Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Some wooly thoughts....

I've been thinking about wool lately, as summer loses its grip and the guy in charge of the weather thermostat has backed off from the "inferno" setting to "pleasantly warm" during the day. Northerners call this kind of weather "Indian Summer," the mild-weather season called "fall" in the South, the time of year where you actually might want to do something outdoors during the day, the time of year where you may want to have a light outer garment on your shoulders when the night temperatures dip into the mid-fifties.

Which brings me back to wool, which is where I was on my last post. I am always surprised at how many Southerners, and people who knit for Southerners, choose worsted weight 100% acrylic for an adult pullover sweater. The stuff doesn't breathe, and as a general rule the wearer will suffocate just as thoroughly in a worsted-weight acrylic sweater as they would in a bulky-weight Lopi item ... probably even more so.

I've always thought sport-weight wool is the perfect choice for a Southern winter garment. It's the right weight not to be unbearably warm on a not-so-cold day; it sheds chill drizzle, and it doesn't absorb body odor the way acrylic does.

If you live in the Deep South, or knit for someone who lives here, consider that any sort of sweater or other woolen garment should be easily shed (or put back on) as one goes in and out of doors. For most of the winter months in the Deep South, a wool cardigan or jacket is an ideal substitute for an actual coat -- lightweight, just warm enough, and easily shrugged off when one enters an overheated office building. Either sportweight or worsted is fine, as long as you can take it off without putting yourself in complete disarray.

In January and February, one might actually get to wear a lightweight pullover all day long as an intermediate layer of clothing. That is our sweater-and-rainjacket season. The sweater keeps you warm, the raincoat keeps you dry. Those of you who live in Seattle should be nodding enthusiastically here. Sound familiar?

But you're not going to have too many Southern winter days where you can wear a worsted-weight, or bulky-weight, 100% wool item -- unless, again, you construct a jacket or cardigan instead of a pullover. The Einstein Jacket that is now so popular among the online knitting community strikes me as the perfect Southern coat.

During the wet months, wool hats always work. And shawls or ruannas are useful in all but the coldest or windiest weather. Wool slippers are always welcome on the drafty floors of elderly Southern homes.

A lot of people stay away from wool sock yarn in the South. Doesn't make any sense to me. Cotton absorbs moisture and stays wet, making your feet miserable and smelly in warm weather. I work at an animal shelter and usually wear work boots to my job, and I wear lightweight wool socks almost year round, except in the very hottest weather, because they keep my feet dry, odor-free, and free of blisters. During the hottest weather I wear commercial Thorlo socks, a good multi-fiber blend which keeps feet dry without being overly warm.

I still vote for microfiber and for wool/acrylic blends for kids' garments (just enough wool so the garment will breathe and the child won't smother) and acrylic for kids' and babies' blankets and afghans, just because they get washed so much. Of course superwash wool is a great choice for the same reasons, but good quality superwash seems more difficult to find than good quality acrylic/wool blends. Microfiber is great because it wicks moisture away from the skin, keeping the wearer warm and dry.

So -- it's Indian Summer, and time to think about things to wear during the chill weather. Knitters have their tradeoffs wherever they live. Those knitters up there in the deep freeze have short periods of mild weather where a spectacular shawl or ruanna is just enough to hold the chill at bay -- not much time to show off the dramatic drape of a well constructed wrap. On the other hand, snow bunnies get a long season in which to wear all sorts of terrific sweater designs, and some of you even live in places where one can actually wear a summer sweater -- an absolutely laughable concept in the South.

Sure, I'll make a summer sweater -- just as soon as I'm done knitting my thermal bathing suit.

A number of years ago a knitting magazine -- I think it was Vogue -- did a photo shoot of summer sweaters. It was shot in the French Quarter of New Orleans, and judging by the lighting and foliage, the photo shoot was likely done in fabulously cool March. Models were shown draped across chaise longues on the balconies of ancient buildings. One model in particular was holding a big pink drink as she leaned forward to admire the view from her perch, and the caption read something like:

"Imagine relaxing on a French Quarter balcony as you celebrate the Fourth of July in this stunning tunic ..."

To which I added, "and imagine someone calling 911 as you go into heatstroke ... imagine the ambulance bouncing down the romantic streets of the French Quarter while you struggle for life..."

Obviously none of the designers -- and definitely not the caption writer -- ever spent a summer day in New Orleans.

Seems like many designers never spent a winter day in New Orleans, either. New Orleans is a wonderful city, but it is definitely not a year-round tropical paradise. You have to go to Hawaii for that. Southern summer is ghastly and what passes for winter is chill, wet and clammy. I can't tell you how many Minnesota tourists I've seen arriving for Mardi Gras in shorts and flip-flops, with not so much as a sweatshirt to their name, turning blue in the sleet while they dash about looking for some warm clothes.

The South experiences winter like a beach experiences the tide: a few chilly days, a few shivering wet days, a few mild days, a few sleety days, and so forth as the cold fronts pass across us.

Even though we don't get the long-term deep freeze like Chicagoans, a rainy January day in New Orleans provides an excellent excuse to drag out your woolies.

I have a few days off work, so time to sort through the yarn stash for the collection of Lane Borgosesia "Spectrum," chocolate chenille, black mohair and rust-colored angor I've been saving for a huge, multistrand ruanna. Also time to fiddle some more with the hat pattern I am working on for LaLana Wools.



Sunday, September 07, 2003

A few random Sunday thoughts....

Made the trek from Baton Rouge to New Orleans today to visit my parents, and a busy Saturday yesterday, so not much knitting time this weekend. Currently working on a baby blanket for my parent's neighbor, Ruth, a young nurse, who recently gave birth to a fine baby boy, born at home with a midwife. Mom and baby are doing fine. I am quite fond of Ruth, as she has befriended my elderly parents, and gives them a lot of help in her spare time. I am 90 miles away and I highly value her kindness to my folks. She's a good neighbor, and deserves a lovely handmade gift.

This relates to my previous monologue on acrylic for kids. When I was done with that post, having acrylic-prejudice on the mind at the moment, I realized that I forgot to include cotton and microfiber yarns as great yarns, especially for kid's things. This particular bambino is getting a blanket made in Lion Brand's microfiber yarn. Very soft, warm, and infinitely washable.

I'm also quite fond of the inexpensive cottons available at Wal-Mart, etc., when making kid's things, especially blankets. Worsted cottons make a nice snuggly blanket to use during the mild-weather months, especially for those of us who don't live in the deep-freeze zone.

This brings me to thoughts about WOOL and climate. Far too many people think wool is unsuitable for Southern climes and often choose acrylic or cotton instead.

Fact: cotton does not keep one warm, especially on a chilly, rainy, windy, highly humid New Orleans winter day in a drafty 100-year-old house designed to let heat OUT. Cotton absorbs humidity, and wearing a cotton sweater on a dank, rainy day is not unlike wrapping yourself in a wet towel.

Fact: in a pullover sweater for an adult -- or in many other garments -- acrylic does not breathe. Wool does.

Fact: a Lopi pullover is MUCH too warm to get much use in the Deep South.

Fact: a sport-weight wool sweater will keep one warm in the above-mentioned drafty old house, and will cheerfully shed the chill rain and sleet that means "winter" in South Louisiana.

I have other fish to fry tonight (literally), but more thoughts on the South and wool shall follow in a subsequent post.



Wednesday, September 03, 2003

A few words about acrylic...

Seems like there is no faster way to get yourself ostracized by some knitters than to admit to using acrylic yarn.

It's kind of like being a smoker. Pull some acrylic out of your knitting bag at a guild meeting, and suddenly several people wrinkle their noses and you're told you have to go sit outside by the Dumpster and knit there.

Back in Hester Prynne's time, you had to commit some serious adultery to be branded with the scarlet letter "A." In the 21st century, all you have to do is admit to the occasional use of Red Heart.

Hey, I'm just like the next knitter -- I adore LaLana, Brown Sheep, Kiogu, Noro, Peace Fleece and all those other lovely, natural fibers. I yearn for the glam ribbon, eyelash and faux fur yarns I see in the upscale LYSs. And I love the wonderful feel of soft, fluffy, freshly carded wool sliding between my fingers on the way to becoming yarn through the magic of my spinning wheel.

But I am a civil servant, living on a civil servant's salary -- and a civil servant who works at an animal shelter at that. So let's just say I don't have to worry much about tax sheltering, hm? I considered it a great coup last spring to get free fleece off the Jacob's sheep at the local zoo.

It helps to know the Rare Livestock Breeds keeper.

Anyway, I find myself making frequent forays to Wal-Mart or Hobby Lobby to make a reasonably-priced yarn purchase. Wal-Mart has loads of Red Heart and a reasonable selection of Lion Brand Products. Hobby Lobby carries both, and also a number of items from the Paton's line, which contains some surprisingly good-quality acrylics.

Yes, I used "good quality" and "acrylic" in the same breath. There are lots of good-quality acrylics out there, and often is it not only acceptable to use acrylic, it's actually preferable.

Admit it. If you enjoy cooking, and you're feeling flush, you might splurge, and invite a couple of good friends over to savor your poached salmon, asparagus with hollandaise sauce, creme brulee for dessert, and a couple of bottles of a nice Pinot Grigio to wash it all down with.

But if you get coerced into cooking for your kid's Scout Troop, it's a safe bet you'll be serving up hot dogs, rocky road ice cream, and Cokes.

You shouldn't be afraid to apply the same sensible priniciples to the fibers you choose for your knitting or crochet projects. By all means, indulge in using your own handspun, or a top-quality commercial wool, when knitting for yourself, or for someone else who will treat a natural-fiber, handmade item with the respect it deserves.

But what does one do when one's 22-year-old niece finds herself pregnant, and one is required to produce a baby gift, and one is fully armed with an intimate knowledge of one's relative's laundry habits?

One buys acrylic. Either that, or risk a handspun lace receiving blanket being turned into a potholder by the merciless pounding of the coin-operated washers and dryers in the basement of said niece's apartment building.

Maybe you, the reader, knows a young parent or two who is willing and able to wash a natural-fiber garment with dignity. I actually know a few such people myself. But even if they will lovingly wash their heirloom-quality gifts ...

I always imagine their earnest and well-meaning teenage babysitter urgently trying to remove freshly yarked carrot mush off that heirloom lace blanket.

For most people, items that will be used by infants and children need to be idiot proof, que non?

My first choice for baby items is sport-weight Lion Brand Wool-Ease. If the child is allergic to wool, I'll use Lion Brand's baby weight acrylic yarns. Or a nice cotton yarn. The only thing I don't like about Wool-Ease is its slight tendency to pill after a moderate amount of washings. But is has a nice, soft hand-feel for the knitter, and it doesn't have much friction with the plastic and bamboo needles I prefer to knit with.

I'm not a big fan of aluminum needles.

Very close second choice for acrylic is Canadiana, with a wide array of beautiful colors. They just don't seem to have as many sport-weight colors as Lion Brand.

Both Encore and Unger Utopia are great acrylics, also, but the nearest good local yarn store is 90 miles away and I'm just not going to make a road trip -- or order online and pay shipping -- to get Encore or Utopia, when I can drive half a mile to Hobby Lobby to buy Lion Brand. Have to admit I was quite disappointed when the local Merribee's craft store closed a few years back, cutting off my supply of Unger Utopia acrylic. Out of all the acrylics I have used I believe it it the least likely to pill.

As for Red Heart -- granted, I'm not very fond of the way Red Heart feels to works with. It has a slightly sticky feel that I don't like. On the other hand, the slight stickiness of Red Heart seems helpful in creating a little bit of friction when used with aluminum needles, so it glides along at a good speed. Not too fast. Not too slow. I suspect this has a lot to do with the fact that the parent company also manufactures and markets slick aluminum needles. Once an item made from Red Heart is washed, the feel of the yarn softens considerably.

Red Heart sticks like duct tape to bamboo or plastic needles. Don't even bother. I could see where a novice knitter trying to learn our craft using Red Heart and plastic needles would get frustrated.

If you can get past the slightly gummy hand-feel of the unwashed yarn, Red Heart is a great choice for babies' and children's afghans and for aything that will be used by pets. You can't kill the stuff. It will hold up to years of brutal washing, remain reasonably soft, and usually doesn't pill much.

There is stilll in existence, still being used within the same family, a baby afghan I knitted in the laste 1970's for a college friend's first baby. Being on the paltry budget of a 1970s student, I chose Red Heart because I could scrape together enough change to purchase yarn at TG&Y and still have enough money left over for tuna fish and macaroni and cheese. That blanket was mercilessly washed in a wicked old coin-operated Bendix at our apartment building through two more babies and the various dogs and cats who enjoyed it as well. 20-odd years later, I've learned it is being dragged around by the first granchild, and not much the worse for wear and tear.

So don't feel like less of a knitter if you choose to use acrylic. Often it's the wisest choice you can make.

And remember, how often have you heard a non-knitter shriek, "EEEEeeew, you made this with Red Heart!"



Inmates in the Asylum since July 27, 2006: