Archive for the ‘didacticism’ Category

I like v-necks. Unfortunately, v-necks in knitting place particular stress on the knitted fabric. See Exhibit A, the SSS neckline:

It’s not bad, but you can see how the stitches at the point of the vee are distorted and pulled up by the garter neckband. And this is the final version! It originally looked much worse (I wish I had pictures). I’ll tell you what I did to get it to look like this, and what I would do next time.

What I Did

This v-neck was formed by decreasing one stitch every two rows until I had knit across half the rows for the chest, then increasing one stitch every two rows until I was at the shoulder again. (Remember, this sweater was knit sideways.) I then picked up the stitches around the v-neck and worked a small garter-stitch neckband in size 5 needles.

In order to decrease the stress on the v-point, this neckline isn’t a true vee. It’s actually a very, very small surplice neck– if you look closely, you can see that the two ends of the neckline don’t meet, but rather one end goes under the other. Each edge of the neckband is stitched to the side of the vee across from it. Originally, I had worked a typical neckband, with a double-decrease at the point of the vee. This put even more pressure on the knitted fabric there and distorted it even more. With the cross-over attachment, each side of the vee pulls on the stitches from the opposite side, distributing the pressure instead of concentrating it on the tip of the point. The cross-over neckband does allow the neckline to spread horizontally, becoming higher and shallower throughout the day. It isn’t a technique I’d use for a deep, plunging v-neck, as you’d probably end up with an eighties-style off-the-shoulder look.

The second thing I did to relieve the stress in the area was to duplicate-stitch over the stressed stitches after I’d worked the neckband. This worked somewhat, but was an imperfect solution.

What I’ll Do Next Time

Next time, I will duplicate stitch on the purl-side all around the area by the tip of the vee, before any stitches are picked up. Then, when I pick up stitches, I’ll make sure to pick up both the original stitch and the duplicate stitch. With two layers of yarn to bear the strain of the vee, I think the neckline stitches will hold their shape better.

Alternatively, I might knit the neckband separately from the sweater and then attach it, since any kind of stitching will distribute the pull of the neckband more equally than picked up stitches do.


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This post could also be called When Swatches Save Lives.

Since I’ve just finished a sweater in which I did several things wrong and had to fix them, I decided what better blog fodder than to review my mistakes and what I did (or didn’t do) to fix them! So the next few posts will be known as the Sideways Striped Sweater Postmortem, or SSSP, as I go over various areas of the sweater and what I did wrong. At the end of the SSSP, I’ll post full photos of the sweater. This delay is partially out of coyness but mostly because it’s getting dark earlier and earlier, and I won’t be home during daylight to get good photos until this weekend.

General Information

Some general info about the Sideways Striped Sweater. The sweater body is knit sideways to create vertical stripes, with shaping worked through the use of short-rows. It was knitted from the yarn in this familiar swatch, Jaeger Extra Fine Merino DK, a 100% merino wool yarn that I recommend without reservation. I now know it stands up well to multiple washings, multiple froggings and even cutting. I used about 9 balls, four of the green and five of the beige/gold. I used size 5 needles for the edging and size 6 needles for the body of the sweater.

So, on to Fixing Shaping Mistakes!

In designing this sweater, I wanted a garment that would cling comfortably to my hips and bust without pulling or riding up. Ever since I finished growing, my measurements have been 37-33-42 and I have not been able to find a single top that fit my bust and waist and didn’t bunch and ride up at the hips. Possibly as a result of this, I… overcompensated somewhat. Instead of the gentle shaping I wanted, I had a huge flare of extra fabric on the hips. Very unflattering. The bust was also a bit big.

Unfortunately, since I had used short-rows for the shaping, I didn’t feel comfortable just pulling out the shaping on the end or unpicking the cast-on. I would have had to entirely pull out either all the bust shaping or all the hip shaping, and then a little more, to adjust both. And I just didn’t want to do that. I also didn’t want to frog the whole thing and do it again; it turns out knitting a stockinette sweater horizontally is really, really boring, since (especially on the back) there’s over two feet of straight, rectangular stockinette knitting with no shaping to make it exciting.

I next considered cutting the extra fabric off the edges. This seemed promising. I was concerned, however, because while I had steeked before, I had never done a steek in this yarn, nor had I ever done a steek where I cut between rows instead of between stitches. I’d essentially be creating a line of live stitches on each seam. Maybe it would all unravel.

Then I remembered, I had saved my swatch! I seamed it together using mattress stitch, just as I planned to do for the sides of the sweater. Then I cut it, close in to minimize the amount of extra fabric that would lie on the inside of the sweater.

Then, I tugged on it really hard. Really hard, a lot harder than I’d ever tug on the sweater in the course of normal wear. If there was even the smallest risk the sweater would fall apart, I wanted to know now.

Yikes! One dropped stitch. I looked at the seam in more detail and found that the stitch had dropped in the one place where I had cut most closely. Everywhere else, the seam held. I decided that as long as I cut so that there would be one whole stitch and one live stitch left on each side after I cut, I’d be fine.

I seamed the sweater together, following the new shape I wanted instead of the old, too-big shape it naturally formed. I tried it on and made sure it fit. I pulled out the seaming and re-did it. I tried it on again.

Then I cut it.

This is where the hip shaping used to be. I think it worked out:

The garter at the bottom border was added afterward.

Next time: Adventures in neckbands.

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Dyeing FOs

I have a tendency to ignore color. I choose yarns like I choose clothing, with attention to feel, quality, drape, etc, only considering color after I’ve decided all the other qualities are right for my desires. Sometimes this can be very disappointing, when it turns out that the yarn or shirt I was busy falling in love with for its beautiful drape and soft hand only comes in mucuous-green or goldenrod yellow.

The solution for people like me is to dye your own yarn! Last Christmas, I was gifted with a starter set of Jacquard Acid Dyes. I have a warm and cool red, a warm and cool blue, a yellow and a black. I have mostly used these dyes to dye over already-colored yarns. In this way, I’ve saved lace patterns from too-busy yarns and brought texture and color into harmony. I’m more likely to dye FOs than yarn itself.

Generally, I dye yarns on the stove and produce a kettle-dyed effect. In this particular case, I’m dyeing a hat I knit in grey, 100% wool, sport-weight Peer Gynt yarn. The yarn is perfectly nice, but the stitch pattern I chose (Japanese Feather Lace, modified slightly) was too delicate for the dull grey color.

Clearly, it was time to dye.

My dyeing equipment: A pot full of hot water on the stove, white vinegar to set the dye, powdered Jacquard Acid Dyes, a 1/4th tablespoon and a thermometer.

I start heating the water.

I’d like it to stay between 170 and 190 degrees throughout the dyeing experiment, to ensure all the dye is dissolved and permeates the yarn. I’m using yellow and the cool blue, so temperature isn’t too important. If I were working with either of the reds, it would be more important to keep the temperature high. Red dyes are temperamental in all mediums (I’m sometimes a redhead myself), and higher heat is needed to get a good effect.

First, I add the yellow. Always add the lighter color first when making a color combo; in this case, I’m going for green. I use the white teaspoon to create contrast so I can see what the color I’m making looks like. Of course, the hat itself is grey, so I won’t get the same effect, but this at least gives me a feel for where I’m going. This is about 1/4th tbs yellow dissolved in the hot water.

Then I add a little blue, and keep stirring and looking until I like the green I’m getting.

In goes the hat!

After the hat sits for a few minutes and absorbs dye, I pour in my 1/4th cup of vinegar. This will open the proteins in the wool (Jacquard Acid dyes only work on protein-based fibers), causing the dye to be permanently absorbed into the wool. I get my kettle-dyed effect here by pouring the vinegar directly onto the hat. The places the vinegar hits first will absorb more dye than the places the vinegar reaches later.

The dye is starting to exhaust; Most has been absorbed by the hat, with only a little still floating in the water. The lighter green swatches are lace swatches that I thought might show their pattern a little better if they were a color.

After letting the pot sit on the stove for 30 minutes (never simmering or boiling, since that could cause felting), I poured off the dye water and washed the hat with some shampoo. After two rinses, the water came out clear– no bleeding on MY dyejobs. I then squeezed the hat dry and pinned it out.

Want to see how it turned out? The hat is currently being blocked and drying on my living room floor; I’ll post the final picture tomorrow!

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An Example

I’m going to use Knitty’s Festive cardigan as an example. Cardigans are a particularly good candidate for modifying the positioning of shaping. In a regular sweater, there’s a lot of stretch all over which can compensate for a lack of good, targeted shaping. In a cardigan, horizontal stretch results in the dreaded button-gaping that we all hate. Clever positioning of shaping can help to minimize horizontal stretch by making sure the fabric needed to cover your curves is optimally positioned before you even put the cardigan on.

These instructions are written for a bottom-up cardigan, but can be adapted for any garment that already has shaping.

The Difference Between Princess Seams and Darts

Princess seams travel all the way up the garment, and can occur on either front or back or both. If you use princess seams, you’ll have two seams on each side of the garment, no more or less. If your garment doesn’t have shaping on every other row, you can continue the appearance of the princess seams by slipping a stitch every other row so as to keep your elegant line. Increases can also make keeping the princess seam line a challenge– I recommend slipping a stitch every other row, as usual, and increasing on the inside of that stitch.

Darts only occur where the shaping needs to happen, and so blend more easily into the overall fabric of the garment. You can use as many darts as you feel are necessary– two or more are customary for each bust point, and two for the bum shaping. This is because the bust is actually made up of two bust points surrounded by less highly raised areas, and so the bust darts need to happen to highlight each point. On the other hand, the bum has only one highly raised area, and so only one point needs to be highlighted.

First Step

Choose a cardigan and determine the size you want to knit. This will be the same sizes you would normally knit, since we’re not changing the dimensions of the cardigan, just the shape.

The ideal cardigan or sweater for this technique does not have a unique front or back motif (such as is found in Bristow in Knitty) that would get in the way of your shaping. Overall motifs are usually fine, though the way darts cause the fabric to bias will be more apparent in an all-over pattern motif than in stockinette. Princess seams will be apparent no matter what you do, as they’re intended to be a design feature as well as a shaping tool.

I’m using Festive, a stockinette cardigan with seed stitch edging, worked from the bottom-up. Front and two back pieces are worked separately. For the sake of generating some numbers, I’ve chosen to hypothetically knit the 40″ bust size.

Second Step

Decide what look you’re going for. You can either use darts, which are positioned only where you need them, or princess seams, which run up and down the garment on front and back in a continuous line. Princess seams are generally considered more elegant, which may or may not fit the garment you are modifying. Darts are subtler. For images of garments with princess seams, check out this PDF from Sewing.org.

If you decide to use darts, you will need to take two additional measurements– measure your underbust (the circumference of your ribcage under your bust) and the circumference of your waist at the narrowest point.

Underbust measurement: 33″
Waist measurement: 30″

If you decide to use princess seams, you don’t need to do any measuring beyond what you already did to choose your pattern size.

Third Step

Determine where to place your darts or princess seams. Again, Knitting Daily has a great tutorial on how to place bust darts. You’ll have two bust darts on each side of the cardigan, but only one princess seam. Position the princess seam approximately where the black clip is in the Knitting Daily photos, so that it falls approximately on or a little to the outside of the center of each bust point.

When placing back darts, use the same Knitting Daily logic. Wear a loose t-shirt and use clips to gather the fabric so that it shows off your curves best. The place where the clips should be will also be where your darts go. You’ll just need two darts for back shaping. Whether you choose to use princess seams or darts, the back shaping will occur in the same place.

Where I’d put my princess seams: 4 inches (20 sts) in on each side of the back and front.

Where I’d put my darts:
Bum darts: 4 inches (20 sts) in on each side of the back and front.
Bust darts: 2 inches (10 sts) and 4 inches (20 sts) in on each side of the back and front. (2 darts per bust point)

Fourth Step

Princess Seams: Once you’ve decided where to place your shaping, and what kind of shaping you want to use, start knitting the garment! Princess seams usually stretch from the bottom hem (or very close to it) to a little over or under the tip of the bust. For a princess seam, merely do the exact same shaping you are asked to do by the pattern, only instead of doing the shaping two stitches from edges of the piece, you’ll do it closer to the middle of each side, in the location you’ve pre-determined will best highlight your curves. On stretches without decreases or increases, remember to slip stitches to create the continuous line of the princess seam.

Darts: Once you’ve decided where to place your shaping, and what kind of a shaping you want to use, start knitting the garment! Bum shaping will occur like princess seam shaping– just shift the required pattern shaping over a few inches on each side. Bust shaping is more complex; this is where your waist and underbust measurements come in.

You will want to follow the pattern’s shaping instructions for the bust up to a point. Subtract your underbust measurement from your waist measurement to get a number we’ll call W. If W is 0, then you don’t need to do any waist shaping before the bust shaping, and you can skip ahead to the next paragraph. If W is greater than 0, then you will need to do your bust increases as the pattern dictates until you have increased W inches OR until you have worked half of the total bust shaping rows in the pattern.

W = 33 – 30 = 3″

3″ of increases = 15 sts of increases TOTAL, or approximately 8 stitches of shaping on each side. In the Festive pattern, this will take 32 rows to accomplish, less than 1/2 of the total rows used during the pattern-provided bust shaping.

After you have achieved the circumference of your underbust plus pattern ease (or worked half the bust shaping increase rows), you can start thinking about darts and bust shaping. In order to do the bust shaping, find out how many unworked rows of bust shaping the pattern calls for– we’ll call it X. X will be the total number of rows of bust shaping called for by the pattern minus the number of bust shaping rows you have already worked (if any) to increase the W inches described in the last paragraph. Then decide how many bust darts you’ll need for each bust point– Y. X/Y = Z, the number of rows to use in your dart shaping. Darts should begin very close to where your underbust swells to become your bust– probably about half of the way through the pattern’s bust shaping.

X = # of bust shaping rows in pattern (here it is unclear, but I’ll estimate 64) – rows already worked (32) = 32
Y= 2 darts per bust point
Z = 32/2 = 16 rows for dart shaping

If you haven’t already worked 1/2 of the bust shaping rows, work those rows now, but without any shaping– follow any instructions for motifs, but don’t do any increasing. Then begin your dart shaping, following the rate of increases called for in the pattern (inc 1 st per side every 6 rows, for example) but doing those increases for each dart rather than each side. If you have two darts per bust point, then you’ll be doubling the rate of increase compared to the pattern shaping. If you have three darts per bust point, you’ll be tripling the rate of increase, and so on. Once you have knit Z rows, stop– you’ve accomplished your darts! Knit straight until you reach the armscye shaping, then follow the pattern directions for the rest of the knit.

Congratulations! You’ve shaped your knitted sweater for your personal, three-dimensional bodily shape.

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About two months ago, I was reading quite a bit about darts. Knitting Daily was doing a series on bust darts, and I must have googled “knitting darts” at least once a day for a week. But I’m not a busty lady. Why was I so interested in darts?

Darts aren’t just for those blessed by much chest. In this situation, I was designing a close-fitting worsted-weight cardigan (pattern’s currently in write-up mode). I wanted the cardigan to fit my curves, rather than occlude them, and since my curves are rather slight, it’s easy for them to hide under that kind of thick fabric. Then I remembered an old shirt I had, with bust darts. It fit me tightly through my torso, and the bust darts flared the bust out at exactly the right point, so that you could actually perceive that fundamental bust dimension– the difference in circumference between bust and underbust. My point is this: Even if you aren’t busty, bust darts are still useful because they position more fabric where you need it (bust, bum, other areas) and less fabric where you don’t (waist). See the diagram above for an example of what I mean.

As it happens, I may not be endowed in the bosom, but I definitely have junkage in the trunkage. My main problem with shirts, and especially with cardigans, is that they don’t button on the bottom, or if they do, they ride up over my hips. I don’t have wide hips, though– from the front I don’t look all that curvy. It’s definitely a baby-got-back situation, the bust issue in reverse. I need a lot of extra fabric in the back of my cardigans, and not so much in the front. Again, the solution is darts!

Despite the self-evident fact that we are shaped differently from front to back, most knitting patterns have identical shaping for both sides, barring variations in neckline. Even though women bulge low in the back and high in the front, shaping in knitted fabric places all the extra slack on the sides. Knitting stretches, so that slack ends up being distributed to where it should be. But the distribution isn’t perfect. Seamstresses know this. Dress designers know this. Basically anybody who works with woven fabric is aware that a person’s front has a three-dimensional topography that makes it unique from their back, and designs their clothing accordingly. But we knitters, we ride the Short Bus and take advantage of our fabric’s stretchiness to be a little sloppy with our shaping. We don’t have to, though!

Here’s an easy technique to take a pattern that already fits your dimensions (this isn’t about adjusting for dimensions that don’t fit a pattern, though it can easily be adapted to do that too) and making it fit your shape. The result will be a tailored, fitted look (so not ideal for baggy sweaters) that will make you feel very smart indeed. And it barely requires any changes to the pattern! The technique is based on three principles:

  1. People are not round. Your bust measurement may be 40″, but that doesn’t mean those inches are evenly distributed around your spine.
  2. Darts redistribute fabric from where it isn’t needed to where it is.
  3. Modern knitting patterns place additional fabric on the sides, away from the high points of topography.

In essence, what you do is replace the side-shaping on your knitted front and back, and instead increase (or decrease) that same number of stitches near the sides of bust or bum, creating a pocket of extra fabric in which to fit the extra flesh (also known as a dart). And because the end result is the same number of stitches as the pattern expects, the pattern’s dimensions will not change and you won’t need to so much as adjust the armscye measurements.

To decide where to reposition your shaping for maximum impact, consult this great photographic guide by Knitting Daily’s Sandy. The thing to know about darts is that they happen fast. A lot of shaping occurs in a small number of rows, which makes sense, since if you look down at your own bust and hips, you don’t see the gradual slopes we’ve come to expect from side-shaping in knitting patterns. Instead, it’s all flat-flat-flat-WHOOSH! Which is how your darts need to be. In order to get maximum shaping over minimum space to emulate the rate of growth of your curves, it may be necessary to use more than one dart (I’m a B-cup, and I used two darts on each side of my bust).

That’s the principle. Do the same shaping as the pattern asks, but near the area you want to highlight rather than at the seam, and pace your shaping so that the increases have a slope that is similar to the curves of your natural shape. There’s nothing to worry about and no extra stitches to decrease away. You’re just taking advantage of the fact that knitting is three-dimensional and can create fabric with 3-D proturberances (like we all have as part of our bodies) rather than two two-dimensional shapes sewn together.

Tomorrow I’ll go through a detailed example using one of the cardigan patterns from Knitty to really demonstrate the technique.

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  1. Weight
  2. Density
  3. Ply/Texture
  4. Washability
  5. Quality
  6. Feel


Let’s assume you’ve gone through the other five dimensions, and you now have some yarns in mind of the appropriate weight, density, texture, washability and quality for the project in hand. If you have yet to narrow the field to one yarn, there is still on dimension left to consider: feel. What does the yarn feel like? What will fabric knit from that yarn feel like?

Why Feel Matters

Some people will say that the way something feels doesn’t matter very much, as long as it does the job and looks good. I will admit that prioritizing “feel” to the point of putting it on this list is an idiosyncratic choice, but I assume that many knitters become involved in knitting because they are tactile souls. I believe that the way things feel is important both to the knitting process and to the enjoyment and usability of the final project.

Most knitting projects involve a commitment of some hours. I often return to the thought that knitting is a luxurious hobby, pursued more for pleasure than for utility. Why, then, would we want to knit with yarns that have an unpleasant feel? Yarns that we don’t like to touch become projects that lie unfinished under the couch. In the same way, even if we do brave the icky feel of the yarn to the point of finishing the project, will we use the end product? I expect that, like a shirt with a seam that rubs, our hard work will end up in a drawer somewhere. Of course, “feel” is a subjective thing. If you’re giving away the project to someone else, your suffering may be rewarded. But in general, when we invest our time and money in a project, we might as well try to maximize the enjoyability of the knitting experience by choosing yarns that appeal to our fingers.

How to Investigate Feel


Yarns made from animal fibers (except silk) are more likely to be scratchy than other yarns, though hemp and some cottons can also be uncomfortably abrasive (washing usually helps this). The way that a yarn is processed strongly influences its degree of scratchiness, so fiber type alone cannot be relied on as an indicator.

Unfortunately, the feel of yarn in the ball can differ from the feel of the fabric of a washed swatch. Still, there are ways of investigating scratchiness even from a ball.

The Itch Test

Hold the ball of yarn (or the swatch, if available) to the side of your neck, your cheek, and/or the inside of your wrist for 15 seconds. These areas of skin are much more sensitive than fingers, arms, etc. If you start to feel an itch, then you’ll know the yarn is itchy. Washing only decreases yarn itchiness, so if a yarn doesn’t feel itchy from this test, you can be reasonably confident than the final product will not be itchy either.


Some acrylic or cotton yarns can be squeaky, meaning that they create a distinct quiet squeaking sound when rubbed against each other or when being knitted. Take two strands of yarn from the ball and rub them together with your fingers, listening intently. Squeaks are subtle but can drive certain people completely nuts, so if you feel like you may have heard a squeak, it may be best not to get that yarn. Squeaky yarns may result in squeaky final products, though if you’ve used an appropriate (or looser) gauge this is less likely. I don’t know of any way to prevent or remedy squeakiness in the final product, but squeakiness during the knitting experience can sometimes be ameliorated by replacing plastic needles with metal or bamboo ones.


Some yarns may feel hard and dense, even though they are described as light and lofty. If these yarns come on a cone, they are probably covered in coning oil, an oil applied to yarn as it is spun onto the cone to keep the coning process going smoothly and to make the yarn easier to use in weaving, the usual province of coned yarn. Coning oil can be removed by a soak in warm water with hair shampoo or woolwash, always being careful not to felt the yarn. If you decide to wash the yarn before knitting with it, wind the yarn into hanks, tie the hanks at four different places, and wash from there.

How Not to Investigate Feel

Unfortunately, feel can only be investigated in person. We all feel things differently, and have a different threshhold for scratchiness, squeakiness or hardness. Online reports of people who found a yarn scratchy, or conversely report that it was soft “like butter” cannot be relied on in almost any case. If you’re lucky enough to find a fellow knitter or knitblogger whose sensitivities turn out to be very much like yours, you may be able to use their input, but in general there is no substitute for your own experience.

Happy Knitting!

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  1. Weight
  2. Density
  3. Ply/Texture
  4. Washability
  5. Quality
  6. Feel


Of course, there’s no point in finding a yarn that is the right weight, density and texture and fits your washability demands if that yarn is badly made. So what indicates a badly made yarn?

Signs of a bad yarn:

  1. Breaks in the plies
  2. Splitting
  3. Color bleeding
  4. Pilling quickly

Breaks in the plies

As fibers are commercially spun by machine, some of the plies may snap under the tension. When this happens, a conscientious yarn manufacturer will snip the yarn and splice it together, ideally leaving an undetectable or barely detectable join. A less conscientious yarn manufacturer will snip the yarn and knot it– many knots in many skeins is also a sign of low quality. A yarn manufacturer totally lacking in conscientiousness will simply let the yarn keep spinning, leaving the knitter with a yarn where as many as half or more of the plies are snapped. In that case, your best bet is to cut the remaining plies and splice the yarn together yourself.


Splitting happens when a yarn is loosely plied together or the plies initially did not have enough twist, so the plied yarn is not held together very firmly. As you knit with this yarn, the tips of your needles may occasionally go through the body of the yarn instead of under it and through the stitch. Lack of attention to this can result in stitches that are only half-knitted, with the orphaned and unknitted plies sitting like snags on the knit side of the fabric (see photo, above). Wool yarns are unlikely to split, plant fiber yarns slightly more likely (because they lack the scales and hooks of animal fibers that help hold the plies together), and acrylic yarns vary all across the scale. Splitting is more likely with sharp-tipped needles or needles that are very small in relation to the yarn.

Happily, splitty yarns can be detected from examining the ball of yarn. Simply find an end, pull out about two inches of the yarn and look at it in the palm of your hand. Can you see the flesh of your palm between the plies when the yarn is relaxed? The yarn will probably be very splitty, like the yarn on the left of the photo. Similarly, if the plies appear to be slack and straight rather than wound together and twisted, the yarn will likely split. Yarn that is unlikely to split will look more like the yarn on the right of the photo.

Color bleeding

As mentioned in the previous post in this series, knitted fabrics do occasionally need to be washed. If your yarn is dyed, there is the possibility that it will bleed, that is, that excess dye will leave the yarn and come off into the water, other nearby yarns, other nearby clothing, etc. In really extreme cases, the yarn may even stain your needles before it is wet! Some amounts of excess dye are typical in certain kinds of handdyed yarns, etc, but a conscientious dyer will warn you if the knitted fabric needs to be given a final wash to remove any excess dye. You can also help to fix the dye by soaking the yarn in vinegar (if the yarn is an animal fiber). Most acrylic yarns are not going to bleed because they are colored in a different way, and cotton yarns will also bleed but require a different, more exotic chemical fixative than vinegar. Bleeding is especially alarming if it happens in colorwork.

Pilling quickly

This photo shows the armpit of an older knit of mine. The white line outlines a particularly long section of pill, but you can see many other signs of wear as well.

“Pilling quickly” is a category that encloses yarns that show any kind of wear quickly; yarns whose knitted fabrics rapidly appear old and worn. However, the amount of wear a yarn can take before it is considered “low quality” varies considerably by context and intended use of the yarn. For example, a soft, loosely spun yarn like Debbie Bliss Cashmerino Aran will definitely pill faster, and after less wear, than harder-wearing, tightly-spun yarn like Jamieson Shetland Spindrift. The unfortunate fact is that softness results from loosely spun fibers, and loosely spun fibers result in pilling. Debbie Bliss Cashmerino Aran should instead be compared to other soft, loosely spun yarns of a similar composition (merino, microfiber, silk) to determine whether it’s a good example of its type.

Note: Of all the yarn materials I’ve known, microfiber has been the most likely to pill. Microfiber yarns (and clothing) are appealing because they’re soft, stretchy and drapy. Unfortunately, microfiber is made of very, very long fibers spun together. Those very long fibers catch on things or are pulled up by friction, and pills happen. Because the fibers in microfiber are so very long, these pills happen easily and often and are hard to get rid of– it takes a long time for the whole fiber to work its way out of the fabric so the pill can be pulled off.

How can you determine if a yarn will pill, bleed color, split on your needles or have breaks in the plies?

First, you can try visiting a knitter’s review site like Wiseneedle or Knitter’s Review. Wiseneedle is made up of user-submitted reviews, with all the attendant inaccuracies, biases and weirdly incomprehensible comments that entails. Despite this, the Wiseneedle consensus is usually right, and the user reviews cover a wide range of current and discontinued yarns.

Knitter’s Review is a regularly-issued online magazine about knitting. One of its features is a yarn review, in which a particular knitter knits a swatch of a yarn, washes that swatch and then subjects that swatch to wear and abuse. The review is complete with photos, and the yarn is compared to others in its class (similar construction, similar fiber type, etc). Knitter’s Review has much fewer reviews, but they are thorough, well-documented and reliable.

Ideally, we’d all be able to swatch, wash and mistreat a swatch of our own before making the commitment to buying yarn. Unfortunately, most yarn stores won’t take back a ball of yarn that’s been swatched from if the swatched yarn can’t be unravelled or is in poor condition. Also unfortunately, the swatches in a yarn store won’t be very helpful to you, since they’re intended to sell a yarn– all the broken plies will be spliced out of sight, the splits will have been mended, any color-bleeding will have been repaired and the swatch won’t have seen much wear. If you have a good relationship with your local yarn shop they may be willing to give you the real skinny on a particular yarn, but I’d remain skeptical– no shop proprietor wants to tell a customer that one of their products is defective. A fellow knitter’s experiences, either online or in person, are the best substitute for your own experimentation.

Note that the one thing I didn’t mention as an indicator of quality was price. Aside from my attempt to only purchase local yarns and fibers this year, I’ve been a huge fan of Knitpicks since the beginning, when I was a poor college student and they were just starting out. The quality of their yarns has been steadily increasing since then, but the prices have stayed the same. In contrast, yarns like Debbie Bliss Cashmerino Aran cost a pretty penny but may not last as long or look as good after a few weeks.

Similarly, even though I talk a lot about wool yarns here and tend to neglect the cottons and acrylics, fiber content is no real indicator of quality. The specificity of my fiber-based comments is due to the fact that I tend to talk about what I know (animal fibers) more than what I don’t (cottons, acrylics). Lately I’ve been trying to branch out, and any recommendations for high-quality cotton or acrylic yarns would be greatly appreciated.

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