Educational

Let’s talk yarn.  The yarn I’m using on the current mitts is Bijou Basin Tibetan Dream Sock Yarn.  It’s 85% yak down, 15% nylon, and working with it has been a bit of a learning experience.  Now, let’s get this part in right up front.  The reason it took me a little while to get comfortable with this yarn is that it is made from a fiber I’ve not used before.  It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the yarn, it’s that it was new to me and I didn’t know how it would behave. My ignorance is not the yarn’s fault, ok?

The first thing I noticed when I got my hands on the skein was that it was soft.  I mean really soft.  This makes sense, as my handy dandy Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook tells me that yak down has a diameter of between 14 and 22 microns (which, especially at the lower end of that range, makes for a very soft yarn indeed).  It also felt just the tiniest bit fuzzy.  You’ll pardon me if I show my age here, but I believe a few of you are also children of the 80s.  Did any of you have sticker albums?  Do you remember the highly prized flocked stickers?  (Please tell me I’m not alone here.)  It sort of reminded me of a much more luxurious version of those.

I was eager to get the yarn on my needles, so I sat down to wind it.  This is where I hit my first snag.  The yarn is surprisingly delicate.  So much so that the tension of winding snapped the yarn.  I’ve wound hundreds of balls of yarn, and I’ve never had this happen, even with much finer yarns.  I took a bit of yarn to play with, and sure enough, it takes very little force to pull it apart.  You know how if you’re going to pop a strand of yarn, you’ll usually wind it around both index fingers and tug?  Well with this, I can just pinch the strand between my thumb and index finger and give the gentlest of tugs, and it comes right apart.

This wasn’t a big deal while winding, it just meant I needed to use a soft touch.  It became more of a problem when I knit up my swatches.  I’m a fairly loose knitter, but I found myself having to make a very conscious effort to relax and make big gentle movements with the yarn.  If I put any force at all on it, it would break while I knit.  Once I relaxed into the tension the yarn wanted though, it was actually rather soothing, much like knitting with pencil roving.  The yarn worked up beautifully.  The fabric was smooth and the stitches even.  That fuzziness that I mentioned above meant the stitches were very grippy.  They snuggled up right next to each other and made a lovely substantial fabric.

When I blocked my swatch, the fabric relaxed dramatically.  I don’t have before and after pictures of my swatches, but I do have pre- and post-blocking pictures of the mitts I’m working on now.  The one on the left was soaked and patted flat to dry.  It was not blocked vigorously or put under any tension while it dried.  Look how much bigger it is than its unblocked companion (to be fair, the one on the needles still needs two more cable twists before it’s done, so a bit of the height difference is from that, but the majority of it is from the change in the fabric).

Here’s a similar view of the two mitts on hand forms.  The hand forms are slightly different sizes, but you can still see the dramatic difference in how the cables look.

The fabric after blocking was slinky and drapey.  It bloomed beautifully and was, if possible, even softer than when it started.  However, once it was blocked, it lost some of the spring it had before.  It seems yak doesn’t have nearly as much memory or bounce as wool does.  Again, this isn’t a bad thing.  Plenty of wonderful fibers don’t have any bounce at all.  It’s just important to know what you’re dealing with as you go about using the yarn.

This particular yarn would make a wonderful shawl (and at a generous 440 yards per skein, you could make a substantial one) or cowl.  It would be an absolutely perfect choice for a slouchy hat (you’d be able to get a light weight fabric that draped beautifully and was still tremendously warm).  It even works well for something like this mitt, where you want soft and warm, but you don’t have to worry too much about it stretching around bendy bits and springing back to grip (on the thumb, where you do need a bit of that, the ribbing steps in and helps out).

The only thing I’d be somewhat hesitant to use it for is socks.  That bounce or memory is vital to socks.  Clara Parks put it succinctly in The Knitter’s Book of Socks when she cautioned that “‘elasticity’ or the ability for a fiber to return to its original length after being stretched…is the first cardinal requirement of all socks.”  Now, the nylon does provide some elasticity.  And with the right stitch pattern (a nice deep rib would be helpful) and a the right shape (think ankle socks, not knee socks) it could totally be done.  But you’d be working somewhat at odds with the yarn’s inherent personality.  I think you’d have more fun, and make better use of the yarn, if you used it somewhere other than under your feet!

I hope this is helpful to some of you.  Again, I want to emphasize that I’ve very much enjoyed getting to know this yarn, that I’m very happy with the project I’m making out of it, and that I will certainly reach for it again.  But it does take a bit of getting used to, and it doesn’t behave like wool.  If you keep that in mind, you’ll have a marvelous time with it too.