These special socks have got a very particular job to do - and that is, to look after big daughter's feet whilst she's away in Peru. She's got a very strict kit list and is only allowed to take 4-5 pairs of socks for the whole month that she's away. (I did wonder if the whole kit list was some kind of revenge by parents of teenagers who like to have several outfit changes a day J) You can imagine how pleased I was when she asked if some of those socks could be hand knits!
Oh - but the responsibility! What if they wear through? I can't see her darning her socks up in the Andes. What if they're not comfortable? Should I bottle out and just buy more pairs of commercial walking socks for her? What if she can't wash them properly? I took a deep breath and sat down at the computer to do a bit of research.
I thought about all the pairs of socks that I've made and all the yarns that I've used. They've all been sock yarns with a nylon content to make them hard-wearing, and I could probably have used any of them in pretty much any weight (I've been surprised by how thin manufactured walking socks are these days) but I still wasn't quite sure. I had previously read this article about sock yarns that didn't require any nylon because of the fibres used and although this may not have been the time to try out a new yarn, I wanted to know more. Cue more Googling.
By the time I'd finished, I was pretty much set on using one of the yarns from the Blacker Yarns range which I've looked at several times in the past. Blacker Yarns was started in 2008 by Sue Blacker, who owns the Natural Fibre Company spinning mill. Their speciality is spinning high quality yarns from British fleece (because of the damp UK weather, their Merino comes from the Falkland Islands but whatever your political leanings, the islands are still part of the UK), and especially from rare breeds sheep and their ethical values tick the boxes for me - supporting the farmers by paying a fair price for the fleece, supporting high standards of animal welfare, and being concerned about the environment. You can see from this picture taken from their website just how many British breeds there are!
It seemed very important to me that big daughter should take something away with her that was rooted in the place she calls home, and this yarn seemed to fit the bill. But before I bought any, I still had to make sure that I was making the right decision. Sonja at Blacker Yarns was full of knowledge and patience when I phoned to ask some questions, spending a long time talking to me about the yarns that they had which would make perfect Peru socks. I needed something that would be strong and hard-wearing but still soft enough for big daughter to want to wear them every day and, of course, I wanted to know how this was possible without nylon.
Sonja explained how the nylon is only needed if the fibre is very soft - think merino, cashmere, alpaca, silk - and that wool fibres come in different lengths which is how they are able to avoid using nylon. The longer the fibre length, the stronger the yarn becomes. Their new Tamar yarn uses Wensleydale fibre which is 2" long and produces a good strong yarn ideal for socks. I've been admiring this yarn since it was launched earlier this year, and I know that I will be making a pair of socks with it at some point - but not just yet.
Instead, this is the parcel that arrived the other day, along with some shade cards which Sonja very kindly sent me so that I could see their other yarns which would be suitable for socks - Blacker Classic (at the top) and Tamar - the colours have me wanting to start some now but I have other socks to knit first!
For big daughter's socks, I chose a different yarn. This is what was inside the parcel.
Hebridean mohair yarn containing 50% wool from Hebridean sheep and 50% mohair from angora goats. Because Blacker Yarns work with smaller suppliers, I know that the Hebridean wool comes from a flock in Wales. I know that the sheep look a bit like this ...
and that blending their chocolate brown fleece with mohair (apparently known as "nature's nylon") makes it very easy to dye. The balls that I've bought are purple, although it's not the bright Cadbury's purple that I think big daughter was expecting. This is much more subtle, like blackberries, which actually feels much more appropriate.
(This is turning into a much longer post than I expected whilst I wax lyrical about sock yarn. Do you need a break? A brew? A quick forty winks? J)
This is the yarn as I'm starting to knit it up. Although it's not as soft as some of the sock yarns I've used, it's smoother than I expected it to be, and it has a certain shine to it in the light that's very attractive. Sonja has told me that they will get softer with washing, and big daughter doesn't find them scratchy at all so I think I've chosen the perfect yarn. This picture was taken before I had to re-start the socks. Four times now, I've cast these on. Four times!! Sonja did tell me that it's thicker than normal 4ply but despite my tension swatch, I still cast on far too many stitches. (Actually, I do have to tell you that this yarn has coped brilliantly with the amount of re-knitting I've done - other woolly yarns I've used have ended up in a matted mess but this one re-knits beautifully as if it had never been undone.)
I now know that the reason why the sock is coming out bigger is that it knits up more like a sport weight or 5ply yarn. Sock yarn generally tends to be sold as 4ply or 6ply (or 8ply) and this is definitely more like a 6ply but not quite. I'm knitting on my usual 2.5mm needles and 48 stitches is fitting very nicely on my 30cm circular - there's no way that would happen with regular 4ply. It's coming on very nicely now, and of course with being thicker yarn it's knitting up pretty quickly. I'm hoping to get two pairs out of my three 50g balls.
The other reason why the sock is a bit bigger is that it's not been superwash treated, which means that the yarn has more stretch to it. Superwash yarn has been through a chemical process which makes it safe to be washed in a machine - it's something that I've been very grateful for as I don't often handwash my socks. There have been times when I've had to rescue them from the dryer as well and have been very relieved to see that they're still my size and not shrunk to something I'd have to leave out as a gift for the tooth fairy!
I'd never really given much thought to the idea of superwash at all, really, but after Sonja telling me specifically that they never superwash their yarn, I thought I'd better find out some more about it. This article explains it very well, but in a nutshell, wool fibre is very much like human hair in that it has scales along the length. This is what will make it felt in a hot wash, and the superwash treatment stops that. There are two ways of doing it - either the yarn is coated with plastic which smoothes the scales or it's blasted with chlorine gas which burns them off. Neither of them sound particularly attractive, but there's no getting away from the fact that superwash yarn is a very useful product to have around and quite probably I will use it again in the future because it fits in with modern living (and washing machines) - and the fact that superwash allows the yarn to take up brightly coloured dyes very easily and I do love rainbow socks! I guess it's always good to be able make an informed choice, though.
You can see from this picture that the fabric is quite woolly (it's a 50% woollen, 50% worsted yarn which means that it's semi-smooth - you can read more about it here) but I like that (and luckily, big daughter does too). These feel like very sturdy socks and I feel much more closely connected to the sheep and the yarn when I'm knitting them. Does that sound daft? Maybe you need to knit some too and see if you feel the same!
I'm using my basic 4ply sock pattern (although the stitch count makes it more like the 6ply boot sock pattern) but I'm continuing the heel stitch underneath the foot and along the sole to make it thicker. It's easy enough to do, and I'll show you how to do it in case you ever want to give it a go for yourself (remind me, I'll do that in another post, and perhaps with a different yarn so that it's easier to see). You don't usually put stitch markers at the side of the heel in case you're wondering what I'm doing - I'm just using those to show me where my heel is whilst I'm working the extra heel stitch as it's easy to forget!
I've got just about 4 weeks now to make these two pairs of socks, but I think I should do it. I'll be keeping you posted of course!
Finally, in case like me you're interested in how the construction of yarn and why you might choose to blend particular wools together, Sonja recommended this book as a good place to start. It arrived yesterday and I had to abandon all else to sit down and take a quick look at it.
It's a very beautiful book, I have to say, full of gorgeous pictures and packed full of information about pretty much every breed of animal you can spin yarn from (including cats and dogs - ha!). Here's the page on Hebridean sheep - it says that the fleece is ideally suited for socks, which is just perfect for me. It's naturally anti-bacterial too, which will be just perfect for big daughter if she doesn't get to wash them that often. In fact, pure wool items don't actually need washing that often - just giving them a chance to air is enough - but I guess if it gets to the point where they're walking off up the mountains without her then she might need to!
Did I mention then gorgeous pictures?
I had to put it away otherwise I'd have wanted to spend a long time looking at it and there are other jobs to be done. It's written in a very accessible way, even for someone like me who doesn't have the first clue about things like crimp and staple lengths, and has lots of sections on facts about sheep and yarn in general which are interesting to read.
So that's me sorted for a while then - Hebridean mohair socks and a book on sheep. Who said I don't know how to live the high life? J