Leslie’s Sweater Yarn, DONE!

Leslie’s sweater yarn is now complete, and shipped off to her! I’m left with three partly-full bobbins of single-ply yarn, which I’ll finish up and keep for myself, and two batts that I expect I’ll spin very fine, again, for myself.

Leslie's Sweater Yarn By completion, about 45 hours total were spent on the yarn, from dyeing and blending through test spinning, swatching, iteration, on to production spinning, production plying, skeining and measuring, finishing, and final put-up in 6 center-pull balls, 5 of them at 250 yards and one at 350 yards of higher-twist, just slightly finer yarn intended for cuffs and collars.

Roughly a third of that time could be considered prototyping; producing a similar amount of very similar yarn in the future would probably take around 30 hours.

So, some would ask, is it really worth it to produce a yarn like this, which at first blush looks very much like a millspun yarn, given that it takes that sort of time even for an experienced spinner like me?

I say it is (and hopefully, Leslie will agree when she has the yarn in hand). I certainly put that sort of time into spinning for my own projects, but I will grant you that not all yarn consumers would immediately believe it to be worth the cost. But ask yourself: have you ever worked your tail off knitting or crocheting a project, worn it a few times, and then found it was far more delicate than you expected, and just didn’t hold up? Or washed it and found it completely changed? Heaven knows I have, and it’s a major reason why I don’t often use commercial yarns for serious projects anymore (but stay tuned, you’ll soon see my commercial yarn projects, and those will probably surprise you). In any case, it’s heartbreaking to put a lot of work into a handmade garment you love, only to find you have to relegate it to the “very occasional wear” category or treat it with extreme kid gloves.

Leslie's Sweater YarnIf I’ve done my job right (and I have), that won’t be the fate of Leslie’s sweater. She can rest assured her sweater will fit her lifestyle and last her for many years. This is a type of longevity that most of us no longer expect from anything in our lives, let alone from our clothing — but it wasn’t always so. I myself, as a child, wore sweaters that were made by my great-grandmother, worn by my grandmother, and then by mother, before I wore them. We’re talking about children’s clothes, and household objects, that were made when Babe Ruth still played for the Red Sox. Heck, I own a quilt and an afghan that were made before women had the right to vote in the United States.

There are many factors involved in textile longevity, and I’m not going to promise Leslie that her great-granddaughter’ll be taking that sweater with her to colonize Mars or something. But I absolutely can promise her she can treat her hand-knit sweater like a regular wearable wardrobe item, and expect it to outlast her blue jeans. Her biggest worry should be if it’s going to go out of style, not whether she dares to put it on for fear of it wearing out.

So, yes, I say, it’s worth it to put that kind of time into spinning a well-constructed traditional yarn. Sure, it’s a custom colour, a custom blend of fiber, a one-of-a-kind yarn nobody else has and you can be certain you’ll never run into anyone else with the same sweater; and sure, those are great things. They’re just not the single biggest reason to spend an entire work week (or sometimes more) of an expert spinner’s time on a true designer yarn.

Leslie’s Sweater Yarn

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.

64's grade commercial merino topLight brown Chinese cashmereNatural-coloured tussah silk top

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.

Merino top, dyed variegated bluesLight brown cashmere, overdyed in varied bluesTussah silk, dyed in varied blues

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.

CardzillaThe blendThe Blend, on Cardzilla

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.

Carded blended fiber, ready to spinBatts ready to spin

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.

Single-ply yarndouble-stranded center-pull balltriple-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:

singles yarnSingles Swatch
Singles Swatch, backlit

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:

2-ply yarn2-ply swatch
2-ply swatch, backlit

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:

3-ply yarn3-ply swatch backlit
3-ply swatch

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

Cabled Yarn
Swatch, cabled yarn

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.

Singles on the bobbin I’m now entering production mode for the yarn; see the start of a single at left.

November, Shorter Days, Sock Blends

Today I’m working on sock blends, in large part to work my way through the pile of bombyx silk seconds that I wound up with from recent silk dyeing sessions. Basically, any time that a silk fails my quality control for being saleable as top, I put it on the blending pile — it’s still beautiful fiber, but not quite up to my standards for sale. Usually, this will be because I break a top while moving it; sometimes it gets too tangly in a dyebath; sometimes it weighs up a little short. Every now and then, there’s one where the dye doesn’t penetrate to the depth I expect it to, or the colour is just not quite right. So anyway, blending fodder.

Muted Sock Blends TodayAs luck would have it, here as days grow shorter and bleaker, I seem to have already worked my way through the lion’s share of bright colours, and I’m left with the muted tones, and a whole lot of gray superwash merino, which is absolutely wonderful in its softness, but… you know, gray! So here I am with muted-colour silks and gray superwash that I’ve postponed far longer than I meant to. There won’t be a new round of really bright silks until I do another dye day, and that’s not going to be until my next shipment of bombyx silk arrives, sometime this week I expect. Of course, with Thanksgiving approaching, and family coming in to town, next week isn’t going to be a big work week for me.

Sock blends, though, are big fun. I find them very satisfying. To be a really good sock blend, the fiber needs to be very easy to spin fine, and absolutely next-to-skin soft. It needs to have some memory, so there’s some stretch and bounce, and it needs to be a long-wearing blend. Combining superwash wool, various silks, and a little bit of nylon absolutely does produce such a blend, and then it’s up to the spinner to spin the sock yarn he or she wants.

Perhaps the trickiest element with sock blends is coming up with something that it’s not just as easy for someone to buy in a millspun sock yarn. Especially in the past few years, the range of options for commercial sock yarns have really increased, and this is a constant challenge for me as a fiber producer. I tend to solve it by adding really luxurious fibers into my core recipe — a little angora, or some cashmere, maybe baby camel down — and sometimes man-made high-tech fibers that do really interesting things (like firestar nylon, which if done right can be both really startling and not too overpowering).