Knitting with Natural Fibers

Reader Contribution by Jo Devries
article image

Beautiful hand-dyed wools create wearable art.

It’s the time of year when I turn my attention to choosing a winter knitting project. I will probably spend most of the next six months feeding the woodstove and shoveling snow. Having a trunk full of luscious yarns will keep me happy in my little cabin in the woods. Who cares about freezing rain? I’ve got nowhere to go anyway.

I learned how to knit when I worked for my mother, who bought a wool shop in the 1980s. I started designing my own things from the get-go. Within two years, I had designed and knit the bodice of my wedding dress. I had grand ideas of becoming a sweater designer, my creations being featured in Vogue Knitting, and traveling the world for shows. Well, I have designed over 200 sweaters, but I never made much money at it.

I did have a design featured in Chatelaine magazine and two in Crafts Plus, but that was over 20 years ago. For about 10 years, I provided the artwork for Luce’s wholesale/retail store in Ottawa; they had my designs knit in China and distributed them across Canada under the Aston label. That dear couple closed up shop years ago, and now I just design the odd thing for myself or for presents.

A Multitude of Choice

Yarns today are nothing like they were in our grandmothers’ day. The choices are scrumptious to look at and therapeutic to hold. Having a good stash of yarn (as all true knitters succumb to) is better than money in the bank. Who knows when you might get stuck at home for an uncertain amount of time? If your stash fills shelves from floor to ceiling, you are increasing the R-value of your home. More is better.

There are bulky yarns that will enable you to knit a sweater in no time, and thread-like silks and mohair’s to create the most intricate shawls. There are a multitude of colours to choose from, and yarns that create a colourful pattern, all by themselves.

Just handling my stockpile of yarn each autumn ives me the encouragement I need to move forward, and do something new and creative. Feeling that silky cotton gliding through my fingers or squeezing a large skein of alpaca, gets my fingers itching to knit something. Knitting means I’ll get to enjoy that feeling for hours. And hours. And hours.

Wool yarns, including roving, two-ply, fine merino, super-wash, and Lopi.

Yarn Categories

There are three major categories of yarn: animal-based, plant-based and synthetics. Most yarns are blends, but there are still pure natural fibre products on the market.

Animal-based yarns include: wool (sheep), angora (rabbit), mohair (goat), cashmere (goat), silk (silkworm) and alpaca. Lesser known specialty yarns include yak, possum, camel, and the most expensive, qiviut: soft inner wool from the musk-ox. One single 28-gram ball of qiviut will make a small, luxurious and amazingly warm scarf, but at a cost of almost a hundred dollars. Many animal-based yarns are blended with wool and/or silk to reduce cost and increase durability.

The oldest woolen mill in Canada is Briggs & Little Woolen Mills Ltd in York Mills, New Brunswick. Despite being lost to fire four times, the owners have rebuilt and are continuing to uphold a family legacy of producing wear-like-iron natural wools.

I’ve heard of people spinning their dog hair with wool, and creating their own unique yarn for a truly one-of-kind item. Imagine turning all that dog hair into a memory blanket — a winter coat for a short-haired pooch, slippers for the postman, the list goes on.

Plant-based yarns are predominantly cotton, linen, bamboo, and hemp; many being produced as blends. The plant-based yarns lack elasticity, and blending them with a bit of synthetic helps the finished garments keep their shape, also making the yarn easier to knit with.

Today, there are thousands of different yarns on the market: from super-soft, machine-washable wools to fashion-trendy yarns with flare. I have an incredibly soft baby sweater made from 100% milk yarn. I’ve heard of yarn being made from banana peels. High in demand now are the hand-painted yarns; every skein being unique.

These days, most people are spending a lot more time at home, and the knitting business is booming. Being able to work with fabulous yarns on your lap while listening to an audio book or music is a great way to enjoy being creative, practical and productive. Who doesn’t love a pair of handknit socks, warm mitts, or those cotton dishcloths?

Cashmere, possum, camel, yak, silk ,alpaca, mohair, angora and qiviut.

How to Choose Top-Quality Natural Yarns

Most yarn shops today have websites and ship anywhere, sometimes for free. My mother’s shop, Wool-Tyme, in Ottawa, Ontario, one of Canada’s largest yarn stores, ships daily, around the world. With the convenience of shopping at home, and an incredible selection of the most amazing yarns to view and research on the web, why not plan a hand-made natural fibre project?

Make a 2020 heirloom. If you don’t know how to knit or crochet, learning is easy with an abundance of free videos available on the Internet. I recommend starting with a dish cloth. No matter how ugly, it will be put to good use.

So how do you choose a yarn? Synthetics, the most popular, are the least expensive, durable and wash well, but they don’t breathe and I don’t think they’re comfortable as garments. Read the label and research feedback. Are there allergies to consider?Natural fibres aren’t cheap and some need to be hand-washed but I think they’re worth it considering the hours involved in knitting.  A beautiful hand-knit garment is a work of art; why not use the best of materials?

Plant fibres: Linen, bamboo, cotton and hemp.

Considerations for Washing Natural Fibers

The things I want to know about a yarn are: how comfortable is it, and how will it react when it’s washed. Far too many dollars and precious hours have been thrown away by a hand-knit project gone bad. As long as you know how a yarn will respond to wear and washing, you can prepare for the result.

Knitted cotton garments tend to grow, so I’ve learned to account for that, in my designing. I knit my cotton wedding dress bodice one foot shorter then needed, then wet it and hung it to dry, pulling on it to get the extra length out of it. Otherwise, it would have stretched a foot during the day of wearing it. Knits will stretch when hung. Simple as that.

I learned that angora shrinks, even as you wear it. The sweat from your hands makes the rabbit hair in mittens felt, which means the fibres tighten, and the fabric shrinks. Two winters ago, I knit my treasured angora stash into half a dozen pairs of mitts, socks and wrist warmers. It was a knitters’ dream working with that yarn — like knitting with a cloud! I made the items larger than needed, so that after they were worn and washed, they would shrink to fit the person wearing them.

Natural fibres are environmentally the better choice. Understanding how they will react to washing, and even wear, will help avoid disappointment in your expenditure of time and money. Keep warm and happy knitting!

Jo deVries (Jo of the Woods) designed and helped build her off-grid Ontario home, where she and her son have enjoyed a pioneer-type life-style without electricity. She is the author ofDoes Your House Know Where South Is?and generously shares what she has learned during her on-going journey of turning a piece of bush land in to a self-sufficient homestead. Connect withJo of the Woodsand read all of Jo’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS postshere.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.