Merino Overload | A search for non-merino yarn

It can be argued that merino yarn is one of, if not the most, abundant yarn available on the yarn market today. Particularly at fibre festivals and yarn shows. Having previously spoken to vendors about this, they inform all respond the same way “It’s what sells”. The same way that 4-ply or fingering weight yarn is highly abundant at these yarn & fibre festivals.

Personally, I’m a little tired of seeing merino everywhere. Don’t get me wrong, I love the garments and other items that I’ve knit with merino yarn. However I am seeking something a little different. In the UK knitting scene, there is an increasing move for knitters to use yarn spun from breeds other than merino for their knitting. My friend, Louise, over at Knit British has been a huge advocate of using locally produced yarn from local breeds. Almost anything other than merino (with the exception of angora, alpaca and cashmere) has a terrible reputation for being rough to the touch and not suitable for wearing next to the skin, something that is entirely based on, what Louise lovingly refers to as, the initial hand-squish-grab. That is, if it doesn’t feel nice in the skein or the ball, then its a no-go.

One of the reasons merino is so popular is due to the softness and fineness of the yarn produced from the sheep. And there is nothing wrong with that, to a point. The more we popularise this breed, and shun others, results in the no longer favoured breeds becoming rare, as there simply isn’t the demand for their fleece anymore. Merino is immensely abundant, due to the high demand for the fibre. Australian merino is the finest available, however the fineness of merino varies. One of the major drawbacks of this type of wool is that it is highly susceptible to pilling. The majority of merino is tightly spun and plied to increase its durability. Unfortunately, for some of the undyed merino selected by indie dyer isn’t tightly spun or plied and as a result it pills.

As a way of promoting other breeds, Knit British is organizing a swatch-a-long. The idea is that you knit a swatch with a single breed yarn, preferably a breed local to you, or local yarn to you. You can read more about that here. To my shame, I have very little non-merino yarn in my recently curated yarn stash. Thankfully this month provided me the perfect opportunity to source some locally produced yarn that wasn’t merino. Wisconsin Sheep and Wool Festival, held annually at Jefferson County Fairgrounds, had a wide variety of locally produced yarns. It was here that I got my wish for something other than merino. Almost every vendor had yarn available that was not merino. Polworth and Bluefaced Leicester dyed yarns were available at a number of booths. However I was seeking some natural shade yarn from single breeds. Thistle Ridge, LLC came to my rescue with some beautiful, locally produced Shetland yarn from their family flock. What I love the most about the yarn I purchase is that the label for each skein tells you which sheep gave its fleece to be spun into yarn. Being able to trace your yarn back to the source is becoming more important to people as we try more and more to shop local.

Shetland sheep come in a variety of shades, with white, moorit and black being the most prominent, however over the years, breeders selectively bred out coloured variants so that far fewer exist now. The variety of natural colors available was integral to the wool industry in Shetland. Yarn produced from Sheltand sheep was most commonly used in Fair Isle sweaters and cardigans knit by the locals, as well as in intricate lace shawls that are so fine they can be passed through a wedding ring. One sheep can grow as many as five different types of fibre, with the finest wool coming from the neck area. The yarn I purchase has a wonderful crispness to it, but I know that it will soften with washing and wear. I purchased 3 skeins in total, 200yds each, in cream, grey and brown, from a variety of different sheep from the Thistle Ridge flock. It’s also woolen spun so will bloom beautiful once it’s blocked. This yarn is destined for a 3 colour cowl by Joji Locateli. I cannot wait to start knitting with these and watching how they bloom.

I’d love to hear about your experiences with breed specific yarn.

Until next time,

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Hi Louise,
    I took part in the othe Louises swatch kal and it was a real eye opener fo rme, I’d not actually been knititng for very long (like you I was taught when I was little but was also a tomboy and fidget so my stitches would get tight and the yarn would squeek in agony as I’d pull it so tight, then last Autumn something clicked and I fell head over heals for knitting) so haven’t actually ever knitted with just merino. My first yarn was a BFL buut then I tracked down Norfolk Horn (I live in Norfolk) and some Suffolk (that’s where I’m from). I’ve since bought a skein of Wensleydale that is a golden as clotted cream and have bought handspun Shetland that comes from a small flock a few miles away. I’ve now got a stack of swatches that I’m waiting to test under my thermals but it’s too hot at the moment…roll on October. I love knitting with really sheepy rustic yarns and much prefer the feel of them to posher softer ones.
    Your post was really interesting to read and I bet the yarn you bought smells fantastic.

    Like

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