Tuesday, November 18, 2014

***I originally wrote this post for the Urban Yarns Blog on November 11, 2014. It is reproduced here with permission.

Hey everyone, today (actually there will probably be a few posts in this series) we are going to start talking about colour. Not colourwork exactly (which you may know is a favourite pastime of mine), but some basic colour theory that holds true for all your knitting, and quilting, and drawing, and painting, and crafting, and just generally experiencing the world through a critical lens.

Ok, maybe you don't want to experience the world through a critical lens, so let's just say that this discussion might help you pick out yarns in the future. Good enough? Great, let's begin.

Our perception of a colour has three main elements: Hue, Value, and Saturation. Hue is what most people think of when they refer to a colour. Often represented on a colour wheel, most people know the primary colours* (red, blue, yellow), and secondary colours (green, purple, orange).

Hue is what we obsess over when we ogle Madelinetosh or Sweet Georgia. We will talk more about hue later, and its importance in yarn selection.

(Yes, I know that there are eight colours on that wheel, not the six I mentioned)

Saturation is related to the perceived intensity of a colour. You can add (imagine actually mixing paints on a palette) white to a colour to make a lighter tint, or grey to a colour to make a muddier tone, or black to a colour to make a darker shade.

But today I want to focus on Value. Value refers to how light or dark colours are in relation to each other (or rather, to a grayscale that ranges from pure black to pure white). Value is really critical to colourwork, as yarns with a similar value are harder to tell apart than yarns with very different values - regardless of their hue! In fact I would go so far as to say that value is the number of determiner of effective colourwork (bear in mind, I could choose some dreadful combination of hues, but still have an effective design).

(A monochromatic grayscale, from white to black)

Put bluntly, if you are working on a colourwork design (hey, ask one of our amazing staff nicely, and they will help you pick a great pattern...) that is worked in two colours, you want them to be of substantially different values. If you are working with three colours, you probably want them to be substantially different in terms of value. But as you add more colours, it does get trickier - er, this is also a discussion for later.

So, how do you apply this theory of colour value to your yarn selection? The technical term is "value testing", which really just means using method to assess whether or not your chosen colours are too close in value. Again, I hear you cry, 'how?'

Well the tried and true method is to squint. Simply put your yarns down on the table (ideally in good, natural lighting), and mush them up nice and close to each other, and squint. If, the more you squint, the more similar the value of the yarns seem to be be, then they probably are similar in value. If you can still easily distinguish between the yarns, you are likely on the right track.

If you don't feel like squinting in the yarn store, we thankfully have technology at our disposal. With a camera or smartphone, take a photo of the yarns in question, and convert it to black and white. Really, it's that simple. This conversion will make abundantly clear just how close in value your yarns are. To illustrate, here are two simple projects I knit.

The first has a high value contrast between the red and yellow yarns, as you can see in both the colour and black and white versions.

The second photo... not so much.

In the black and white version it is almost impossible to tell the two yarns apart.   Which is more effective?

As a parting thought, I've applied the same treatment to the Rowan Pure Wool Worsted shadecard, and it's pretty interesting to see exactly what the range of values is (one of our hands down favourite yarns for its knitting properties and the fact that it comes in 56 colours...)

Anyway, I hope you've found this as interesting as I have, and would love to know what technique tips and tricks you would like to learn more about in the future! Drop us a line and let me know...

*Fun side note, the history and debate about the language of colour is a fascinating study. If you are linguistically inclined, I highly recommend reading into the universalist/relativist debate.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Plies and things

***I originally wrote this post for the Urban Yarns Blog on September 14, 2014. It is reproduced here with permission.

Today we’re going to chat a bit about yarn construction, specifically the significance and meaning of different types of plied yarn. First off, I want to put to rest a common misunderstanding: the number of plies in a particular yarn has no inherent bearing on its gauge. That is to say, you can have a single-ply laceweight yarn, a single-ply bulky yarn, a 6-ply fingering weight yarn, an unplied worsted weight yarn, etc…

 The concept of plies corresponding to gauge was at one point something of an industry standard, but modern manufacturers have since moved away from this. Historically, there was a standard-ish base, unplied weight for a single strand of yarn, so that (for example) a 4-ply yarn (made from four individual strands spun together) would be roughly the same from mill to mill to mill. This can be still be seen in some manufacturers labelling yarns as 4-ply (which corresponds to fingering or sock weight) or 6-ply (comparable to sportweight), but that is about as far as it goes.

So! For modern yarns, plies are independent of gauge. This really isn’t a big deal, as pretty much every manufacturer lists the gauge straight on the yarn label. For todays discussion I grabbed a few yarns out of stash to take a look at. We have some single-ply, 2-ply, 3-ply, 4-ply, and…. other. Yeah, some yarns are a bit more special – we’ll talk about them later.

The single-ply yarns we have here are Schoppel Wolle Zauberball (lace weight) and Noro Kureyon (worsted weight). You can see that they are both constructed of a single strand of yarn, which is composed of many individual wool fibres that run parallel to each other. Both of these yarns have a light to moderate twist and are relatively soft in the hand, but you can see that the red Kureyon is much hairier and less densely spun than the smoother, tighter Zauberball.

The two-ply yarns I chose are Harrisville Designs Highland (Aran weight), Koigu KPPPM (fingering weight), and Rowan Kidsilk Haze (fingering/laceweight). These three yarns are composed of two plies of yarn spun around and around each other. The Highland and the KPPPM are both 100% wool and have a relatively smooth surface compared to the Kidsilk Haze which is mohair and silk, and in which each ply is composed of a silk core, with the mohair spun more loosely into and around it, giving the unique “haze”. You can also see that the KPPPM has a very tight twist compared to the more relaxed Highland and Kidsilk – I’ll talk more about that later.


Next up, the three-ply yarns are a mystery acrylic yarn from deep in my stash, and Habu A-21 Silk Stainless Steel. This really shows the possible range of gauges available from the same number of plies. It’s a bit tough to see, but the Habu has two plies of silk, and one of an ultra-fine stainless steel all spun together.

Four-ply yarns! We have Cascade 220 (worsted weight) and Madelinteosh Merino DK (DK weight). These are actually quite similar, but a distinguishing factor is the tightness of the spin – you can see that the plies of the Madelinetosh spiral around each other much more tightly than the Cascade. You might also be able to tell that the Madelinetosh looks smoother – it is a superwash yarn and has been treated to smooth the surface of the individual yarn fibres to prevent felting.

Finally, we have some unique constructions. First up is a mystery novelty yarn. It seems to have five or six plies, all made of a different fibre. Next is Habu Merino 4P. The Habu is really interesting, as it is four plies of merino (and each ‘ply ‘ is actually a 2-ply strand unto itself!), which are not spun together, but are wrapped with a very fine two-ply silk thread. So this is technically a 10-strand yarn that is a light fingering weight!

There are several other unique constructions, and if there is enough interest, I might take a closer look at some of them for you! So, what does all this mean, other than numbers are kind of meaningless? Well, as a general rule, the greater the number of plies, the more durable the yarn. This means plied yarns will pill less than unplied yarns, and generally wear better. So socks or other high-wear items are best worked in a plied yarn. Similarly, the tighter the twist in a yarn, the more durable the fabric will be.

The flipside is that a looser plied (or unplied) yarn fabric is often a bit softer in feel (and in wear). Now, I haven’t tested this, but it also stands to reason that a loosely, or unplied yarn will felt easier than a tight, high-ply yarn. A more tightly plied yarn will also produce a fabric with different drape and gauge than an unplied yarn, and a really tightly plied yarn might start to twist and loop back on itself while you work with it. Also, smooth plied yarns tend to have better stitch definitely than unplied hairy yarns – so choose wisely when working something with a lot of detail…

These are all simply factors to consider. There is no perfect yarn, only yarns that are more or less suitable to a specific project. This information is best absorbed through experimentation, so it’s great if you can learn to identify different types of yarn construction, and play with using them in different ways in your work. Now, I know this is a lot of information to take in, which is why we would love to help you pick out the best yarn for your next project!