Read an Excerpt
knitting green with plant fibers
Unusual plant-based yarns, or what I call alt fibers, are an interesting and addictive addition to the knitter’s arsenal. Why “alt” fibers? It’s short for “alternative” and a play on the terminology used in early online Usenet newsgroup names. In many ways, these newsgroups were the predecessors to today’s wide array of topic-specific blogs and websites, so if you enjoy reading knitblogs today, you have Usenet to thank!
Taking the reference a little bit further, while a knitting newsgroup might feature moderators who expect some decorum from online residents, the alt.knitting newsgroup would tend to be more “wild West” in its approach, lacking a fixed set of rules or guidelines. By extension, this book and its contents also want to break--or at least bend--all the rules when it comes to using extraordinary plant fibers in knitting and crochet.
Cotton is usually the first and only plant fiber knitters try, but there are so many new fibers to play with that trying cotton alone is like going to an all-you-can-eat buffet and only eating carrot sticks from the salad table. Let’s take a look at a sampling of the fibers you’ll encounter in this book.
Soy is transformed into a sensuously soft yarn that is virtually indistinguishable from its silkworm-generated counterpart and improves upon real silk in ease of care. But soy isn’t the only plant used for both food and fiber--so is corn! Wood pulp is reborn as cellulose-based lyocell (brand name Tencel), a durable and soft fiber frequently incorporated into higher-end fabrics. Pineapple fiber yarn resembles linen: while it’s hard wearing, after many washes, it becomes as soft as silk yet retains its durability. Ramie, kenaf, flax, hemp--even yarn made from nettles!--it’s a fiber wonderland out there.
An added advantage is that many of these fibers are more environmentally friendly than cotton. Growing cotton has its downside--a constant need for water that has created unfortunate environmental consequences around the world. In Kazakhstan, the Aral Sea has lost more than six miles of surface area along with its lively fishing industry to large-scale industrial farms that diverted the rivers feeding the sea to irrigate endless cotton fields. Today, most cotton is grown in China and the former Soviet Union. By contrast, soy and corn are two of the largest American crops, and North American manufacturers are experimenting with bamboo and other fast-growing fiber crops that don’t require nearly as many agricultural inputs, such as chemical fertilizers and irrigation. Because I believe in making the choice to use fibers from eco-friendly sources wherever possible, the cotton used in this book is all organically grown.
Plant fiber yarns are also allergy friendly. Even if you’re not allergic to wool or other animal fibers, chances are you know someone who is or perhaps you know someone with multiple chemical sensitivities. This book features several sections about natural dyes and naturally colored fibers that may inspire you to use them for these hard-to-knit-for friends.
There’s a small learning curve with alt fibers, but once you’ve mastered a few basics, you’ll be on your way to knitting projects that are allergy friendly, impressive, and socially responsible.
my history with alt fibers . . . or a seed is planted
I first encountered alt fibers a number of years ago when Jonelle Raffino, the founder of South West Trading Company, produced a booklet for spinners complete with fiber samples. I ordered some soy fiber from her online and quite literally fell in love with it. At the time, the only alt fiber yarns I could find locally were linen and some terribly scratchy hemp that seemed better suited for tying up packages than for knitting.
Jonelle’s soy fiber (trade name SoySilk) was a revelation--it was not only softer than the other plant yarns I’d tried, but it was also shiny and beautiful. I’d struggled to find something cool I could knit for my best friend, Pamela, a vegan, using fibers she would appreciate and enjoy. The eventual project, a soy ÒpurlsÓ hat that looked more like the gleaming oyster-born kind than anything grown in the ground, was unlike anything I’d ever knitted before. Fortunately, I’d recently learned to spin, so I could make my own yarn from Jonelle’s fiber without worrying about what was commercially available as yarn. Over time, I hunted down more fibers and yarns--bamboo, organic cotton, linen that didn’t cut your hand like twine--and my alt fibers class was born.
This class, which I’ve taught everywhere from yarn shops to arboretums, drove me to research other fibers that fit the out-of-the-ordinary-plants-used-for-knitting description. Other knitters were taking notice, too. Long before the mainstream knitting magazines featured soy and bamboo as anything other than an oddity, Amy R. Singer, the founder of Knitty.com and author of No Sheep for You: Knit Happy with Cotton, Silk, Linen, Hemp, Bamboo and Other Delights (Interweave Press, 2007) published an article by Julie Theaker called “Plant Freak” in a 2004 issue of Knitty. Amy herself is highly allergic to animal fibers of all kinds (I’ve seen what happens when she accidentally picks up a skein of alpaca!), so it seemed only natural that her magazine would feature plant fiber yarns alongside the more common wool and wool blends from its very inception. I’m certain that Knitty fans and other online knitters helped spread these fibers’ popularity through their willingness to experiment and try new yarns.
As more and more alt fiber yarns came on the market, the question I was most frequently asked was, “What can you do with them?” My short and sarcastic answer was and is, “Just about everything.” I realized, however, that these yarns have properties both good and bad that puzzle even the most experienced knitters. Are they warm like wool? Well, they can be if you knit them a certain way! How can I compensate for their lack of stretch? Plan carefully and use the right stitch patterns! How do I care for the finished garments? Most alt fiber yarns are machine washable and can even be dried in the dryer! In fact, some of these yarns look better the more they’re washed. Try saying that about wool! This book is in many ways a response to all the questions I’ve gotten and a chance to showcase what these yarns can do.
about this book
Not only do I want to introduce you to these fibers and inspire you to use them in your own projects, but I also want to explain where they come from, the environmental concerns, how to dye and alter them to suit your needs, and many other subjects you won’t see tackled in the typical pattern book. You’ll notice that the “Resource Guide” at the back of the book is considerably larger and more detailed than most. I want you to be able to find the materials you need now for the patterns but also the information you might want in future if you become as fond of these fibers as I am. And don’t worry: the world wool market won’t go out of business if we knit a few soy fiber hats!
If you are accustomed to knitting with wool or wool blends, adjusting your knitting style to alt fiber yarns might take a little time and experimentation. For one thing, they are not nearly as elastic as wool yarns, and depending on how the yarn is constructed, you may encounter some unexpected behavior. Alt fiber sock yarns are one example: to make up for the lack of elasticity, most plant yarns meant for socks have elastic, Lycra, or another stretchy fiber as one of their components. The inherent incompatibility of these materials with alt fibers can cause splitting as you knit. Fiber in wool sock yarns, by contrast, sticks to itself and generally tends to encase any nylon or synthetic fibers included for durability.
If you are having problems with your yarn splitting, try using a different needle or point type, whether it’s switching from bamboo to metal or from dull tips to pointy ones (or vice versa--everyone’s knitting technique is slightly different, and that’s okay). Many patterns in this book include yarn notes about the alt fiber yarns chosen for the design that will help you make good decisions in choosing the right needle, finishing methods, and other must-know details. Don’t be frustrated if you are having trouble with a yarn! Your knitting style may dictate using another type of needle or knitting method for that particular fiber. Some Continental knitters, for example, find they pick right through a loosely spun alt fiber yarn. Try wrapping your stitches English/American style instead or tensioning the yarn differently.
Wool does have a singular advantage over alt fibers--flexibility and resilience. This is the reason most knitting teachers use wool yarn to teach new students. It is forgiving of mistakes and can be coaxed into the proper shape with the right blocking. Plant fibers are not quite so forgiving, but don’t lose hope--there are ways to tame even the most stubborn plant fibers (yes, linen, I’m looking at you)! If you’re an experienced knitter, no doubt you’ve had some projects that just would not fit or drape correctly. Let’s discuss the general properties of most plant fibers and learn more about the botanical and mechanical reasons these plants behave the way they do as yarn.
Remember your high school biology lessons about cell structure and plants? If not, here’s a refresher. Almost all plants need water to grow, and the long cells that move water around a plant are called xylem. In the case of fiber plants, removing the xylem structure and spinning it into thread yields what’s called a bast fiber. They are some of the strongest natural fibers and have been used for tens of thousands of years. Linen (indigenous to Europe) and hemp (originally cultivated in China) are the two most common bast fibers you may have encountered as a knitter. Other bast fibers include yucca and agave and sometimes ramie. (The jury is out on classifying ramie, since its fibers are shorter and come from the leaf instead of the stem. It’s an oddball.) When I teach my alt fibers class, I compare bast fiber plants to a piece of celery. The tough strings running through the center are like bast fibers, and the surrounding juicy bits are the parts of the stalk and plant that are discarded during processing.
Processing bast fibers is time-consuming and tough to do correctly. If you’ve ever wondered why linen yarn costs so much, the description of how it’s processed in the upcoming section “Linen” should explain it. However, it’s worth the time and money. Textiles made from linen are instant heirlooms, as they’re virtually impossible to damage by washing and, in fact, improve with age. Bast fibers of all kinds hold up well to constant wear and use. Keep this in mind when choosing a knitting pattern--make sure it’s something you’ll want to wear for years, not just one season. Of course, you could always pull out the yarn and re-knit it, but better to think ahead!
Cotton, by contrast, comes from the seed hairs of the plant, contained inside the fluffy ball called a boll. For centuries, it has been selectively bred to produce only the longest and strongest fibers, and to produce more of them. This selective breeding helped turn cotton into a major cash crop. Milkweed, kapok, and some other seedpod-bearing plants also produce short-stapled (see sidebar on page 9) fibers that can be spun with a little effort, although not on a commercial scale. Look for more about these side-of-the-road fibers in the “Alt Fiber Handbook” section on page 7.
Most of the plant fibers featured in this book are either of the bast type or have been created by coagulating together natural plant materials using the same methods that create synthetic fibers. Corn fibers are created from the natural sugars of the plant. This is why you should never iron them, unless you want some not-very-tasty burnt sugar on your iron! Soy fibers are made from soy proteins. Seaweed-based fibers are made up of tiny algae particles and a type of lyocell cellulose base. The exact processes used to create these yarns are proprietary, closely guarded secrets, but for the most part they resemble the process used to create microfibers such as acrylic and polyester, albeit using plant materials instead of petroleum-based ones. Extremely thin strands of the future yarn are extruded from a machine and spun together to make a knitting-weight yarn.
choosing and knitting yarn the right way
Synthetic alt fiber yarns tend to be slightly less rigid than their bast counterparts and generally softer to knit with directly from the ball. Depending on the yarn’s actual construction (is it an unplied single, a 2- or 3-ply, or cable spun?), it will behave differently as you knit it. Airy cable-spun bamboo yarn is perfect for summery tops or wraps. Dense, plied hemp yarns will create a durable, hard-wearing jacket or bag. Using an appropriate yarn for the project you have in mind is just as important as the yarn’s material. For an in-depth breakdown of how yarns are fabricated, check out The Knitter’s Book of Yarn by Clara Parkes (see the “Resource Guide” at the back of the book).
But picking the right yarn is just the beginning. Have you ever noticed how some yarns bias in one direction as you knit or look funny if you alternate knitting from the outside of the center-pull ball to the inside of the next when you switch skeins? More so than wool-based yarns, many alt fiber yarns have a definite “direction” to them. To ensure consistency, no matter how you wind or otherwise prepare your yarn for knitting, always knit from the same direction. In other words, if you wind yarn into a center-pull ball, always start from the outside--don’t alternate from ball to ball on multiple-skein projects.
And speaking of center-pull balls: many of the more unusual yarns, particularly the hand-spun or rougher varieties (such as hand-spun kenaf and hemp bark), don’t wind well with a ball winder. You may need to do these the old-fashioned way. Start by creating a loose figure-eight “butterfly” around your pointer and middle fingers, then bend it over gently and begin to coil strands around the center section to create a ball shape. Don’t wind too tightly! You don’t want to add any more tension than is necessary to form your ball.
If you are working with one of the finer-weight yarns, such as the pine ribbon seen on page 70, you can wind it with a ball winder, but don’t pull from the center as you knit (most knitters do this with wool yarns, which is okay because the fiber has enough integrity and “stickiness” to stay in its cylindrical configuration as you knit from the inside of the ball out). Instead, draw from the outside of your center-pull ball. Again, consistency is the key.
For yarns that come in small ready-to-knit skeins (like many of the yarns used in the sock patterns here, for example), you can knit directly from the skein.
blocking and finishing alt fiber yarns
If your wool sweater is an inch too wide or narrow, it’s easy to block it out after knitting. In fact, proper blocking is not only the fastest way to get your sweater to fit just the way you’d like it to, but also a way to give the knit surface you’ve been working on for weeks a clean, professional finish. Alt fibers also benefit from the right cleaning and blocking, but they react differently than wool does, and they also have a few unusual features you may never have encountered.
Many alt fiber yarns were first created for weavers more so than for knitters--Habu Textiles’ finer-weight yarns immediately come to mind. There is no inherent difference in yarns designed for knitting and weaving outside of weight, except that many yarns designed for weaving are sold with sizing coating the fiber. Sizing is a means of protecting the yarn from the stresses of weaving on the loom. It stiffens the fiber and, to a knitter’s hands, makes it feel rather crackly. You can wash the fiber before you knit it to remove the sizing, but in some cases, this isn’t recommended. For example, the Summer Pine Shawl (page 70) is much easier to crochet when you start with the yarn as is and wash it after completing the project instead of before. The finer the yarn, the easier it is to knit or crochet if you leave the sizing in.
If you find an alt fiber yarn that interests you but don’t like the way it feels in the skein, try knitting and washing a sample swatch. You may even want to wash it multiple times. Often, the swatched yarn will soften and become much more malleable to the touch. One way to think about this is to compare brand new, line-dried denim jeans (stiff, even a little scratchy) to those you’ve washed and dried in the dryer a few times. The washing and machine drying can make a world of difference. And if you make a large enough swatch, you can always use it as a washcloth later on! (Many alt fiber yarns, such as hemp and linen, make fantastic washcloths.)
Any list of companies offering alt fiber yarns--and even a list of the yarns themselves--will inevitably be incomplete by the time of this book’s publication, since the list grows every day. From a few years ago, when South West Trading Company and Habu Textiles were the only games in town, to today, dozens of new alt fiber yarns have come on the scene. Check out the recommended companies in the “Resource Guide” at the back of the book; try searching online by fiber, using a reference such as Yarndex.com; or ask your friendly local yarn-shop owner.
alt fiber handbook
Wondering where these fibers come from? Want to do a background check? Here’s everything you might want to know about the alt fibers used in this book and the slightly more unusual ones that you may want to seek out if you’re a spinner or that you might reasonably expect to see in a yarn store someday. Times are changing fast. I never thought I’d see soy yarn in the big box stores or organic cotton being sold by the nation’s oldest yarn company, but here we are. Get to know these fibery friends now so you can put them to use in the future.
Abaca, also called Manila hemp, is a banana species native to the Philippines. Like several other alt fiber yarns, it has a history of being used for rope making. Occasionally, abaca can be found in knitting-appropriate weights through Habu Textiles and other vendors. Its durability makes it perfect for bags and home decor items.
Bamboo is a fast-growing member of the grass family, widely grown commercially for landscaping, hardwood, and many other uses--such as knitting needles! There are thousands of varieties spread around the world. Like hemp, it is possible to grow a considerable amount of fiber in one season, as bamboo adds several inches a day to each stem, depending on the variety. Bamboo fabric and yarn is naturally antimicrobial, is hypoallergenic, and wicks away heat. Some sock yarn manufacturers have been adding it to wool sock yarn for that very purpose, and large chains such as Target have even begun stocking bamboo sheets, hosiery, and housewares.
Ingeo is the trade name for a synthetic biopolymer fiber made from corn. It is created using a multistep process of fermentation and separation that forms a resin that is then spun into fibers for creating cloth or yarn. Its particular molecular properties cause garments made of corn fiber to wick moisture away from the skin for extra comfort in humid, damp weather. Check out the Fern Tee (page 41) for a fashionable solution to your summer-heat woes.
Fique is from the pineapple family of plants and is grown in South America. It takes dye very well and is available in a broad range of bright colors. Fique is also known as cabuya and is often confused with agave. Fique was in widespread use among the indigenous peoples of South America before the Spanish conquest, and it spread with Dutch traders to Mauritius and beyond. Fique has been used to make everything from rope to bags, baskets, and shoes. It’s considered the national fiber of Colombia.
Hemp fiber has gotten a bad reputation: it’s itchy, ugly, and only worn by patchouli-scented earth mamas. Stop right there--hemp has come a long way. It now offers all the durability that made it synonymous with “rope” for centuries but with a softer finish and much better color choices! You can only wear so many earth tones, after all. It’s also one of the most environmentally friendly crops there is. Hemp requires little water to grow, does not deplete the soil, and has eight times the strength of cotton (great for knitting bags or anything else that might need to be durable). It dries faster than many other alt fiber yarns and is even UV resistant. Hemp bark, the outer portion of the plant, is used in the Fuji Table Set (page 99).
Kenaf is an annual hibiscus plant and member of the mallow family, which also includes cotton and okra. Kenaf is tough and fibrous, resembling a very tall okra plant, with similar leaves and blossoms. It is native to the tropics and has been used for centuries as a source of fibers for rope, burlap cloth, bags, and twine. Kenaf is extremely environmentally friendly, richer in cellulose than wood, and as an annual crop, it does not contribute to forest depletion. Given the right moisture, nutrients, and plenty of sunlight, stalks can reach heights of twelve feet or more in 180 days. In the United States, kenaf grows best in warm climates, such as that in Texas.
Dry kenaf stalks are composed of two distinct fibers: bast and core. The bast fibers make up about 35 percent of the plant weight. The core is short, balsa wood—like fibers that make up the woody core of the stalk and represent about 65 percent of the plant weight. Chopping kenaf stalks separates the bast and core fibers. It then goes through a separation process similar to that used in linen production. Core fibers can be used to create newsprint and other paper materials, making kenaf a truly multipurpose plant, like hemp.
If you love garage sales and thrift stores, chances are you’ve run across linen tablecloths that are over one hundred years old but still look better than the new cotton one you bought last week! Linen is an incredibly sturdy and stable fiber, derived from the beautiful blue-flowered flax plant, that only improves with age.
The following firsthand description of linen processing in Hungary comes courtesy of my boyfriend’s mother, who spent many winters watching her sisters use hand-spun linen to embroider traditional designs. This took place less than fifty years ago! Families in her village grew flax during the summer. After all the plants were harvested, they would be stripped of their leaves and submerged under a heavy rock in a nearby stream. Each family had its own area and kept an eye on its fibers as the retting process took place. When you hear “retting,” think “rotting,” because that’s essentially what was happening. The nonbast portions of the plant were softening, rotting, and falling away from the useful fibers. Eventually, when the excess plant material dissolved, the stack of fibers was taken out of the water.
The next step, scutching, crushes the inner, woody core of the stems by repeatedly hitting them with a stick. Two types of fibers come from this process: the preferred, longer line fibers, and tow, which is considerably shorter and not as strong. Line fibers are then drawn through a heckling comb to align and prepare them for spinning. The long individual staple length of linen fiber is what makes it so durable.
Lyocell (brand name Tencel) is produced from wood-pulp cellulose using a solvent spinning process that pushes the fibers through an extrusion mechanism to line them up for spinning, then recaptures the processing chemicals to purify and recycle them. Imagine a really, really high-tech spaghetti-manufacturing machine. This method is environmentally friendly because it lacks significant by-products but also because it turns a previously discarded product into a valuable commodity used in high-end fabrics and yarns. Modal, a type of lyocell made specifically from beech trees, is exceptionally durable and soft.
Also known as allo or alloo, this fiber comes from a particular species of the giant stinging nettle, a perennial plant that grows in shaded areas of Nepal. Traditionally, Nepali villagers first chewed the plant to separate the bark from the stalk. The allo fibers are then cooked for several hours in ash to soften them and mixed with white clay to lighten their color.
Why use organic cotton? Though the United States no longer produces the majority of the world’s cotton (China and the former Soviet Union do), more than half the pesticides sprayed in the United States each year are applied to cotton crops, and new chemicals are constantly being developed to keep up with annually mutating pests. Cotton requires a lot of water to grow, as previously explained, and the runoff from cotton fields sprayed with chemicals contaminates groundwater supplies. Organic cotton is grown without pesticides, which is much better for both the environment and you. Think about it: Your skin is your largest organ. Do you really want pesticide residue sitting on it all day?
Pineapple fiber is taken from leaf veins of the pineapple plant. It dyes well. See also fique on page 8.
Ramie is one of the oldest plant fibers in continuous use. More than two thousand years ago, before cotton was introduced, ramie was used for Chinese burial shrouds. Ramie’s fiber is found in the stalk’s bark, and the process of transforming ramie fiber into fabric is similar to manufacturing linen from flax. Ramie fiber is very fine and silklike, is naturally white in color, and has a high luster. It is resistant to bacteria and mildew, is extremely absorbent, and increases its strength when wet. Ramie dyes fairly easily, unlike some plant fibers, and can withstand high water temperatures during laundering.
SeaCell is one of the newest alt fibers on the scene and has some unique things to offer the intrepid knitter. As a synthetic cellulose fiber, its structure is not much different from that of soy, corn, or other alt fibers. But SeaCell fiber also contains trace vitamins and minerals from the seaweed used to make it. The German company that makes SeaCell--smartfiber AG--claims the seaweed extracts in the fiber promote production of molecules that heal skin inflammations. In alt fiber yarns now on the market, including Handmaiden’s Sea Silk, SeaCell has generally been blended with silk to improve its hand, although it’s lovely to spin by itself if you are a spinner.
Silk, though technically not a plant fiber per se (it’s produced from mulberry leaves by silkworms), is often blended with alt fiber yarns to give it a better hand, or knitting texture. It’s used in this book as a blended yarn, a pure yarn, and as a substitute for milkweed in the Merian Wrap (page 64).
The soybean plant is a legume native to East Asia and commonly used for both human and animal food. Soy fiber is made from materials left over during the soybean oil and tofu (soy curd) manufacturing process, which is similar to making dairy-based cheese. After the oil or milk has been extracted, further proteins are removed from the leftover beans. This liquefied protein becomes the long, continuous fibers that are then spun into yarn. As soft as “real” silk, with a shiny luster like pearls, soy is a joy to knit. SoySilk is a trademark of South West Trading Company, which introduced this fiber to the knitting world.