This is the last series in my summer fibres series and I have to say it has been a highly educational process. I have learned a lot by researching all these fibres and have been given a lot of food for thought when considering what material to use for my knitting and sincerely hope that this little series was helpful and interesting to you too.
Hemp is a variety of Cannabis (not to be confused with marijuana which is another variety altogether) and has a long history of domestic cultivation. Other than fibre it was amongst other things also used for paper, sails, animal bedding and lamp oil. The production of hemp has declined a lot in the last century but it seems to be an upcoming material again.
How hemp yarn is made
Hemp grows from seed and is an annual plant which some farmers tend to use as a rotation crop. It grows best in mild climate with a humid atmosphere and likes well drained and rich in nitrogen soil.
The crop is ready for harvesting when the plants begin to shed pollen which (when using the hemp for fibre) is around 70-90 days after seeding. The harvesting is done by a specific harvesting machine and from what I gathered during my research the machine differs from other harvesting machines (e.g when using the hemp seed rather then the stalks)
The next step is retting which is either done in the same way as linen (read about it here) or by leaving stalks in the field for up to six weeks for retting. This process loosens the fibre and naturally removes pectin which functions as a binding agent in the hemp plant that holds the woody inner fibres and outer bast fibres together. During this time the stalks are turned repeatedly. The process also releases a lot of nutrients back into the soil. When the retting is completed the stalks are baled up to allow easier storage and transportation.
After the retting process the next step is to remove the woody core fibres from the outer bast ones for which a sequence of rollers, also called breakers or a hammermill are used. Afterwards the fibres are ready for spinning. They are typically twisted together to form long continuous threads.
Pros and cons
Hemp is a very resilient plant and does not require the use of much pesticides making it a somewhat more environmentally friendly crop than others discussed in this series. It shares many qualities with linen including the characteristic of becoming softer with use, being a strong fibre, resistant to moths, rotting and mildew, and breathable.
However, it is very inelastic and doesn’t stretch much. When using the chemical process to retting it becomes a less environmentally friendly product.
Hemp and hemp blends
From this list I have only worked with one yarn but I have tried to find a good selection of yarn companies and blends.
Isager Plant Fibre (ramie, hemp and bamboo)
Rowan Hemp Tweed (wool and hemp)
Bare Naked Wool Hempshaugh Lace (merino, hemp and silk)
Hemp pattern ideas
This month features a beloved TV show that finally returned with a new season, a more or less newly discovered radio station and an honorary mention of my favourite knitting magazine which is celebrating it’s 5th anniversary.
Netflix just released season 5 and despite a slow start it has now picked up again. House of Cards is a great show because it is a show about awful people that still manages to hook you in wanting to learn about their fate. Also Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright are brilliant together. If you haven’t watched it yet, do you will not be able to stop, I guarantee.
BBC 6 Music was the station of choice of one of my flat mates at uni and I never understood her incredible enthusiasm for the station as I wasn’t much into radio at the time. My boyfriend recently started to listen to that station and I now understand why my flat mate was so enthusiastic. I will be honest and admit I don’t know much about music and will listen to nearly every genre from classical to folk and r’n’b without making a fuss about it which is why I like BBC 6 Music. They play a good mix of music, often bands I have never heard of but it is a great soundtrack to knit to and the often (and sometimes unintentionally) funny and weird DJs are also not to be dismissed.
Pom Pom is hands down my favourite knitting magazine and it is celebrating it’s 5th anniversary which I think warrants a mentioned in this knit to list. The founders Megan Fernandes and Lydia Gluck started the magazine more or less in their kitchen and have managed to create a well loved independent knitting magazine that features stunning designs beautifully curated and photographed. I am always inspired when I receive my copy through the mail and highly recommend this magazine.
Bamboo is another alternative fibre that I can’t wait to work with. Other than Soy yarn though I have at least handled some bamboo blend as a friend had it in her stash. From what I remember it felt lovely, very soft and for some reason cool. Not sure what exactly I mean by that but that is he first word I associate with it.
Traditionally bamboo wasn’t turned in to yarn as the technology was not developed. But bamboo was still used in textile production predominantly fo structural support. For example, stripes of bamboo were used in hats and corsets.
How bamboo yarn is made
Bamboo is actualy a member of the grass family and can be as tall as 35 m depending in the variety. The variety used for yarn is called Moso bamboo. Bamboo is a very fast growing plant and after planting the shoots reach their full height in just 8-10 weeks. Maturity is reached in about 5 years but as mentioned bamboo is a grass and actually benefits from cutting. As bamboo belongs to the grass family no replanting is required after harvesting. Also, like grass bamboo can grow very densely which allows for a good use of land.
Generally bamboo is an easy to grow plant. As harvesting does not require the destruction of the whole plant it is a more efficient use of land and bamboo also helps with preventing soil errosion as the plants remain in the soil after harvest to continue growing unlike cotton for example. The use water for growing bamboo is also much lower than that for cotton, which is usually described as a thirsty crop.
I will talk about the most commonly used process of turning bamboo into fibres next however I would like to mention that there are other methods to do it and that there seems to be an effort in making these new process less harmful.
After harvesting bamboo is processed by crushing and then submersing the crushed pieces into a solution of sodium hydroxide which dissolves the bamboo cellulose. By adding carbon disulfide it creates a mix from which fibres can be drawn off. It is worth mentioning at this point that there is research linking both sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide to serious health issues making this a potentially dangerous process for workers and environment in the surrounding areas it is not an ideal process.
As mentioned after the chemical process you have a mixture that is pressed through nozzles into a container of diluted sulfuric acid solution which hardens the cellulose mixture into bamboo fibre threats which are than spun into yarn.
Pros and cons
Bamboo has much more environmental friendly growing process as it uses less land, doesn’t contribute to soil erosion and uses a lower amount of water than growing cotton. Bamboo yarn is durable and has a nice silk like sheen and drape. It is an easy to wash fibre and can even go into the dryer making this an ideal option of baby and kids hand knits. Additionally, it is a hypoallergenic fibre and thus great for people with any kind of allergy looking to work with a natural, non synthetic fibre. Bamboo is also a breathable fibre which makes it a nice yarn for summer garments.
The process of turning bamboo plants into fibre involves the use of a number of harmful chemicals that have been linked to health issues if exposed too them long enough making this a process harmful to workers and the surrounding environment which makes this a not very environmentally friendly process that is also everything put sustainable.
Bamboo and Bamboo blends
As I mentioned at the start I have not knitted with bamboo yarn myself which is why this selection of yarns is a mixture of yarn that sounded like interesting and useful blends or from companies I have heard good things from.
Habu XS-24 (bamboo)
Three Irish Girls Bamboo Cotton Worsted (bamboo and cotton)
Anzula Haiku (merino, bamboo and nylon)
Bamboo Pattern ideas
I honestly jumped up and down with excitement when this month’s designer Verena agreed to be interviewed. She is one incredibly talented lady and I admire her a lot, not only for her beautiful designs but also for her business sense and braveness. In addition, to being a designer Verena is also part of the team behind Making Stories, an independent knitwear publisher with a focus on environmentally friendly yarns which Verena was kind enough to answer a few questions about.
When did you learn to knit? Did someone teach you or did you teach yourself?
I’ve been knitting for as long as I can remember. My mom taught me when I was little and my very first knits were miniature doll replicates of what she made for me. I progressed to clothes and accessories that actually fit me eventually and started teaching myself bits and pieces from various books and blogs. To date knitting is still something I enjoy sharing with my mother and I hope to be able to pass on this wonderful craft myself some day. My husband now knits, too, so knitting should be in the genes!
Why did you start designing? What gave you the idea?
Even though I’m a researcher by trade, I’ve always felt the need to create. Growing up, I went back and forth about what I wanted to do and seriously considered learning something creative like dressmaking, but in the end went with a more traditional study choice. At that point, knitting and designing was something I just did on the side. Unfortunately I didn’t write down any of the patterns I designed back then – they would be such a lovely memory now!
While I liked my job, I never loved it as much as I love everything knitting, fibre and design related, and I honestly couldn’t be happier that I eventually took the leap of faith and quit my job. Almost one year ago I published my first design, the Tulsi Socks, and I still can’t quite grasp where this journey has taken me. This self-employed life has been absolutely wonderful so far and I haven’t looked back once.
What is your favourite piece you have designed/knitted?
Almost always the last one I finished! I do have some all-time favourites though of course. Out of my own designs, I’d pick the Powder Snow Cozy, the Amalia Socks and the Fleesensee Hat. And I do love my Siri Sweater! Clara Linnea Öhmann’s Siri Cardigan design is truly gorgeous.
What is your favourite yarn and/or fibre to work with? Why?
My heart beats for sustainably made, natural, non-superwash yarns – no chemical fibres for me please! Socks are the only projects I might make an exception for every now and again as there are just so many colourful options out there. But other than that I like my yarns sheepy. Wool is the queen regnant of my stash and I’m constantly amazed at how the characteristics of wool yarns vary depending on breeds and the spinning process.
What is your favourite knitting/designing resource? Books? Magazines? Blogs? Software?
Just recently I bought a vintage stitch dictionary. It’s from 1984 and absolutely gorgeous! Now the bug has bitten me and I’m on the hunt for more vintage knitting books. I also love Nora Gaughan’s Knitted Cable Sourcebook and Pinterest never disappoints either.
Can you describe your designing process? What is your favourite part?
The first thing I usually think about when designing a new piece is the feel I’m looking for. Is it going to be cozy and comfy, elegant, timeless? With a couple of ideas spinning around in my head I then start transforming my thoughts into knitting. Deciding on the final stitch pattern(s) and construction might take quite a while with some designs while with others I love the very first swatch. Once a first draft of the pattern is written up, I’ll knit up the sample and edit the pattern in case I change small elements of the design. After the pattern has been tech edited and test knit it’s then ready to be published. Seeing other knitters’ interpretations of the new design still gets me every time – it’s magical! As for favourite stages: I truly love them all, but I’d say the very beginning – the first thoughts of a new idea – and the last step – releasing the pattern into the wild – are what feels most special to me.
English or Continental (or both)? Which way do you knit?
Continental! I’d love to get better at English style for colourwork though.
What do you have planned for the future as a designer? Do you want to make it a full-time job or is it a hobby for you?
Right now I divide my time between my knitwear designs and making stories, the knitwear design publisher Hanna Lisa and I founded. I’m super exited to continue working on both and can’t wait for the release of WOODS, our first book! As a knitwear designer, I look forward to working on more garment designs, to a (still secret) contribution to a beautiful magazine and to lots of collaborations with amazing yarn companies.
How did Woods – Making Stories develop? What was the idea?
WOODS – making stories is a new knitting book that we created to share our passion for local, breed-specific European yarns, beautiful knitwear design and helping people expand their knitting knowledge. The book includes 11 minimalistic modern knitwear designs, profiles and interviews with amazing makers and lots of tutorials. Our goal is to bring people together through our craft and business ethos, and celebrate the creative talent and passion of hard-working fiber folks. Over the course of the last few months, this has shaped up to be a project beyond our wildest beliefs. We successfully crowdfunded our first book WOODS and couldn’t be more exited to continue working on making stories. (Pre-orders for WOODS are now open on our website!)
Do you plan to have more publications?
Yes, we do! We love working on WOODS way to much to stop anytime soon. The next issue, BREEZE, will be available in April 2018, and we just selected the designs and yarns we’ll feature (spoiler alert: they’re amazing!). In addition to this in-house series we’re working on a couple of other exiting projects and we can’t wait to share all about that very soon on our website and Instagram.
What do you like most about making stories?
With making stories, we have the chance to curate a collection of both beautiful knitwear designs and local European yarns while also offering additional content like tutorials and interviews. We basically get to make the knitting books we always dreamed of and everyone’s love for this project of ours has just been incredible. From the moment we first shared about making stories, the knitting community has been nothing but supportive and we’ll forever be thankful for this warm welcome.
Soy is a fibre that has interested me for a while now. I have never worked with it but it is on the list of fibres I want to try. I am secretly hoping my brother will have kids in the near future so I can knit something for them using soy yarn as it is meant to be good for garments for children.
Soy is a byproduct from the soy industry and based on my research most fibres are produced in China even thought the biggest soybean growers are the US, Brazil and Argentina. I also found that it seems most soy fibre originates from genetically modified soy. If this is something that you find problematic soy might not be the fibre for you.
How soy yarn is made
I didn’t find as much detail about the process of turning soy into fibre to knit with compared to the other fibres I have covered so far but I hope this will give you some idea of it.
Soy is traditionally native to East Asia and is a cheap source of protein for both animals and humans. When growing soy the first step in the process is germination which occurs about 48 hours after planting and the first leaves appear above ground shortly after. They help provide nutrients to the immature plant. The plant keeps growing and eventually flowers after which the pods grow. The pods are hairy and tend to grow in clusters of up to 5 seeds where it grows until the beans are harvested when they are still in an immature state as pods that have turned yellow impact the quality of the soybeans.
As I mentioned it is a byproduct from making soy products such as tofu, soy milk and so on. The left over from this process is called okara and is made up of the hulls of soy beans.Using bio-engineered polymers the liquid proteins are removed from the okara. Afterwards the separated liquid proteins are put into a machine called a spinneret, which apparently looks somewhat like a shower head and produces liquid soy.
Next the liquid soy is dried. I unfortunately didn’t find anything on how this is done but it seems that after the drying process is completed you will have strands of soybean fibre that can be spun/plied together.
Pro and Cons
Soy fibre is essentially a product made from waste which I think is a good use of something otherwise thrown away. It is also a natural product and relatively cheap to make. It has a similar appearance to silk. If you dislike the fact that silk is produced by killing the silkworm soy is a great alternative. It is also a breathable and moisture absorbents fibre and as a result it is nice to wear in warm weather. Soy takes dyes well and the dye has good fastness on soy fibre.
As I mentioned further up, soy yarn is predominately made form genetically modified soy. It also requires a lot of water and pesticides however it seems like it needs less the cotton which might make this a useful alternative. However, it should also be noted that due to the production of soy in countries such as Brazil and Argentina a significant amount of rain forest has been destroyed to make land for agriculture which has a significant environmental impact and makes me question the advertising of soy as and eco-friendly product.
Soy and Soy blends
As I mentioned above I have not worked with soy yarn myself so I can’t really recommend anything and as I searched for soy yarns on Ravelry a lot of it came up as discontinued so I am afraid I have a very short list this time.
Natural Fibre Producers Super Fine Airy (alpaca and soy blend)
Soy pattern ideas
A little note in advance, a lot of the patterns use soy yarns that have been discontinued but I still thought it worth including them because they are lovely patterns.
Silk is one of those luxury fibres that I have always wanted to work with but which I haven’t really managed to do mostly because of budgeting criteria I have for my knitting. Luckily there are a lot of silk blends that might make a smaller item affordable to me. Before going into more detail about the fibre I just want to mention that silk is not an animal friendly fibre as the larvae are killed in the process and for me this means this fibre should be used sparingly or try to use recycled silk fibres.
Silk is another fibre that has been used for thousands of years. It originated in China and legend has it that it was discovered by an empress how was having tea under a mulberry tree when a cocoon fell into her cup and begun unravelling. It is said she was fascinated by the fibre so much that she soon begun cultivating it. Regardless of the truth of the legend, China had the monopoly on silk production for centuries by keeping the production secret under threat of death. Silk was a popular luxury product that spread West through the Silk Road and eventually the production method also reached the West.
How silk is made
Cultivation of the silkworm is known as sericulture and the first step in the commercial production is to lay silkworm eggs in a controlled environment. Each female moth is able to lay 300-400 eggs at a time but dies nearly immediately after depositing the eggs, followed shortly by the males.
It takes approx. 10 days for the eggs to hatch into larvae which are about 1/4 inch long at that point. Now the larvae are placed under a fine layer of gauze and fed copious amounts of mulberry leaves, roughly 50,000 times their own weight in plant material. They eat almost continually for 6 weeks and during this time shed their skin about 4 times. In that time they can grow to up to 3 inches and are ready to spin a silk cocoon after this.
The silkworm attaches itself to a frame, twig, tree or shrub for this process. The process of spinning a silk cocoon takes anything between 3 and 8 days. The silkworms possess a salivary glands which produce fibroin and clear fluid that is forced through spinnerets which are openings on the mouth of the larvae. The liquid secretions harden when exposed to air and form twin filaments of fibroin. Another gland secrets a gummy binding fluid called sericin which bonds the two filaments of fibroin together.
To build the cocoon the silkworm rotates in a figure 8 movement up to 300,000 times and produces about a kilometre of silk filament in the process.
Afterwards, the cocoon is treated with hot air, steam or boiling water which kills the larvae but also the sericin to soften and for the filaments unwind. This is usually done with 4-8 cocoons at once which are twisted together lightly to create a single strand.
The sericin is usually left in the yarn as it protects the fibre during the processing but it washes out easily which soap. Before washing it out the sericin the silk is labelled raw silk.
The stands are twisted together into yarn for weaving or knitting which prevents a thread from splitting into its constituent fibres. Depending on how the fibres are spun they have different qualities. Crepe is made by twisting individual threads, doubling two or more and then twisting them again. Tram is made by twisting two ore more threads into only one direction. Thrown are individual threads twisted in one direction only and Organzine is made by giving the silk a preliminary twist in one direction and then twisting two of these together in the opposite direction.
In general, organzine thread is used for the warp threads of materials, tram threads for the weft or filling, crepe thread for weaving crinkly fabrics and a single thread for sheer fabrics. All can be used for knitting.
Pro and Con
Silk is a very durable fibre and has a beautiful sheen and drape. The texture is smooth and soft. Silk has good absorbency which makes it comfortable to wear in lovely weather and has also the capability to prevent insects from biting through the fabric.
A real negative aspect of producing silk is that the larvae are killed in the process. It is not an animal friendly production and if this is a concern for you than silk might not be the fibre for you. However, there are quite a few artificial fibres that imitate silk if you still like to use something with a similar appearance and feel, for example: rayon.
Silk and Silk blends
As I said I have not used silk so all my suggestions are based on recommendation or is yarn from companies I have used/heard good things of.
Rowan Kidsilk Haze (mohair and silk blend)
Blue Sky Fibre Alpaca Silk (alpaca and silk blend)
Shibui Knits Staccato (merino and silk blend)
Quince and Co Tern (wool and silk blend)
Linen pattern ideas
There are some amazingly beautiful knitting patterns using silk yarn or blends out there. Here is a selection of some of my favourites: