With a predicted high of 32 degrees today, and a humidity of one million percent, it seems strange to be swatching with wool, but knitting sets its own schedule.
A couple Christmases ago, I was lucky enough to get a gift certificate from my mom for Jane Stafford Textiles, but it took me quite a while to decide what to spend it on. Jane Stafford's shop caters to weavers, but has some great yarn for knitters as well. I lingered some time over the 100% cashmere, and the beautiful colours of undyed alpaca, but in the end I went with the very traditional Harrisville Shetland. I've been curious about Harrisville, since they are the same mill that produces the Brooklyn Tweed yarns.
Harrisville Shetland comes in washed 50 gram skeins, or unwashed 228 gram cones. The cones are a bargain, at about $23 per cone for 900 yards. It's a 2-ply, which would normally put it into the fingering weight category, but it has so much texture, and is so "sticky", that it knits up very nicely on 3.75 mm (US 5) needles at a sportweight gauge. I suppose for traditional Fair Isle or Shetland colourwork, you'd go down a couple of needle sizes for a denser fabric.
I ordered Grass and Teak, and the colour depth is gorgeous. Teak in particular is a wonderful neutral, a real chestnut, and would make a beautiful fall sweater.
Now, to the issue of softness. The yarn is wool, and unwashed, quite sticky and a little prickly. So I experimented. Knitting with the unwashed yarn, right off the cone, is not bad. But I have to admit that knitting a whole sweater with it would be hard on the skin. The stickiness of the yarn means you have to really work the stitches when you pull them through, sort of like knitting with velcro. So I tried washing a sample, and then knitting it. Huge improvement: the yarn is much softer and less grabby. Also, it's easier to see what the finished knitting will look like.
I continued the experiment one more step. Can wool be softened? I'd never thought about this, beyond just washing. And as a fair weather fiber purist (meaning I uphold tradition but only when it is convenient for me personally), my knitting conscience says pure fiber should be unaltered. I turn my nose up at superwash until I discover its benefits. (It's this same purism that makes men, yes it's always men, tell you that you can't paint a bookshelf because it's made of wood.) Elizabeth Zimmermann had strong opinions, of course, on the matter. I don't have the quote in front of me, but the gist of it is that anyone who complains about the itchiness of wool is a bit of a sissy.
On the topic of softening wool, the internet is rife with advice (and much nonsense, thank you Internet) on tricks to soften yarn. Some say fabric softener. Some say the choice of detergent makes all the difference. Some say soap. Some say never soap! Some say vinegar. And many say hair conditioner.
Hmmm. Since I did some research on felting and the properties of wool a while ago, my interest was piqued. See my new post, How to soften wool.
I tried the hair conditioner trick. And.... well, maybe it made a difference? At first I thought it did, but in a blind test, I could not tell the difference between the washed and conditioned yarn and the simply washed yarn. And also, the conditioned yarn stinks like conditioner now. So... I'll leave that with you and let you decide.