My knitting bookshelf has grown over the past several years. I am developing a wonderful selection of knitting resources now, including how-to books, pattern books, stitch dictionaries, and books on designing. I often see knitters asking for book recommendations in the Ravelry forums so I thought I would start sharing my top picks here. I hope this helps you grow your knitting library!
My first recommendation is The Knitter’s Book of Yarn by Clara Parkes and published by Potter Craft. Clara is the founder of the online site, KnittersReview.com. This was my first introduction to the online world of knitting. Before Ravelry, this was the site I spent all my time on. Clara has several wonderful books out now and a line of yarn. This book was published in 2007 and I have had my copy for several years. It is one that I often revisit and it is always close at hand.
The Knitter’s Book of Yarn explains what yarn is, the different fibres that are available, how yarn is produced, the different plies and types of yarn, and how to look after yarn/garments. A nice selection of knitting patterns is also included.
Knitting always begins with yarn. It is the basis of the whole thing. Having a good understanding of yarn and making the right yarn choice for a knitting project really helps to make the project a success. If you think about all of the knitting projects that didn’t turn out, most of them were probably due to the yarn choice, right? The author of The Knitter’s Book of Yarn gives a few examples: the scarf that is too rough and scratchy to wear against the skin, the socks that grow in the wash, and the cardigan that ‘droops and sways.’ I think we all have these projects sitting around, or left unfinished. I know I do. As a designer, it is critical that I make the right yarn choices for my designs. A design has to work and look it’s best.
Clara begins the discussion by explaining the different fibres available. For me, this is the most informative part of the book. The discussion of various fibres taught me a lot.
Protein fibres come from animals, or the silkworm in the case of silk. These fibres are covered in tiny scales. The finer and more numerous the scales, the softer the fibre. Fibres with larger and fewer scales are generally rougher but reflect more light making them very luminous. Silk, however, is the one animal fibre that does not have scales.
- Sheep’s wool is the most common protein fibre. There are many, many types of wool from the many different breeds of sheep. Wool traps air, making it a great insulator. As well, it absorbs up to 30% of its weight in moisture, keeping the skin it is worn against, dry. Most commercial wools are made from a blend of wool fibres. A common non-blend wool that I love to knit with is merino. Clara talks about the factors to consider when choosing a wool yarn. They are fineness, length, and crimp. Merino is a fine fibre meaning that it feels soft against the skin. It is also a short fibre which also gives softness. The drawback of a short fibre is that it easily pills from abrasion. In terms of crimp, merino consists of tiny wavelets while Bluefaced Leicester, as an example, has ringlet like curls which makes a denser, stronger yarn. This explains why my Malabrigo Merino Worsted accessories are so soft and warm, but they tend to pill a little over time and my SweetGeorgia BFL Sock makes a warm, long-wearing sock.
- Other animal fibres include mohair, cashmere, alpaca, angora, and many others. Clara explains them all. I love many of these fibres in blends, especially cashmere (who doesn’t love cashmere?) and alpaca. My recent Fashion Forward Cowl pattern was designed in Cascade Eco Cloud, a nice merino and baby alpaca blend.
- Silk is extruded from the silkworm after it feeds on plant leaves. Clara explains how the fibre is processed and what the various types of silk are. Pure silk yarn is slippery to work with and it lacks elasticity. Silk blends can be a wonderful combination of qualities. One of my most popular patterns, Heavenly Cowl, is designed in SweetGeorgia Cashsilk Lace, a gorgeous silk and cashmere blend. My Heavenly Stole pattern is designed in SweetGeorgia Merino Silk Lace, a merino and silk blend. Notice the beautiful sheen of the silk blends below.
- Cellulose fibres include cotton, linen, and hemp. Cotton is made from the cellulose found in the seed pod of the cotton plant while the others are made from the stalk of those plants. Cellulose fibres do the opposite of protein fibres. They pull heat away from the body rather than holding it close. That is why wool is worn in winter and cotton and linen in summer. Cellulose fibres don’t have the elasticity that animal fibres have while knitting. They do stretch with wear, however, but don’t easily bounce back.
- Cotton is the most commonly used cellulose fibre in knitting. It has a rich history. Once picked, the fibres are processed and eventually spun into yarn. There are different varieties of cotton depending on where it is grown. Cotton is strong and durable, stronger than wool, and it absorbs more than 20 times its weight in moisture and releases it quickly. When working with cotton remember that it is not very elastic, the knitted fabric might not bounce back after being stretched, and some cotton yarns can be quite dense and heavy. However, its’ durability, ability to hold moisture, and its’ washability make it great for knitted dishcloths!
- Rayon is the most well-known cellulosic fibre. It evolved from attempts to re-create silk without silkworms. Cellulosic fibres are derived from renewable resources – trees and plants. Most rayon today comes from wood pulp treated with chemicals. Soy, bamboo, and seaweed fibres have also been made. Handmaiden Fine Yarn, a Canadian company, has several SeaCell blends: Sea Silk, Sea Lace, and Great Big Sea.
- After Rayon was created, scientists continued to experiment with manmade fibres. Popular synthetic fibres include acrylic, nylon, and polyester. They are created through a chemical process and they can be made to resemble any natural fibre. They are soft, strong, inexpensive, and easy to wash and care for. They do not have the scales that animal fibres have so they are not as breathable and they do not absorb moisture. Novelty yarns also fall into this category.
I’ve spent a lot of time here on the first section of the book and there is a reason for that. It is extremely important to understand the foundation of yarn to be able to make good yarn choices. This section is the most valuable, in my opinion.
Clara goes on to explain the details of yarn making. The fibres discussed above are processed, spun, dyed, and skeined before being sold to customers. Customers can purchase the yarns of the big, well-known yarn companies, the smaller hand-dyed yarn companies, or the really small dyers selling on Etsy, as an example. All of these sellers are obtaining their fibre from a limited number of mills who are obtaining the fibre from a limited number of sources. What makes the yarn from different companies different? The dyer’s eye for colour, the kinds of dyes used, the way the colour is transferred to the yarn, the quality of the fibre, the composition of blends, and even whether the yarn is delivered to the customer in a ball or a hank. Customer service is also a large factor when choosing to buy yarn from specific companies.
Next, there is an explanation of how fibres are twisted into yarn. What is a single ply yarn? What does three-ply mean? This is the section where Clara adds in the knitting patterns. As she discusses single-ply, two-ply, three-ply, and four-ply and higher yarns, she provides patterns for each. She does an exceptional job of explaining each yarn choice for each pattern. Wonderful information. This is another really important section of this book.
My favourites patterns? The beautiful Optic Waves Shawl pattern by Sheila January uses a 2-ply DK weight yarn. The Girly Tee by Lana Hames requires a 6-ply DK weight yarn. The Scaruffle by Bess Haile uses a brushed mohair/silk blend with wonderful texture and drape. Along with the different plies of yarn, sections are included on textured, cabled, brushed, and chenille yarns, as well as felting.
Not to be missed is the technical section at the back. Clara gives good advice on washing and caring for handknits. She also explains wraps per inch, provides a chart of standard weight measurements, and provides a list of abbreviations. A list of resources and recommended reading are also included.
I appreciate how the book is organized and I love the wealth of information it contains about yarn. It has surely helped me to make better yarn choices not just for personal knitting but most importantly, for designing. I go back to this book again and again and learn more every time. You can be certain that when you come across a truly beautiful project on Ravelry that the perfect combination of yarn choice and pattern is the secret behind it’s success!