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Making the Perfect Sock Yarn

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There’s been a recent surge in customers asking for sock yarns which don’t contain nylon.

Our Wensleydale Shetland 4ply works well for this – it’s a tightly spun yarn and the combination of long fibre length from the Wensleydale and tooth from the Shetland means it stands up well to the demands placed on socks. The yarn isn’t superwash treated, and that’s a process that I like to avoid unless there’s a good reason to use it.

Britsock is a brilliant yarn for socks – but it contains nylon. If we left the nylon out and substituted another wool we’d have a yarn that wasn’t structurally sound for socks. There’s Wensleydale in there – but there’s also BFL and alpaca and these shorter, softer fibers need something else to make a yarn which holds up well.

I understand the move away from nylon – there’s been masses of media coverage recently which would (and should) make all of us think twice about the plastic we use.

It’s a tough one for us – I’d love to have no nylon in any of our yarns, but I don’t believe I’d be offering you the best product for what you want to make. We used to sell a high twist pure BFL which was meant to be ideal for socks – and customer feedback suggested it wore out too quickly. That doesn’t work for me.

Sometimes it’s infuriating. We had a lengthy conversation with an experienced knitter at Yarndale who was adamant that our One Farm Yarn would make perfect socks. At this point she hadn’t seen or felt the yarn but she knew that I was wrong in saying it wasn’t meant for socks.

One Farm Yarn is made form 100% wool that isn’t superwash treated. It’s spun to be a balanced yarn and to show off the softness of the BFL. The more twist put into a yarn when it’s spun the firmer it will feel. One Farm Yarn is the most gorgeous yarn for shawls and hats, and the lofty structure makes it good at trapping air and keeping you warm. It’s a terrible sock yarn. The softer spin means the yarn is less hard wearing. The two sheep blends (BFL and North Country Mule) were picked for their soft handle and luster, not to be hard wearing. This is a yarn which would felt in socks and wear out quickly.

You can make any yarn more suitable for socks by being willing to knit it on really tiny knitting pins. My standard pins for sock yarn are 2mm – but if I wanted to make something is a non sock yarn I’d be working with 1.5mm or even 1.25mm needles and more stitches. Creating a tighter, denser fabric reduces friction (if the fabric is dense the stitches move less) and that gives you better wear. But you’ll be putting in a lot more effort to make socks which are likely to wear out sooner.

There are always exceptions – I’ve knitted socks in Two Flocks yarn which I wear with slippers at home. They’re wonderfully toasty, and the yarn stands up well to that lighter level of wear. I used 2.75mm needles for these, and I’ve got  couple of pairs which I wear lots. I wouldn’t expect them to do so well if I wore them to the workshop under boots.  I’m pretty much always on my feet there and I walk a lot over the course of a day as I go between dye pots, skein winder, screen printing and whatever else I’m up to.

As someone who sells yarn for a living I could see the constant need for more yarn as a good thing – but I don’t. There’s a lot of work goes into hand knit socks and I think they deserve a long life. Producing knitting yarn has environmental costs – so buying the right yarn for the job reduces those.

That said, we’ve been working with Laxtons to produce what just might be the perfect non nylon sock yarn. We’re using a blend of BFL and mohair – the mohair will add strength and structure and both fibers will be comfortable next to your skin. We made the decision to use BFL which has been superwash treated – and we’ve gone that route for a couple of reasons.

We wanted a yarn which was suitable for more gentle skins – and the superwash process which removes the hooks from the yarn fibers can help with that. If you remember that you need heat and moisture to make felt then socks are subjected to pretty much perfect conditions for that every time they’re worn. So opting for superwash treated yarn removes that possibility. We wanted a yarn which was ideal for gift knitting – and we hear that while you might be happy to hand wash your cherished socks (and it’s the best way) that isn’t always how they’re going to be treated.

All the the fibers in the new yarn come from UK flocks and have been processed in the UK. This means that the factory carrying out the superwash process has to comply with strict legislation about the chemicals used and how waste is disposed of. If you’re buying yarn where the fiber is processed elsewhere you don’t always have that same reassurance.

So it’s all about compromise. The new yarn should be arriving with us this week, and I’m looking forward to getting the first skeins into dye baths.

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