Winter White (Part 1): Merino d’Arles

Winter White

I always thought that was a silly name for a color that was most often anything but the ‘white’ as the snow that the name brought to mind. More accurately they should have been named cream, eggshell, meringue or butter. Here in Italy the color would be ‘panna’ (cream) or ‘greggio’ (natural/untreated). I have come to love all the different variations of this lovely un-snowy color in both my knitting and my spinning.

'Ascot' length scarf in 1 x 1 rib knitted in Merino d'Arles from The Wool Box

‘Ascot’ length scarf in 1 x 1 rib knitted in Merino d’Arles from The Wool Box

Fabulous Merino d’Arles

I have a fabulous friend who has helped me so many times with my translation projects (while insisting to doing it for free) that I wanted a good way to say: “Thank you so very, very, very much!”. A friend with a sensitivity to wool…maybe. I made up 3 swatches of various yarns: Gryla (icelandic), Oropa (Italian), Bright (English), Merino d’Arles (French) and one handspun alpaca. I suggested wearing them next to the skin for at least a 5-10 minutes to see if any of them caused irritation – surprisingly none of them did! I think sometimes sensitivity to chemical dyes may be mistaken for a wool allergy; if you’re not sure, it’s always worth testing with a swatch of natural wool that hasn’t been dyed, treated with ‘superwash’ treatments, you might be pleasantly surprised to find that your skin likes wool after all.

Purl Soho's fabulous 'boyfriend hat' pattern made up in creamy, soft Merino d'Arles

Purl Soho’s fabulous ‘boyfriend hat’ pattern made up in creamy, soft Merino d’Arles

The yarn my friend chose was the Merino d’Arles, this wool comes from the Alpes Maritimes on the border between France and Italy. This fine, luxurious wool is known for both its softness and its warmth and of the samples I sent, this one was the best adapted for garments to be worn next the skin like scarves and hats.

So, whether we call this color blanched wheat, pale honey, sunlit straw or yes, even ‘winter white’ – the color of natural wool is beautiful, comfortable and most importantly warm :)!

Coming soon, more ‘winter whites’….meanwhile, Happy Woolworking!

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Experimenting with texture and scale…opposite ends of the spectrum

But I’m not talking about the color spectrum. I’ve been spinning up two very different fibers and aiming for two very different weights a ‘wooly’ fingering and a ‘featherweight’ bulky.

The Wooly Fingering – Norwegian Light Grey:

Lots of Norwegian Light Grey tops ready to spin!

Lots of Norwegian Light Grey tops ready to spin!

I bought this tops quite awhile back at the very reasonable price of 2 euro for 100 grams (3.53 oz.) along with its equally lovely ‘moorit’ brown partner. The price has gone up since then but I don’t think I’ll be needing any anytime soon. I have been spinning the brown with my drop spindle and knitting it (slowly, slowly) into a drop-stich-rib sweater for my husband. This lovely grey has been languishing in a bag in a box on the shelf for more than a year partially because, as you can see by the photo, I’ve a ton of it…okay, I really only have about 600 grams but; that’s a lot of fiber to confront with a drop spindle! – At least for me ;).

My hero the bumble bee and the thin, grey line!

Upon the arrival in Italy of my expatriated Texan spinning wheel (thank goodness it doesn’t require a residency permit!), spinning larger volumes of fiber at a consistent gauge suddenly became imaginable. Here’s a look at my progress so far:

Norwegian light grey 2- ply fingering. 13 wpi, 200 yards

Norwegian light grey 2- ply fingering. 13 wpi, 200 yards from 3 oz, worsted spun.

So, with 200 yards over 3 oz. and 21 more ounces to go that makes for about another 1400 yards to be spun…okay, I am not freaking out! It’s a big number for a beginner like me but I know I can do it. You may now be asking, why is she making such fine yarn, why not an aran or even a ‘chunky’? Well, I suppose it’s because it’s a very ‘wooly’ wool, it has a lovely halo and it’s really, really warm. I’m imagining a light, airy shawl, something like Hélène Magnússon’s Halldóra long shawl that can be worn as a warm, light layer rather than as a bulky, heavy sweater. We’ll see, by the time I’ve finished spinning I may well have a new project in mind.

Light and fat, the bulky Featherweight!

No, I’m not talking about homemade gnocchi in cream sauce…I’m talking about the yarn I’m spinning up from the extra-fine merino tops that I ordered last year.

Light and fat, extra-fine merino tops

Light and fat, extra-fine merino tops.

The polar opposite of the Norwegian grey with it’s structured wooliness, my extra-fine merino is so cloud-soft that when my daughter gets near it she can’t keep her fingers out of it! It’s also ‘sticky’ – so crimped and light that it wants to attach itself to anything and everything, including the sleeve of any sweater I happen to be wearing while I’m spinning it.

Seeing as it’s a more expensive fiber – 3.50 euro per 100 grams – I had only ordered 200 grams (7 oz.) and started out making an almost cobweb fine yarn with it on a drop spindle. But, when I thought about it, I didn’t really want a shawl or a pair of socks from this luxury fiber, I wanted something where it’s lightness and softness could be the main feature…and I wanted to try and make some ‘bulky’ yarn.

Featherweight 'bulky' extra-fine merino hand-spun. 2-ply, 7 wpi, 150 meters/100 grams

Featherweight ‘bulky’ extra-fine merino hand-spun. 2-ply, 7 wpi, 150 meters/100 grams

Since the beginning I’ve had trouble spinning ‘thick’ singles, my hand-spun yarns were always edging towards the anorexic. In my mind’s eye I saw the possibility of this becoming a richly textured and modulated ‘bulky’ but featherweight yarn, something with which I could make my daughter a little ‘cloud’ of a shrug. I just have another 40 grams to spin so I should be able to finish up with just over 200 yards, I think it will be plenty for a 7-year old sized something with rhinestone buttons! Maybe a ‘mini-Moussaillon’ based on the Cleonis pattern….So, I’m going to get back to spinning and finishing a few of the many languishing WIP’s in my workbasket. I did finally finish the toe-up socks with a flap heel and they look wonderful! I won’t know if they will fit my friend until he comes to try them on but I have my fingers crossed!

"Fabulous" toe-up socks with heel gusset.

“Fabulous” toe-up socks with heel gusset.

They’re Here! New Roving from The Wool Box

Roving stops at my house!

New Roving from The Wool Box: from left – South African mohair, Extra Fine Merino, Lincoln Lustre wool,  UK Grey/Brown Jacob Wool

New Roving from The Wool Box: from left – South African mohair, Extra Fine Merino, Lincoln Lustre wool, UK Grey/Brown Jacob Wool

They’re here! The new roving I ordered from the Wool Box arrived on my doorstep a few weeks ago! As soon as I opened the box I started spinning up small samples to knit. They’re so different! Each fiber with it’s own unique characteristics (with a click, all the pictures can be enlarged to ‘huge’ so that you can get a real close up look at how each fiber is different):

South African Mohair:

South African Mohair shines while each stitch keeps its shape!

South African Mohair shines while each stitch keeps its shape!

Silky smooth with almost no kink, I was glad that I chose to spin it from the fold. When I knit the sample each stitch held it’s shape with springy force although there was not an inch of stretch along the length of the fiber.

Extra Fine Merino:

This Extra Fine Merino is like spinning a cloud!

This Extra Fine Merino is like spinning a cloud!

It’s like spinning a cloud! My daughter couldn’t keep her hands out of it and had to try and spin some herself…so my sample is a little uneven, that’s alright! This fiber is so easily compressed from fluff to thread that when I knitted up the sample yarn the uneven quality of the yarn was barely evident! The little one has already requested a shawl made of this wool. Who wouldn’t want to wear a soft, white cloud around their bare shoulders in spring?

The ease with which this fiber compresses hides the uneveness of a single spun, in part, by a 6 year old :)

The ease with which this fiber compresses hides the uneveness of a single spun, in part, by a 6 year old 🙂

Lincoln Lustre Wool:

The Lincoln Lustre Wool has an incredibly long and luminous staple, beautiful and with the same forceful stitch definition I noticed in the mohair.

The Lincoln Lustre Wool has an incredibly long and luminous staple, beautiful and with the same forceful stitch definition I noticed in the mohair.

Like a more robust version of the mohair, the fiber was smooth and as lustrous as the name promised, easy to spin despite the relative lack of kink in the fibers and producing what Italian’s refer to as a ‘dry’ yarn. Like dry champagne, I can see that the yarn will be for special occasions; those when I want high stitch definition together with the long-wearing qualities that will make this fiber perfect for heritage knitting projects.

UK Grey/Brown Jacob Wool:

UK Grey/Brown Jacob Wool is a sweet, springy mix of soft and sturdy that wants to be made into a jaunty hat. a sweet little 'copre spalle' or an elegant but robust winter sweater.

UK Grey/Brown Jacob Wool is a sweet, springy mix of soft and sturdy that wants to be made into a jaunty hat. a sweet little ‘copre spalle’ or an elegant but robust winter sweater. Click on this photo to see how many different colors there are in this one wool!

Sweet and easy to spin, this fiber is as bouncy as the little sheep in the charming picture appeared. Lots of kink makes this one easy to spin but challenging (at least for me) to spin thin. So, why not make a chunky? Right on the balance point between soft and strong, this complex, naturally colored fiber will spin up into something cuddly but with character!

Now my mind and my fingers are spinning with ideas for projects that can be made with these fibers…do you want to try some too?

Now that the roving has stopped at my house, I’m hoping to have some hanks to show you all soon :). Meanwhile: here’s the tiny knitting sample that I was able to work up on a pair of 3mm needles:

I'm still a beginner at drop spindle spinning but I was amazed at how these fibers seemed to fly into yarn with so few breaks or snarls. With the exception of the Extra Fine Merino, I spun them all from the fold and plied two singles.

I’m still a beginner at drop spindle spinning but I was amazed at how these fibers seemed to fly into yarn with so few breaks or snarls. With the exception of the Extra Fine Merino, I spun them all from the fold and plied two singles. From left: South African Mohair, Lincoln Lustre Wool, UK Grey/Brown Jacob Wool and to the far right, Extra Fine Merino.

Springing Towards Summer

Robin's Striped Hetty - I hope it still fits her in the Autumn!

Robin’s Striped Hetty – I hope it still fits her in the Autumn!

Striping it up!

Although I finished this a few weeks ago it was a job to get my girl to model it. She loves the top but, as evidenced by the day lily in her hair, summer weather has finally arrived in northern Italy and all she want’s to wear right now are sleeveless tank-tops. Then there was getting her to stop ‘modeling’; it’s hard not to laugh when she arches her eyebrows and puts her hand on her hip! Meanwhile, I did love Sarah Wright’s pattern, which was a good size for my 6-year-old. One of the advantages of top-down patterns for kids is that, If she get’s any taller, I can always pick up the bottom stitches and keep going. The decision to make stripes was inspired by Jenjoyce Designs’ Pin-Striped Sweater Tees (which I’m happy to say now has a pattern available). Over all I’m happy with how it came out, I’m only a tiny bit disappointed at how evident the increases are below the blue stripe at the waist although that’s due to the smoothness of the yarn rather than any problem with the pattern.

Coming to terms with super soft…once again

It is really, wonderfully soft. Even though this is super wash, I’ve had such bad luck with this yarn pilling (and I’m not the only one), that I’m going to keep washing by hand in cold to see if that helps. A polar opposite of the Morron Bouton that I used to make my husband’s Workman’s Gloves and Hybrid Highland Hose, I can’t recommend Lana Gatto Super Soft for anything you want to keep for a long time or that has to take wear and tear (i.e. forget it for aran sweaters or socks); although it’s not a heritage knitting yarn, it’s a fine choice for fun-colored, low-wear accessories, children’s or infant patterns that are fast to knit up and that only need to look good for a single season.

Robin's Striped Hetty in Process and Complete.

Robin’s Striped Hetty in Process and Complete.

Almost! One down and one toe to go…

Quince&Co Castle pullover in the Wool Box's Laga is finished!

Quince&Co Castle pullover in the Wool Box’s Laga is finished!

One toe shy of meeting my weekend challenge!

You can’t win them all…but I am very happy with the finished ‘Castle Pullover’. I did finish it on Saturday and have it blocked and dry in time to wear to my daughter’s kindergarten graduation party on Sunday afternoon (patted with a wet wash-cloth on both sides and then rolled up carefully in a dry towel and placed on top of the radiator overnight works great for me). It fits great, the yarn does not itch at all, even next to bare skin. I sat in the sun for 3 hours and didn’t get hot! In my book this was a Spring Knitting Project home run. I washed it in tepid water with a little Winnie’s Wool-wash this morning and it’s still looking great; Laga holds it’s shape magnificently. I was so pleased with this project that I’m thinking of making a ‘mini-castle’ for my daughter…she want’s pink so I may have to figure out how to dye ‘laga’ with something like madder root from Renaissance Dying.

Catch 22 (rows)…

Meanwhile…the socks. So close and yet no toe! I thought that the kindergarten celebration would be over about 5:30…we got home about 7! It was wonderful and the kids had a great time, the sun was finally out… but, the last little bit of my sock was longer than my little girl’s patience so I put it down to read her bedtime story and we both promptly fell asleep. I have only 22 more rows to the end of the toe and I swear that it will be done tonight before I go to bed!

Thanks for reading and happy wool-working!

Where there’s a weekend there’s a way (to finish at least 2 WIP’s)!

Hybrid Highland Hose in Morron Bouton

Hybrid Highland Hose in Morron Bouton

Hybrid Highland Hose…Scotland and Finland meet in a pair of socks:

I wanted to make a pair of heavy duty socks for my husband who gives his socks pretty rough wear. The yarn I wanted to use, “Morron Bouton” from The Wool Box, comes in two weights (a light and a chunky) and I chose the thinner. It knits up soft on U.S. 6-8 (4mm-5mm) needles but I purposely chose a U.S. #3 to get a stiff fabric. I could have gone up a size but I didn’t have DPN’s in the right size and consequently I broke one of my #3 Hiya-Hiya bamboo needles halfway through the first sock (my bad)! At least they come with 5 in the package so it didn’t stop me from getting along with the project. I have already made my husband a pair of fingerless work gloves with this yarn and it wears wonderfully even under hard use and still becomes softer and more lustrous with every washing.

The color reminded me of the Kilt Hose pattern I’d seen in Nancy Bush’s “Folk Socks” but there was no way I was going to get that gauge with this yarn; besides, I wanted the fully-reinforced, dutch heel of her Finnish Socks. So, I used the Finnish sock pattern (p.97) for the construction of the heel and foot while I modified the leg pattern from the Kilt Hose (p. 109) and did a simple 1×1 rib at the top. I am 3/4 of the way through the second sock, heel turned and ready to complete the foot and toe. I will finish today even if I have to take it to bed with me!

IMG_0514

Knitting Castles out of ‘Gran Sasso’ wool:

I had ordered some new yarn for spring projects and it was love at first sight when I saw this pattern on Ravelry. I downloaded the pattern only to find that my yarn knit up at a larger gauge; but in the end I was happy with that as the sizes offered by the pattern were not exact for me (34” bust is too small and a 38” too big). As it is my gauge worked up at 19 st and 25 rows = 4” on US 7 (4.5 mm). This gauge change made the collar a bit wider (and looser) than I want, I tried (unsuccessfully) to make a knitted facing with a narrow-gauge yarn but I’m going to have to resolve that with a bit of grosgrain ribbon facing on the inside once it’s done. At least two other ravelers who’s notes I read later (sigh) had the same problem so at least I’m not alone.
I’m not an experienced lace knitter and this pattern is EASY; however, as I went along with the lace I discovered it’s also VERY easy to lose or gain a stitch and VERY frustrating to pick out a whole row because the mistake was made at the beginning, so I started counting out the repeat (9 st). Since I started counting the lace is moving along much faster without any errors (cross fingers and knock on wood)! Should be finished soon, I’m aiming for this Sunday. Deep breath, it is doable, I only have another 5 inches of lace before the bottom and it does knit up fast.

Quince&Co. Castle Pullover knit in The Wool Box's Laga

Quince&Co. Castle Pullover knit in The Wool Box’s Laga

As for the yarn…I LOVE LOVE LOVE ‘Laga’, it works up like a dream. It’s a 100% Italian wool from 2012 shearing from the sheep that pasture in Abruzzo’s Gran Sasso national park in the Laga mountains. Soft and still smelling like the Apennine pastures it is an excellent example of a fine wool produced entirely in Italy. This wool is blended from several merino breeds to produce a yarn that is both soft and structured. It’s a warm straw-cream colour that I want to make it into cardigans, socks, some beautiful ‘aran’ cabled gloves, a dress, underwear! Really anything that needs the stitch-work to take center stage. The castle pullover sweater has taken only 1-1/3 skeins so far and I’m already planning what to do with the skein and a half that I’ll have left over. Meanwhile, I have gifted a few skeins to friends to see if they love it as much as I do.

I’ll let you now if I manage to finish these two this weekend. Wish me luck and happy wool-working!

Wool-gathering: Merino grades, Mohair and BFL (how do they compare)?

Amazing Australian Merino Champion Ram

Amazing Australian Merino Champion Ram

What does ‘Merino’ really mean?

I’ll bet lots of you already know; but if you’re like me, you might have known that there is Italian and Australian and Spanish ‘merino’ wool – and that it’s a ‘high-quality’ wool – but still be clueless about what makes this breed of sheep special. I was reading a blog post over at The Wool Box this week and found some great information about Merino which inspired me to do a little extra research on my own and to place Mohair and BFL in context with Merino’s different grades.

First of all, I learned that ‘merino’ is a breed category that encompasses several different types of sheep, some bred for meat and carpet-grade wool, some for ‘strong’ or ‘broad’ wool (23–24.5 microns) and yet others for fine, high-quality clothing wool.

Here’s a translation of what The Wool Box had to say about different diameters of Merino wool:

“Often, all ‘Merino Wool’ is grouped together as if it were one quality; this keeps us from understanding how one type is different from another and how each quality is suited to a specific purpose. Anyone who is interested in how these fibers are classified can just glance at the table below:

Merino = any wool from any breed of Merino sheep.

Fine Merino = fiber diameter from about 19.5 to 21.0 microns.

Super Fine Merino = fiber diameter from about 17.5 to 19.5 microns.

Extra Fine Merino = fiber diameter of less than 17.5 microns.

With this information, spinners, knitters, and other fiber artists can find their way through the ‘merino’ labyrinth without running the risk of settling for less than exactly the right material for the project at hand.”

It helps me to remember that some of the finest grades come from the younger animals so, super fine ‘baby’ wool for making ‘baby’ knits that go closest to your skin! Meanwhile, the thicker, more twisted, and longer the fiber, the longer it will wear. These not-quite-so-soft fibers are best for cardigans, pullovers, scarves and hats that get a real work-out – with the added benefit of (often) having higher stitch definition and less pilling*.

I saw that in addition to these 3 grades of merino tops they had added ‘mohair’ and ‘BFL’ tops.

So, how does Mohair and BFL compare to Fine Grade Merino Wool?

For the Mohair, I checked out the United Nations Trade and Markets Division of the Food and Agriculture Organization’s website and found the following information:

“Mohair‘s diameter ranges from 23 microns at first shearing to 38 microns in older animals. Fine hair from younger animals is used in clothing, while thicker hair from older animals goes into rugs and carpets and heavy fabrics for jackets and coats. Light and insulating, its tensile strength is significantly higher than that of merino wool. Like wool, mohair has surface scales, but they are thinner, making it smooth to the touch. Light reflected from the surface gives mohair a characteristic lustre.”

So that makes Mohair right there at the bottom of the Merino scale but with other qualities that make it behave really differently.

For BFL I checked with the Bluefaced Leicester Union of North America and found the following information:

“The Bluefaced Leicester is classified as a longwool breed with a staple length of 3-6 inches, a fleece weight of 2½-4½ lbs., and a fiber diameter of 56s–60s count, or 24-28 microns. It creates high-quality semi-lustre yarns with soft hand, beautiful drape, and excellent dyeing properties.”

* From good old Wikipedia: “Any wool finer than 25 microns can be used for garments, while coarser grades are used for outerwear or rugs. The finer the wool, the softer it is, while coarser grades are more durable and less prone to pilling.”

Australian Merino, BFL, and South African Mohair from The Wool Box

Australian Merino, BFL, and South African Mohair fiber from The Wool Box

If you’re looking for Fine Merino, BFL, and Mohair, they’re having a ‘festival of white’ over at the Wool Box…they’ve done their usual magic by taking raw wool from around the world and using centuries of Italian expertise in the wool trade to process it into lovely fiber for spinning and felting…check it out:

“Taking a look at three diameters of the same fiber can help us fully appreciate the unique qualities of each one. Today we got some Australian Merino wool fresh from the combers. We’ve been looking to get ahold of this wool for some time and our efforts have finally paid off; this is the very best.

We’re talking about Medium, Fine and Super Fine; only when we place them side-by-side and work with them, can we talk about their differences and for what uses each quality is best suited.

We had thought of offering this kind of choice because our clients have told us that one of their major concerns is being uncertain about finding fibers with reliably consistent characteristics on the market. Basically, often one has no certainty regarding the fineness of the fiber and, in some cases; it’s quite difficult to find the quality that you want. 

We complete our ‘festival of white’ offerings with carded sliver tops of South African Mohair and the increasingly popular BFL.  These wools, along with the three qualities of Merino, are being offered at excellent prices, even more so if you order more than 5 kg (11 lbs) or take advantage of our More Friends, More Savings program.” – The Wool Box

Meanwhile, remember: although the word merino is often used when referring woolen garments and fibers, that doesn’t mean that fiber, yarn or fabric is actually 100% merino wool from a Merino variety bred particularly for its wool. The wool of any Merino sheep is considered “merino wool” even though not all merino sheep produce wool suitable for clothing or knitwear that’s to be worn close to your skin! Happy wool-working…

Is super-wash really that super?

super wash wool: not so super

Am I the only one who dreads washing a ‘super wash’ garment for the first time?

The truth is, super wash wool is not so super for every project…

I’m a sucker for both for bright colors and the lure of easy-care; however, I’m starting to change my mind about both of those. I knit the ‘rainbow’ sweater above for my daughter just before Christmas and she has worn it a lot. She requested it, chose the colors and the style and then bothered me about it until it was done. I made it in a size that would last through next winter but now I’m wondering why I bothered.

robin in the rainbow sweater

This is what it looked like the day it was finished, pretty isn’t it! It was smooth and soft but even before washing it was developing ‘pills’. Now, just so you know, I don’t think hand washing is that big of a deal and I still don’t. I dunked this one in my sink with cold water and a little wool wash, let it sit for 10 min, rinsed and squeezed in a towel and laid it flat to dry. But, had I put it in the wash, the results would have been the same or even worse…time saved washing is lost in fishing out the sweater shaver and de-pilling so that it doesn’t look like a reject from the second-hand store.

Think twice before investing your time in a big project with super wash wool:

I was about to just reconcile myself to the fact that soft wool meant pilling and there was no way around it. At least it was just a kid’s sweater, something she’d grow out of and that hadn’t been so time consuming to make. But what about the next big project, the new deco cardigan pattern that I just ordered from Kate Davies?  Meanwhile, I had also begun to notice something else, the ‘super-wash’ wool socks that I had made not only pilled a lot, but they weren’t as warm as the others…hmmm.

A strand of hope:

Then, I knit a hat…with a non super-wash wool, just as soft; then I washed it 3 times (by hand) in warm water with the same wool wash and set it to dry on a towel over the radiator… take a really close look:

Super Wool that really washes

Not only is this wool not pilling, it’s not even THINKING about pilling!

It’s smooth, it’s soft and it get’s softer and prettier with every wash and, it’s really warm too! It reminds me of my husband’s magic sweater that now, after 35 years, has the loveliest finish I’ve ever seen.

It’s true that this yarn doesn’t come in a ‘rainbow’ of colors. I see that they have it in a classic palette of navy, orange, brown, green and this pretty natural cream. But the next time I start a project: a full-sized sweater, a mega-cowl, or even a pair of long socks; I’ll think twice before using a soft super-wash and I wouldn’t even consider it for a heritage knitting or crochet project such as a baby blanket, an afghan or even pillow covers. Yes it can be thrown in the washer on the wool cycle, but once it’s dry, will I really want to wear it a second time?