Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Fiber for Knitters

I received an email the other day from a local knitting group asking me to talk to a group of knitters about spinning. They didn't really want a spinning demonstration (it couldn't be that easy!), but rather a discussion of what knitters need to know about fibers to help them make more successful projects.

So I started looking at what I call “Fibers 101,” a course that I’ve added to this blog in the past (see and, with a view to revising that material for these knitters. I didn’t find much that needed to be changed.

So I went off to do my presentation, said my piece, handed out copies of the material to the 20 or so attendees, and invited questions. That’s when the true learning experience of the day took place - for me!

I’ve commented in the past that many young folk don’t get any sort of fiber education. First, let’s define “young” as less than 40 years of age. To my mind, anyone over 40 had a pool of cultural knowledge on which to draw that included some basic fiber knowledge of the “cotton comes from a plant and wool from an animal” sort. At least, I thought they did! But obviously we’ve been an industrial, non-agricultural society for longer than I believed.

The knitters in this particular group ranged in age from 14 to over 70, but most of them were between 25 and 50. So the large number of questions regarding the harvesting of various animal fibers came as something of a surprise. I did NOT expect the old, “Do you have to kill the sheep to harvest wool?” chestnut from this group – although I got it. Also unexpected were questions on which animal produces polymid (???) and why cotton, flax and silk fibers were all shorter than any animal fibers (again, ???).

Needless to say, I backed up. Obviously, I had thrown a lot of information at these folks quickly, and some of it just hadn’t sunk in. I explained that animals may be killed to harvest fiber, but usually aren’t, because top-notch fiber produced year after year pays for the cost of keeping that animal alive and in good health. I again went over the various types of manmade fibers, including polymid, and talked about the relative lengths of cotton, flax and silk fibers. And assumed we were finished with those sorts of questions.

I was ready to move on to why you choose woolen-spun fibers for baby sweaters and fuzzy shawls and felted mittens, and worsted-spun ones for gloves and outerwear sweaters and soft, fine wools, and how to look at yarn labels to find out this sort of information. I had quite a few samples of current yarn labels to help. I also wanted to expound on the affordability of fibers versus yarns, and the satisfaction you get from doing a project from the fuzz to the finished object –adding to the ranks of new spinners is always fun.

But the next questions were about the high price of natural fiber yarn, and why acrylics weren’t considered to be superior to any natural fibers. I mentally threw up my hands at this point, consigning all my carefully-prepared yarn labels and handspun natural fiber and yarn samples to the storage bin in which they normally live. I then spoke passionately about the feel, breathability, insulating properties and environmental friendliness of natural fibers; the ease of finding a perfect natural fiber for any project and the satisfaction of using natural fibers. I tried to explain a bit of the cost factor as a return on the investments in land, equipment, livestock, feed and health care needed to produce those fibers. I’m not sure anyone bought the message.

I suppose what I’m asking is whether I’m completely outmoded in my liking for natural fibers? Are most knitters these days primarily interested in manufactured fibers, or was that strictly this particular group of relatively-new knitters? And is there a correlation between the length of time you’ve been knitting and your fiber preferences? I’d like to have some feedback on this, gentle fiberpeople, before my next “Fiber 101” presentation. Which is set up for early June…to a local group of museum curators…who are probably going to be primarily interested in the pre-polyester era… Do I sound as confused as I am at this particular moment in time?


elizabeth said...

I'm as perplexed as you. The only thing that makes sense is that these were relatively new knitters. When I was a new knitter (last year!), I of course knew the difference between plants and animals but not necessarily the characteristics of the two. The more I knit, the more I appreciate and understand the benefits of animal fibers. I still knit with cotton and soy and even corn, because I live in Alabama and it's hot as hades here, but my love is WOOL! Now that I spin (more addictive than knitting), I'm having a great time sampling different sheep breeds.

I don't understand this group's mindset, but I hope they're not indicative of future craftsters! I doubt that they are. You are certainly not outmoded in your thinking! In fact, why don't you teach a class at SAFF this year??? Please??? I'd definitely sign up!

Molly said...

Agreed--you were probably talking to a class of beginners. There were probably a couple of more experienced knitters sitting in the back, horribly embarassed by their fellows!

I started out on acrylic and didn't really know there was another option until I'd been knitting (off and on, because, OW) for about six years, believe it or not. The good part is that when I found the good stuff (and never looked back) I was already an experienced knitter, stitches-wise if not in fiber knowledge. The bad part? Looking back on those awful, awful six years!

So don't worry--the "new generation" of knitters appreciate natural fibers in about the same ratio as older ones--maybe more, what with the availability of cheap wools online.

Julie said...

My guess would be that they generally buy yarn in the craft department of the local "big box store", where acrylic is overwhelmingly available, and relatively cheap. They haven't tried wool, so they don't know how much nicer it is to work with. They're afraid it will be hard to care for (washing, storing, etc.). They think of wool as itchy & too warm and heavy. Maybe you could have 2 similar items to show, one made from natural fibers, one from manmade fibers, and let them feel the difference. Just don't give up!

Frith said...

Very strange. The tactile sensation of knitting and spinning is so important to me (and always has been) that it's hard for me to imagine even a new knitter wanting to feel that junk passing through their hands. Maybe these people were taught by people who only use the junk. Maybe they don't realize that the Lion stuff is actually not cheap, and that you can find natural fibers that are more affordable. Also, some of these people who use acrylics are strangely defensive about it -- that somehow using it makes them "just regular folk" unlike the rest of us snobs. Anyway, I think it's a combination of ignorance and sort of a regular-folk snobbery. Personally, I think it's more common in somewhat older people than in the younger knitters, who tend to be more savvy and connected to the mainstream online knitting community.

As far as people over 40 knowing about fibers, I think that type of universal knowledge went out with the Industrial Revolution.

I say make them all touch the most wonderful natural fiber (and finished items) you can find. Then make them touch the junk. Then tell them where they can find more affordable natural fibers. If they don't get it then, move on.

TNWevr said...

Thank you all! I was beginning to think I was a confirmed candidate for old-fogeyhood. These were indeed all relatively new knitters - the most experienced had only been knitting for about six months. But the 'lecture' was hosted by a yarn shop that carries a wide selection of natural fibers, these were students of the owner, and I know that owner loves natural fibers. So I was flummoxed! The reassurances that this might be a normal progression are most helpful, and logical, too - we usually have to get fairly good at something before we're willing to spend much money on it. And I spin precisely because my own budget won't always stretch to the luscious fibers I want to knit.

As for SAFF, Elizabeth, I'd love to teach there! I almost always go, and have demonstrated once or twice in the past decade, but haven't been invited to teach. As for wool and Alabama...having spent time in Alabama during the summer a couple of times in the past, I'd also lean heavily on cotton, linen and other cool fibers! It can get so humid along with the heat! Luckily East Tennessee doesn't often get quite so sticky - at least not for more than a day or two!

elizabeth said...

You know, you're kind of in a sticky situation. If these new knitters think acrylic is superior to natural fibers because of the price, teaching at a yarn shop isn't really the best place to promote affordable wool/alpaca, like that sold through KnitPicks. I'm sure the LYS owner would LOVE that! I haven't been to my LYS much since I started spinning, but the most affordable wool I recall them carrying is Cascade 220. I suppose that or something similar would have to be your "affordable wool comeback."

I hope to see you at SAFF this year! I have no idea how they go about selecting class instructors, but I have learned SO MUCH from your blog! Thank you! Also, I'm taking a flax spinning workshop through my guild in Sept. (I wasn't going to because I'm such a newbie, but an enabler gifted me with 8 oz. of flax fiber so now I in), and that will certainly be an interesting experience!

Cate K said...

I became a knitter two years ago when my step-granddaughter asked me to help her with a knitting project her grandma had helped her start. Since grandma and I are actually quite friendly, I gave her a call to find out where she hoped this project would go. It was to be a washcloth and little one had dropped a stitch. I was able to "unknit" back to the dropped stitch and then pick it up and start her back on her way again. In the process I learned how knitting was not really as difficult as it had seemed years ago when my mother tried to teach me. And I went to my own mom for lessons. She told me that the natural fibers were much nicer and that acrylic hurt her hands. I was trying to go on pinching pennies until I finally bought and used some nice wool. She was right. My hands did not hurt like they did with acrylic (I think there is something about the "give" in natural fiber not there with man-made). In any case, my arthritic bones like natural fibers better. Then I learned to spin. Go back to man-made now? No way.

NCwoolie said...

Hey, tnwvr, haven't seen you at SAFF in years. When were you there last? When did you demo? Wish I had known you were teaching a class at a local knitting shop.

Swanknitter said...

I imagine they think acrylic is good because it's machine washable and cheap in their local chain store. But if you describe the wearability, long life, insulating properties and softness, they might catch on. Letting them handle and compare some acrylic and some fine wool might help, but if they are thinking about knitting for children you'll have a hard sell on natural fibers unless they ski.

T-Mom said...

That's extremely strange to me. I'm 54, and even before I started knitting, living through the "mini-ice age" of the late 70s in a poorly-heated house I quickly learned to value the superior warmth and insulation qualities of wool compared to acrylic (not to mention the incredible contribution that a little layer of silk longjohns can make to keeping warm), and I've "always" known that cotton and linen are far more comfortable in the summer. I know where wool and cotton come from! Maybe because I'm from a rural area of the country? Although we lean more toward cattle, hogs, corn, and soybeans than sheep and cotton.

When I was learning to knit I started with acrylic because (a) it was easily available and (b) I didn't want to spend a lot of money on what I considered to be practice projects,but as soon as I gained experience and confidence I started switching to wool and other natural fibers. The internet has been a godsend since it makes natural fibers accessible and affordable.

Annette said...

Much like many people, I started knitting with acrylics because they were affordable and relatively easy to find. Also, I was living in southern CA and wool was too hot. However, the wool I encountered back then was also scratchy, so it didn't appeal to me much at all. I didn't get it until I started talking with spinners and the softer wool yarns became more reasonably priced and easier to find (20 + yrs later). I spin for several reasons, but one is the cost effectiveness of the yarn (it may take a while to spin, but that is part of the joy of spinning).

Nowadays (and teaching to a LYS group), soft wool yarn is easy to come by; however, affordability is still an issue as is washability. I admit, when I knit for family members who have kids, I don't buy the expensive superwash wools, I buy microfibers/acrylics/manmade fibers. They are great for washability. Having said that though, superwash wool is becoming easier to find. And although the superwash yarns aren't as easily washed as many of the acrylics, they are very appealing.

I'd have to also agree with everyone's suggestion to show several knitted items from different fibers, and let the students handle the yarns and the finished pieces. I find it hard now to go back to knitting with some of the acrylics I purchased a while back for blankets.

As always, another interesting post.

farmer, vet and feeder of all animals said...

The next time you are asked why acrylic is more affordable than natural fibers don't forget to tell them that it is because there are government subsidies that prop up that industry were as most of us "mom and pop" fiber places are on our own. The cost of our fiber and yarns includes the very good care (along with hugs and one on one attention) of our animals along with the sustainable production of a very functional product. One that has many uses---uses that have been forgotten in this day and age of letting industry care for our every need. Just go to the store honey and pick up......(fill in the blank). Also, the "cheaper" price wool/cashmere/alpaca fibers that a previous person commented on come from countries that have very low wages (not knocking this just explaining). Good luck finding the response that fits the situation next time. Hard to walk the line of not sounding as if you think they are stupid or that you are preaching to them.

Shannon said...

For a long time I used the yarn from Wal Mart, JoAnn's, and Michaels that is mostly acrylic. But I was given some nice wool and made a lovely cardigan sweater with it. Then I spent 6 month in Lufkin Texas in the fall and winter and it was cold and wet and the only thing that kept me warm and comfortable was that wool cardigan. So much for acrylic........ I have learned that natural fibers have a more wonderful feel about them than acrylic and now I have become more of a yarn snob, I guess.

Anonymous said...

I too believe the tendency of the general public/new knitters in choosing acrylics is simply one of finances. They have a misconception, too, of wool being coarse and itchy, as many of the retail garments are. I believe that as they progress in the craft, their curiosity will bring them around to the natural fibers, as I have. Now I can't bring myself to buying a yarn containing any acrylic, no matter how soft.

There is also a satisfaction in supporting independent wool producers, as small businesspeople are the backbone of our country.