Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Monday special: Tips and tricks for beginning knitters

I've noticed that several of my friends have decided to take up knitting or crochet recently, and many have been asking for advice. As with most people who love their craft, I am always keen to pass on information and help to new crafters. Sharing the joy of working with yarn is something that any knitter, crocheter, or spinner can relate to.

With that in mind, I've decided to do a semi-regular series on getting started in the world of yarn craft. These will likely be posted once or twice a week in addition to my regular weekly post.

I'm going to start with yarn. Yarn is the one material crocheters and knitters have to know best, and while getting to know how different yarn behaves is part of the learning process, there are some things I have learned through trial and error that might benefit people just starting out.

There are several different materials that yarn is made of. Probably the most well known and common to work with is wool. Wool comes from the fleece of a sheep, and there are many different breeds of sheep, so there are many different kinds of wool. The wool from the Bluefaced Leicester (BFL) and Merino breeds of sheep are common in use today. They are usually soft enough to wear close to the skin of all but the most sensitive person. However, there are many, many more breeds, and each has it's own characteristics. Wool often offers sturdy material once knitted up, and many types will felt. Felting is when the fibres of the wool stick closer together and make a very dense fabric, shrinking whatever has been made with it.

Superwash wool is wool that has been taken and chemically treated so that it does not easily felt. This can be more safely machine washed. This kind of wool is popular for socks and gifts, especially baby items that a busy parent can just throw in the machine instead of gentle hand washing.

Another type of yarn is that of the camel. Other camelids are also used, alpaca especially, and these are considered a more luxury yarn. The fabric they make often drapes nicely, making a different kind of fabric to that of pure wool. They are also very warm. One thing I have noticed about alpaca specifically is that is tends to "grow" as you work with it, and even after you are done with the project. I made a cardigan out of an alpaca blend yarn (with some silk and some wool) and it has grown to be too large for me, especially in the arms. One trick I have learned with working with this fibre is to use a smaller needle size than you would otherwise, because it will get bigger. Washing it does shrink it somewhat, but with wear it will grow again.

Other animal fibres used in yarn include angora, which provides a halo effect when knitted up, and silk, which gives a bright sheen to the yarn. Silk takes dye especially well, so any yarn with silk in it tends to be brilliantly colourful.

Plant fibres used in yarn are extremely varied. Personally, I have used yarn made of sugar cane, bamboo, cotton, and soya, and I know there are others out there. I am sadly ignorant of how these fibres are spun into yarn, but together they make up a wonderful selection of yarns that can be worn in warmer weather. Cotton comes in two forms; mercerised, where the strands have been treated so they do not separate easily,  and regular, where the strands are a little more separate.

In crochet, I find mercerised cotton easier to work with. The strands (plies) do not separate easily, and this makes it easier to take the hook through all plies without splitting them. In knitting, it is a little easier to take the needle through all the plies, although you have to pay attention. Splitting a ply in your yarn makes the finished work look untidy at best.

The way plant fibres are processed usually leads to a splitty yarn, and care must be taken when working with these yarns, but they produce delightful results. Cotton is my favourite material to crochet with.

There are myriad books written on the different properties of different types of yarn; I can not even begin to cover them all here. One thing I really recommend is doing your homework when starting a project with a new-to-you yarn. Ravelry comes in very handy here. For those of you not familiar with the website, it is a kind of network for yarncrafters. Databases with patterns and yarn are built into the site, along with forums and groups that you can join depending on your interests. There are thousands, if not millions, of different patterns, both free and for sale; there are also entries for nearly every yarn you can buy. These entries have information such as washing instructions, what fibre(s) are in the yarn, and many other useful things. They also have comments users have made based on their experiences with it. Reading these comments requires only a free membership, and can give you insights into how the yarn will behave while being worked and what the finished object will do. Will it felt? Grow? Look good with those cables you want to put in? It's all there.

Next time, I'll talk about needles and tension. If you have any requests, please feel free to leave me a comment and I'll do what I can!

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