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: