Cotton, Linen and the like March 19, 2012 – Posted in: Mondays with Mona

We have lovely weather here in Montreal today. The sun is out, it is warm – and one is tempted to put away the wooly sweaters for good. Together with the hats, cowls and mittens that have been our trusted companions for the last months. Though I have to admit we have been spoiled this year, it was not as cold, snowy and long as many Winters before.

Knitters are starting to look for the ‘cooler’ fibres, meaning cotton, linen, hemp, silk and anything that does not resemble wool and is not fuzzy. Personally, linen is one of my favourite fabric to wear in summer – next to cotton, of course. Knitting with those fibres can be a bit challenging, one has to think of the different characteristics that make them so special.

Plant based fibres

Cotton  is heavier than wool and it does not have any memory. When you stretch a woolen sweater it will go back to its original shape and size, do that with cotton and you will realize that once stretched it will only go back to its size after it is washed. The looser the knitted fabric, the more ‘expansion’ (to use a technical term) you can expect. What is very important when knitting with cotton is to knit a swatch and wash it before you measure your gauge! Cotton comes in many varieties, some of them have a bit of sheen like Cascade’s Ultra Pima, others are flat, i.e. look like your favourite cotton Tee.

Linen is made of the fibres of the flax plant and can be a bit rigid.  What is wonderful about linen is that each wash makes it softer and more supple. I have antique linen dish towels, they have been washed a lot of times and are as soft as Egyptian cotton by now. Just as with many other fibres, there are  different qualities of linen. The best is the wet spun linen, since wet fibres are stronger than dry ones and once this linen is dry it is pretty much indestructible. The length of the fibre is also important, as with wool the rule is: the longer the fibres, the better the quality of the yarn.

Hemp is made of the fiber variety of the Cannabis plant. As a crop, hemp is environmentally friendly. Like linen it can be a bit rigid but starts to soften as soon as you work with it. We have a pre-softened version at the store to make the knitting experience more enjoyable. It is very durable and hence recommendable for bags, hats and any beach cover-ups that get a lot of handling, as well as clothing, of course!

Animal based fibres

Silk is a natural protein fibre, won from the cocoons of silkworms or caterpillars. It comes in different varieties. Wild silk from the cocoons of caterpillars is not shiny like Mulberry silk from silkworms, and has a particular smell. Mulberry silk is glossy, very supple, yet not stretchy at all. Often silk comes in a mix with other fibres (cotton, wool).

Manmade fibres (yet based on natural materials)

Seasilk is a cellulose based fibre made with Seaweed. It has beautiful sheen, looks indeed a bit like silk and is just as soft. It only comes in combination with wool to give it a bit of body.

Viscose is made from wood pulp (wood cellulose acetate) and hence in the same class as rayon – neither synthetic nor natural. It is soft and supple and often used to make linen yarns less harsh. As a yarn it is rarely found pure.

Rayon is a manufactured regenerated cellulose fibre. It is neither truly synthetic nor natural, since it doesn’t exist in nature but is made from natural material. Like viscose it is often used as a ‘softener’.

For my part when it comes to Spring/Summer knitting I like to stay with lace, fingering, sport and DK weights. Having said as much, it is up to your personal  preference what weight you go for. Apart from the  pure versions of  the above mentioned natural fibres there are countless combinations with numerous other fibres  (natural or man made) – listing all of them is impossible.  For all of the above I highly recommend washing your swatch – the change in gauge can be a nasty surprise in the finished product, so make sure you check it out before!!

– Mona