When I was a little girl, my mother baked bread every Friday. A rich egg bread with a deep golden crust and a fine crumb, it made spectacular slabs of toast slathered in butter and orange marmalade. Come Monday, thinner slices transformed plain deli ham into a brown bag delicacy. She started the process after I got home from school so I could watch as she explained. I learned a lot of hacks, like how to tell if water was lukewarm without a thermometer. It will feel neither warm nor cool against your wrist, and how to know when you’ve kneaded it enough. It will be smooth and elastic and hard to work. After half an hour or so it was smooth as a baby’s behind, and we’d plop that lump into her heavy brown crockery bowl, cover it with a faded tea towel, and wait. Then I had to do my boring homework.
Sometimes my mom would make whole grain rye bread, but she didn’t enjoy it as much because the dough didn’t behave as well.Not enough gluten in rye flour, she would complain. I can still hear her say,See, Ellen, how the dough doesn’t spring back the way it should? But the rye bread was delicious anyway, and my father loved it especially, so she made it anyway.
You are probably wondering why I am talking about bread when this is about knitting. You know there’s a point in here, so stay with me, and I’ll explain.
Knitting with cotton is like making bread with rye flour (or any low-gluten/non-gluten flour). It’s missing elasticity. Wool is smooth and bouncy and fun to work. Cotton, and other plant-based fibers, are not. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make cotton sweaters – you totally should because you’ll actually love them. Here are some of the things you’ll love about knitting with cotton:
Cotton is cool and comfortable to wear. Wool is lofty, which means lots of insulating air in the fibers that keep you warm. Cotton, on the other hand, is thin and crisp, keeping you cooler in warm weather
Cotton is wearable all four seasons – in all climates, but especially in the mid Atlantic and south. Even if you need a warmer wool sweater in the winter where you are, cotton is always a great transitional piece and perfect for layering.
Quality cotton is smooth against the skin- High quality cotton, like Pima and Egyptian cotton has long staple fiberslonger than 1 1/2 inch that are strong and smooth. These long fibers are combed (combed cotton) to align them all in the same direction so there are no prickly ends sticking out.
Cotton garments are easy care - Most cotton garments are happy to go through the machine. I do a cold wash gentle and tumble dry low until they’re almost dry and then lay the flat the rest of the way.
Cotton fabric has great drape - less elasticity means cotton fabric falls into attractive folds.
Cotton fabric curls less than wool- so you need less trim or edging on cotton tops to keep them from curling
Here are some tricks to help you enjoy knitting with cotton yarn more
Use a smaller needle– Because cotton yarns don’t bounce back, you’ll probably need a needle at least two, and maybe three sizes smaller than you think for your gauge.
Try different needle materials. Some cottons have more drag than wool, so you might like a smoother metal needle.
Hold the yarn firmly - make sure you are tensioning the yarn so it doesn’t go slack between stitches.
Consider stitch patterns - Cotton is best in fabrics that don’t need to provide a lot of elasticity - stockinette, garter, seed stitch, and lace are better than ribbing. Take regular breaks - knitting with cotton can be hard on the hands. Be sure to take regular breaks if you find that your hands are cramping up or feeling sore.
If you've only every used cotton yarn from the craft store, trust me when I tell you that it has about as much in common with quality cotton as Wonderbread does with croissants. Join me for my podcast on knitting with cotton - I’ll go over more about what you’ll love, and what you won’t, and I’ll share my favorite designs for cotton yarn. I think you'll like it.
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