Well, the chemo cap contest with Your Daily Fiber and Lambspun is nearly up. We want to thank each of you who have donated handmade hats for Hope Lives! and Poudre Valley Hospital. The cold weather is only just starting and it is the height of charity knitting season, whether for those suffering from cancer or those who are in need for warmth through this tough economy. There are many properties of yarn to consider when choosing a yarn for your charity knitting. Below is the article I wrote for the October Stitches newsletter on the softness of yarns, an especially important yarn property when knitting for cancer patients.
Choosing yarns for charity knitting can be a challenge., especially for chemo caps that get worn by extra sensitive heads. There are many characteristics of yarn that make up the perceived softness or itchiness of yarn. Fiber type, spinning method and processing all play a role.
Not all yarn fibers are created equal. Animal fibers like wool, alpaca, llama and such are often softer than plant fibers like cotton, hemp and linen. Much like human hair, animal fibers come in a variety of textures and lengths. Finer textured fibers are going to feel the softest and thus are in most demand. Manufacturers charge more for them which means the labels of yarns using finer fibers list specific types to justify their pricing. Yarns just labeled as wool are likely not as soft as those labeled with merino, alpaca, kid mohair, cashmere and so on.
Synthetic fibers are made in many textures but a touch test is often required to judge their softness. Though some terms like microfiber are used to indicate finer fibers. Most are made with petrochemicals and some cancer patients wish to reduce their exposure to such products.
Clockwise from upper left: Rowan Lima, Frog Tree Worsted Alpaca Singles, The Fibre Company Road to China, Cascade Venezia Worsted, Blue Sky Alpaca Alpaca Silk and Frog Tree Alpaca Sport Weight Plied. Click on yarn name to be taken to Ravelry’s suggested hat patterns for that yarn.
There are two ways to spin fiber — worsted and woolen. The worsted method, which is not related to the yarn weight classification of the same name, aligns all the fibers in the same direction before spinning. This keeps all the fiber ends nice and tidily locked into place by the spin and ply of the yarn. It produces a relatively dense, smooth yarn that often appears to have a slight sheen to it. If the yarn is plied the plies are often quite distinct as well. This method of yarn making is often the least itchy.
Woolen spun yarns do not align the fibers. This produces a yarn that is very lofty and airy and thus more insulating. The ends are not all neatly tucked in which results in an itchier finish. The loose ends can also contribute to more pilling on items that are exposed to much friction. Woolen yarns often appear a bit more rustic with a matte finish to them, and are usually a bit livelier and elastic.
Some animal fibers, including sheep breeds, are from animals that have a soft layer but then have a coarser outer layer often called guard hairs. If not mostly removed before spinning, these otherwise soft fibers may be scratchy and irritating. Closely examine those types of yarn to see how many guard hairs made it into the final yarn as it is impossible to remove it all. Fibers that may contain guard hair include cashemere, camel, llama, yak, opossum and qiviut.
Other possible irritants in yarn include how well the fiber was scoured and washed to remove dust, vegetable matter and lanolin. Some fiber is prepped for spinning by adding a light oil to help it flow through the machinery more smoothly and is not always removed. If the yarn is dyed, any unabsorbed dye particles that were not fully rinsed could cause irritation as could any fragrance in cleaning agents used. For these reasons it is recommended that you always wash charity items in unscented wool wash such as SOAK or Eucalan and keep washed items away from smoke or pets.
Clockwise from upper left: Cascade 220 Superwash, Sublime Extra Fine Merino DK, Spud & Chloe’s Sweater, Lorna’s Laces Shepherd Bulky, and Spud & Chloe’s Outer. Click on yarn name to be taken to Ravelry’s suggested hat patterns for that yarn.
Softness of a yarn is subjective and it is not possible to just hand out a list and say these yarns will work for everyone. For that reason it is best to provide a variety of items to choose from. To test the itch factor of a yarn you can rub it lightly against your neck or along the inside of your arm. These areas are more sensitive and should give you a fairly accurate assessment.
To learn more about fibers types and choosing yarns check out Clara Parkes’ The Knitter’s Book of Yarn and The Knitter’s Book of Wool.