Knitting with Needles

Battle of the Yarn Brands by Priscilla King

Sometimes, Cheaper is Better
Much that has been written about yarn has been written by people I'm often tempted to call wool snobs, or even woolly bullies, because of the way they assume that no cheap, widely available craft yarn is ever the best choice for knitting. I disagree. Although I've gained the confidence and experience to knit with more expensive, natural-fiber yarns, more than half the time, I still knit things for which I think craft yarn is the best choice. And, I knit for people who are willing to wear and keep only cheap, durable craft-yarn items. However, not all craft yarns are equally desirable for every project. There are some brands I'm not going to discuss here because I tried knitting with them and don't think they had any good features (most of them have been discontinued by now). There are other brands I'm not going to discuss because I've not worked with them enough to be able to review them.

I knitted my first sweaters, slippers, mittens, caps, and full-sized blanket in "blanket yarn" from Woolworth's, which no longer exists, and K-Mart, which no longer sells yarn. I was most attracted to Caron Dazzle-Aire yarn, which I've not seen for sale in recent years. I also knitted several early pieces with Red Heart (Classic and Super Saver are basically the same yarn in different size skeins) and Caron Sayelle. That was in 1989. The slippers inevitably wore out, and before they wore out they lost their shape, causing me to reconsider whether knitted fabric isn't too soft for slippers anyway. The sweaters, mittens, caps, and blanket are still in use. A standard-fit, medium-sized sweater in mostly stock stitch takes about 24 ounces of Caron Wintuk or Sayelle.

I found that the fuzzy, brushed Dazzle-Aire yarn did eventually form "pills," after about five years of machine washing. Expensive natural fibers usually form "pills" on the first or second washing. Snipping off a few little wads of worn fiber that appear on the fabric now and then is part of owning hand-knit garments. Basically Dazzle-Aire felt like fur and wore like iron. There were and still are other brushed acrylic "blanket yarns." Red Heart Brushed yarn earned no points for creative naming but held up about as well as Dazzle-Aire. Patons Diana yarn, never cheap in the U.S., did not hold up well at all. Lion Jiffy yarn, which currently dominates the brushed acrylic market, is more durable than Diana was but hardly as durable as Dazzle-Aire. I mention Dazzle-Aire because you may still find it for sale at charity stores, and if you want to knit a blanket or something that feels like a blanket, Dazzle-Aire is still the best bargain. A standard-size adult sweater, as discussed above, may take up to 30 ounces of Dazzle-Aire.

Very little, short of fire, makes much difference to Red Heart acrylic. If you knit with this yarn, be sure you like the style and color, because you (or somebody) will be living with your work for many years. My first blanket was a patchwork piece. I knitted my way through several skeins of Red Heart while practicing all the different stitch patterns in a couple of learn-to-knit books. In the first multicolor patches, I blithely let the yarn not in use "float" over up to ten stitches at a time, as Fair Isle knitters do when working with super-light wool. Uh-oh--ten stitches in blanket yarn make a very long float, and acrylic won't mush down. So then I snipped all those floats apart and knotted the ends together. Over the years, I found that even when a knot came apart in the washer and dryer, the fabric would hold together well enough that I could undo the damage. Red Heart sweaters and caps held up equally well. One of several relatives for whom I've knitted a Red Heart jacket said that her long-line, shawl-collar jacket had lost its original shape to some extent after four or five years, but was still wearable. Others described this material as "hard to kill." One enthused that a Red Heart sweater knitted in a chunkier pattern stitch had been tossed into a snowdrift, rescued after the snow melted, then machine-laundered, but you couldn't tell that by looking at the sweater. A standard sweater may take 24 to 32 ounces of Red Heart.

After two or three years of knitting experience, I wanted to try more traditional, lighter-weight, wearable sweaters, so I experimented with LusterSheen. I charged recklessly into an Alice Starmore fairisle jacket made with eleven shades of this yarn. Aside from the fact that things knitted at seven stitches per inch take more than four times as long to finish as things knitted at four stitches per inch, the first thing I noticed was that Luster-Sheen is a different kind of acrylic. Spun to resemble cotton, it loses its shape more easily and permanently than some acrylics. It also absorbs and retains odors. I knitted parts of that fairisle jacket at Berea College. I'd knit while waiting for my ride home for the weekend in the cafeteria, and when I got home and took out my knitting, everybody would know what had been served in the cafeteria that day. Although the Luster-Sheen jacket needed a great deal of "airing," the children of the relative for whom it was knitted have preserved it as an heirloom, and the pastel colors are as pretty as ever. Creslan acrylic is denser than the others, so although the fabric will be thinner and seem lighter when draped around someone's neck, a standard sweater will probably take 20 to 25 ounces of Luster-Sheen.

Patons Canadiana was another "blanket yarn," very similar to Red Heart (the manufacturers merged in the 1990s), but spun to U.K. standard weights. Regular Canadiana, like Patons Decor, is slightly lighter than Red Heart; "chunky" Canadiana was slightly thicker. Of course, when not making fun of Northerners, Southerners enjoy visiting New England, Maine, and Canada, so I found many opportunities to knit that one Canadian-style sweater each friend needed--not only using Canadiana yarn, but even using a Canadian pattern book, which specified that the yarn should be knitted at a tighter gauge to produce a thicker, stiffer, really authentic sweater. This stiffness improves snow resistance, and also increases the visual bulk the sweater adds to the figure. The sweaters held up about as well as those made from Red Heart. A standard sweater will take 24 to 30 ounces.

Caron Simply Soft is also slightly thinner than most "blanket yarns." During the years when Simply Soft was available in every shade of the latest fashion colors I knitted several sweaters and blankets using this yarn. The comparison is a trade-off. Simply Soft made smoother, drapier, more flattering sweaters, but the sweaters would not turn snow and did not keep their shape and texture as well as those made with Red Heart. A standard woman's sweater (Simply Soft colors have always been feminine) might take only 18 ounces of Simply Soft.

In the 1990s, Lion Brand introduced a textured novelty yarn called Homespun. Solid-colored Homespun became popular later on; the original Homespun yarn featured subtle, beautiful color blends. I remember thinking that Homespun didn't qualify as a budget yarn and didn't look as if it could stand much machine washing, so for a few years I didn't even try knitting with it. I figured that those who wanted expensive fashion colors probably wanted natural fibers. Someone finally gave me a leftover half-skein of Homespun. I knitted it up fast, into a simple cap, to get it out of the way. An older male friend saw the cap, wanted it, and began wearing it in a perfectly stereotypical lonely-older-male way--shaking the snow off and wadding it up in a pocket, leaving it at the bottom of the hamper, and so on. After ten years, it looks about the same as it always has. Meanwhile, I've knitted a few jackets with Homespun and learned that its bulky-but-lightweight construction gives amazing yardage. If you watch for the regularly scheduled sales at stores like Michael's or The Hobby Lobby, you can get enough Homespun to make a medium-large jacket for about $20, so it just barely makes the grade as a budget yarn. Jackets are more likely to stretch than caps. Sweaters made with this yarn should be jacket styles, and a standard size will probably take 30 ounces.

Red Heart Sport is wonderful because, in addition to being made of the same durable high-grade acrylic as regular Red Heart, and in matching colors, it also knits up to the same gauge as two of the most popular expensive yarns that are no longer available. Red Heart Sport substitutes perfectly for Christian de Falbe's Chandos, allowing about half as many ounces of Red Heart Sport to get the same yardage. Red Heart Sport also substitutes perfectly for Brunswick Germantown, allowing about the same weight for the same yardage. If you want to wear an acrylic pullover to work, you'll want to choose a lighter weight than "blanket yarn." In some years the other manufacturers have also made pullover-weight acrylic yarns widely available, but in many years, so far as I've been able to determine, Red Heart Sport is just about the only yarn worth considering for a pullover...unless it's for a blonde woman who likes the way she looks in "baby pastels." (I've never made an adult's sweater from Jamie yarn because I've never been asked to knit for anyone who wears "baby pastels.") Standard sweaters made with this yarn usually need only 20 ounces.

Over the years, Lion Brand's very best selling yarn has been a blend called Wool-Ease. This is a blend of acrylic and a chemically processed, deep-dyed wool. As such, although people who enjoy wearing wool find Wool-Ease sweaters convenient, the fabric is NOT kind to people who think they are allergic to wool. Most of these people are actually reacting to the chemicals used in processing wool; the most natural, hairiest, shaggiest, even grubbiest wools, like Jamieson & Smith undyed Shetland or Reynolds undyed Lopi, don't bother them; Wool-Ease will. However, wool-loving knitters enjoy handling Wool-Ease, the softer colors look fabulous on those "summer" and "winter" complexions, and Wool-Ease does survive machine laundering with minimal visible damage. Yardage is excellent. If you can find it on sale, Wool-Ease also qualifies as a budget yarn. When I started using Wool-Ease, 18 ounces were ample for a standard-size sweater; the spinning and skein-winding processes have changed since then, and you may want to allow the usual 20 to 25 ounces.

Other blended and textured yarns, formerly sold only in the specialty shops, now appear next to these plain craft yarns in department stores. They may be budget-priced, they may not. They may be durable and comfortable as knitted fabric, they may not. My rule would be: if you're ready to spend your money on an experiment with an unknown yarn, why not go to a specialty shop and try knitting with a natural-colored cotton or an irresistibly cuddly alpaca, and leave the petrochemical novelties for the kids' cut-and-glue crafts. Rules are made to be broken. One of these days I plan to experiment with Red Heart Symphony, myself.

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