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Sock yarn success!

So, my hunt for 100% natural fibre sock yarn for my Sock Wizard Workshop was successful! As I said in my previous post, I found a number of yarns that looked good and met my criteria of

  • wool and other natural fibres like silk or mohair
  • no plastics (nylon or polyamide)
  • no superwash
  • affordability
  • minimal air miles.

My shortlist for this workshop was

All the yarns on my shortlist were 100 per cent natural wool, had good reviews on Ravelry and were suitable for socks. It was a hard decision but Bio Shetland and Isager Highland Wool from Lankakauppa TitiTyy in Finland won the day. It came down to a close finish with Blacker Yarns British Classic 4ply, but in the end the yarn from Titityy was slightly cheaper and the postage was €15 instead of £23, and it was coming via a courier instead of Royal Mail. So I knew I would get my yarn within days and not weeks. Titityy’s customer service was excellent, friendly emails were exchanged, they shipped my order the next day (Friday) and it arrived safely on Monday. I’m looking forward to buying more yarn from them, especially their Tukuwool Sock which looks luscious.

I’m keen to try other non-plastic options for socks too, so Blacker Yarns’ Mohair Blend is still on my list. I’m thinking of adding a natural sock wool page to this website – would that be a useful resource? Let me know what you think and any suggestions!

 

searching for sock yarn…

Well, to be more precise, searching for non-plastic sock yarn. Which is much more difficult than you might think. Most commercial sock yarn either has nylon added to it or is made from superwash yarn, and now I know what that means I don’t want to use them anymore. Which is a real shame because sock yarns come in great colours and cool self-striping and other patterns.

There has been an unquestioned assertion in the handknitted sock world that socks ‘need’ to have nylon to make them stronger and more resilient, less likely to wear and pill. Similarly, it’s assumed that the yarn must be superwash, so they can be thrown in the washing machine for ‘easy care’. But for the reasons I outlined in my previous post on why I choose to use wool and other natural fibres, I don’t want to knit or wear plastic and I’m happy to handwash. So, what’s wrong with superwash? After all it’s still wool, yes? Well yes, but. And the ‘but’ is what they do to the wool, so it can be put through a washing machine without felting, shrinking, stretching or otherwise being destroyed. The wool is processed by being exposed to chlorine as a gas or bath to remove the scales that give wool the slightly fluffy halo of fibres. Then it’s coated in plastic resin.  Some of the sources I consulted gave this as a two-step process (treated with chlorine then plastic-coated, others stated that superwash processing can be done with the chemical or the added plastic resin. Either way there are a lot of chemicals being used and a lot of toxic waste going into the waterways. While the end product yarn isn’t toxic to use or wear, the superwash process is incredibly bad for the environment and for the people who are doing the processing. In my book that’s worse than synthetic yarn because you have ruined a perfectly good natural yarn. You can read more about superwash yarns here, here and here.

As I’m teaching a Sock Wizard Workshop for The Bird House Panicale next month and we are absolutely committed to eco-friendly textiles, I can’t compromise my principles and give my students yarn I’m not happy to use myself.

In the meantime, I have been scouring the internet looking for the right yarn, using the following criteria:

  • wool and other natural fibres like silk or mohair
  • no plastics (nylon or polyamide)
  • no superwash
  • affordability (there are some gorgeous yarns out there but €30 a skein is a bit much for beginners)
  • minimal air miles (so far I haven’t found Italian sock yarn but I’ll keep looking and asking).

I’ve discovered that mohair or silk make a perfectly acceptable alternative to nylon. Some knitters say that using a strong, long-fibre wool like Blue Faced Leicester is adequate and can be used alone or blend with merino. Merino by itself is soft but doesn’t wear well.

So here’s the short list and I’ll come back and let you know which yarn or yarns I choose!

I would love to know what you think about nylon and superwash in sock yarns, or if you’ve tried the non-plastic alternatives and what you recommend.

I choose to use wool

My students won’t be surprised to read this. They know I always choose to knit with wool. Or linen, hemp, mohair, cashmere, or nettle fibre. What I will not use in my knitting, or my clothes for that matter, is acrylic, polyamide or any other form of synthetic yarn. I made this decision years ago mainly because synthetic fibes and fabrics don’t breathe and become hot and smell bad very quickly, which means they feel uncomfortable and they have to be washed more often. I also found that knitting with acrylic yarn felt horrible and made my hands hurt, probably because there isn’t any ‘give’ in the yarn.

Over the last few years we have become much more aware of the impact of plastics on the environment and how synthetics shed microplastics into the water system, ending up in the oceans, inside fish and reappearing in our food. When you add the fact that synthetic yarns are made from oil, contributing to our fossil fuel problem, there’s a very compelling case to avoid them.

But there is also a positive case for choosing wool.

  • Wool is a natural, biodegradable fibre
  • Wool keeps you warm in cold weather, and cool in hot weather
  • Wool breathes and wicks away moisture
  • Wool is easy to wash and doesn’t need washing as often as synthetic garments.

There are arguments that we shouldn’t be exploiting sheep for their wool. I think this is false reasoning: sheep have been bred by humans for thousands of years for their fleece. They need to be shorn regularly, or the wool becomes heavy, water-logged and a breeding ground for parasites and flies. It is cruel not to shear them. Many farmers care a great deal about their animals and are dedicated to keeping them as healthy as possible, using careful organic methods of sheep-raising.

I choose to support farmers who are trying to preserve rare breeds, producers who are trying to develop alternatives to the ubiquitous plastic. We need to support them and choose to buy their products. This has been brought home to me recently as I have been trying to find a sock yarn without nylon. And believe me this is not easy. It has become accepted that sock yarns need to have a percentage of nylon in them to make the socks more hardwearing. But there are alternatives to nylon, including silk and mohair. And of course there are sheep breeds with tougher wool that can be incorporated into sock yarn to make it more durable. Or if, like me, you don’t mind darning, you can factor that in when you knit socks and just use any 4ply or fingering weight yarn. If you want to know more about nylon-free sock yarn I recommend this excellent article on nylon-free sock yarn by Clare Devine of KnitShareLove. 

Whatever you decide to do, please make an informed choice. Do your research and work out what’s important for you. Just bear in mind that farmers and suppliers need to be encouraged to provide cruelty-free, 100% wool or natural fibre yarns. They need to know there is a demand and a market.

I’ll list some of my favourite places to buy real natural fibre yarns and some suggestions for nylon-free sock yarn. Please send me your favourite natural yarn shops too and I’ll make a downloadable list. And let me know what you think of the whole wool, natural fibre versus acrylic issue.

Places to buy wool and other natural fibre yarns

Loop London

Blacker Yarns

Great British Yarns

Maridiana Alpaca Farm

Nylon-free sock yarn

Blacker Yarns

Madelinetosh Sock

Daughter of a Shepherd

 

 

2019 winter/spring workshops

Happy New Year and welcome to 2019! My usual resolution is to learn a new skill, and for me this year it’s drawing. I like playing around with pencils and ink and charcoal but it’s not something I’m confident about. So a more methodical approach to drawing is top of my 2019 list! If learning something new is on your list too, sign up for a Counterweave workshop. Click on the images to find out more or email me at [email protected] if you have any questions.

2 February                   Knitting for Beginners (Rome) – if you’re new to knitting or just starting to find your way.

16 & 23 February       Sock Wizard Workshop for The Bird House Panicale  (Rome) – make your own cosy wool socks.

9 & 16 March               Meditating the Spindle (Rome) – learning to make your own bespoke yarn

 

Small group workshops or private lessons.

Sock Wizard Workshop

This year as well as my usual textile and knitting classes, I’m teaching for a new eco-textile business The Bird House, Panicale, in Rome and Umbria.

Classes kick off with a 2-day Sock Wizard Workshop on 16 & 23 February in Rome.

Nothing feels as snug and luxurious as a hand knitted sock and as an added bonus, sock knitting looks a lot more difficult than it really is. Impress your friends by learning to wield yarn and knit with four double pointed needles to make your own soft, cosy socks.

Using the top down method you will learn to make a pair of basic socks with a simple ribbed cuff and easy wedge toe.

Participants will need to know how to knit, purl, decrease, increase, cast on and cast off. Knowing how to knit in the round is an advantage, but not necessary.

Please note: This workshop is run over two Saturday afternoons, 16th and 23rd February 2019, commencing at 13.30 and finishing 16.30 on each day. Price is €95.00 for the complete workshop including materials.

Click on the photo to find out more and book your place!

 

How do you use your handspun yarn?

My students are sometimes sceptical that you can use a spindle to spin enough yarn to make anything bigger than a coaster! But remember, before industrialisation all yarn and thread was spun by hand, and before spinning wheels were introduced to Europe in the early middle ages, all that spinning was done on a spindle.  Linen, hemp, cotton, nettles, silk and wool were spun by hand then woven into fabric to make everything from swaddling for babies, all household linens, garments, uniforms and shrouds. The thread for every ship’s sail from the Greeks and Phoenicians through the Romans, Vikings and the Normans was spun by hand using a spindle. For centuries societies were dependent on the skill and labour of women for their survival and expansion. Spinning wasn’t a hobby or something picked up at odd moments; it was something that women had to do constantly, and arguably was as crucial to survival as hunting and farming. And in many countries spindles are still used as part of everyday life, usually by women and children as they go about their daily tasks.

From that perspective spinning yarn to make a pullover or a shawl doesn’t seem so impossible. But you might wonder when we have the choice of buying readymade garments or yarn, why bother making your own? For me, I like being able to make my own yarn in the fibres and colours of my choice – I choose to make my own bespoke yarn.  Spinning is also a very satisfying craft, you’re magically turning fibre into yarn with a minimum of equipment. Most museums have a collection of spindles that are thousands of years old and yet still perfectly useable, like these beautiful spindle whorls in the British Museum.

My fingers always itch when I see spindle whorls like these trapped behind glass! I want to take them out and use them. All you need is a smooth stick, a spindle whorl and some fibre and you can make yarn. Making is also incredibly soothing and good for the soul: spinning can be very relaxing, almost meditative. Spinning links me back to generations of women who spun yarn and thread as a matter of course, because their families depended on their skill to keep them clad, warm and alive.

Keeping warm was very much behind my decision to make myself a pair of mittens after spending a weekend in beautiful Umbria and finding that my hands needed more than fingerless gloves in the icy winds of Perugia. I found a lovely pattern by knitting guru Kate Atherley and went online to check out my yarn options (I say online because there are few yarn shops in Italy which stock 100% natural fibre yarns – a topic for another blog post!). Then I realised I had exactly those colours in my fibre stash and I could easily spin some yarn for my mittens. And because the recommended yarn was an Icelandic lopi I could spin singles and make my fibre go a whole lot further. A single is just what it says on the tin – a single spun yarn, not two or more yarns spun together to make a plied yarn. Singles are lofty and warm, and can be lightly felted so your mittens are extra cosy against the winter winds.

Anther question students ask is how much yardage a spindle holds. To which the answer is, it depends. If you’re spinning a laceweight yarn for a shawl or fingering for socks, you will spin a much finer yarn and get much more yardage than if you’re spinning a worsted or aran weight yarn. Plied yarn takes more fibre than spinning a single.  It’s always a good idea to spin a sample, just as you would knit a swatch before knitting a garment, or make a toile before sewing a dress.

Here are the two lots of fibres I’m using to make my yarn. Both are from Hilltop Cloud, an online business supplying gorgeous quality fibres and tools, run by spinner and dyer Katie Weston in Wales (I also buy my workshop spindles and fibre from Katie). The blue is 50% merino, 25% Shetland and 25% bamboo, in shade Airforce Blue, and the fiery orange is 62.5% merino, 25% mulberry silk and 12.5% baby alpaca in shade Hawaii. I’m using the blue as the main colour and the orange as the contrast – the sheen given by the silk in the orange fibre makes a perfect highlight against the soft fuzz of the wool.

This photo shows the difference that finishing makes to handspun yarn. The blue yarn has been gently handwashed in warm water with a little wool wash added and allowed to sit for about 15 minutes so the twist in the spun yarn relaxes and the yarn blooms. You can see the unfinished orange yarn is still full of unrelaxed energy and is coiled against itself. If I tried to knit the unfinished yarn the twist would make the knitted fabric warp and bias, which is not what you want in a mitten!

 

 

Echoes of Land and Sea

Our open studio and exhibition for Rome Art Week was a great success! Echoes of Land and Sea showcased the work of textile artists Felicity Griffin Clark and Olga Teksheva, and was curated by Velia Littera.

 

work by Olga Teksheva

We had many visitors for the opening night and during the week. They were fascinated by the use of textiles as a potent medium to create modern, expressive art and by the capacity of textiles to achieve such a range of effects.

work by Felicity Griffin Clark

As well as admiring the artworks, people were fascinated by the collaborative installation where the artists displayed their sketchbooks, experiments and inspirations from nature. As an added piece of excitement, both Felicity Griffin Clark and Olga Teksheva were admitted to the Society for Embroidered Work during the course of the exhibition. The Society is a professional organisation dedicated to promoting and supporting artists who use stitch as a component of their work. This is a cause dear to our hearts and we were thrilled to become members of S.E.W.

Counterweave is planning a bigger exhibition in autumn 2019 to showcase the versatility of textile as an art form.

Rome Art Week open studio

Come and celebrate Rome Art Week at our open studio on Tuesday 23 October 5:00-9:00pm. Counterweave will be showing the work of textile artists Felicity Griffin Clark and Olga Teksheva in “Echoes of Land and Sea”.

Textile art and fiber art are two fields of contemporary art that are still little known in Italy, where embroidery, weaving, quilting and crocheting are still considered “making” and “craft”, but are rarely seen as “proper art”. This vision is quite different from what’s going on in other countries, mainly UK, US, Australia, France, Russia and Scandinavian countries.

That’s why the Open House at Counterweave Arts is a rare event of contemporary Roman art scene and is really worth visiting. This event is organized by Felicity Griffin Clark (Australian artist and writer, now living in Rome) and Olga Teksheva (textile and fiber artist born in Moscow and based in Rome), and curated by Velia Littera.

Felicity Griffin Clark has been working with textiles since 2005 and has exhibited in Australia, the UK, Italy, Germany, France, South Africa and the US. She uses a range of media and techniques to combine colours, textures and meanings in unconventional ways. She has a deep knowledge of traditional craft skills and uses them unexpectedly. Felicity likes people to be intrigued by her work: able to recognize elements (such as embroidery stitches) but surprised by the context, or by the meaning of the work.

Olga Teksheva started her artistic career in 2011 as an embroidery artist, working mainly in haute couture and contemporary embroidery, and also creating artistic textiles as wearable art. After a few fashion seasons she began to perceive wearable art projects as “restricting”, both in measurements and practical sense, and gradually passed to visual art, transforming and “deforming” traditional techniques of textile manipulation. In 2017 she created her first large fiber installation, and since then developed more projects in this direction.

Both artists share passion for innovation in traditional craft skills, experimentation, surprise, elaborating precious, intrinsic textures. Both of them are interested in conveying deep emotions such as grief, memory, trauma and stigma; but also courage, resistance, hope and joy. The colours, rhythms and textures of landscapes and seascapes evoke and reflect these emotional states and can provide a key to working through them.

For those visitors who would like to see the exhibiton from the 24th to the 27th of October, you can book an appointment by clicking on this link to Calendly.

Autumn workshops

Come and join us for our autumn workshops! Counterweave craft classes are fun and relaxing. My approach combines technical know-how with calm encouragement and stress-reducing meditation.

To book your place, just click on the the name of the workshop. If you can’t make these dates, please email me at [email protected] and we can organise a private lesson.

September

October

November

December

 

Etsy restock and other Counterweave news!

We’re back from holidays and are working on all sorts of exciting Counterweave ideas. Autumn and winter workshops will be uploaded to the website soon, and there will be all sorts of lovely handmade items going into the Counterweave Etsy shop over the next couple of weeks.

Keep an eye out for new artworks and a new line of art and craft supplies, including vintage Japanese kimono fabric packs, vintage laces and trims and handspun yarns. And don’t forget there’s free shipping on all items in the Counterweave Etsy shop.

This week’s update features:

  • three types of kami ito paper yarn or thread, handspun by Felicity Griffin Clark, using Japanese washi paper. Kami ito is very strong and is traditionally used in Japanese shifu weaving. It can also be knitted and crocheted and used in mixed media work. (Click on the photos for more details and pics!)

  • Handwoven wall hangings by Felicity Griffin Clark using handpsun Shetland wool, commercial yarn silk ribbon and found objects.