My first foray with sheep’s wool (and the importance of soaking your swatches)

Elizabeth Zimmerman

Following a recommendation from Linde I have been reading Elizabeth Zimmerman (of which more in a later post), and unsurprisingly for the Queen of Knitting, she swears by wool. I really like what she writes about the origins of knitting:

“Primitive societies herded sheep… for milk, meat, and skins. How resourceful to gather stray tufts of wool …and spin them into yarn. How resourceful to experiment with knots and loops on two sticks, and eventually to resolve the tangle into the prototype of some form of knitted fabric. Weaving took place at home, but knitting could accompany the shepherd, the sailor, the woman walking to the fields, anyone who at any time had idle hands”

Knitting Without Tears, 1971, p44

Most knitters I know love, even insist on, knitting with wool. I am not allergic (for whom Elizabeth’s “heart bleeds”) but I don’t really like wearing it close to my skin. I will happily make jackets, skirts and coats in pure wool, and I love the way you can shape wool when tailoring.

But I remembered that on my scary visit to Loop in Islington merino wool was recommended by the salesperson as it is not itchy. But when I felt it I found it not that nice. I didn’t, certainly at that stage, want to make a huge investment (much of their yarn is imported from the US and is very expensive) in money and time and then find myself reluctant to wear an itchy, scratchy jersey. So I went with the other fibres and shelved the idea of wool.

Over many years I have found that for softness next to the skin I prefer cotton, silk, linen, cashmere or alpaca.  Having said that, when knitting you do need a fabric with life and springiness, don’t you? Previously I have found cotton yarn leaden. So, so far, I have been using Drops Peruvian baby alpaca with silk (very reasonable), Purl Alpaca (very nice, soft English alpaca, but more expensive) and cashmere (bought from Colourmart). Buying it “retail” can be ridiculous. But I decided the time had come to try wool.

Searching for a bargain on Colourmart I came across some wool sets. These are odd bits of very soft merino yarn at about £20 for 300 grams. The colours are delicious and the yarn feels very soft and silky – so I bought a few packs. Those who had assumed my selection of bit and pieces of yarn might be the left overs from a productive knitting life, now know my secret!

I buy the bits that cannot be sold as a matching set because the yardage is varied and the colours inconsistent lots. But as I love colour, and am happy to blend and mix, especially now I know you can combine yarns to make a thicker thread, I see this as an advantage  While one can get a proper tweedy look with two contrasting yarns, I like the subtle effect of combining close but not identical shades. It gives a richness and interest, making the colours look more natural (like hair or fur) and less synthetic. While avoiding the variegated look (which I like alot less – not sure why!). In the picture below the three slightly different pinks look like beetroot when mixed together.

Three DK yarns makes one bulky
Swatching the pinks

So here is my first woolen garment, taken in Esme’s flat. This top is a better fit than the first grey version as I created some shaping in the back, and I knitted it in the round, at least until the armhole. It is less boxy looking than the grey one, but otherwise I followed exactly the same pattern. You know how I like to repeat my successes (such as they are!). Only this time I jointed the shoulders with the “three needle bind off” or the Kitchener stitch (knitted not sewn). Thank you to Chris and to Mary F for suggesting this – good choice!

Colour mart Merino wool in pink
Sleeveless Poloneck in merino wool

This has been soaked and washed in hot water and detergent. Compared to the cashmere there was very little colour loss, and much less “blooming”. Looking at the photograph I am wondering if the armhole is too deep. It is such a tricky thing – this knitting lark. You never quite know what you are going to get. I think it stretched a little more vertically than horizontally. Maybe I can try reshaping it next time it is washed.

The grey one has had a makeover too.

When I washed it in hot water with detergent after knitting and stitching I found the deeper grey took up a lot more water and relaxed more than the lighter shade. This made it unpleasantly flared at the bottom. I especially didn’t like the ribbing which had been knitted with a 10mm needle like the body of the jumper. I tried steaming it and it shrank a little, but not enough. So I unpicked the darker grey (which is especially soft and beautiful), and used my remaining light grey yarn to reknit the base, using 8mm needles for the ribbing to match the collar. In the third photo below I haven’t yet washed the reknitted jersey. You can see how the unwashed yarn is a completely different colour and texture.

This post provides some empirical evidence that you need to do what Stephanie says. Not only is it is essential to swatch the yarn you plan to use on the right needles (circular or straight depending on your pattern), you also have to soak it in water. As she says:

I usually soak my swatch for about twenty minutes and then pin it out to dry, but that is with wool as I don’t knit with cashmere (so don’t know much about how it behaves, although I think it has more limited spring/recovery).

I didn’t wash my swatch, although I did make one to make sure I had the right size of needles. But, from my experience, she is quite right. My cashmere, especially the darker grey, really spread out when soaked and became unattractively baggy. That is the poor recovery she mentions. Secondly creating mixed yarn from unknown batches can, even when they are the same composition and weight, really differ especially after washing. Thirdly it seems the wool stretched more in the length and the cashmere in the width – this seems surprising and I can’t explain it.

Fabrickated grey cashmere top
Re Knitted grey sleeveless top

Anyway I am probably through with this style of jumper, although I have learnt so much about knitting by attempting this project. I would like to try something with sleeves, using the three strands of DK wool. Maybe a little jacket?

PS Karen Templer has published her Sloper pattern.




29 Responses

  1. Elaine Sabin-Simpson

    You’re such a scientist! The patience involved in all this sampling, swatching, washing, RE-KNITTING is beyond me. It’s all very interesting, but I’ll stick to sewing, I think!
    Keep it up, it’s very interesting [to watch]

  2. LInda Galante

    That is so lovely, you make me want to take up knitting:) then I could have an endless stash of wool to store next to my Huge and growing stash of fabric. This color and style was made for you! Enjoy…

    • fabrickated

      Ha ha ha. I vowed never to get a yarn collection, and now I have got one. And the more knitting I do the more the fabric languishes. I am hoping my patchwork class, plus making a few garments with the gifted haberdashery stash might make an impact Linda!

  3. Linde

    I’m so pleased to read today’s blog. At this moment my kitchen looks like a Lancashire mill with unpicked wool wound round chairbacks drying. The windows are wide open and I think I should have waited until the weather warmed up.

  4. Annie

    There are so many variables aren’t there? I’ve made a swatch for a cardigan and steamed pressed it and it grew 1/4 inch, that tiny bit adds up significantly over the whole circumference. I could either go down in needle size or make a smaller size. As is my wont, when faced with a decision, I stop. ”Twas ever thus.

    Your improvised tops look good and you’ve learnt a lot from a relatively quick project, if you’re inclined, you could pick up stitches around the armhole and knit a rib, that would narrow it a bit.

    • fabrickated

      Yes – knitting is a bit like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates. I think the chunky projects were a good way into improvisation Annie as I got quick feedback. So far what I have knitted fits quite well, but I wouldn’t even mind a jumper that was a bit too big. And I have worn the pink top again and I don’t actually mind the armholes, but its good to know that I can change it even now if I want to.

  5. Bridget

    Very interesting read. Thank you. I am not a huge knitter, mainly socks and currently a small Fair Isle hat, but I too like to mix yarns. I am fascinated to read how the yarns stretched differently in length and width. Clearly I should be switching more and also soaking them.

    This is a blog post showing how much variation there is between knitters using the same yarn blocked and unblocked which I found helpful.

    I have made a baby cardigan from the Elizabeth Zimmerman book and love her approach to shaping a garment. It looked like a crumpled butterfly until the last moments when I sewed along the sleeves and a cardigan emerged. Looking forward to hearing your progress on her techniques.

  6. Cherry Heinrich

    Such an interesting post. It’s a long time since I knitted an adult size garment (I’ve been knitting children’s things that have to go in the machine!) but if I did I would use Soak to wash it. I use this for bras and shop bought sweaters that I am nervous about shrinking and it has been fine. A similar product is Eucalan which is also good. They are both no rinse delicate handwash products. I wonder what hardy knitters think about these? I first was recommened Eucalan in a fantastic knitting shop in Amsterdam.

  7. jay

    Once again, thanks for the inside story. Is baby wool still a thing? Decades ago, when I was hand knitting enough to remember things like how to turn a heel on bootees, you bought a very soft, fine wool (lambswool?) for matinée jackets, vests and such like. It wasn’t itchy.

  8. eimear

    thank you for the recommendation on colour mart – i have book marked it for future reference. I adore wool – have a wool duvet and pillow!- but never wear it next to skin as such (except polo neck) I use a cotton base-layer so as I dont have to launder wool sweaters so often – that shade of red is perfect – what weight or how much yarn did it take?

      • Kerry

        I think weighing the garment will give you a reasonably accurate measure – the digital kitchen scales are what I use to check how much weight is left in a ball of wool. The same principle should apply.

  9. Stephanie

    Ha ha. Don’t do what I say! I don’t have that much knowledge. There are cetainky more knowledgeable people out there and plenty of resources. I just have my own repertoire of things that work for me to get the product I want. You are developing your own similar repertoire.

    I love Elizabeth Zimmerman’s writing style. A pretty large chunk of the patterns you see on Ravelry are based on her basic circular knitting patterns and formulae. Also look up the “EZ baby surprise sweater” to see how many garments come up. I think it’s in the tens of thousands.

    Your top looks really great and I like the blend of different colours. I love natural and tweedy yarns but I have also never been crazy about the look of variegated. All this said I have to say that I don’t understand the washing in hot water! For wool I always use tepid. I use a mild natural detergent (you can use Eucalan or similar if you like), fill a basin with tepid water, and then gently immerse my garment. You don’t want to stretch the garment so I wouldn’t run the water on top of the garment. Afterwards I drain the water and gently press out excess water. Then I put the garment in a towel and roll it up, which takes out most of the water. Then I lay it out to dry on new, dry towelling. Basically I try to preserve the garment as close to at first knit/block as possible and it’s easy to stretch when wet.

    There is a lot of variation within the “wool” category. I prefer as natural as possible and tend to avoid merino but there are a lot of treated yarns to create softer products for those uncomfortable with wool or ones mixed with merino for softness. Continue playing around and you’ll find what you like best.

    • Stephanie

      PS One other quick thing. I have the impression that you knit at a fairly loose tension so that might have something to do with the stretching. You could try experimenting with smaller needles if a denser, more stable fabric is of interest.

  10. Jenny

    I really admire your experimental approach to knitting! I also highly recommend Soak for softening up wool (and hand washing any delicate item). When I was first knitting in the 50s and 60s only wool was available, or a rather nasty nylon. I had never heard of swatching or blocking then! We just followed the pattern – you knew if you were a tight or loose knitter and adjusted accordingly. Winter knits weren’t washed very often (sounds bad but drying would take days and we did not have nearly as many clothes). In 1967 my sister and I brought back some skeins of oiled wool from a holiday in Ireland. It stank of sheep and oil, and was quite heavy and rough to knit into an Aran jumper (one to share). We washed the jumper after one wear and it shrunk! It’s amazing how much my knitting has changed since the internet broadened my horizons! Much more pleasurable now because it’s not done as a necessity, but more of a minefield as there’s so many options.

    • fabrickated

      What an interesting story. I agree about things not being washed very often – it was a palaver. My Mum had a mangle, a sort of rubbing board, some terrible soap, blue and various other pieces of primitive boiling equipment. I think this might be an interesting topic for a blog post. And yes – scratchy wool or bri-nylon! I remember sheets that stuck to you. Oh Lordy!

      • Jenny

        I remember those sheets too! My Mum welcomed them because they dried so quickly and didn’t need to go through the mangle, but our enthusiasm was short lived. No fabric conditioner then so lots of static!

        • Kerry

          I love all that history, Jenny. I also learned to knit in a time when such things as swatches or blocking were unheard of. I guess you learned by the mistakes you made along the way. Times have certainly changed and knitting and sewing garments is no longer a necessity but a glorious celebration of and pride in the uniqueness of the hand made. It connects me with the past and I like that. As for those nasty sheets, we never had those; my mother boiled all the sheets and towels in a copper and they came out white and pristine and lasted forever. When I met my husband he was so impressed that he asked my mother (or did she offer?!) to boil his good white linen and cotton business shirts as well. It seems a bit cheeky in hindsight, but his shirts have never looked as good as in those days!

          • Jenny

            There’s more than a blog post here Kate, more like a book!

  11. Heather

    I’m enjoying reading your forays into designing sweaters, you will love the freedom this gives you.

    The three needle bind-off and Kitchener stitch are not the same. You probably did the former. Kitchener stitch is used to graft two pieces of knitting with live edges so the “seam” disappears. You usually wouldn’t do this at the shoulder as it is very stretchy.

    • fabrickated

      Thank you for the clarification. I did read that the Kitchener stitch uses a needle to weave/graft the two together, but I also found references to a knitted version and assumed it was the same as the three needle bind off. Many thanks Heather.

  12. Chris

    I can confess to rarely swatching or washing swatches if they get made. Knitting tension can have a lot to do with pieces stretching out also – or the stitch pattern, as you noticed with the ribbing.
    You’ve come further in your knitting than many people do in twenty years!

  13. Ruth

    I knit (sometimes) but you put me in the shade, as always. I’m constantly intrigued by your persistence and tenacity. You might inspire me yet to pick up the needles and wool….in the meantime, I’ll knit vicariously.

  14. Kim

    I applaud you for documenting the changes you have found in the different fibres when washed. I confess to knitting like a mad woman and then complaining if it all goes wrong in the (careful) wash!

  15. Brenda

    Your observation about mixing yarn lots is very interesting! I agree that the depth of color you achieved is very nice.

  16. Christine

    My bitter lesson has been to always swatch then wash and block the swatch.,Since gritting the teeth and taking the time I have not had any far far too big garments. A constant problem before, even with a swatch. I agree with the comment on water temperature. Hot water will start to felt if you are unlicky and tepid is perfect.
    Also the itchiness of wool. I have a lovely textured alpaca sleeveless vest I rarely wear as, even over a shirt, it irritates. I have just knit a cowl with malbrigo sock yarn, 100% merino and it was a relevation. Fluent and with a wonderfully silkiness to the touch. Alas a present for a sister.
    Cotton does knit leaden and it stretches easily in the wash with not much recovery. So much to take into account but the challenges and exploration makes for wonderful learning

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