’ll move on the Part 2, next week.