Friday, 5 August 2016

Knitting with Linen Yarn

"Look at this linen thread I bought at Wonderwool. Still perfectly good to use, even though it was probably spun in the sixties.  That's natural flax beside it. " Elinor paid me no attention.  "People have been spinning fibre from flax plants for thousands and thousands of years. Long before you sheep had woolly fleeces."  
I was keen to give my companion the benefit of my textile archeology knowledge.  "Three thousand years ago in Cambridge, there 
were Bronze Age villagers who wove linen cloth so fine it had 26 threads to the centimetre."  
At last, she turned to look at me.
"Oh, you watched that telly programme too, did you?"
Curses, I thought she'd missed seeing it. Damn BBC iPlayer.
"Yes, well, I thought I might grow my own flax next year."
"Remember your medieval nettle retting attempt, Beaut?  Or should I say, nettle rotting?"
"It was a bit smelly."
"A slimey heap of stinky stalks and not enough fibre to spin knickers for gnat." Elinor dropped the flax sample and settled her specs more firmly on her nose.  "Three and a half thousand years ago, the Mesopotamians spotted some woolly sheep among their short haired flocks. They had the sense to know when they were on to a good thing.  Do yourself a favour and benefit by that historic advance.  Wool is the way forward."


Expecting a grouchy ewe to admire my lovely new skeins of linen from Midwinter Yarns was as futile as the nettle experiment.  I found them most exciting, the plant fibres handling very differently to wool.  Though the skeins felt stiff and heavy, linen fabrics are supposed to soften with repeated washing and ought to last for years without pilling or shrinking or being eaten by moths. Of course, a sensible woman dealing with an unfamiliar yarn would have knitted samples on different sized needles, washed them and then made a considered choice about her pattern.  I just started knitting a Boo Knits Shawl called Out of Darkness.  It was advertised as 'harking back to an era of timeless elegance', so I decided using the contemporary product of a prehistoric fibre would be classically immemorial, enduring and well, spot on.
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Linen is utterly inelastic, the flax fibres being smooth and straight with none of the crimp that gives wool its body and bounce.  This may be why the knitted tension in the first garter stitch section looked so uneven -  I just pressed on, hoping it would improve after a wash and blocking out.  The yarn slips along the needles very easily, which is nice til stitches accidentally slip off the needles. With little internal friction to hold
the yarn in shape for those vital seconds while you pick the lost stitches back up, lace knitting proved an exceedingly ambitious project.  I suppose plying linen has to be loose, to keep it smooth and avoid a string-like toughness.  It does mean the yarn splits easily, which would have been less of an issue if I hadn't decided on adding beads with holes only big enough to take a 0.5mm crochet hook, which often wouldn't catch hold
of all the singles at once. Knitting and beading the smallest version of the pattern took a while and once off the needles, it looked and felt more like chainmail than lace. After a machine wash at 30 degrees, the damp fabric was transformed into soft pliability, strong enough to withstand a real beasting of blocking out with pins. Elinor caught me unpinning the shawl.
"Mmm, I see it's dried stiff again."
"On the plus side, linen is holding the lace patterning to better effect than wool."
"Yes, I can see a few bodges."
"No-one will notice when it is being worn."
"Well, I shan't be modelling it."
"No need.  My daughter has no objection to plant products.  She is much more up with the times than you. Quinoa and soy milk are meat and drink to her."  
"Ooo, very impressive.  Let's ask her to eat the ragwort in the garden, shall we?" 

14 comments:

  1. After washing, while still wet, one of my stitch sisters uses the cream rinse for her hair on items she knits with linen. Excellent results, she says.

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    1. I will try this with the next wash. Thanks very much.

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  2. That turned out beautifully and your daughter looks gorgeous wearing it. It doesn't look at all stiff. I think you've just persuaded me to try growing flax again.

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    1. How did you get on the first time? I'm not sure a Welsh summer will be hot enough to mature the plants, but am tempted to try.

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    2. The growing was the easy part. It was the processing afterwards that I made a mess of. And don't forget, some of the best linen is Irish, so I don't think you'd have a problem.

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  3. ooohh the colours of those mini hanks... have I saved enough pennies to go and buy them!

    Jaki

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    1. One of my Wonderwool extravagances. I tell myself it is ok to go wild, because it's the only fibre fest I get to, but that isn't quite true. I just happened to buy a Blue Texel which was in the fleece competition at the Glynogwr show today. Thrilled with it.

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  4. it looks very pretty! I know that it softens with age (don't we all?:), but with lace I'd be worried that I have to pin it up and block it after every wash - until it's soft enough to be comfy? I still have some linen "cheeses" in storage because of that... maybe I should knit it up into a flat piece, wash it until it's soft enough, then unravel it and knit it into lace?:) and thanks for the link....

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    1. I really like it - already worn it out for an evening and it isn't rigid, drapes rather well. Resigned to pinning and blocking when I have to wash it, but mostly, I think it will just get an airing.

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  5. I think it turned out beautifully. I grew a 3m sq area of flax the flowers were such a lovely blue. I cut it, put into bundles to dew rett it and checked it a couple of days later to find it full of snails and slime. I'm afraid it went to compost then. Next time I'll rett in a tin bath.

    Susan (Pembs).

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    1. I had my nettles in a plastic bath - lots of slime, minimal fibre.

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  6. I'm impressed. I've grown flax too and learnt how to process it, but have never processed enough to knit more than 'a pair of knickers for a gnat' as you would say. I've been thinking of knitting or crocheting with pure linen yarn, so now it's on my list.

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    1. I started watching a youtube series on flax - the retting looks arduous and spinning it is another whole skill set - my gnats may have to stay nude. All the best with your knitting, I do like the fabric.

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