At Blacker Yarns and The Natural Fibre Company we endeavour to design yarns which are both fit for purpose and for the fibre from which we start.
For The Natural Fibre Company, we therefore have to start with what our customers have produced and work out what can best be made with it. Some of our customers have socks made by machine and the sock making companies generally require 10% nylon to hold the yarn together well in processing and increase durability in wear, so we add the nylon as required. This works very well for mohair and alpaca in particular, and makes good strong sock yarns. When a yarn is to be used for hand knitting, a 4-ply weight will generally be versatile for many options including socks. However, very soft fine fibres will not wear as well as coarser wools, so Shetland for instance, or Merino, are suitable for bed socks but not for walking or welly boot socks. Many of the British rare and native breeds will make a yarn suitable for harder wear.
For Blacker Yarns we have the option of selecting the fibre for the purpose. We are suckers for fleece! So sometimes we buy something lovely, colourful or rare and work out what to do with it afterwards.
Designing a yarn
To design a yarn, we need to know two things: what is it to be used for and how will it be used. Thus for example we can make weaving yarns suitable for hand looms, dobby looms or rapier looms and these differ because of the requirements of the machines. Similarly we can make yarns suitable for lace knitting, machine knitting or for hand knitting. In addition, the softness, lustre or drape of a yarn will vary depending on the component types of fleece or fibre used.
Denser fibres such as Blue-faced Leicester and the lustre long-wool fleeces will drape more than shorter and crimpier fibres like Ryeland or Shetland. So some work better woollen spun and some are better worsted spun.
Generally a worsted spun yarn will feel smoother and softer than a more fluffy and bulky woollen spun yarn and will also be stronger. However, woollen spun yarns have a delightful tendency to felt very slightly in use and so continue to soften with age more than worsted spun yarns, which may also pill with rubbing.
Designing a sock yarn
Taking this into socks, a yarn suitable for machine knitting will probably be worsted spun and 2-ply construction with 10% nylon as machines prefer this and are rather less adaptable than hand knitters.
Sock yarns for hand knitting have a further challenge to meet: the handle. While we might sensibly prefer to design a strong, hard-wearing walking boot yarn for hand knitted socks, our customers might feel that it was too harsh and instead select a lovely soft yarn more suitable for garments and bed socks. We generally feel that feet are rather less sensitive than necks but we find our customers test all yarns on their necks! And hands come in somewhere between, depending on the uses to which they are put! But it is quite hard work to knit with really harsh and coarse yarns even though the end result will be very hard wearing so we have to make compromises.
Adding mohair or alpaca, which are harder wearing than soft wools, will increase the durability of a softer fleece, or the other option is to use a stronger wool such as Herdwick, Swaledale, Cotswold or Grey-faced Dartmoor. The benefit of alpaca is in adding stronger natural colours and in mohair is its lustre and affinity for dyes. Even then the difference between kid mohair and older goat fibre is considerable, as between different grades of alpaca, so again a compromise is needed.
So amongst the Blacker Yarns 4-ply yarns, which are potentially suitable for socks, we would advise as follows:
- Bed socks, baby bootees: Blacker Swan worsted spun, pure Shetland woollen spun
- Showing off knitting techniques, crochet, having fun with textures but not very wearable, so ideal to go with the sort of shoes you cannot walk in: Lyonesse worsted spun, Samite woollen spun
- Workaday light wear: Jacob or Tamar worsted spun, Blacker Classic woollen spun
- Thick welly boots: Westcountry Tweed woollen spun (DK only), Boreray Aran
- Harder wearing: Guernsey worsted spun, Mohair Blends woollen spun
- Make your own inside a boot with your foot wrapped in washed fleece: Gotland!
- Avoid: all lace-weight!
The hardest wearing will probably be a Guernsey yarn, though it make a less comfortable sock than the Mohair Blends.
While mohair is sometimes called “Nature’s Nylon” it may also be quite soft if finer grades are used, and we do try to make a yarn which is versatile, so the Mohair Blends have also been used in some really lovely garment patterns as well as for socks.
Within the Blacker Yarns Mohair Blends range, the shades containing Hebridean wool will be harder wearing than those containing the softer, shorter Manx Loaghtan wool: so the four Metherell undyed, Baripper, Lamorna and Trenarren are better for the foot and Lantic Bay undyed, Blisland, Ladock Wood, Tregadillet, Portmellon and Roseworthy are OK for the leg and cuff.
Living and working with sock yarns
Socks can be made of pretty much anything! So the compromise will be between what you enjoy knitting with and what will work in practice.
Finally, you also need to consider how hard you are on your socks – we have heard from people who have used the Mohair Blends to trek across South America with great results and also people who found signs of wear after only a few days. If you are hard on your socks, you need to look at whether you wear them through all over or at the heels or at the toes and make adjustments to tension and stitches for added durability in those areas. If you are using a woollen spun yarn, consider making the sock a little more roomy and then washing slightly aggressively in order to shrink and felt the fabric, or work more tightly on thinner needles. If you are using a worsted spun yarn, also consider making on thinner needles as this will make a more comfortable result.
We hope this will help you make good decisions – we look forward, as ever, to comments!
Illustrations from the top down:
Cozy sozks by Claire Walls for Koel Magazine, Tamar
Bronte socks by Clare Mountain, Mohair Blends
Polgooth Socks by Sonja Bargielowska, Tin or Classic
Lanson socks by Clare Devine, Mohair Blends
Morwenstowe socks by Sonja Bargielowska, Tamar