What is the right fiber for…?

Yarn seems complicated. This is especially true for occasional knitters and crocheters as well as people who haven’t been crafting for very long. A very frequent question I’ve seen on email lists and social sites is: “what kind of yarn would be good for…?” More often than not the question refers to the fiber content of the yarn and not whether it’s worsted, chunky, etc. The clue to this lies in how the questioner typically lists examples: acrylic? wool? mohair? On occasion I see the question “fiber X or fiber Y?”

Most people, like me, answer “I would use fiber X for that.” Other people answer with their favorite pet yarns. For example, the environmental activists answer with “bambu cotton blend” while the very thrifty knitters (or crocheters) swear by acrylic or acrylic blends. What all of us should be answering is much more involved than simply stating our preferences. Unfortunately email lists and social networks for crafters are not for long treatises on selecting the right fiber for the project at hand. People new to knitting probably don’t understand the variables involved in selecting a fiber and think their question is not that big of a deal. Those of us who have more experience with the subject want to be helpful while following good etiquette (avoid writing novels) and boil it down to what we would use. Answering with “I would use…” is brief and also noncommittal. We reduce it to the “I.”

Limiting the answer to the first person, however, is not helpful to the person asking the question. The question “which fiber?” actually refers to appropriateness and the best material to do the job. Yes, I am quite aware that the askers of this question very rarely give specifics. But netiquette I think could be at fault there. We’re not supposed to ramble on.

Blogs can give lengthy answers to questions. I am going to limit myself to the more commonly used fibers in knitting and crochet: wool, wool blends, acrylic, cotton, nylon blends, and silk. Llama, alpaca, and novelty yarns are not addressed here.

Variables

In order to select the correct fiber for the project we need to be aware of the variables that determine what is the best choice for the job. They involve:
  • the kind of work involved (cables? colorwork? etc.)
  • who will use or wear the item? (this involves age, personal preferences, possible allergies, etc.)
  • what season is it for?
  • what does the knitter like to use?
  • desired care guidelines (must it be machine washable? must it be dried in the drier?)
  • what is it we’re making?

Of course, the variable “person who will use or wear it” implies many more variables. If the knitter is the wearer it’s much easier to control that one. Homemade items intended as gifts need to be for people we know very well otherwise hearts get broken on the giving and receiving end. 

The following are what we need to take into consideration, according to the variables, when we choose a fiber:

What kind of stitch is involved? 

  • Cables: 100% wool or mohair is the preferred fiber for cables because it is elastic and “sticky” all at once. The hairs in all-natural wool and mohair adhere to each other which means the stitches will hold together and therefore keep the shape of the cables. An acrylic-wool or cotton-wool blend could be used but the results won’t be as wonderful. Acrylic yarn can be used successfully for cabling if it is a good imitation of wool. Basically, for cables, it’s just more practical to use 100% wool unless the wearer is allergic to it.
  • Colorwork: Fair Isle and Intarsia knitting prefer 100% wool or some sort of mohair for the same reason as for cables: the stitches can adhere to each other which makes for a neater color change. Intarsia, even with all-natural wool, can look pretty messy if the job isn’t done with care. This does not mean that colorwork can’t be done with other fibers. The only problem is that it will require a little more patience. Wool is the most forgiving of the fibers. Acrylic, cotton, and the rest are more challenging to work with.
  • The rest: Basically, outside of the above two kinds of knitting, most fibers work for everything, including crochet. Just because I wrote above that wool is best for cables, Intarsia, and color stranding I am not excluding the other fibers from being used for those kinds of projects. In fact, I’ve made an acrylic sweater with cables and I have used acrylic-wool blends in Fair Isle knitting. I’ve even dared to use acrylic for Intarsia. I’ll say though that when I work in color and I’m not using wool I tend to prefer slip stitch color patterns rather than drive myself crazy with Intarsia or Fair Isle. 

Who is it for?

  • Babies: Baby and toddler items (including clothes, blankets, etc.) need to be made with practicality in mind, especially if the item is a gift for someone else with a new baby. Most people, especially if they do not knit or care about knitting, need to be able to put their stuff in the washing machine. Parents with new babies, knitterly or not, really really really need machine washable stuff. Let’s face it: new baby = at least one load of laundry every day. Fibers that are commonly machine washable are: merino wool, merino superwash wool, wool-acrylic blends, cotton, cotton blends, acrylic. The yarn label always provides care instructions so we can’t go wrong. And, yes, an item intended to be an heirloom in the future can be made with machine washable fibers.
  • Allergies: There are in fact people with real allergies to fibers. The most common is the wool allergy. Avoid fibers that the wearer is allergic to.
  • Age, taste, preferences: Especially when knitting a garment for someone it is essential to know everything about what the wearer likes, hates, etc. This includes the fiber content. Some people wouldn’t be caught dead in mohair. Other people hate Shetland wool because it can be itchy.

Season

  • Summer: No mohair or wool bikinis! Cotton, silk and nylon blends are great choices. Cotton is good for summer knits because it “breathes,” in other words, it allows the wearer to keep as cool as possible if he or she sweats. Sweating, of course, moderates body temperature.
  • Fall: In most places with four seasons the autumn times are characterized by extreme temperature changes from day to day and from morning to night. Any fiber actually goes. I just tend to keep in mind that synthetic fibers could be a good option for fall just because they do not provide excessive warmth and keep the wearer warm when the weather is cold but not freezing. All sorts of synthetic-wool blends are game for this season.
  • Winter: Wool is the best choice for this season, especially in places that get very cold in winter. Pure wool is like magic in winter. Even when it gets wet it keeps the wearer warm. I in fact do not leave the house in winter without my wool scarf, gloves, hat, and socks.
  • Spring: Like fall it is a time of changes in temperature. For early spring (after the snow thaws completely) wool blends are good choices. For late spring cotton and silk are safe bets.

…but I won’t do that!

Yes, we would do just about anything with yarn, but what’s the limit? What’s the budget looking like these days? I am willing to knit with just about anything (and I will make more cotton stuff this year!). This is a hobby: fun time not blah time. If I hated working with acrylic and someone wanted me to make a blanket out of synthetic fibers I would tell them to head down to the department store and buy one for themselves. In fact, it could be cheaper that way!

Care considerations

People have their preferences or knowledge about laundering their fabrics. We have to be aware of them! I sincerely doubt my best friend the lumberjack dude is going to hand wash his silk beaded cowl I made for him. He would more than likely wear it once and destroy it in the washer.

Whatcha makin’?

  • Scarves and cowls: It’s probably best to select a fiber that is not itchy since it will probably touch the skin. Mohair and scratchy wool are probably out.  Merino, wool blends, cotton, silk, soft wools, etc. are possibilities.
  • Socks: The season is important but also, again, the comfort factor since they’re in contact with the skin. My suggestions: Spring/summer socks: cotton. Fall socks: blends. Winter socks: 100% wool. (Note: If you feel the need to knit merino wool socks they will eventually pill after lots of use but if they are knit tightly this pilling can be significantly delayed. There are lots of wools out there that are soft and sturdy, but some people are really fussy and want merino.)
  • Bathing suits: I think this one speaks for itself!
  • Coats: Anything goes if it’s a bulky yarn but wool and wool blends are good choices.
  • Sweaters: Again, anything goes. The other variables will determine which fiber.
  • Mittens and gloves: Comfort again is important. Warmth is another factor. 100% wool is very warm and there are really comfortable wool yarns available. Remember again that merino might not be a good choice because it wears out and pills.
  • Blankets: Easy care is probably an important variable to consider as well as the season. Wool blankets are a wonderful luxury, though!
  • Decorative items: Anything goes but moths like to eat wool. I prefer cotton and acrylic for household decor because I live in a place with too many moths.

Scenarios

OK, so now that I’ve listed and described the variables, I’m going to list a few scenarios so we can see how this all works:
  1. My sister’s birthday is in September and I noticed she could use a new fall scarf. She hates to wash stuff by hand. I just found a pretty cool ribbed scarf pattern. Possibilities: merino wool, a synthetic, or a wool blend.
  2. My cousin is allergic to wool and asked me to make him a spring cardigan using any pattern I like. Cotton, silk, or cotton blends are really good choices here.
  3. My best friend is going to have her baby in January and I think she’d appreciate a baby blanket. Merino wool (machine washable), soft acrylic, or acrylic-wool blends.
  4. Mom told me she has poor circulation lately and complimented me on my new socks. Mom’s getting a new pair of wool socks.
  5. I think Tom, Dick, and Harry could use new bathing suits. Cotton or cotton-silk blend is a great choice. There are also some interesting nylon yarns blended with cotton that would work.

Conclusion

Selecting the correct fiber involves thinking about the circumstances. There is no hard and fast rule to follow. The above explanation is objective enough to help a person think through the selection process for any project.
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