I remember a long conversation with a friend or a customer years ago about the fact that it would great if Ravelry had a function that allowed you to track other people’s thoughts and experiences on the longterm wearability of a particular yarn…
Of course, there is the option to simply read the comments on the page but somehow that feels a bit limited as most people tend to only write a few sentences about a yarn. And sometimes cranky comments can rank higher in our memory (creating an vague question about the yarn in our head), not to mention the fact that it’s much more likely that someone unhappy with something makes a fuss about it than someone happy with the same thing. In the end, we came to the dissatisfying conclusion that what we were looking for fell outside what we could reasonably expect Ravelry’s yarn pages to be capable of doing and that they can at best function as a starting point for further investigation.
We both felt incredibly passionate about the idea of tracking yarn in this way because, like most knitters/ crochets/ weavers/ other, it’s not just how a yarn feels and behaves when you first pick it up and work with it that counts for me- I want to know how it responds to wear. Does it hold up and bloom when it’s worn or turn into a sad saggy, pilly mess? All of this can be related to the processing of the base fibre but it’s also a lot to do with the type and quality of fibre used. Either way, we’d both spent a lot of time trawling projects made in a given yarn, hunting for their maker’s initial and subsequent thoughts about the yarn and that had made us want to give as much detail as possible in our project pages, in the hope of sharing information about yarn and inspiring others to do the same. Because sometimes yarns that don’t seem particularly promising to start with end up being the ones we love because they hold up so well and even improve over time- and we just wouldn’t know that from picking them up in a yarn shop and using that old knitter’s trick of rubbing them against our cheek!
This particular project is a great case in point. I bought a couple of balls of Blacker Yarns Alpaca/ Shetland 4ply at the 2010 UK Knitcamp marketplace and dithered for ages over what to make with it. It felt sturdy and strong and a bit too rough for a hat or mitts and so I finally decided to use it doubled to make a Winterberry hottie cover.
As a plant nerd, I fell in love with those bobbly berries and thought they were a great use of the bobbles that so many of us love to hate (and, using it for the first time, discovered that they also made for a great foot massage!).
Now, a yarn with a 50% alpaca content is not the obvious choice for a project that needs to keep its shape because alpaca has little memory and so is very prone to stretching! But I worked it quite tightly on small needles, anticipating that it would grow… which it did. On blocking, the FO went from very tight and stiff to soft with a bit of give and I slid it onto my hottie (filled with hot water) when it was still damp so that it would mould perfectly to the shape and size of the bottle.
Over the last eighteen months since I finished it, I’ve used it all the time! Despite the feet rubs and having been taken camping and all over Scotland, it looks like it was made yesterday. Although the alpaca gives it a halo, the stitch definition is definitely good enough to show up both the rib and the bobbles clearly. The odd pill forms every now and then but they are those lovely, discrete balls that pull off cleanly. Even with a 50% alpaca content, because it was knitted firmly, it hasn’t stretched out of shape at all.
There is just no way that a merino yarn or anything in the soft end of the range would stand up to this wear and use and still look this good! Well, unless perhaps it was processed beyond recognition but that is something I choose not to use. And who needs a hottie cover to be that soft anyway?
So I’m really excited that Louise from Knit British has kicked off the Breed Swatchalong, a community project that encapsulates so much of this- embracing the different strengths and virtues of the many sheep breed fibres, being creative in finding uses for a them and documenting thoughts and experiences with them, thus enabling the trackability of yarn (or fibre). Joining in involves the simple process of comprehensive swatching with British (or local-to-you) breed yarns and then documenting and sharing your experience and thoughts on that yarn.
All contributors will create a Ravelry project page for each swatch, outlining source, preparation method and other vital stats and, more importantly, their thoughts on its life, longevity and use, including possible applications (stitch patterns and projects) and any changes on blocking (and how it was done) and wearing (next to the skin for the day).
Some swatches and summaries will also be featured on Wovember as part of the movement’s goal to build a deeper understanding of what British and local breed yarns are like to work with, hopefully encouraging other knitters to give them a try. And, once the KAL is finished (there is no end date as yet, due to the huge number of yarns out there to try!), Louise will make summary reviews of all British breed wools available on KnitBritish so that anyone searching for information on breed wool can find thorough reviews in one place.
So what am I going to swatch with? One of the stipulations is that yarns used are undyed and I have so much undyed in my stash that it was really hard to choose a yarn to start with! But I’m going with a ball of white Isle Yarns (the sister yarn to the Hole and Sons yarns that were the viral hit of the northern summer), a beautiful, small-batch yarn from Sue Hole of Purbeck, made from her son’s flock of Poll Dorset sheep and spun by the Natural Fibre Company in Cornwall.
I’ve never knitted with Poll Dorset but I know it has a beautiful bounce to it, which Sue and Sue (from the Natural Fibre Company) have enhanced by woollen-spinning it. More thoughts on it over the next week or two, plus some other other yarns I’m planning to document.
So… will you be joining in?! You can find all the details over at KnitBritish and join in on Instagram and Twitter with the tag #breedswatchalong.