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.
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.