What is the best yarn to crochet or knit sweaters?

There is no “best”. It all depends on what the pattern designer wants to achieve.

Certain traditional techniques require fairly specific qualities of yarn:

  • Aran sweaters require a round woollen-spun Aran-weight pure wool yarn, ideally in the grease.
  • Icelandic sweaters (lopapeysa) require slightly hairy, unspun lopi wool from Icelandic (breed) sheep.
  • Fair Isle knits require grabby fingering weight yarn from Shetland (breed) sheep.
  • British fisher ganseys need to be tightly worked in worsted-spun sport-weight pure wool.
  • Cowichan sweaters should be worked in greasy handspun bulky-weight wool in natural colours.

and so on. You can, absolutely, knit an Aran sweater in bulky-weight cotton, but prepare to be deeply disappointed in how cold it is, and the way it expands with every wash. A Cowichan in qiviut would be toasty-warm, but outside pretty much anyone’s budget. And a Fair Isle jumper in acrylic yarn just doesn’t bear thinking about, especially if you’re going to knit it properly with steeks.

For other knit items, the appropriate yarn is the yarn that does what the designer wants. Linens and silk, and the higher-end breeds of sheep, produce a great draping effect. Alpaca and cashmere are luxuriously warm, with widely differing price points. Woollen- and worsted-spun yarns have differing uses, which can vary depending on the source fibre – worsted-spun in, say, Wensleydale, makes marvellous – and sexy – thermal underwear, but in mohair is perfect for all-weather overcoats, while woollen-spun yarns trap heat and are usually terrific for textured knits.

Of course, not everyone is going to have access to, or be able to afford the yarn recommended in the pattern. Many designers get free yarn as part of the deal when knitting for a yarn producer, and yarn producers offer such freebies as part of their marketing campaigns to get knitters to buy their yarn. Learning to substitute yarns properly is an essential skill for knitters, at least as important as learning different cast-ons and bind-offs (sturdy, firm, relaxed, decorative, etc.).

Make a policy of learning about different yarns and their qualities, what they’re best suited for, and – most importantly – what YOU like about them. If you’re a vegan or allergic to lanolin, wool isn’t your best choice; similarly, ladies of a certain age (moi) should avoid synthetic yarns, and look to linen, hemp, and lighter-weight animal fibres. And some people cannot knit with cotton without their hands cracking, chapping and bleeding (also moi).


I love wearing wool but I know sheep farming can be a terrible industry. Can anyone suggest ethical wool clothing brands?

What makes you think sheep farming is a “terrible industry”?

Have you spent any time on a sheep farm, or any kind of farm? Even a petting farm? Or are you just spouting nonsense from delusional idiots who know nothing about farming?

If you’re genuinely interested in ethical clothing, forget about “brands”. A lot of the big brands you’ll have heard of may have ethical lines, but quite often they’re not as ethical as they’re cracked up to be. Those who are genuinely ethical are usually very small brands, and can be hard to find because they embrace local marketing – for example, a sheep farmer who shears, spins, and weaves or knits garments for sale in local farmers markets or online, and/or sells wool to handknitters and weavers.

One way in which you could actually make an impact and have some control is to try making your own clothes. You can recycle fabrics and clothing, or buy artisanal fabrics. Here’s a duvet cover dress:

Here’s a puzzle dress you could also make from a duvet cover. Or an old embroidered linen table cloth:

An apron from an old pair of jeans:

and here, by the miracle that is (or was) the Wayback machine, are swants – trousers made from old sweaters:

Of course, you could also learn to knit…

Quora linky.

Where does the wool go after it is taken off the sheep?

That very much depends on a lot of different factors.

In wild sheep or domesticated self-moulting sheep, the fleece may just lie there and decompose, unless taken by another animal or bird for burrows or nests.

If the sheep is a meat sheep, the fleece is usually of very low quality. Occasionally, it can be sold as insulation material or for industrial carpeting, but it is quite often just dumped and allowed to decompose.

Better-quality fleece can be made into high-quality carpeting, upholstery and soft furnishings; clothing; or yarn for fibre arts – knitting, weaving, etc. In some countries, there is a central processing board to which all such fleece must be sold (e.g., British Wool, in the UK), in others there may be competing processers to which farmers can sell fleece.

Quora linky.

How does wool keep you warm when you are wet?

As it happens, the other day I had one of those very common sink-tap accidents which resulted in me being sprayed down the front with water.

That kind of thing, except all over my woolly jumper.

If I’d been wearing almost any other top, I’d have had to change. However, with my woolly pulli, I just brushed off the drops sitting on the surface of the fabric and carried on. Some spray did go right through the fabric and landed on my chest, which was unpleasant, but that water swiftly evaporated with my body heat, right back through the fabric. So I had no excuse but to carry on washing those damn dishes.

This is the kind of thing woollen garments excel in. You can wear your Aran sweater out fishing on a drizzly day, and stay perfectly warm and dry on the inside. Your Melton-weave wool overcoat will see you through moderate to heavy rain, and only require a shake-out on the doorstep when you get home. However, if you fall off the boat into the sea, or are unfortunate enough to walk home in torrential rain, neither is going to help you much (of course, no other fibre will help either – you’re soaked: get changed).

From: Wool fibre structure and properties

The above shows the structure of a single wool ‘hair’. Off the left-most end is the root of the fibre, where it grows out of the skin. For our purposes, the important bits are the Cuticle, and the Cortex.

Cuticle: The outer surface of the fibre is made up of overlapping cuticle cells, or scales. These have a chemically-bonded waxy coating, which repels water. This allows tap-spray and light rainfall to simply run off the fabric.

Cortex: The cortex is made up of two types of cell with different chemical compositions. One type attracts moisture more than the other, and therefore expands more than the other. This difference in expansion causes the fibre to ‘crimp’ (curl). It is the crimp in wool that allows it to trap air pockets, providing insulation. So, a slightly-damp woolly jumper becomes ‘crimpier’ and warmer.

I’ll mention a third region for completeness: the Matrix. This is mostly hydrophilic sulphur-based proteins, which allow wool to absorb up to 30% of its weight in water. If you get thoroughly soaked, this layer fills up, your woolly garment weighs a ton, and it takes forever to dry out. In an emergency, you can try wringing it out and relying on the cortical crimp to – at least – keep you warm, but the waterproof outer cuticle has been subverted. You need to get somewhere warm, with hot food and dry clothes, stat.

Quora linky.

Was the sheep’s wool used in the original Michael Collins Rug sourced locally in Mayo and why does Foxford Woollen Mills currently mainly use Australian wool?

Foxford Woollen Mills is a weaving mill, producing fabrics, including the fabric for the Garda Síochána uniform. It does not, to my knowledge, prepare and spin woollen yarn.

The company does not provide much information about the original travel rug (car blanket) presented to Gen. Michael Collins, beyond the fact that they used a 4-ply yarn. This is not particularly helpful, as 4-ply yarn today is a very thin yarn that produces a lightweight fabric unsuited to a travel rug. Presumably, the yarn they used was made up of 4 thick strands, plied together to create a rug yarn, closer to an Aran- or Bulky-weight knitting yarn.

While they do not reveal the source for their weaving yarn for Gen. Collins’ rug, given the period, it is likely that it was sourced from a spinning mill in Ireland, possibly but not necessarily in Co Mayo; and that that spinning mill purchased fleece from Irish sources, possibly but not necessarily locally.

Historically, sheep breeds in Ireland were mixed-use – farmed for wool and meat*. With the exception of a couple of breeds, the wool produced was often of relatively poor quality, too rough for anything but outerwear** or carpeting. There was nonetheless a thriving woollen spinning and weaving industry across Ireland, with mills in many towns, particularly market towns where animal marts took place. In Donegal, there was hardly a settlement of any size without a mill. Virtually everybody had a Donegal tweed suit, purchased as a wedding outfit, worn as Sunday best for decades – often picked apart and re-fashioned according to trends – until they were finally buried in it.

My grandparents in their tweed wedding suits, 1924.

This industry was decimated by the mid-20th century. Petroleum-based yarns destroyed the wool-spinning industry, cheap imports from the far east destroyed the knitwear and weaving industry, trends in agriculture towards specialised farming and a lack of political support for the industry meant that, from the 1960s on, these small local mills disappeared. Today, only 3 of these historic spinning mills survive: Donegal Yarns in Kilcar, Co Donegal; Kerry Woollen Mills in Killarney; and Cushendale Woollen Mills in Graignamanagh, Co Kilkenny. The latter two survived by amalgamating weaving and woollen products into their operation, Donegal Yarns through relationships with weaving mills and with international yarn brands such as Debbie Bliss and Lang Yarns.

Generally, weaving mills did better than spinning mills, partly due to the worldwide cachet of Irish tweed and carpeting, and there are still quite a few like Foxford around. But most sheep in Ireland are meat sheep, there’s no marketing support for shorn wool, so there’s virtually no Irish fleece for the spinning mills, and therefore virtually no Irish-grown yarn for the Irish weaving mills. Almost all the wool dyed and spun in Donegal Yarns comes from Australia, via a cleaning operation in Bradford, England.

And that is why Foxford Mills uses Australian wool: because it exists, and Irish wool (almost***) doesn’t.

*: I’m not aware of milk breeds being of much importance until recently.

**: Aran sweaters, while a 20th-century innovation, were outerwear, worn over a good flannel shirt.

***: There are some small-scale efforts to use Irish fleece – Donegal Yarns is working on a range using Wicklow Cheviot fleece, Cushendale Mills processes Irish Zwartble fleece, and Kerry Woollen Mills adds lowland Galway fleece to imported fleece. There’s also a new mini-mill in Cavan, Olann, which will spin small quantities of fleece (the others only accept commercial quantities in tons) which will likely appeal to hobby and rare-breed farmers with only kilos to process; but this won’t supply a large concern like Foxford Mills.

Quora linky.

Why would a vegan be opposed to wearing wool when sheep need to be sheared?

Because vegans lack common sense, and have no understanding of the natural world.

Their existence is only possible in a post-scarcity Western society, where there are lots of vegan alternatives which are only available by raping and bankrupting developing nations for their avocado toast, cutting down rainforest to grow their monoculture soybeans, and destroying and polluting the environment for their cotton clothing and ocean-destroying plastic ‘leather’.

They need to spend a year or two living on locally-sourced turnips and wearing nettles to knock some damned sense into them.

Quora linky.

Where can I buy good quality wool that will allow me to knit high quality wool socks that don’t burn holes in them in the first year of use?

It’s not the wool.

Virtually any wool or non-sheep fibre can be used for making socks. Some people like a blend of wool with nylon/polyester/acrylic or cotton for strength and wear. Others like a sturdier fibre like mohair, or breed-specific wool such as Herdwick:

Herdwick ewe with lamb at foot.

Still more prefer worsted-spun over woollen-spun, or an unbalanced ply over balanced. Then there are the arguments over yarn weight, between the die-hard fingering-weight knitters, the never-anything-but sportweighters, and the worsted warriors.

And superwash wool is a must if you’re planning to machine-wash your socks – or even if they need vigorous handwashing.

But beyond such matters, there’s a deeper issue; a philosophy, as it were, of socks.

  • Socks go on your feet. Feet are the hardest-working, most active physical part of your body. Feet are also the roughest, most abrasive part of your body. Look at your feet. Look at your toenails. Are they hard, horny, ragged, split? The condition of your feet and toenails can affect your socks, like putting them on an orbital sander or an angle-grinder. Fix your feet, and you’ll fix most of the problems with your socks.
  • Even with perfect baby-soft feet, your socks still undergo a lot of wear and tear from shoes and simply being on your feet. You can’t do much about the latter, but you can make sure your shoes aren’t causing the problem. Assuming the shoes aren’t the problem, you need to accept that socks, however tough and hard-wearing, whether handmade or shop-bought, are going to require darning at some point. This is the truth of being the most hard-working item of clothing you own. You need to become a darning diva. It’s not difficult and can be as soothing to the soul as knitting the socks in the first instance.
  • Or you can rise beyond the sock to realise a more perfect solution, a sublimation of the sole if you will. The sock is not the problem – the sole is. So knit your perfect sock – and then, knit your perfect sole, and sew them together. You can even use completely different yarns, a delicate fingering for the cuff and foot arch, and a sturdy pure wool Aran or Bulky for the sole. And when that wears through, simply snip off the sole and replace it.

I’m a worsted warrior, and I like Novita 7 Veljestä wool right now. I will happily use pure wool Aran mill-ends, too, especially for kilt hose – you can get these directly from your nearest spinning mill, or they might have a local shop outlet. They’re on cones, from 500g upwards. I also have a 4kg cone of Herdwick, which I’ll probably be buried with, even though I have made multiple items from it. It just never seems to get any smaller.

Quora linky.

Are Irish wool sweaters itchy?

It’s very unlikely that you would ever find out.

The majority of sheep in Ireland are meat breeds. Their wool is poor quality, and usually goes into landfill.

Therefore, there is no Irish yarn to make into egg cozies, much less sweaters.

Most of the (very, very tiny amount of) yarn produced in Ireland is made from Australian merino. That’s not scratchy* in the slightest.

There is some (an incredibly tiny, miniscule amount) wool currently spun from Irish sheep, principally Zwartblés but including some other breeds including the rare-breed native Galway Longwool. However, this is usually only spun in fingering weight, for making socks. You can make a sweater out of sock wool, but it will take years and will only be suitable for hot summers.

Quora linky.

What is a “Donegal” sweater?

As a Donegalwoman, there is no such thing as a Donegal sweater.

There is, however, such a thing as Donegal tweed. Donegal tweed is woven from wool, of course. But what is interesting about this wool happens during the spinning process. The fleece is dyed after scouring (cleaning and washing), then woollen-spun with minimal or no carding to remove short fibres. During the spinning process, these short fibres fall on the mill floor. After a few days or a week, the floor is swept, and the resulting semi-felted little bobbles (‘neps’) are added to the next batch of spinning. The yarn looks like this:

The neps stick to the yarn giving little pops of colour. A sweater knitted in this yarn could be called a Donegal sweater:

Carol Feller, wearing her Killybegs cardigan, in Studio Donegal Aran Tweed in shade Green (4824). The cardigan is has a round collar and opens from throat down, and features a delicate honeycomb cable pattern at the cuffs, waist, and yoke.
Killybegs pattern by Carol Feller, in Studio Donegal Aran Tweed

Quora linky.

When making textiles, how would early people card them?

There is such a thing as craft historical re-enactment – it’s not all Vikings and Romans. Craft historical re-enactment can happen on its own, often in living history museums, but also in conjunction with the sword and sandals kind of re-enactment*. There are also many knitters who are interested in historically-accurate crafting – there’s large and active communities of Historic Knitters and Spinners on Ravelry, for example, and another dedicated group of crafters who are preserving old, out-of-copyright patterns and crafting books online.

So, how would people have carded fleece to make yarn in the pre-industrial era?

Image showing modern and historical carders.

I’m sorry this is such a poor-quality image – I took it with my phone at my first-ever wool festival, and, while camera quality is my main criterion for buying a phone, that phone was high quality for 2009. These are carders: the pair at the front are relatively modern, but at the back, on the cross-shaped handle, is a typical pre-industrial carder. Those fuzzy blobs you can see are the seed heads of one of the Teasel species of plant:

Historically, Fuller’s Teasel seeds were used for both carding wool for spinning, and for finishing woven cloth by brushing and softening the surface.

* – In my LH characters of Jodis (formidable matron) and Finnbogi (beardless and somewhat inept young warrior), my craft skill was naalbinding, a kind of Viking knitting but with a sewing needle.

Quora linky.

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