Friday, May 17, 2013

A Study in Socks - Yarn Choice

There are so many ways to approach this topic. Do you choose the yarn first or the pattern? Does it make a difference? Does fiber content matter? Why does it matter? Colors: solid, variegated, tonal, self-striping, self-patterning?

I'll do a blog post on each of these questions, but I'll try to boil it down to some essentials here with regard to fiber characteristics. Just enough to get you thinking about your choices.

Which came first, the yarn or the pattern?
It depends. Have you found a sock yarn that you absolutely love and now you just need to figure out what it wants to be when it grows up? Or did you see a pattern on Ravelry (or elsewhere) and now you just have to knit it, but don't know what yarn to choose.

The only certain thing is that you should consider the characteristics of one when choosing the other. Not all sock yarn is created equal and not all patterns knit up the same.

What do I mean by this? Let's take a look at this sample of sock yarns that I chose from skeins I have at home and talk about two main characteristics: loft and twist.

There are a few characteristics I'd like to point out here. The first is fiber content. As you can see, I prefer my sock yarns to have a bit of nylon in them for durability. But just because they all have merino and nylon in them doesn't mean they will knit up the same.

Sample 1
Let's look at the odd kid out (get it: kid - mohair...from a goat...lousy pun). Fiber #1 has mohair in it as well as merino and nylon. This makes it fuzzier than other yarns without mohair. This is called the halo. Alpaca and mohair are fuzzier fibers, giving yarn a halo. As a result, items knit with these fibers will have less stitch definition; patterns will be 'softened' and won't appear as crisp as with other yarns. I don't recommend knitting an intricate design with a yarn that has lots of halo. Your hard work won't show up as nicely.

Sample 2
#2 is a nice plump yarn with more loft than the other yarns. Loft refers to the amount of air between the fibers. The yarn is bouncy and has a nice twist which you can easily see in the photo. Because of the loft and thickness, this yarn is not the best suited to lacy patterns unless you use very large needles. Yarn overs and other lace stitches would get lost in the plumpness of the yarn if you were knitting socks.

Sample 3
#3 has a nice tight twist as compared to the other yarns. In addition, it is a bit thinner too. This yarn shows great stitch definition and is well suited to cables, twisted stitches and more detailed patterns. If knitting socks, it will make a nice firm fabric. It would also show lace off nicely due to the tight twist. The yarn might feel a bit harder on your hands while knitting with it, but it softens upon washing.
I used this yarn to knit my Intertwined socks, which show off the cables nicely and have a firm fabric between the cabling.

Sample 4
This yarn has a nice even twist, with a touch more loft than Sample 3 beside it, but not as much as #2. I used this yarn in my Leafy Lace socks and I think it shows off the lace stitches nicely. And with the nice twist, that isn't as tight as #3 it will provide great stitch definition too. It is also a tad softer to the hand than #3, despite having the same fiber content. This is because it has more loft than #3.

Sample 5
This one falls between #4 and #2 on the loft and twist spectrum. As you can see, there's a bit of fuzz to it and the twist isn't as easy to see. It should still provide nice stitch definition though. A good, middle-of-the-road yarn.

Sample 6
A bit more loft than #5, with a nice twist. The fuzz on this yarn isn't necessarily due to fiber content like #1 with its mohair. Some yarns are just more prone to fuzzing with handling as you can see if you compare this yarn with numbers 3 and 4.

There are also sock yarns with a bit of silk or cashmere in them, making them nice and soft. The silk would add some sheen to the color as well. Silk is often called "Nature's nylon" and can add strength to a sock yarn. And I haven't talked about different wool blends: Blueface Leicester (BFL), generic wool, and so on. Different wools have different levels of softness to them. There really are so many factors that can influence how a yarn will behave when knit up; I won't try to cover them all in one post.

So what does this mean to your sock knitting? Try to think about what kind of yarn would be suited to your pattern to give you the results you want and vice versa. For lacy patterns, avoid yarns with a lot of halo (fuzziness) and consider how the loft (amount of air in between fibers) will fill in the holes when using smaller needles for socks.

If you have a pattern that is very detailed, pick a yarn with a tighter twist to show off the stitch definition to its best advantage.

So how to decide? That's where Ravelry comes in handy. Ravelry is great for seeing what others have knit, either with the yarn you have or the pattern you have picked out. Take a look at the projects completed with the yarn you have (or want to buy) and see how they turned out. Does the pattern look good? Is it visible and clear? Or, if you have a pattern you really want to make, then take a look at what yarns people have used? Which yarns do you think look the best?  Look past color at this point and just think about how well the pattern/stitches turned out.

Of course, the proof is in the pudding, as they say. When it doubt, swatch it and see if you like how it looks.

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