A(nother) Small Sweater

“Babies- And people generally– have been dressed in wool since around the beginning of history.  Even as comparatively recently as my own youth I can remember neither the word, nor the phenomenon, of wool-allergy.  A minimal minority wriggled their way through my boarding-school days complaining of scratchy underwear, but they outgrew the sensitivity — they had to.  I believe that the dressing of babies in the very softest wool, automatically and naturally immunizes them against any allergy to it.”

– Elizabeth Zimmermann, The Knitter’s Almanac

I think of this quote a lot, and it’s definitely worked with my children, nieces, nephews and of course…

Elliot.  Each of them has been swathed in the stuff from the word go – I’m a big fan of wool on babies and littles for a million reasons, you guys know most of them. It’s warm when wet, resilient,  sustainable (remember, polyester is plastic) biodegradable, naturally flame resistant and hypoallergenic. (Somebody’s going to go bananas at that last one, but look up the definition first.)

In all the years I’ve been knitting for kids, I’ve always knit with wool (non-superwash, where I can) and handed the sweaters out with abandon. I know, I know, someone else is going to go bananas and say that it’s a terrible burden to give a new family woollies, for laundry reasons, and someone else will say that they’re afraid they’ll be ruined.  To them, I say this. If you don’t think they can take care of something as precious as your knitting- the very container of your time and love, then maybe you should buy them something nice? Maybe they’re not your target audience

As for the laundry problem, woollies don’t need washing often (another advantage of wool, it’s naturally antimicrobial and repels dirt) and you wash them just the way you wash the littles who wear them, so I feel like all parents are competent to handle the task. (Assuming they are successfully washing the littles in question, and if they’re not then I think there’s another issue to address before sweaters.)

In any case, all the babies and kids I’m lucky enough to know have a full wardrobe, wear their wool with gusto and nary an itch, and I think of Elizabeth often.

Pictured: Elliot’s Christmas sweater this year. Pattern: Winter Cocoa. Yarn: Miss Babs Yowza. (One skein for the size 2, knit a little longer in the arms and body, because Elliot’s almost the height of a three year old, but pretty skinny.) Needle size: 3.5mm (See that? I can be taught.)

PS the blanket is coming along I’ll show you tomorrow.

PPS Meg, thanks for taking the pictures.  I know he’s a fast moving target.

72 thoughts on “A(nother) Small Sweater

  1. I absolutely agree with you and Elizabeth. There is nothing like a good warm woolen hat, scarf, sweater, socks …… if you are allergic to wool you are likely allergic to your fingernails! The quality of the wool might be your issue. That being said, can a kid get any cuter than Elliot? His sister will have a tough act to follow although I’m sure she will be up to the task.

  2. I’m (haltingly) knitting the two-needle baby sweater, so I have the rhythm of her sentences in my brain, too. Such a pleasure. And Elliot brightens even January, bless him.

  3. What a handsome sweater. I love the color.
    I, too, am a big fan of woolens for babies- for all the reasons you said. I do admit thAt I tend to use superwash yarn, though.

  4. Lovely. Totally agree with the wool thing. I had two generally allergic kids (to foods, pollens, dogs, etc.) but no problem with wool. Now they’re adults and wash their own–except for that time last summer when Isabel lugged three sweaters in her carry-on bag all the way from California just so they could be soaked and spun here in my clunker top-loading washer.

  5. Not quite. Babies don’t have to be blocked. You don’t have a find a place where a baby can be left undisturbed for several days while she dries.

  6. I too knit with wool, but not for my daughter who is truly allergic to wool. She has trouble breathing as well as breaks out in a rash from coming into contact with wool. I am not anti wool just letting you know there are people with true allergies. She’s so allergic that she is ordered not to wear her military dress uniform which are wool.

  7. What a cute grandson! What a great sweater (and hat)!

    EZ acolytes everywhere will agree with your take on those wise words.

    Brava!

  8. I’m on my third start of the City of Fountains scarf. The yarn is a shimmery blue, and the only size 6 needles I had were a greenish aluminum, so not only was there almost no color contrast, I’ve absolutely quit knitting with aluminum. So off to one of my LYS. The size 6’s available were a dark wood, I should have waited until I could get to a store that has some lighter color 6’s, but you all know what bad habits we knitters have of not being willing for the ideal conditions, but just make the best with what we have. This scarf is about the most difficult I have tackled, and mid-April, the target date for completion, is still far away . . . .

  9. I agree with you and EZ about wool. I’ve been following Clara Parkes on IG about the wool advertising. And her Vanishing Fleece is on order. I’m late to the game (mid 60s) but a fervent convert.
    “Grandchildren are our reward for letting our teenagers live.” My grandmother!!

  10. I am not directly allergic to wool, and I love to knit with it, but texture matters. I can’t wear mohair or anything with a halo. I also can’t wear any wool that isn’t buttery soft, and it usually needs to have some component of acrylic or I wind up covered in hives and contact dermatitis.

    It makes me so sad because I love the sustainability of wool, and the fact it sequesters carbon. You also can’t get lovely kettle-dyes or handpaints in acrylic blends.

    As it stands I use local hand dyed wool on a base I can tolerate, and wear that as hats, scarves/cowls/shawls, and mitts. Sweaters are done in Estelle DK or Worsted because the extra acrylic helps reduce itchiness. And alas, I cannot wear wool socks at all. I get hives in the shape of the ribbing, even if they’re loose.

    I love this sweater very much, and might do one for my 5yo!

    PS: please come back to Winnipeg someday! My parents met you many years ago, gifting you rainbow sock yarn after you gave me the Tiptoe Through the Tulips socks, which I wear over a cotton base layer I would love to say thank you in person some day!

  11. I love my grandchildren, but have given up on giving them things made of wool. Their mother (my daughter) is pretty careful… but their dad does the laundry and doesn’t understand why he can’t wash a wool sweater like he does a plastic sweater from Wal-mart. I’ve given up. And I don’t make him sweaters. Sometimes a hat, or a scarf, but no sweaters. (I do make the girls sweaters, using the best acrylic-wool or superwash I can find)

    • Anything I am making for someone I don’t know 100% will always care properly for things, I make with sock yarn. And everything that is day-to-day wear for littles is always sock yarn, whether fingering or DK. That means the recipient (or their less careful assistants) can toss things in the laundry and know they will be fine – it is a relief to everyone.

  12. Remembering a particular wool sweater I had knit for my son, six years old at the time, and how he lived in it. One day, a fall necessitated a trip to the emergency room and, after all was fixed and calmed, the attending nurse exclaimed over the sweater, telling us how it repels rain and snow, breathes, etc. And then he asked me to make one for him. He was a bicyclist and treasured woolies. I actually did make one for him – can’t do enough for those who care for us – and, even though we’ve lost touch over the years, I’m pretty sure he’s still wearing it.

  13. I have a friend with a wool allergy. I’ve always felt really bad for her: she can’t knit with all the pretty yarns I can, she can’t wear all the beautiful woolens I do, and she doesn’t stay as warm and dry as I do in the rain and cold. I’ve only ever been sympathetic.

  14. Hi Stephanie,
    Would you be interested in teaching at Knitters Day Out September 24 and 25 2021 in Pennsylvania? Kate Atherley is teaching for us this year and we unanimously agree we would love to have you next year. If you’re interested please send a contract and we can talk further. You can reach me at slinghoff@gmail.com
    Thanks!

  15. I was a truly allergic to wool baby. My mum and grandmother lovingly knit little woolies for me before I was born. For a bit they thought the newborn was reacting to detergent, but it turned out the red rashy itchy baby was allergic to wool. I can knit with it, and prefer to, and now can wear it with a layer underneath, and line my hats with polar fleece, which stops the itch and keeps the wind out. Socks and mittens are fine though. I’m glad I outgrew the worst of it!

  16. I knitted a jumper for my grandson, but by the time I finished it, it was too small, it’s been packed away for his younger brother.

  17. Apparently I suffered appallingly from heat rash during my first summer on this planet. It gets to 45 Celsius where I live in summer. An older nurse at the mothers and babies association told mum to dress me in woollen vests, even in summer. Mum said it didn’t cure the heat rash entirely, it did help. Funny enough I’m allergic to alpaca and mohair.

    And young Master Elliott just gets cuter and cuter. Although seeing him in a woollie on a 34 degree C day has made me itch a bit

  18. I do know someone with an actual, verified wool/animal fiber allergy, but I think a lot of people who claim to be allergic (like my mother) are just sensitive to coarser wools. I have almost always used wool for baby gifts, though usually I’ll use superwash (I know, I know!), especially for recipients who know nothing about fiber arts and would be upset if they accidentally felted something. My own daughter, though, has been covered in wool of all kinds since she was a wee babe, to no ill effect.

  19. This conversation among knitters about how you can’t possibly be allergic to wool drives me nuts. I have allergy testing that says I have a wool allergy, but I don’t need it. Wool, all wool, gives me hives. I don’t care how good the quality, I will have a horrible itchy rash. And the idea of being born in a generation where I was forced to wear wool underwear and told to get over it is horrifying. No, I don’t believe there’s any reason not to give children wool clothing. Why would you assume any allergy before you have evidence of one? But, to say that wool allergies don’t exist is ridiculous.

    • I agree. Allergies, and other medical issues, don’t spring into being when they’re recognized. It’s just that before anyone knew about allergies, people suffered and no one knew why. Sometimes they suffered a lot. Sometimes they died, and still no one knew what was really wrong.

      Some people still say food allergies “don’t exist,” because the information wasn’t available when they were children. That’s seriously dangerous. As far as I know wool allergies don’t kill people, but allergies are real.

      • I have a novel published in 1930 in which a working-class woman refers to her mother reacting to eggs: “she’d be that sick and come out all over spots like nettle-rash.”
        Yes, it’s fiction, but it makes the point: food allergies were a thing back then, and people knew they were a thing.
        But possibly they’re more of a thing than they used to be, and it would be interesting to know the reason/s why.
        Possibly it is in part (like wool), because some people are genuinely allergic and others who are sensitive to the same substance believe themselves to be allergic likewise.

      • I go into full blown anaphylaxis if I wear alpaca.
        Wool “only” triggers an asthma attack with the accompanying raised rash, itchy, watery eyes and constant sneezing. It has gotten worse as I’ve gotten older.

        Marginalizing people’s actual allergies and sensitivities only perpetuates the ignorance. Wool allergies may be rare, but they do exist.

    • so true! I was the child forced to wear wool hats and scarves and mittens and sweaters, because “they’re warm” and as far as I remembered in the winter I suffered from strange eczema-like skin issues, but no one ever took me to the doctor because “allergies are a fake”. I only got my allergy test results as an adult, I have a wool allergy – it is that simple! I can’t wear sheep wool or mohair as they give me nasty skin sores, alpaca or cashmere is fine. Acrylic or polyester fleece is for me a true blessing!

  20. Can be taught. Lol. Your needle size mystery is an issue I have right now in mending a scarf that has a hole in it from a naughty cat. I have the yarn and it is a simple moss stitch I can replicate. Guessing the needle size because I didn’t document it in any of my knitting notes.

  21. Whoa – Elliot’s getting so big! What a cutie-pie he is.

    The term “hypoallergenic” is a huge hot button for me. I still get annoyed when I think of the cosmetic counter lady who argued with me that her high-end product couldn’t be responsible for the rash on my face because it was hypoallergenic. She got a vocab lesson that day, too.

    • Oh ya I hear you baby!!! A lot of herbal products give me hives also…lavender, chamomile, clover, echinacea, rose, most grasses to name just a few. Try finding creams, soaps, shampoos and conditioners without all those additives! I had to get rid of my herb garden but can ingest mint thus I grow pots and pots of the stuff.
      I can wear merino and alpaca though so I didn’t have to quit knitting lol

      • I’m with you; natural products can cause allergic reactions to some. I’m allergic to aloe, which is now in so many soaps, moisturizers, cosmetics, and even added to some yarns. I know that aloe is the ingredient I react to because my first exposure that caused a reaction was to the gel from inside an aloe leaf.

    • Right? It drives me nuts too. Hypoallergenic means “less likely to cause an allergic reaction” not “can’t possibly.”

  22. We hand wash our kiddos in gentle soap. Why not throw the hand knit sweater into the bath water to soak while you scrub Junior. Give it a quick rinse, lay it on a clean surface (kitchen counter or table) overnight. And Bob’s-your-uncle!

  23. As wonderful as wool is, I completely disagree with EZ here. It reminds me of my grandmother, when my parents told her that I was allergic to cats back in preschool she immediately went out and bought a cat believing that exposure to animals would “fix” it. Unsurprisingly I am still allergic.

    Just because some only have a problem with rough wool, doesn’t mean it is worth getting someone sick who is truly allergic.

  24. Stephanie, I share your thoughts on wool!
    I’m concerned about the laciness of that baby blanket though. Aren’t the spaces in the lace just asking for baby fingers or toes to become entangled? I’d love to hear your thoughts on that.

  25. I agree with everything you said about wool. EXCEPT I’m in Houston, TX where wool is entirely too hot for all but about 3 days a year.

  26. The whole family is allergic to wool. Zimmerman is just totally wrong here. And no I would not have hand washed puked on baby garments. If it can’t go in the washer and dryer it wouldn’t go on the kid. Nothing like making a sleep deprived frazzle new mother worry about hand washing crapped on garments and then making her feel guilty about wrecking them. Anything like that would have instantly migrated to the give away bag, never worn.
    And softness has nothing to do with it. Baby Alpaca irritates just as much.

  27. Interesting that EZ thought exposure to wool “immunizes them against any allergy to it”. My experience will allergies is the opposite. I developed a bad allergy to rodents only after having them as pets for several years, then going away to college! When I came home on break, I started to have severe sneezing fits around my sister’s pet guinea pig. Things only got worse with prolonged exposure.

    Being sensitive to a scratchy fiber, like some types of wool or linen, is different from a true allergy. People can get accustomed to a scratchy fiber. If they think they may have an allergy to wool (or rodents, or cats, or anything else), they should see a doctor.

  28. Your family knows how to handle the good stuff.

    My son-in-law watched me knit his newborn a supremely soft hat (baby alpaca and silk, I think it was), loved it, exclaimed over it–and somehow despite coaching from me it got put with the baby’s laundry. He put it through the washer and dryer and it came out about 2″ across and so felted there was no telling what the pattern had been. He was just devastated–he’s a sweetheart.

    I knit another one out of superwash. It might not be as ideal, but it would keep him from feeling so terribly bad the next time. He has good intentions but not the attention to details in a mundane chore with a toddler and baby around. And one wants to encourage a man who does his family’s laundry.

  29. I have to admit that I ask. A friend of mine gave birth to her first baby last year and I asked beforehand whether wool was okay or whether they wanted sock yarn that can be thrown into the washing machine at 30°C. She asked me to use the sock yarn. My niece, on the other hand, got a 100% woolen cardigan, because my SiL is fine with handwashing it. I think it all depends.

    If all else fails, I’ll make socks – they can also be thrown into the washing machine, are fast, and don’t need to be as soft. Or a hat. That’s also easy to care for.

  30. When I was a baby there were no synthetic baby clothes, so I was dressed in wool. I didn’t get over my allergy; I itched, scratched, rubbed my eyes, choked and sneezed for years until finally, maybe when I was 8 years old, allergy testing became a thing. So while I would love to be able to knit with it, even the softest wool yarn is out of the question unless I’m willing to take a double dose of antihistamines, put drops in my eyes and tie a scarf over my nose and mouth. I do it occasionally for friends using Malabrigo yarn, but please don’t encourage knitters to force babies to wear wool if it seems to bother them – they aren’t going to just get used to it, whatever Elizabeth Zimmerman believed.

  31. I love that sweater. And Elliott looks darn handsome in it! I’m in the process of choosing a pattern for my 6-year-old granddaughter’s 4th wool sweater. She’s still in her third, but the sleeves are getting a bit short… She wants one with cats this time. The first one had a bit of lace along the front plackets, the second had pleats in back and a big seed stitch shawl collar, while the third has a hood and cables.

  32. I recently knit a wool Orenburg lace shawl/baby blanket for a friend of mine. I am very happy to say she has used it on her every day as the baby gets very warm and this was just right. She hand washes it without a problem and blocks it. I am just thrilled that it is being loved and used.

  33. Less than two hours ago, another knitter (who is allergic to wool and nearly everything else in this world) and I were talking about “knit worthiness.” People who put handknit wool socks in the dryer do not get another pair, unless they are sufficiently abject in their admission and apologies. Those to whom we cannot avoid giving handknit gifts get “dimestore” yarn. Those who wear handknit socks without shoes on their jaunt to the mailbox get NOTHING.

  34. As Grandmother to 17 beautiful and adorable grandchildren – from 21 to 3, and 1 more almost here, I have to say your little Elliot is just adorable. I love you and love your column. Keep on keeping on. You are a great inspiration to me..

  35. I cannot agree with you more! I have a 2 and a 4 year old who live in wool and I don’t get how mums can get by without it. My 4 year old loves wool sweaters so much that she can barely tolerate polyester or acrylic because they don’t breathe and make her too hot.

  36. Allergies are a misery. I have the opposite problem to many here in that I am allergic to polyester (nylon is okay in doses, so sock knitting is still a thing). I can wear a poly blend for a few hours, like a fancy dress or a bathing suit (and I can knit w acrylic if I love you enough), but too long and I get a contact dermatitis reaction and if that gets out of control, there’s a two-week course of prednisone – vastly overrated as experiences go! My wardrobe is mainly picked by what doesn’t have spandex in it (increasingly difficult, especially finding pants).

    Does anyone else remember the “Icelandic wool” sweaters of the 80s? They were aromatic when wet and a bus full of damp uni students was cloying. I was thrilled to find 21st-century merino clothes and base-layers and now it’s all merino, all the time! Such a good thing that there are options for everyone.

    (And now I get to touch the t-shirt; can usually find one without poly in it, if you search long enough).

  37. I respectfully disagree with EZ- I have a true and tested allergy to wool, cats and rabbits. I developed it in later life after a childhood of hand knits.

  38. Those little hands! I’m absolutely mesmerized by his little hands, for some reason they just make him look grown up.

  39. My solution is to say to that new mom “Let me know when it needs washing and I will pick it up, wash it and bring it back.” But then, I am retired. Elliott’s sweater is beautiful and he is a beautiful child.
    My sister says taking pictures of little kids is like “wildlife photography”. LOL

  40. This is my experience with gifting wool. I knit for my sister’s birthday a Marie Fischer shawl. Check her out on Ravelry. Crazy ass lace. A thousand yards of laceweight wool, a thousand beads knitted in, a thousand hours of knitting. Beautiful lace, long enough to cover her behind and wrap her in glory. My sister is a knitter, so I thought we’d be fine in the hand washing department. Her cleaning lady is not a knitter, and went looking for one more thing to finish off a load of washing, saw the shawl spread out on the foot of the bed where my sister had been admiring it and threw it into a hot wash and dryer. I came out like one of those fat, leather collars that Budweiser puts on the clydesdales. When my sister pointed out the problem to her, she said, “”Yeah, that’s what happened to the pretty blue shawl Julie knit me, too. Why do they do that when they are washed?” Now I knit acrylic for my sister.
    Julie in San Diego

  41. Me on the other hand, along with my father cannot wear regular socks that have nylon in them. Our feet turn fire engine red, itch like mad, and then crack and bleed if we wear nylon. Needless to say, I have been barefooted most of my life whenever I can be, never wear nylon dress stockings but went bare legged before it was in fashion, and otherwise only wear cotton or pure wool socks. There is an exception to every rule, but most people who “itch” when they wear wool are not allergic, they just are not used to the fiber. I was raised with everyone always wearing undershirts with a jumper overtop. I never knew the wool was itchy and now as an adult I crave sweater season but still wear a long sleeve undershirt.

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