Yarns to Love
Yarn Detective: Big Wool
I have been a Rowan fan for as long as I’ve been knitting. I have a copy of issue number 1 of Rowan Magazine. The shop where I learned to knit a sweater that fit had an entire wall of Rowan yarns, and it was love at first sight. I have Rowan yarns in my stash that are older than my kids or my marriage.
Big Wool was the first super bulky yarn that the knitting world went nuts for. It was giant and soft, and didn’t pill as quickly as other bulky yarns of the day. (Single-ply, merino bulkies, I’m looking at you.)
Big Wool is a special yarn, a magical yarn as far as bulky yarns go. I think whoever designed this yarn is a genius and could teach other yarn folks a thing or two about making a soft, light, bulky yarn. It’s next-to-the-skin soft, and surprising light and durable for a super bulky yarn.
Let’s swatch it up, and take a closer look at Big Wool.
In the MDK Shop
On the Rowan website, Big Wool’s description says merino, but the label says 100% wool, which usually is code for wool pool. If it is merino, it is a longer stapled merino, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a little something else in the mix.
It is buttery soft, but doesn’t insta-pill like most bulky merino yarns.
Big Wool is drafted worsted, but with none of that workhorse, sock-level twisting. The draft smoothes and compresses the yarn, but with a very light twist.
The worsted drafting helps to make it durable, and the light twist keeps it airy.
Big Wool is a 3-ply with regular ply twist, not under-plied like many bulky yarns. This makes it have stitch definition, really helps with durability, and gives the yarn and fabric a little bit of heft—the good kind.
Here’s where trade-offs happen in making yarn. You want a fat, light, soft yarn? It’s not going to be as durable as finer, more tightly twisted, tougher yarns.
Here are the things Rowan did to give this marvelous yarn a little more durability:
Fiber. Merino, all the soft. Either it’s not the super-duper finest merino, or there’s a little something extra, a tiny bit of another breed, in the mix.
Draft. Less twist in the draft makes Big Wool airy and light, but it’s drafted worsted to smooth and compress it a little. Smoother yarns don’t have as much surface fuzz just hanging out, waiting to pill.
Ply. The ply is where many yarn makers try to make their yarn lighter and softer, by using a light twist and keeping the number of plies down. Rowan went a different route with lighter twist in the singles. That allows them to have three plies, and to use a regular amount of ply twist, the type found in most sweater yarns. These two things really help protect the individual strand of yarn from the assault of day-to-day use.
Like all butter-soft yarns, Big Wool is not immune to pilling. But its construction means it pills less than other skin-soft yarns.
Let’s Go to the Swatches
The extra ply gives great stitch definition to an airy yarn, even when it is knitted at a looser gauge. The fabric is so smooth and squooshy, you’ll be petting yourself all day.
Lace wants to show off her decreases with this yarn, but I kind of dig it. That third ply makes the yarn round, pushing stitches together, rather than rolling out like a 2-ply yarn. It’s just a different beast of lace. The size of the yarn already makes lace toothy, and the added stitch definition makes it pretty fierce. I get the most questions from knitters and non-knitters alike when I wear Big Wool lace—”what is that?”
Jen Geigley knew exactly what to do with Big Wool in MDK Field Guide No. 12: texture stitches. This yarn is so happy as texture. It yields big fat stitches that look cast, and pop all over the place. Lightly spun 3-ply makes a giant statement without weighing 5 pounds. Texture stitches in Big Wool cause other people to pet you (with consent, of course).
I’m sneaking this one in here—I am the Fairy Gristmother, after all.
Big Wool gets about 25 yards to the ounce. Knitted up in Big Wool, my size of the Main Squeeze Cardigan takes 1,044 yards, and weighs 2.6 lbs.
A yarn some may substitute for Big Wool is Malabrigo Rasta, which is 17 yards per ounce. In Rasta, my Main Squeeze Cardigan would weigh 3.8lbs.
Why is Big Wool so much lighter? Rasta is a single-ply yarn, which by its construction is heavier than a multiple-ply yarn. A single-ply yarn doesn’t have that little bit of air in between the plies to lighten the yarn. Rasta is also slightly felted in the finish, for stability and durability. Felting constricts the fibers in the yarn, making the yarn denser and heavier. Know before you sub!
A Hot Tip for Big Wool
I have a tip for weaving in the rope-like ends of Big Wool: simply un-ply the yarn and weave each ply in separately.
If you weave in the yarn as is (pink arrow), it’s snaky and bulge-y on the on the back. If you un-ply the yarn and weave in each ply individually (blue arrows), they pretty much disappear, especially because Big Wool is so loosely spun.
I’m happy to do a little extra weaving to have ends that disappear into my fabric, rather than having a giant 3-ply sand worm on the private side of my knitting.