Linen is one of the strongest fibers for knitting. It does not break down like wool does over time and as a result, lasts for centuries. It is cool, breathable, wicks away excess moisture, dries faster than cotton and is perfect for warm-weather sweaters, tops and dresses. It has a slight sheen and drape that makes garments elegant and creates a fabric that improves with age. It softens each time you wear and wash it. Linen yarns made of long-staple flax do not pill. If you have sensitive skin, the smoothness of the yarn and moisture absorbing qualities make this an excellent fiber to wear against the skin. A garment knitted in linen will not wrinkle the way a woven linen garment will. It is not susceptible to insect damage when stored.
Knowing the qualities of linen will help you make good project choices. But how does all this translate into knitting with linen? You will need to knit a little differently, so read on! Learning a few tips about knitting with linen will make the knitting process so much more enjoyable.
First of all, about that strong fiber that I mentioned in the first sentence; the flip side to this is that it can feel rough when you’re knitting it. Yes, it will get softer with each wash, but you have to knit it first. So if you want to soften it up a bit before you ever cast on, take the labels off the hank but leave it tied. Soak it in a sink of tepid water, add some fabric softener. For a natural fabric softener, use one part baking soda with two parts white vinegar in a sink of water. Let it soak. Press out extra water in a towel, and hang it up to dry. Then wind it and start knitting.
The wound cake of yarn will be messy so it is best if it stays put. When you pull yarn from a wound cake, let it unravel from the outside. If the ball doesn’t move around the house, and stays in place, you can almost wind 95% of the yarn out, leaving a mesh structure with just a few wraps of yarn left. It will sit there like a sculpture, if not tasseled about. So it’s probably not the best project for traveling or moving around from room to room. Once the yarn cake does collapse, the yarn can tangle easily and be difficult to form back into a ball. If you like to pull from the center, here’s another example of how knitting with linen will push you out of your comfort zone. Unwrap it from the outside and be mindful that the less movement the better.
Part of the strength comes from linen’s lack of elasticity. It feels like a waxed, smooth jute. It is not going to cling to the knitting needles the way wool does. If you try and knit with it like you normally would, your hands will get a real work out. When you knit a stitch, it may stand up and not hug the needles at all. In order to see the knit stitches wrap around the needle and lie uniform, you’ll be tempted to knit tightly. And this takes a toll on your hands and arms. My best advice whenever you start tightening up, is to stop. Think “KNIT LOOSELY”.
You want to knit with a loose tension. Let let the yarn flow and don’t worry about snugging up the stitches after forming them. You’ll want to go down two or three needle sizes than you normally would use for another yarn in the same weight. By using a much smaller needle, you are able to achieve the gauge by knitting loosely. The process of knitting will be more enjoyable.
Of course, practice on your swatch and change the needle size to one that allows you to get gauge. But if you’re not getting gauge on the smaller needle, before you go up to a larger needle, try knitting a little looser and see if that helps. The looser the better – your hands will thank you for it later! Our tension changes all of the time. We tend to knit tighter when stressed, anxious, short on time, upset, or during a cliffhanger of a movie. Some people knit tighter at night, some tighter in the morning. You may tend to knit tighter or looser, but know that your tension does indeed change. So you can purposely change it. Focus on knitting looser. And if a pattern has increases or decreases, by keeping it loose you’ll also be able to work those more easily.
Just relax your hands, relax your tension and don’t worry about forming perfectly uniform stitches. Some stitches will be larger than others. Linen isn’t perfectly formed and most linen yarns are thick and thin in places. A finished garment in Stockinette will not look like a uniform piece of Stockinette done in wool. It will have a more rustic look but it is supposed to.
While we’re talking about the look of the stitches, you might also want to use wooden needles. I use metal needles 90% of the time, except when I knit in linen. And bamboo works best for me with linen. The wood isn’t as slick as metal and helps keep the stitches a little more uniform, so the needles are doing the work instead of me. Everyone is different. We knit differently, hold our needles differently and tension our yarn differently. Just know that by changing things up with linen, you may find better, more pleasing results.
Remember that beautiful drape I mentioned? Linen will grow lengthwise slightly over time. A blocked Stockinette swatch usually does not change much from an unblocked swatch, measurement-wise (it will be softer and stitches will start to even up a bit), but wash after wash, you’ll find lengths may get a little bit longer. This is a plus when you’re knitting a summer top or tee, as it just becomes more comfortable with time. When I designed the Heartwood Cardigan [click here to see pattern details on Ravelry], I designed notches in the cuffs and hem to accommodate any lengthening and still allow for a pleasant fit.
While you can toss your linen garment into the washer and dryer, it will be difficult to have lace look as nice. While a pure Stockinette or textured garment can be laundered this way, if you have lace you’ll want to wet block it and use pins to stretch and open up the lace to really show it off. If you have wet blocked your garment, you may find that it is stiff when you remove the pins. Just crunch it up in your hands and voila! It will feel great. You can also put it in the dryer on air fluff for a minute to shake out any stiffness.
When weaving in yarn ends, weave in a bit more of yarn tail than you normally would. If you normally weave in 1” over duplicate stitch or 2” into a seam, add ½” or so, just to keep it snug. Remember it's not going to cling to other strands so make sure you're weaving in a long enough tail to stay put.
Linen is fabulous! It’s strong, gets softer with each wash, lasts forever, and is an enjoyable break from tight knitting if you tend to be a tight knitter. A garment knit in linen will last, stay in better condition for longer, and become softer in time. These will be your true heirloom pieces to be passed down to the next generation. If you haven't knit with linen, or it's been awhile, try it! You may just fall in love with linen. Knitting and wearing!
Hiatt, June Hemmons. The Principles of Knitting. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1988.
Editors of Vogue Knitting. Vogue Knitting: The Ultimate Knitting Book. New York, NY: SOHO Publishing, LLC/Sixth & Spring Books, 2018.
Paden, Shirley. Knitwear Design Workshop. Loveland, CO: Interweave Press, 2009.
Heartwood Cardigan, published in Interweave Knits Spring 2020 magazine, was knitted with Fibra Natura FLAX, by Universal Yarns in shade # 12, Tarragon.
Photo: Woolfolk FAR
As knitters, we are familiar with 2-ply and 4-ply yarns, but have you ever picked up a ball of yarn that is super light and on closer examination, discovered that the yarn itself looks like a knitted chain? Discovering chainette yarns is exciting and opens up new possibilities for your knitting. But what exactly is a chainette yarn?
Chainette (from the French word for Chain) yarns are made up of narrow plies that are machine knit into a strand that resembles mesh You will be knitting with something that has already been "knitted". They have a chained construction that provides a hollow, airy core. Since you’re using less fiber to create the same yardage, this allows the cost per yard to decrease which is why many luxury fibers like cashmere are spun into chainette. If you want luxury at an affordable price, search for chainette.
The hollow core traps air between the fibers and creates a lofty, lightweight garment. They are good for heavily cabled garments to show off cables without the weight, especially since chainette yarns offer excellent stitch definition. If you've ever knitted an Aran sweater, you know how much yarn goes into one of these garments. It's not unusual to see a medium sized adult garment with close to 2000 yards of yarn, which is needed to create all of the intricate cables and deep texture. Chainette yarns give you the yardage you need with less weight so you'll have a comfortable finished garment that feels lighter, with less stress on the shoulder seams, and less weight pulling on the neckline.
Chainette yarns are also great for heavy fibers like alpaca, yak, llama, cotton who benefit by becoming lighter. If a fiber has a tendency to hang with gravity or grow lengthwise as you wear it, and it is spun into a chainette construction, it will be less prone to that drop and the downward pull will be controlled. This is great for cardigans with buttons, since it's common for buttons that are evenly spaced on an alpaca cardigan (for example) while lying flat, to look "off" when you wear it. There will be more space between the buttons at the top than between the buttons at the bottom, since the yarn at the top is stretching down more in an attempt to hold the weight of the garment. The yarn towards the bottom of the garment is only holding a couple of inches and can retain it's fluffy shape.
Since chainette yarns are stretchy (like i-cord) they help rigid cotton and plant based yarns become more elastic. This opens up more stitch possibilities for cotton yarns and allows you to create cables or lace with greater ease since the yarn will have some give to it when being stretched with a cable needle or when making decreases. This added stretch is also helpful when you're working with ribbing or for garments with negative ease. You want a fabric that will spring back and retain it's shape.
Savvy knitters know that the softer the yarn, the less durable the finished product will be. If you want a garment to last, you need to knit with a yarn with more substance. But because the fibers have already been “knit” into a tube which keeps them in place, chainette yarns prevent pilling of super soft yarns that normally have a tendency to pill like cashmere and merino, so you're able to knit soft garments that will last. This is especially important when investing money in expensive, luxurious cashmere.
If you want the softness of cashmere without indulging, you're able to achieve a similar effect with merino. Soft yarns like merino will take on an ultra soft feel, making it feel more like cashmere than wool, with a nice drape thanks to the airy core.
Heavy yarns become lighter, inelastic yarns become more elastic, soft yarns gain strength; everything you knew about fibers and yarn is turned upside down with chainette constructed yarns. But this opens up more projects to you, as a knitter, and allows you to do more with a wider variety of yarns. When knitting with chainette, think about these qualities and make sure your knitting takes them into consideration. For example, because it is stretchier, side seams will help give your garment structure and keep it in shape. Patterns that have turtlenecks or cowl necks with the fiber next to your neck, are perfect for chainette yarns.
Once you understand chainette properties, you're better able to pair this yarn with the right project. Davos Pullover, designed for chainette yarns, takes advantage of the super soft chainette merino by incorporating a fluffy cowl neck which snuggles next to your skin to keep you cozy and cuddly. It has a fit that can be worn against the skin and feels as soft as fleece. Seams give it stability and keep it at its original length. Davos is knitted in luxurious Woolfolk Far, which goes a long way thanks to the chainette construction. Davos uses only 1130 yards for a size 36". Davos Pullover can be found here.
"Melange, Jaspe, Ombre." Schachenmayr.com 2019, <https://schachenmayr.com/en/news-events/whats-new/melange-jaspe-ombre>
"Chainette Yarn at WEBS." WEBS.com blog. 2019., <https://www.yarn.com/categories/chainette-yarn>
Babin, Meghan. "Chainette + Wool Studio = Luxury." Jan 20, 2017. <https://www.interweave.com/article/knitting/chainette-wool-studio-luxury/>
When you're substituting yarns for a pattern, knitters know that if that pattern calls for a worsted weight yarn, that substituting another worsted weight yarn is the thing to do. But all worsted weight yarns are not the same. Some yarns like cotton are inherently heavier than yarn made of angora. But even within the vast area of Worsted Weight Wool, you'll find balls of yarn that will weigh differently.
Why does weight matter?
When you finish your garment, you will either end up with a fairly lightweight sweater or an extremely heavy one. If you're doing a lot of cables which takes more yarn, a sweater knit with a heavy fiber will be even heavier. This affects your shoulder seams, the neckline drop, the sleeve length, and the overall comfort. If you're knitting with lace, a heavy yarn will really widen the openwork and leave you holes bigger than you wanted. Brioche uses almost twice as much yarn as stockinette, so you'll definitely want to minimize the total weight.
In these cases, you'll want to select a yarn that weighs less. This is a yarn that gives you more yards per gram in each ball/hank/skein.
On the other hand, if you're working with a "puffy" stitch pattern that you want to lie flat, a heavier yarn will help pull the garment down and stretch out that pattern to a pleasing texture. If you're working with elongated stitches that only look cool when actually elongated, you don't want a yarn so light that the dropped yarn overs puff out and glob together. You want them stretched out to give the full effect.
In these cases, you'll want to select a yarn that weighs more. This is a yarn that gives you less yards per gram in each ball/hank/skein.
Also think about the size. You can use a heavier yarn with a Woman's XS than you can with a Men's size 5X.
When substituting yarn for a pattern, first figure the weight per yard of the yarn listed in the pattern. Divide the total grams by the total yardage on the ball band to find out how many grams one yard of yarn weighs. This is easier to do in grams than ounces since with ounces you'll end up with a slew of fractions to contend with.
Below is a comparison of WORSTED WEIGHT YARNS, ranked from lightest to heaviest:
As you expect, the cotton blends are the heaviest. But look at the difference in wool! There's a big difference in Brooklyn Tweed Shelter at 0.36 grams per yard compared to Sugar Bush Bold at 0.53 grams per yard. A sweater that uses 1300 yards of yarn will weigh 468 grams with Shelter and 689 grams with Bold. That is a substantial difference that you will notice as soon as you pick up the garment.
Sometimes you want it light, sometimes you want it heavy. But knowing that the weight will have an effect on the finished garment, is an important tidbit to tuck away in your brain.
Before you make your next substitution, think about what you're creating and how you want it to behave. Then grab your phone to do a quick calculation to figure out how much one yard of yarn weighs before purchasing your yarn. When you invest time and money into a hand knitted garment, you want it to turn out the best that it can be. This quick little trick helps to do just that!
Ages ago, I walked into my local yarn shop and said I was done with superwash yarns. Sweater after sweater ended up so much larger than the pattern called for and had super long sleeves that were unwearable. Yes, I had swatched, and I had knitted the pattern exactly as written, but ended up with an expensive, time wasted mess.
With more and more amazing superwash yarns popping up, the desire to knit with them is becoming irresistible. When wool yarn is treated to become "superwash" it is stripped of it's natural elasticity properties. It won't spring back into shape after being soaked in water. It grows in size. And this can ruin a carefully hand knit garment.
But there is a way around this. You can knit with a superwash yarn and have your sweater turn out as expected. You just need a bit of planning and math. (just a little).
I always list in the notes section of my patterns that are worked in superwash yarns, to measure lengths vertically with the weight of the garment hanging from the needles. But there is just so much explanation that you can write into a pattern before it becomes tedious to read, especially for knitters who are already know this.So I'm taking a few moments to elaborate here, and arming you with the knowledge and steps to take to be able to knit a garment that fits with superwash yarns.
1. Knit a swatch. As a wise knitter told me once, "We all knit swatches after all! We either knit 4x4" swatches or 18x20" swatches." With superwash yarns, this is a must!
2. Measure the UNBLOCKED swatch. Write down your stitch and row gauge over at least 4".
3. Block it. Soak it in water, roll it in a towel, lay it flat, pin it and let it dry.
4. Unpin it and fluff it out. Lay it back down and with a ruler, measure the dry, blocked swatch and again write down your stitch and row gauge over 4".
5. Your stitch gauge, after blocking, must equal the stitch gauge of the pattern. Some patterns list both the pre and post blocking gauges, and if they don't, it is standard practice that patterns will list the gauge after blocking. If your stitch gauge doesn't match, try a different needle size, make a new swatch, and measure it before and after blocking.
6. Once you have a blocked swatch that matches the pattern's stitch gauge, use this swatch and figure the percentage that your swatch lengthened. Compare your pre-blocked row gauge to the post-blocked row gauge. If the pre-blocked row gauge is 32 rows=4" (8 rows=1") and after blocking it's 28 rows=4" (7 rows=1"), 8 div by 7=1.14. The length increased by 14%. You can also measure the new swatch. If the old one was 4" and the new one is 4.57" 4.57/4=1.14.
If the swatch is 10% larger, then it increased 110% of the original size. This equates to (110/100) or 1.1. This is the number you'll need.
10% = 1.1
15% = 1.15
20% = 1.2
22% = 1.22 etc.
(If blocked is 10% larger, you can't just reverse it all and say the pre-blocked swatch is 90% smaller. It's close, but not accurate.)
7. Back to row gauge! If your blocked swatch was 10% larger, you'll divide by 1.1 remember. Use this knowledge when knitting lengths. When a sweater says to"work until piece measures 18" and divide for armholes", you'll want to lift your needles up and measure the length with the weight of the piece hanging from your needles. Place the tape measure just under the needle so you're measuring the last row of stitches worked that are lined up under the ones that are on the needle. Let the tape measure hang until it reaches the bottom. You'll stop knitting when you've reached the length called for in the pattern, in this case 18" divided by 1.1 which equals 16.36". That is a big difference, especially if you're working sleeves.
Since you've done the pre/post block experiment, you know that, in this scenario, a piece of knitted fabric measuring 16.36" unblocked, will grow 10% after blocking and become 18". The percentage changes with every project. Yarn, needle size, tension, and stitch pattern all affect the percentage of growth. So you'll want to do this every time you're knitting with superwash yarns.
If you're unsure of your math, or just nervous about proceeding, you can always stop 3-4" short of the length that the pattern states to knit to, take a tapestry needle threaded with yarn and run it through all the stitches, remove your needles and soak the unfinished piece. Block it and measure it after it's dry. This will help you to figure out how much more you need to knit before proceeding. Once it's dry just re-feed your needle into the stitches, remove the waste yarn and continue on. You can always start knitting the sleeves or front while it's drying, because we need to keep knitting right?
There are many reasons why you might end up knitting with a superwash yarn, and I hope this helps you to knit garments with confidence. You've mastered the hardest part - knitting stitches into a lovely fabric. By tweaking your process just a tad, you'll end up with a garment that fits. And expand your repertoire of yarns in the process.
If you have any questions, please ask here. (It's not a live a chat, the link will direct you to an email, just so you know.)
Hello! I'm Donna. I knit every day and enjoy designing knitwear that is artistic, intricate and comfortable. I specialize in women's sweaters with a contemporary silhouette.