How to Audition a Yarn
Summer is a great time to consider the yarns in your stash that you are not sure what to do with. You might have bought yarns for projects that you no longer want to knit, yarns that you fell in love with in person and bought, yarns that you read about and bought without touching.
Time passes, and you don’t do much besides squeeze these yarns and sigh because in order to find a use for them, you would have to hunt for the perfect project match. Or swatch. Wait, did you hear that needle scratch?
When I have a yarn that I’m excited about but unsure what to make out of it, I do some of my favorite knitting work.
I don’t swatch; I audition the yarn.
I can sing the whole of A Chorus Line. It was the score to audition with when I was in high school. The first song in the show is “I Hope I Get It.” In the scene, there is an audition in which the performers are doing their utmost to shine in a sea of other performers, to be noticed, to be perfect with whatever the director calls out.
I want yarn to show me what it’s got. I don’t have to take what the label is giving me. Sure swatching is part of it, but there is so much more.
I get to be the director sitting in the empty theater shouting out changes: lace, now garter, now a slipped stitch, yessss.
My yarn for today’s audition is Plied, a collaboration between Neighborhood Fiber Company and Ann Weaver. I’m intrigued by the yarn and the colors. I bought four skeins, and some wee bobbins. Then I bought a sweater’s worth—without ever having swatched. It’s how I get about yarns that excite me.
Now the yarn gets to show me what it can do. Can it cable? How does it YO? I want to see how the yarn looks and feels with different types of pattern stitches and gauges.
I look for what I like, what I think looks good generally, and what feels good.
No matter what anyone tells you, knitting is about what you like, or it’s just no fun.
Once I know how the yarn performs, I can hunt a pattern as a better-informed knitter based on the stitches and gauge I like.
How I Audition a Yarn
I find out all I can about it.
I want to know the fiber, the spin, the ply and the grist. Most of this information is on the yarn label, but sometimes I will go to the company’s website to dig deeper.
Here’s the low-down on Plied:
- Fiber: 100% wool. When a breed is not specified, it’s usually a variety of medium breeds like Corriedale.
- Spin: Woolen, lofty and fuzzy. This yarn is spun at Harrisville in New Hampshire.
- Ply: 2-ply with a loose-ish twist
- Grist: 250 yards/50 gm (1.8 oz) = 138.8 yards per ounce. A sweater for me (XL) is about 7 skeins, which is 12.6 ounces.
First I knit stockinette. I do what I need to do to get the stitch gauge suggested on the label—if it’s a range, I go for the middle number first. Then I work a few more stockinette swatches looser and tighter. I go up or down two needles sizes at a time; I can get real change that way, from a half a stitch to a full stitch an inch.
Plied was a great gauge shifter. The label suggests 5 stitches to the inch. I took this yarn to up to 6 stitches to the inch, and down to 4.5. I would even use this at 4.25 or maybe 4 for an open knit. Because it is spun woolen, the fabric keeps structure knit at a looser gauge.
I wet-block my completed swatches. Sometimes, if I suspect that a yarn will bloom or if I’m just feeling wary about a yarn, I will steam my swatch while I’m still knitting it.
After they dry, I examine the swatches. What do I like, don’t like? How do they look and feel at each gauge? These stockinette swatches give me ideas.
In the MDK Shop
I Keep Knitting
Now is the time to bust out your stitch dictionaries. I go through three or four, marking stitch patterns I’d like to try with my yarn. I look for lace and texture patterns, color work too, when I’m in the mood for it.
I choose two lace patterns, one very open and one with lace elements. For texture, I usually choose a stitch I use a lot, and a new one that I’m excited to try. Frequently I knit many more than a couple of stitch patterns in a yarn; sometimes I’ll spend a whole weekend trying stitch patterns.
(Kiss the weekend goodbye, the sweetness and the sorrow. Wish me luck, the same to you.)
Color. This yarn has an additional attribute to consider, color, so I kept my stitch patterns to a minimum. Plied yarns are marled—a 2-ply with a different color in each strand. A marled yarn can really affect stitch patterns depending on the contrast between the two colors. The higher the contrast the more impact it has. A red + yellow yarn is high contrast, medium blue + dark blue is low contrast.
High contrast marls move—they seem to shimmy across the fabric. Low contrast marls look semi-solid with color that undulates across the fabric.
I knit each of my swatches with one low-contrast marl, Lady Day, and a variety of higher contrast marls. For my stockinette swatches, I kept to the suggested gauge of 5 stitches to the inch, and I like how it looks in both colors. I like to give a 2-ply yarn a little room to wiggle around. I think the 6 stitch to the inch swatch makes the yarn look constrained.
Lace. I call almost anything with a yarn over lace, and that presents a big range of openness. I always try one more open stitch and one with just a touch of openness. I get to see different looks and different amounts of drape that way. For these lace swatches, I used the needle that gave a gauge of 4.5 stitches to the inch in stockinette. I wanted a little looser gauge to help with drape and with opening those holes.
This yarn in the open lace is feather light; a shawl would weigh almost nothing. To my eye the orange/yellow yarn takes away from the stitch pattern, but I do like the brightness.
The less open lace pattern is the winner for me, because I like how both of the lower contrast marl looks in stockinette stitch as well as lace.
Texture. Texture knitting is my favorite type of knitting—anything that interrupts the sea of stockinette. When I audition a yarn I almost always do a swatch in garter stitch. So many patterns, especially shawls, use garter these day that I feel like it’s as necessary to swatch as stockinette. Garter stitch and marled yarns are a great combination, high or low contrast. Woolen yarns with their loftiness feel extra squishy in garter stitch.
The second texture stitch I picked is a simple crossed stitch pattern. I like the simplicity of the texture and wanted to see if the stitch held up to a marled yarn.
I’m actually surprised how well it does. You may have an opposite opinion, but I think the lighter and more contrasted marl works with the pattern better than the darker low contrast marl.
It’s really up to you. Sometimes I keep going trying different stitches, and needle sizes. To me it is very pleasurable, I feel like I’m flexing my creativity and knitting skills, and can experiment with putting different stitch patterns together. I do rip out my audition swatches, but I take photos and notes first.
You know what you like to do. Try this if it sounds fun. You’ll learn a lot about yarn, and get to practice knitting skills.
When I have had my fill of auditioning or hit the limit I’ve set, I will find a pattern that works for my yarn and me, or I will put my stitch combinations into a blank-slate type of pattern for accessories or even portions of a plain sweater.
Who Got It?
For this audition, I’ve found the combination of yarn, stitch and even sweater pattern. Cloudesly by Isabell Kraemer uses the crossed stitch pattern as an accent, and for my yarn, of course it will be this one.
One singular sensation, every little step she takes.
One thrilling combination, every stitch that she makes.
One swatch and suddenly nobody else will do.