January 7, 2008

In praise of cheap wool

The furnace is fixed. Joe went downstairs while we were heatless and used a set of pliers to "short" the wires on the furnace together and it lit, which told him the problem didn't lie with the furnace. (I had visions of a furnace that we ran with a pair of pliers for a while, but he took them off.) Instead it appears to have been a wire that connects the beast to the fancy new thermostat. I should have known that such a stanch and reliable piece of machinery wouldn't fail me, and indeed, it did not. Yet another time when "they don't make them like they used to" seems to hold true. That furnace has been running beautifully and reliably for at least 50 years, the thermostat is 2 years old and appears to be failing. We have bought a new wire, things seem fine. I am deeply respectful of Joe's ability to do stuff like that. Imagine using pliers for anything other than straightening a knitting needle or tightening the connection on a set of interchangeable circulars. Genius. It was sort of nerve wracking while we were heatless though, and I got nervous when the heat was out and responded the way any chilly knitter would. I started a new sweater.


This is the Must Have Cardigan, from Patons Street Smart booklet, knit in the very nice and surprisingly affordable "Northampton" in light grey, from Webs. It's soft, it's beautiful and it costs $4.99 a ball/ 225m, 247 yards. That means that this whole sweater, knit out of soft warm wool is only costing me $25. Seriously, I don't know how to beat that. There's other yarns like this out there...Patons Classic Merino springs to mind (mostly because that's what the pattern called for in the first place) or even one (new to me) that I just saw at Lettuce Knit, Nashua Shepherd, which is $6 for 200m. (I admit, I have not squeezed that one and can't tell you if it's soft.) In my experience, which is totally considerable, since I knit way back in the eighties when acrylics were queen and wool was expensive and rare, knitting something like this out of an acrylic just isn't worth it, and I can't sing the praises enough of an affordable wool like this.

I hear you. Some of you are freaking out because you think I'm trashing your good friend acrylic, and in this instance, I sort of am. Acrylic has it's place, there are good acrylics. There are even people like my good buddy Amy who can't play with wool and have to make other choices. I'm not talking about that. I'm not talking about knowing all of this about the differences between the kinds of yarn and choosing them anyway. That's your business. You're the knitter, you get to pick... I'm talking about how often I hear knitters say that they would like to knit with wool but it's too expensive or too hard to care for.

I'm talking about what can be best accomplished with $25, in the context of this sweater, or ones like it, and in sweaters with cables, the characteristics of wool help you a lot. First, an elastic yarn helps. Cabling non-elastic yarns is a way more difficult thing, and because acrylics aren't really blockable and don't have any memory, you're going to notice a difference in your end result when you knit something with a lot of stitch manipulation. Stitches you pull out of shape don't want to rearrange as nicely in an acrylic, and it's harder to move stitches that aren't stretching. Wool is hugely forgiving and has all that lovely memory that will help your stitches settle in to their pretty new shapes after you stretch and manipulate them....and that's something you're not going to get with an acrylic.

I hear you in the back. You're waving that beautiful cabled sweater you knit out of an acrylic. You're telling me that you bought a FANTASTIC microfibre or a high end acrylic and then knit some exquisite cabled thing out of it, and I know that you are telling the truth, but I'm talking here about what you can get for $25 bucks....and the nice synthetics are priced much higher than that. (Case in point, this sweater would probably work really well in Rowan Calmer which has many of the elastic qualities of wool while not containing any...but it would cost about $96.00 to get done.)

Now I hear that other knitter. She's telling me that she doesn't mind all of the downsides of an acrylic, because she's not stupid enough to spend the rest of her life handwashing, or she doesn't think the person she gives it to will handwash. To you I say three things.

1. Humans aren't machine washable, and most of you have given birth to something you're going to hand wash way more than this sweater. I bet you even handwashed yourself today. it's really not a big time suck.

2. Good things take a little special care. You wouldn't not buy a dress for a party because you have to care for it specially, and you wouldn't give up wearing suits to the office because they don't get tossed in the washer. Something that takes this many hours of your life to produce are not ordinary clothes, and deserves special care. It's a special item.

3. Here's how I wash wool sweaters. I fill the washer with water and no- rinse wool wash. (My current favourite is Soak, but have loved Eucalan before.) I turn off the washer, and I add the sweater(s)-I try to do more than one at a time to save time. I go away for a while. I come back, I drain the washer, I put it through the spin cycle, then I take out my sweater and nicely hang it over the stair rail upstairs. If I'm feeling especially energetic I might get out a drying rack and lay it flat like I'm supposed to...but I don't usually. That's it, and because wool forces dust and dirt AWAY from itself (it is naturally anti-static) and acrylics draw dust and dirt into them (they generate static) you don't have to wash them as often as you would their man-made alternatives. Since most synthetics can't go in the dryer anyway, I'm not sure how the handling of them would be all that different.....except there's less work with wool.

Another advantage, and this doesn't matter much with a sweater for a grown up like me, and it's actually not all that relevant, but I think we can't talk about it often enough... is that wool is flame retardant. I hear a lot about people knitting acrylics for babies, especially baby blankets, because they want them to be washable, inexpensive and durable. Those are good reasons, but this is what a wool like this is made for. Wool is self-extinguishing. That means that it will burn rather reluctantly if exposed to flame and that as soon as the flame is removed, it goes out. That means that if thing knitting of wool were in a fire and on a person, when that person moved away from the fire (or in the case of a baby, was moved away, since they can't move themselves) the knitted thing would stop burning. Fire blankets were originally made of wool for this reason. Acrylics, on the other hand, catch easily, burn quickly and at a high heat and continue to burn if you move them away from the flame Most catastrophically, if an acrylic on a person is on fire, it will melt into the burned skin, compounding the injury a very great deal. Infant sleepwear and blankets are made of only synthetics specially treated to be flame-retardant for this reason. Acrylic should never, ever be used on a baby or child when they are alone or sleeping. Save it for a sweater they will wear when grown-ups are around.

I know that there's still some people typing furiously. They are writing about how wool is too scratchy, or wool is not vegan, or wool isn't for them....and that's really ok. Nobody (well, not me anyway) is trying to take away your choices. If you truly love, appreciate and are satisfied by an inexpensive acrylic..... knit it. Knit tons of it. Knit it by the acre and I wish you well and good happiness. There's acrylic in my stash and I like it there. I think some of it is pretty nifty... but for a plain good cabled sweater like this one, that will wash and wear brilliantly, last a long time (but not stay in a landfill forever when I do toss it) make my knitting look even better than it is, be soft and stretchy and even block out slightly bigger or smaller if I screw up....

I don't know how you could possibly do better than $5 wool.

(Except for moths. Little arses.)

Posted by Stephanie at January 7, 2008 1:02 PM