Drape and elasticity are at opposite ends of a teeter-totter in the yarn world. There are reasons you want one or the other—for a shawl that hugs your shoulders or a pair of socks that stay up. You know a drapey or elastic yarn when you knit with one, but what makes a yarn languorous or snappy?
I swatched four yarns to answer this question:
Gleem Lace in Burnished, Nomade in Happy, Mohonk in Frosted Moss, and Atlas in Skyline
The answer to all yarn and fiber questions (and probably all questions in life) is: “It depends”—on what a knitter wants and needs (it is all about you, after all), and on the particular make-up of the yarns in consideration. All aspects of a yarn’s construction contribute to the elasticity or drape of a yarn, but the big three are: the fiber(s), the spin, and the ply. There’s the gauge the knitter chooses too.
Fiber: Weight and Crimp
All fibers have different weights. When we’re talking about wool, usually the finer the fiber the lighter it is. The heavier a fiber or yarn, the more tendency it has to drape.
And the more crimp in a fiber, the more elastic it is. Crimp can range from intense zig zags all the way to waves. Crimp acts just like a spring, the more crimp the more elasticity. Rambouillet is a very crimpy fiber, and Blue Faced Leicester has more of a wavy crimp.
Crimp comes in crinkle-cut french-fry style or in waves.
Blending fibers can help push a fiber toward either end of the teeter-totter. You can see how light, massively-crimped Atlas (100% Rambouillet) doesn’t really want to bend over the arms of my able assistant, but weightier, wavy Gleem (55% Blue Faced Leicester/45% silk) wants to swing and sway:
Spin: Worsted or Woolen
How a yarn is spun affects a yarn’s weight and crimp. A worsted spun yarn—where fibers are smoothed and air is squeezed out while it’s twisted into yarn—makes a heavier yarn, since the crimp doesn’t have much space to move around.
A woolen spun yarn—where fibers are spun with no smoothing and air is allowed to enter the fiber while it’s twisted into yarn—makes a lighter yarn, with the airiness allowing the crimp to spring as much as it wants.
There are of course different ways to manipulate yarns in spinning to get different effects, one of them is ply.
Ply is an easy way to move toward drape or elasticity, both in the number of plies and the amount of ply twist. Fewer plies and a lighter twist make for a drapier yarn. More plies make a yarn heavier, and more twist in the plies makes a yarn more elastic.
I found working with Gleem and Nomade a fascinating study on ply. Gleem is a 2-ply, lightly-plied yarn, and drapes the most of all of the yarns. Nomade has the basic make up for an elastic yarn, it’s Merino and worsted spun. Nomade is a 4-ply yarn, which logically adds weight and should drape a bit. But, there is a lot of ply twist in this yarn, you can see it compared to Gleem in the photo. Nomade is one of the most beautifully elastic yarns I’ve ever knit (this is my first time). When I unpinned the lace swatch after blocking, it sprang back by at least a third—an incredible sock yarn.
In the MDK Shop
You might have noticed in the photo of all of the swatches, that Mohonk, which is woolen spun seems to drape more than most of the others. It’s not your imagination. When designing this yarn Jill Draper used very little ply twist, giving it more drape than a typical woolen spun yarn.
Gauge: Another Reason to Swatch
The gauge you use (and the stitch pattern) helps any yarn relax or spring. A tighter gauge, and an elastic stitch pattern help your knitting spring back into shape, and a looser gauge, and an open stitch pattern give you more languid knitting. I knit the stockinette swatches close to each yarn’s recommended gauge. For the lace swatches I went up 2-3 needle sizes, and chose an open lace pattern, and they all are doing their best to drape.
The TL;DR for Drapiness
When you are looking for a yarn to audition, keep fiber/blend and yarn construction in mind. If you don’t want to think too deeply in the heat of a shopping moment, think like this if you’re looking for drape:
- If a yarn really springs back when you gently pull on it (like sock yarns), it is elastic and won’t drape well. (If you make a lace shawl with a beautiful but elastic yarn, you might find yourself reblocking it a lot.)
- A yarn that looks and feels fluffy also won’t drape well.
- Look for the addition of silk in a blend—it adds weight, and has no elasticity.
- A yarn that is smooth, and lightly twisted in the ply also helps to make a great draping yarn.
And then there’s Atlas
Atlas is soft, springy, and 3-ply, but it’s spun with low twist, which gives it outstanding cushiness. After knitting the lace swatch with Atlas, I’m dying to make a lace sweater with it (more on that in a future post!). I go deeper into Atlas here.