Better Know a Sheep: Breeds and Yarns
What’s all the hullabaloo about knitting with different sheep breeds and other animal fibers? Is it the yarn companies trying to sell more yarn? Is it some sort of knitting secret club? Can’t I keep knitting with Merino yarn for everything?
Are you ever disappointed in your knitting after you’ve finished something and worn it for a bit? Did you assume it was because of your knitting skills? Is it saggy, pilly or even felted?
Guess what: it’s not your fault; it’s the yarn.
If you are knitting yarn made from the wool of only one particular type of sheep, you are missing out on excellent yarn. Each breed of sheep or type of fiber has particular properties that can help or hinder the type of knitting you’re doing.
Look at these gorgeous yarns from Bare Naked Wools.
clockwise from white yarn: ghillie Sport, Confection Worsted, Kent Worsted, Better Breakfast Worsted, Chebris Worsted.
They all look like fine knitting yarns, but if you look closer you’ll see that each is a little different. Some are shiny, some are hairy, some look airy and some look slick. That is exactly different types of fibers and sheep breeds frolicking in your yarn.
When knitters think of choosing yarns, the knitting properties they usually think of are softness, durability and stitch definition.
When choosing yarns based on knitting properties there are usually trade offs. Sometimes you want softness over durability, or drape over elasticity. A key component to making those properties happen is the fiber in your yarn.
Left to right: ghillie Sport, Confection Worsted, Kent Worsted , Better Breakfast Worsted, Chebris Worsted.
Here are a few words and phrases that I’ll be throwing around, and what they mean to your yarn and knitting.
- Staple length is the length of the fiber. A yarn with a shorter staple length fiber can have the tendency to pill and fuzz.
- Crimp is the amount of zig zagging wave in a fiber. Do you remember crimping irons of the 1980s, and how your hair looked after a session? A crinkle cut french fry is another illustration of crimp. Yarns with lots of crimp are springy and elastic.
- The fineness of the fiber is the diameter of a single fiber. The finer a fiber, the softer the fiber.
- Luster is the inherent shine of a fiber. Yarns made with high-luster fibers take dye beautifully and seem to glow.
All the fibers: Cheviot, Corriedale, Romney, Merino, Alpaca, and Mohair.
I swatched five different Bare Naked Wools yarns that are different breeds and combinations of fibers. Check out the differences and what each has to offer your knitting.
Cheviot: Ghillie Sport DK (100% Cheviot)
This yarn is a workhorse. It’s a medium-fine fiber with a medium staple length known for its durability; it needs to be invited to felt. It is unexpected and wonderful to find a Cheviot yarn on regular offer from a yarn company.
Cheviot has a crimp structure that is helix (like DNA), which adds to its resiliency and spring. It is not next-to-the-neck soft for most knitters. It has crisp stitch definition and makes wonderful socks and outerwear that will last for years.
Corriedale: Confection Worsted (100% Corriedale)
color: Cookies & Cream.
Corriedale is the Jan Brady of fibers, steadfast and underappreciated, ever present and overlooked. Yarns labeled “wool” are almost always part Corriedale.
The fiber is medium in fineness and in staple length, but with more crimp than a lot of other medium wools. Corriedale is soft enough for scarves and sturdy enough for dog walking mittens and outdoor sweaters.
It has good stitch definition and excellent elasticity and can be used for almost any knitting project.
In the MDK Shop
What About Blends?
Blends of fibers in yarn are where knitting gets fun. When done right, blends take the best of each fiber and minimize the not-so-great aspects for a really unique knit. Let’s take a peek at three different blended yarns.
For most knitters, Merino is the standard by which all other yarn is judged, because of its softness. Merino is the main fiber in these blended yarns.
Merino is a very fine, short-stapled, crimpy wool. The good bits about Merino are it is crazy, kitten-soft, elastic and light. It’s also prone to pilling and felting and the overall durability and strength is not great. It not only feels soft, it looks soft too; it has a matte surface and softer stitch definition. That’s why Merino is great for a shawl, but not my first choice for an Aran sweater that I want to wear for 10 years.
Romney and Merino: Kent Worsted (60% Merino/40% Romney)
Color: Beach Glass.
In the world of sheep, Romney is classified as a longwool. The staple is longer, the crimp is creeping toward wave. Longwools have natural luster, and Romney yarns have a sheen. The fiber is strong, and heavier than Merino. It has great stitch definition and drape. By itself, it makes garments that last a lifetime, but most people would need a layer between skin and sweater.
Mixed with Merino, in a 60%Merino/40% Romney blend, is a yarn where Merino softens and lightens the Romney and Romney lends stitch definition, durability, drape and sheen.
When I first touched this yarn, I said out loud, sweater. With this blend, you can feel softness and durability simultaneously, and it never tips to scratchy.
Alpaca and Merino: Better Breakfast Worsted (65% Merino/35% dehaired alpaca)
Alpaca fiber all alone is an incredible thing. It is neck-soft, silky and warm. It has a bit of crimp and is sleek and smooth with drape. It’s strong, durable and may fuzz, but doesn’t pill.
The downside of alpaca is that it is heavy and not terribly elastic. Garments knit with 100% Alpaca tend to grow over time. It can be too warm for some knitters, too (says the 50+ woman writing this with both air conditioning and fan blowing on her).
This yarn is such a sexy blend, 65% Merino/35% dehaired alpaca. It’s the one most people gravitated toward to squish when I had my samples out and about.
Merino and alpaca are soft in very different ways. Merino is airy soft, while Alpaca is silky soft. This combo is magic: Mr. Darcy coming out of the pond in his wet shirt-magic.
Merino brings softness, elasticity and lightness to this yarn, and alpaca brings drape, shine and stitch definition.
Mohair and Merino: Chebris Worsted (60% Merino/40% Mohair)
Mohair fiber comes from an Angora goat. The fiber is wavy without crimp, lustrous, strong and fuzzy. Mohair can vary in softness (depending on the age of the goat), from fireplace rug to the kid in KidSilk Haze. The fiber is heavy, not elastic, and so durable and strong that some call it “nature’s nylon.”
The blend of 60% Merino/40% mohair is another perfect pairing. The mohair in this yarn is definitely young mohair: not the sacred softness of kid mohair, but close. Just the combo of the shine of mohair and the lightness of Merino is enough to send me over the edge, but there is more. This is one of the few yarns I’ve knit with that is both soft enough to wear right against my neck and strong enough to make lasting socks. The Merino gives airy softness and elasticity, and the mohair brings liquid drape, all the shine, and Rock of Gibraltar strength.
See: different fibers and breeds in yarns aren’t some yarn company conspiracy or secret club. Knowing about the fibers you are knitting with can make you a better knitter, and using them is another knitting adventure that will make you happier with your knitting.
The next time you’re choosing yarn for a project consider exploring yarns spun from new-to-you wools and fibers. There is huge world beyond 100% Merino and 100% “wool.”
Get out there and try it!