Little Acorns

“So…” – I think I hear you wondering – “… so hang on a minute, this used to be a knitting blog, right? Is it still? Has she, in fact, been knitting anything lately?”

Funny you should ask. Why yes, I have in fact been knitting something lately. A number of somethings. Small and portentous somethings. Fascinating somethings, if you are the sort of person who is fascinated by small and portentous somethings.

To wit… these:

All hauntingly similar, you may observe, though there are also some subtle differences.

And what are they?

Audition swatches, that’s what.

Because you can’t make socks, let alone create tsocks, let alone build a bright shiny new tsock empire… unless you have exactly the right sock YARN.

Now I knew from the get-go that I was going to be ordering up my own new line of bespoke yarn, and I had a pretty clear idea what I wanted from it; but I also knew that that process would take time, so I decided that while I was working out the details (and waiting for the results to materialize) it would not be a bad idea to investigate some of the existing possibilities that fell roughly within range of my specifications. Give ‘em a whirl. Run ‘em up a flagpole and see which of their characteristics might salute. That sort of thing.

So I got me some yarns to play with, and I swatched up a storm.

Specifying a whole new yarn is an amazing process. It’s remarkably freeing, but it also feels like a grave responsibility. For me it it’s been an opportunity, not only to take control of a whole ‘nother deeper level of the design process, but to make a statement, literally put my money where my mouth is. Because since I became a spinner, since I began making and studying sock yarns from a spinner’s perspective as well as a knitter’s perspective and a wearer’s perspective, I’ve come to understand with astounding clarity something that would never have occurred to me before I started on this journey:

          MERINO != SOCK YARN.

Seriously. It’s ironic that Merino has become the default wool for sock yarns. Merino is everything that a sock yarn shouldn’t be. Sure, it’s soft, and I’m not above enjoying a little softness… but softness alone doth not a good sock yarn make; is not in fact even its primary desirable characteristic. Sock yarn needs durability and resilience above all. Tsock yarn also needs terrific stitch definition. Now, Merino can give you those qualities, up to a point, if you push its envelope HARD; but it doesn’t come by them honestly. Compared to some of the other possibilities out there it isn’t naturally strong, or naturally sproingy, or naturally crisp. Of all the wools I’ve worked with in the past couple of years, in fact, Merino would be one of the LAST things I’d choose for socks.

Cheviot, now, or Dorset. Those make great sock yarn. BFL* makes an excellent sock yarn. Really, almost anything with decent crimp and strength and length – almost anything except Merino, when you get right down to it.

So Merino was Right Out.

Here’s what I wanted:

  • 4-ply
  • high hosiery twist
  • superwash
  • NOT Merino
  • possibly some silk

That last has a lot of resonance for me. If nylon is the poor man’s silk, why should the Tsarina settle for it when she could have the real thing instead? No reason I can think of. A non-Merino wool base, something with a little chewy substance to it, and a good dollop of silk for added strength, smoothness, and luxury.

Superwash is something I could take or leave for my own personal purposes – in fact, given my druthers I’d rather leave it than take it. Some of my preferred sock wools really don’t need it anyway – depending on how you prep them, Downs breeds are pretty nearly superwash already because of their crimp structure. Still and all – I remain mindful that I’m NOT just making socks for me. This is a commercial operation, after all, and I’m looking to put this yarn onto the needles and feet of a large number of knitters. I may already be alarming some of them a little by eschewing Merino and embracing silk, you know? So we’re going to stay in safe familiar territory in one respect: we’re sticking with superwash. Seems only fair.

Anyway, those were the criteria I started from, both in ordering the new custom yarn and in choosing interim yarns to play with.

This is 75% Superwash BFL / 25% nylon.

The second swatch is the same yarn as the first, but with a little more twist added. It’s sometimes very convenient, being a spinner.

This yarn, or one substantially similar, could have been a contender if I weren’t looking to get away from the nylon content. It’s nice and crisp, maybe just a little finer than I want.

This one is 55% Superwash BFL / 45% silk.

The second swatch is the same yarn as the first, but with a LOT more twist added. (See above re convenience of being a spinner.)

This is one beautiful yarn – not for socks, though. In its native form it is way underplied for my purposes, though with all that silky lustre it would make a perfectly lovely lace shawl. The added twist gives the second swatch much better stitch definition and a good bit more bounce – but not quite enough; the silk content is too high.

At this point we’re missing a swatch – the next in the line-up was 100% Superwash BFL, otherwise structurally very similar to the first yarn. What happened to that swatch I couldn’t tell you; I can’t find it. Maybe it’s shy.

I had fun with these, and they told me a lot about what I did and didn’t want from my own yarn. Rather to my surprise I found all the BFL yarns just a little too supple for my taste. Which is just as well, perhaps, because when I got down to chatting with the nice people at the mill it turned out that Superwash BFL is not so easy for them to source. Not in the kind of relatively small quantities (”small” meaning, um, under 10,000 pounds) I’ll be ordering, and not from reliable or local sources.

(Insert here a long and rather dull dissertation on the current state of the art in superwashing; the times they are gradually a-changin’, but as of now this process is still in its infancy in the US, and most Superwash wools, particularly the specialty ones like BFL, still have to be imported from overseas.)

Instead… when I put my foot down against merino, Nice Man At Mill approvingly proposed a wool blend. “Wool pool?” I asked dubiously, and he couldn’t deny it, or name the likely component breeds; but he assured me it was a particularly fine clip, meeting all sorts of stringent specifications (all of which he proceeded to enumerate) as to fineness, whiteness, staple length, etc. – and he was evidently so keen on it that I asked him to send me a sample of top.

Sure enough, the sample (some sample! a generous 128 grams, enough in itself for more than one pair of socks) was everything it was cracked up to be; crimpy and consistent and fine and pretty. I had done a little homework on the region and was impressed with the probable mix – I’m guessing mostly Targhee, with maybe some Rambouillet and some Suffolk thrown in – so I sat me down and started blending it up with silk and experimenting with proportions. And spinning. And knitting.

And here’s what I got:

Three prototype swatches for the new wool/silk blend. (They’re a little darker than the commercial yarns because I used unbleached silk from my stash.) These are all 4-ply and I was fairly pleased with all of them; I didn’t REALLY get gauge until the last one, though.

Why yes, I do think that’s a testament to my improving Sock Yarn Spinning Skillz. Why yes, funny you should ask, I am a little proud of same. (And yes, that last skein is going to become socks for ME.)

Meanwhile – I didn’t have to spin very much of that first batch of singles before picking up the phone, calling the mill, and telling them to “GO FOR IT.”


And now I have some 80-plus pounds of THIS in my living room, as well as some on the needles of a few test knitters, and some in the dye pots of a certain local indie dyer:

There may be some minor tweaking before I re-order – we’ll see what the focus group has to say. A little more twist? Possibly. But overall, I think we’ve got a winner.

The grist is the same as that of the other candidates, and like them it gives me my standard gauge on my standard needles – but it’s a little denser and chewier and crisper; not to mention the subtle extra shine it derives from the silk. Shiny! We like shiny.

We also like pretty colors, and that will be the next thing I’ll show you on the Little Acorns front. Silk doesn’t take up dye the same way as wool and nylon, so the next stage of this process is all about adjusting and establishing formulae to work with the blend. That, and looking at how my new baby performs on other people’s needles.

Having handed off those samples for knitting… I feel as if I’ve just handed the car keys to my 16-year-old kid.

Drive safely, little skeins – and don’t forget you have a curfew.