November 22, 2021 4 min read

My mother loved the grocery store, as much for the social interaction as anything, and we always went to the Safeway in Camp Washington, near Fairfax, Virginia.  She liked that store especially because of Bob Hall, the butcher.  Mr. Hall was a huge red-faced man with hands as big as chuck roasts.  He wore a white paper cap and a bloody apron, and he always seemed to be honing a giant knife.  He would make a great show of using his razor sharp blade to cut the hairs right off his arm.  It was an impressive, if unsanitary, demonstration that made quite an impression on me.  He taught my mother about beef - the cuts, the grading, the breeds, and what made a delicious steak.  As she walked from the counter, she would lean over, smiling, and say, “Ellen, when you grow up and move to a new town, make friends with your butcher.”

It was good advice, but most grocery stores don’t have butchers anymore. Instead, they have meat department staff that wouldn’t know a strip steak from a round steak.  I recently asked one of these wanna-be butchers if he had any Prime beef.  

“It’s around the corner,” he said, pointing to the coolers of pre-packaged meat.

I reviewed the selection.  Nothing was marked Prime, or even Choice, the USDA grades that objectively evaluate beef for marbling which makes meat juicy and tender.  Instead, there were labels boastingPreferred Angus, andUSDA Inspected.  

Returning to the man, “I don’t see any Prime or Choice over there,” I said.

“It’s Angus,” he said.  

“I understand,” I said, “but is any of it Prime or Choice?”

Frustrated with my obvious ignorance, he repeated, “It’s Angus, which is the same thing.”

My dear friends, it isnotthe same thing.  

Angus is a breed of cattle capable of producing very good beef, but there is a wide range of quality available from within that breed.  It is true thatCertified Black Angus beef must be prime or choice, butAngus, is just the breed most raised in the US, and it can range from Prime which is what you typically get in high end restaurants to Standard, which is often ungraded, sold as store brand, and is generally lousy.  The nomenclature and labeling stores use is confusing on purpose.  They are hoping to get you to pay a premium price for a not premium product.  The only objective measure of quality you can count on in the grocery store is the USDA grading system. And while I’m on a rant, let me add that the labelUSDA Inspected means nothing at all because all beef must be USDA inspected in order to be sold in the United States..  

It’s like you asking me if a yarn is extrafine (which means it has a micron count of 18 microns or less), and me saying, “It’s merino”.  Don’t get me wrong, merino is a wonderful breed that produces a strikingly fine grade of fleece, and you can generally count on it being a good quality yarn.  However, depending on a variety of factors, that fleece, and the yarn produced from it, can range in fineness from less than 18 microns to more than 24 microns. Trust me when I tell you that there is a world of difference, in both feel and cost, between those two.  The 18 micron extrafine merino yarn feels like silk and approaches cashmere in its softness, while the 24 micron yarn is sturdier and maybe not as nice right next to your skin.   

Does this mean 18 micron merino isthe best yarn? Not exactly --it’s simply the finest merino you can buy. There are other yarns, like cashmere, and qiviut that are finer and softer still. Butthe bestis not so easy to define.  Sometimes softness isn’t what you’re going for.  I’ve always been a fan of filet mignon, while my husband prefers New York Strip for itsbeefyflavor.  One is more tender--the other is tastier.  Same with yarns.  It depends on what you need for your project, and you often have to balance different characteristics of yarn.  For next to the skin garments, you probably want yarn that’s as soft as you can get, but qiviut is fantastically expensive.  It’s the Kobe beef of the yarn world.  Yes, it’s fabulous, but given the price, its poor stitch definition, and the fact that it only comes in one color (brown), it might not bethe best for your project.  I am forever saying that softness and durability are at opposite ends of a continuum.  If your project is going to get a lot of wear, you might prefer a yarn with a little more tooth to it. 

I have two points to make here.  The first is that the more you know about the characteristics of different yarns, the better you can choose what you need for your project.  The second, is that it’s important to understand a bit about yarn so you know what you’re getting if you're paying a premium price and that you do not pay a premium price for a not-premium product.  

There are tons of resources on the web, you can learn a bunch from technical sites likethis, or from self-taught experts like Clara Parkes.  .  

And you can always ask your local yarn store team.  We are always delighted to help knitters and crocheters learn about yarn and about what we have on the shelves.  Every single brand we carry is there for a reason.  Every yarn has a place and a purpose, and we’re happy to share that with you.  It’s what we do - all of us.  Ginni, Mary, Jenny, and I all know our stuff, and we’re always happy to chat with you about our favorite subject - yarn! 

This is the kind of stuff we talk about all the time in Club Crazy for Ewe.  Yarns to use, patterns that work, and how to on all things knitting.  If you’re interested, have a look at the site, and let me know if you’d like a tour of the resources inside. 

Whether in the shop and around the table, or inside Club Crazy for Ewe, you are always welcome here.

Warmly,

Ellen