There aren't many things that make me want to pick…
Or ‘How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love Vintage Knitting’. Planning a vintage knitting project can be a bit like a detective novel … a bit of investigative work will stand you in good stead before you pick up the needles. One of the first parts of the case to solve (and the one most likely to deter would-be vintage knitters from starting in the first place) is which yarn to use.
A fantastic place to kick-off is Kristen Rengren’s all-encompassing guide to vintage knitting; her section on choosing yarn puts you on the right path … tension (or gauge), texture, type of stitch pattern, fibre content and yardage all need to be taken into consideration before you make your choice. She advises us to scrutinise the pattern picture and do a bit of research into the original yarn used, even look through the wool adverts of vintage knitting publications.
So you’ve got to the bottom of the original yarn … what’s a suitable replacement? You’ve got the needle size and with the help of Kristen’s guide you’ll have worked out the tension and yardage so you can pretty much start anywhere, the modern yarn world is your oyster for 4-ply and DK. 2 and 3-ply can be harder to source, and the plot thickens when you want to match the old shades and textures; sometimes the modern yarns can be too bright or the texture too rough when you want the vintage look.
I’ve been on the look-out for some smaller manufacturers for vintage yarn replacements in the UK, this the story so far …
Synthetic yarns didn’t come into popular use until the ’50s and even cotton was rarely used, so if you want to be authentic you need to get 100% wool. Shetland wools are a good place to start and I’m a big fan of Jamieson & Smith, a large Shetland wool brokers. They have a good range of shades to buy online (you can buy a shade card first to make sure you’re getting the right colour).
Don’t be worried about experimenting – if you see something you think might work, buy up a sample ball or 2 and do some tension squares, see how they knit up. The leg-work you put in initially will pay off in the long run and help out in future projects. You don’t need to be elitist about the make or brand … I’ve had a couple of steers from a lovely lady recently towards eBay shops which have come up trumps.
Adriafil is an Italian yarn company established in 1911 and still going strong; they’re also a good source for 3-ply 100%wool with a slightly broader range of colours than the usual baby knits, so do a search on eBay and see what you come up with.
The same lady spent a while searching for the closest match to RAF blue 100% wool she could find for a 1940s re-enactment and came up with another eBay result, a Shetland wool provider Kingcraig Fabrics. They provide larger quantities on the spool, starting at 700grams, and are extremely reasonable. Apparently it’s slightly waxy as it’s dressed for machine knitting, so needs a gentle wash once the garment is finished.
Another contributor from the Ravelry boards put me onto Coldharbour Mill in Devon for 3-ply (I haven’t had the chance to try this one out yet). Apparently their official line is that they don’t sell it, but if you talk to Ian the mill manager he’ll help you out. When he is spinning one of his 12 colours, he will re-set the machine afterwards to spin a 3-ply. His minimum quantity of each colour is 1 kilo (share the yarn with a friend? knit a suit?). One has to wait, though, until he has an order to fill for that particular colour. The mill can send you a shade card, or you can look on www.coldharbourmill.org.uk.
Note: While I was at the iKnit London weekender on Saturday I came across John Arbon textiles, also based at Coldharbour Mill – they specialise in gorgeous Alpaca DK, 4-ply sock yarn plus a beautifully soft Merino 4-ply in a really great range of shades which would lend themselves well to vintage projects. I also spotted a few limited 3-ply shades lurking too, so definitely worth checking out.
If you’re going way back to the mid-end 19th century, Robin Stokes’ fascinating Civil War era website in the US has an extremely useful guide to yarn names which can still be relevant for later patterns – explains what ‘worsted’ is too (we Brits don’t always get that one.)
There’s a stash of information out there, the vintage knitting fan club is growing pretty fast – if you’re really stuck or unsure, have a look at the vintage groups on Ravelry. Full of fellow enthusiasts, and if you post on one of their forums you’ll usually find some extremely helpful yarn advice.
I’d love to hear from you if you’ve got any further suggestions, particularly UK based, so post a comment or drop me a line.
NB: Thanks to Sue & Victoria for their input!