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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Gauge Swatches, Superwash Wool and A Lesson I Learned the Hard Way

I started working on some gauge swatches last night, as you can see in the picture. On the right is the Berry Cobbler A La Mode handspun that I recently finished. I knit it on size US 4's (3.5 mm) and I'm getting 23 stitches over 4 inches. I like the hand of the knitted swatch right now, but I'll have to wash it before I decide if that's the needle size I want to use. I don't expect it to grow any after washing, but I'll find out for sure either way.

On the left is the Dream In Color Classy (Cool Fire colorway) also knit on size US 4's and at the moment I'm getting 6 stitches to the inch (24 stitches over 4 inches). I plan to knit a section in size US 3's as well as US 5's before washing this swatch. Why? Because it's a superwash wool.

If you aren't familiar with superwash wools, I will explain. If you've never knit with them, pay attention - mine is a cautionary tale. (Man, I need dramatic background music right there, don't I?) The wool fiber, if you look at it in a microscope, is covered in scales. These scales all point towards the tip of the fiber and, as far as the sheep is concerned, probably help to keep it clean (sheep can't scratch if they get a sticker burr against their skin, so their fleece, and it's oils have to keep them clean). When you felt wool, you are actually causing these scales to lock together, to form a cohesive fabric, rather than just being loose fibers (or yarn). This is why you wash your wool sweaters very carefully, without agitation, and you dry them flat. If you didn't, they wouldn't be your wool sweaters anymore - they would be your teddy bear's wool sweaters. As a reaction to the easy care of synthetic fibers, the wool industry developed a way to make wool washable, and easier to care for: superwash was born. Now occasionally you will find someone who thinks superwash isn't really wool - it is, it's just been treated to resist felting. There are two different ways to make superwash wool and both deal with the scales on the wool fiber. The first way is to coat the fibers in a polymer, filling in the scales so they can no longer grip each other. The second way is to put the wool fibers into an acid bath which burns off the scales. Wool can handle acid pretty well (it's happier in acid than it is in alkaline solutions). Sometimes you'll find a superwash wool that feels harsh or artificial. I suspect, but I'm not sure, that those yarns are the polymer treated ones, although it's possible that different polymers do different things to the hand of the wool. Most superwash wools are extremely soft (after all, the scales are removed/covered making the fiber smooth) and you can find superwash merino pretty easily. (You can also get superwash fiber to spin if you want to.) There is a downside to superwash however, and I will tell you a story about my own personal experience.

Once upon a time, many years ago (or about 6) the Pink Lemon decided to knit her brother a sweater for Christmas. (The Pink Lemon's husband did not want one - it turned out that this was a good decision on his part.) After consulting with her sister in law and getting measurements, the Pink Lemon began knitting. She chose a superwash wool so it would be an easy sweater for her brother to care for. She knit a gauge swatch. She did not wash the gauge swatch. She did not know that sometimes yarn is tricksy and does things you don't expect when it goes for a swim. (Cue dramatic music.) She knit the sweater. She knit and she knit and she knit some more - her brother is very tall and has the gorilla arms. (It's OK Rick, you'd look like an idiot without the long arms.) When she had completed this epic amount of knitting, she washed the sweater. She pulled the sweater out of the washing machine, realized it was roughly the size of Greenland and sat down and cried. She threw it in the dryer. It got bigger. She cried again. At some point, she sent it to her brother, not knowing what else to do and not needing a house cozy. To this day, she does not know if her brother still has it or if he located a medium sized giant and has regifted the sweater - she cannot bear to ask. The Pink Lemon did not use superwash wool for anything but socks from then on.

Until now.

I am doing a little experiment and we'll find out if I'm smarter than superwash wool, now that I know it's tricks. Because of the superwash treatment, it tends to grow when it's washed - by "tends to grow" I refer to the fact that superwash wools can make Kudzu look like a well behaved ground cover. I use this to my advantage when I knit socks - knit them small and after a couple of washes they fit perfectly. The Dream In Color Classy is Superwash. It is also very soft, bouncy, and handdyed in really amazing colors that don't pool. So, I'm going to give it a try. It's marketed as being an Aran weight (18 stitches over 4 inches), but if you knit it that loose, it's definitely going to grow on you. My theory is that if I knit it tightly (easy to do because of the bouncy factor), it won't be able to grow very much. I'm shooting for a finished gauge of 22 stitches over 4 inches and I think that the swatch above, on size US 4's (3.5 mm), with 24 stitches over 4 inches unwashed, just might get me there. Like I said though, I'll be trying one needle size smaller and one larger as well and I'll wash the swatch - three times - just to be sure I know what it's going to do to me. I would love to be able to use this yarn, but first I must beat it, I mean knit it into submission.


Anonymous Christina said...

As a relative newcomer to knitting, I really appreciate the information you have shared.

Thank you!

9:30 AM  
Blogger winnie said...

WORD. I just experienced that same problem last night.

delurking here, btw. Been reading your blog for some time now.

11:08 AM  
Blogger Knittripps said...

Good luck and happy swatching!

12:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Superwash yarns must be machine dried in order to retain their shape.

4:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello! I am so happy that I read your blog regularly, because I am going to start a sweater in Dream in Color any day now! I have the peach color, and I LOVE IT! Peach seems to be my favorite color this spring.
My question is, I have found a sweater pattern for this yarn. The gauge for this pattern is 19 St to 4 inch in stockinette. What should I shoot for on my gauge swatch if I want the gauge to be more like 18-19 sts? Any info you could share would be greatly appreciated. My email is judy.jasper at comcast.net. Thanks so much!

5:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pls let me know how your Dream in Colour Classy swatch turns out after laundering. I have nearly finished Ilga Leja's Lady of the Forest Wrap, and it is knit in garter stitch on 6.5mm needles.

Thanks much.

8:07 PM  
OpenID myboringblog said...

The cool fire looks great! I guess it's good that I'm not making my sweater for a while so I can wash my swatch multiple times....

8:26 PM  
Blogger Laritza said...

I had the same terrible experience with Super Wash Merino by Berroco. A house cozy is probably an accurate description!

9:53 PM  
Blogger Emily said...

Not all superwash grows. And plenty of regular wool yarns will grow when washed. I simply don't trust any yarn til I've washed the gauge swatch, and even then I'm prepared for the swatch to lie.

Unmercerized cotton swatches seem to be better behaved. Instead of growing, they shrink. And the finished sweater will grow some vertically, but a good wash will fix it.

11:44 PM  
Blogger Barbara-Kay said...

Thanks for the public service announcement. I have two sweaters-worth of superwash waiting in the stash.

As Mom's generation would say, "Who'd a thunk it?!"

7:28 AM  
Blogger Deepa said...

Wow, that was interesting to find out. I knit my baby a Tulips cardi using the DIC Classy and never washed it. It's a little tight for her now, so I guess I should wash the sweater and it might fit her through spring, huh? Glad I stopped by your blog!

8:55 AM  
Blogger Susanne said...

See, you learned that lesson six years ago, and it took me much longer. I had to learn the hard way too, since I knitted a cardigan for myself, found it much too small, frogged and re-knitted it, and then washed it for blocking. It is too big, and had I just sewn the too small one together everything would have been fine.

So now I'm knitting another swaeter for myself, again superwash, and it's way too small now. I only hope the completed sweater will behave like the swatch did and turn out just right.

The drama!

9:11 AM  
Blogger Gardenista said...

I tend to use only superwash wool and usually love it. I just knit two items with Dream in Color Classy and experienced more dramatic growth than I have ever seen before. This is something unique to this yarn in particular.

12:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Silly me. I didn't read your blog until AFTER knitting a beautiful fairisle (with celtic swirls I adapted for the yolk, painstakingly). I used superwash, knowing nothing about it, and it is way too big for me now. Is there no way to make it smaller, to shink it? (Without taking the whole thing apart and knitting it over.)

2:30 PM  

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