Sunday, April 22, 2012

Knitting with Cotton

For desert dwellers, cotton is our best friend. Maybe that is why T-shirts and jeans have long been favorite comfy clothes – at least in Texas and Arizona. Those are the only states I have dwelled-in and therefore familiar with the general attire.
T-shirts are made from a knit cotton fabric so why don’t knitters like to knit cotton? The problem is in the fiber. Cotton fiber is not elastic like wool.The individual fiber has little bends but no crimp like wool fibers. Cotton cannot be spun into a lofty, cushy, lightweight yarn (lightweight meaning light for weight despite being a thicker yarn). Cotton compacts in spinning. The thicker the yarn in cotton the heavier it is in weight. The lack of loft or airy-ness means the yarn does not fill in spaces like wool does. The stitches in cotton are more defined as are uneven tensions and knitting errors. The weight of cotton can cause garments to stretch out of shape. Although this can be resolved by fluff drying in the dryer this distresses some knitters. All reason why some knitters don’t like cotton yarn.

On the good side cotton breathes. The heat from the body escapes through the fiber keeping the wearer cool. Cotton does not felt so it can be machine washed. Cotton does not pill (at least a well-spun cotton doesn’t). The stitch definition shows off lace and cables. Cotton can drape more than wool. Knit cotton does not wrinkle like woven cotton. Cotton feels wonderful next to the skin – no itching. Mercerized cotton has a beautiful luster and gorgeous colors.

Note: Mercerized cotton is a process developed by John Mercer, a British chemist, in 1851. Using caustic lye or sulfuric acid on cotton yarn the fiber is altered creating a lustrous yarn that is stronger and less likely to shrink. So if the cotton yarn is very shiny it is mercerized. Mercerized cotton yarn is not quite as soft as the natural cotton. Everything is a trade-off, isn’t it?

Knitting With Cotton

1.Go for lighter, finer cottons. Weaving cottons are really wonderful to knit with and often less expensive.

2.You may need needle size smaller then you expect - especially if knitting stockinette or reverse stockinette.

3.Use twisted stitches to insert some elasticity in rib stitches.
4.Knit lace or cables in your garments – fun to do and they look wonderful in cotton.

5.Use knit/purl or slip stitch patterns over plain stockinette to reduce stretching if using a heavy cotton.

6.Machine wash, delicate cycle for your hand knit cotton but avoid the dryer. This increases shrinkage. Lay flat to dry. Toss into the dryer on fluff dry for few minutes when garment is almost dry. This reshapes the garment if it has stretched and helps it resume its original shape.

7.Try cotton blends. Yarn manufacturers produce these yarns with the goal of preserving the best characteristic of each fiber in the blend – cotton/wool or cotton/acrylic for elasticity but cooler than cotton or acrylic alone; cotton/silk or cotton/rayon for increase drape; cotton/linen to reduce stretch.

8.Swatch, swatch, swatch. This should be your mantra unless you like re-doing, donating or finding another body for your creations. Do a healthy swatch – 6-8 inches square minimum, in the pattern you will be knitting. Wash and pin up the swatch and weight it for a few days to see if it sags or needs a smaller needle.
9.Use patterns designed for knitting with cotton. Hopefully the designer will have designed the garment knowing what cotton will do and how wonderful it is.

10.Try yarns with different constructions such as a chained yarn or a woven tape yarn. These yarns have a great drape and may not stretch as much. (You will still need to swatch).

Now is a great time to find cotton yarns as the weather is warming up and yarn shops are stocking them. Time to go shopping.

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