A few weeks back, I embarked on an exciting custom spinning project for a longtime friend, who wrote me to say she was ready to start knitting the sweater of her dreams, and did I have the right yarn for it by any chance? I wrote her back immediately telling her I insisted she let me design and spin her the perfect yarn for this specific sweater, and including a list of questions.
- Do you have a pattern in mind, and if so, what yarn does it call for?
The Debbie Bliss Classic Jacket, which calls for Debbie Bliss Cotton Cashmere, which should knit to a gauge of 5.5 stitches to the inch, or more specifically, a 4″ square (10cm square) should contain 30 rows and 22 stitches, using US size 5 needles.
- Tell me about how you plan to wear it, care for it, and what you have in mind ideally.
Not too fuzzy. More sleek than fuzzy. I like some fuzz but I also like to see my stitches. Some texture but not a ton. A little lumpy is fine. I made a sweater out of Manos del Uruguay this year — my big project. I loved it. But I don’t want something so thick and thin as that. A few knots or lumps here and there are fine, even desirable, but no sense in me making something in a very similar yarn to what I made this year.
No shedding. Hand wash. It’s baggy. I’m going to wear it with everything — white blouses and skirts for work, white t shirts and jeans and boots the rest of the time. I like really soft yarn. Give or what you call memory is important to me. Warm isn’t that important to me. I live in California still. But I do like wool, natural fibers for sure. If it is warm, great too.
Reviewing these needs, it was clear that major design elements for this yarn should be strength and a fair amount of resistance to pilling. It would need a comfortable balance between sweatery drape and being lightweight, make a firm fabric with a gentle hand, be next-to-skin soft and have plenty of bounce. As for colour, we were shooting for a variegated cornflower blue.
For the fibers, I chose to blend a midrange commercial merino top (64’s grade), natural-coloured tussah silk top, and light brown loose Chinese cashmere.
Step one was to ballpark the amount of each that I’d need, and dye them. I went with 10 ounces of merino, 8 ounces of silk, and a little over 2 ounces of cashmere, each of which I split into separate small batches of varying sizes, and dyed in different shades of blue, from electric and robin’s egg to royal blue to violet and deep eggplant. With each natural coloured fiber being a little different, and in particular the cashmere being brown, the resulting range of blues encompassed probably 30 shades in all.
Once dyed and dried, it was time to blend the fibers with my drum carder, the trusty Cardzilla, a Strauch doublewide motorized model, the muscle car of carders, complete with footprint gas pedal and stickers from MSD and Edelbrock (okay, those parts actually went on the ’72 Pontiac, but the stickers belonged on Cardzilla). And Cardzilla’s foot pedal is still just round — still haven’t found the right size footprint one, but I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled.
After several passes through Cardzilla, I had a total of 14 batts weighing 1.5 to 2.5 ounces each, all three fibers evenly distributed throughout all of them, but with some variegation in colours carefully preserved.
At 50% merino, 40% tussah silk, and 10% cashmere, these batts are light, fluffy, lofty, and incredibly soft. Carrying them around from one lighting zone to another, the colours in them shift. I allowed for extra fiber for sampling and swatching purposes, but no sooner did I finish these batts than I found myself really wishing I’d doubled the recipe, so to speak, and planned to spin some of this for a sweater for myself. With any luck I’ll end up with enough left over for a scarf or a shawl. The blend is totally unfair and irresistible. It’s similar to one I’ve done many times before in natural colours, saving the dyeing for later… it’s just a really delightful blend and I’m thrilled with it (hopefully, Leslie will be too).
With the blend complete, it was time to do some sampling. I spun one batt up in a not-so-fine single, which in turn I plied in several ways, then swatched, to get a sense of exactly how I wanted to spin and ply. To do this quickly from one bobbin, I first wound a center-pull ball, then wound several other balls from this one: another center-pull ball with two strands (this was the largest), a triple-stranded Peruvian-style ball, and a smaller double-stranded Peruvian-style ball.
I set aside about 30 yards of the single to swatch as well, just for kicks, even though I knew there was no way it would knit to gauge, nor would it have the appropriate wear characteristics. This single, I had allowed some variegation in thickness as Leslie had said she found some variegation in texture desirable. In any case, I wanted to test a 2-ply yarn, a 3-ply yarn, and a cabled yarn (the 2-ply, plied with itself). I felt it was most likely that the 3-ply would be the yarn we were after, but I have also had great results from similar blends in a 2-ply yarn so I figured that was worth testing as well; and as for the cabled yarn, while I was fairly sure that would be denser than we wanted, I also thought this blend would just make a beautiful cabled yarn and had to give it a whirl.
Single-ply yarn, swatched on US size 3 needles:
Top left: the yarn; top right, the swatch in progress; bottom, the swatch, backlit so you can see clearly how open and thick-and-thin this looks. It’s pretty, but not strong or long-wearing or sweater fabric or remotely close to the gauge we’re after!
2-ply yarn, swatched on US size 4 needles:
Top left: 2-ply yarn; top right: swatch knit on US size 4 needles, 24 stitches to 4 inches/10 cm; bottom, swatch backlit to show consistency and fabric density
3-ply yarn, swatched on US size 5 needles:
Top left: 3-ply yarn; Top right: backlit swatch on US size 5 needles; bottom, swatch with measuring tape showing gauge, 18 stitches to 4 in / 10 cm
4-ply cabled yarn, swatched on US size 5 needles
Top: cabled yarn sample: the 2-ply yarn shown above, plied with itself in the opposite direction of the original ply (same direction as spin). Bottom: swatch knitted on US size 5 needles, 4 stitches to the inch.
The final analysis
In the final analysis, and after consulting with Leslie about whether or not she’s a tight knitter, and re-swatching the 3-ply on size 4 needles myself, I deemed the 3-ply yarn to have the right drape and wear properties, and made the decision to thin down the production singles a little and do a 3-ply yarn.
I’m now entering production mode for the yarn; see the start of a single at left.