Don’t Step On the Mome Raths aka Stop Choking Your Yarn

A few weeks ago, I started knitting a shawl for myself.  I’m making up the pattern as I go along, just kind of feeling it out.  I have an idea of what I want it to look like, but I know that sometimes what one sees in their head does not translate into something that one can actually create through knitting, so I’m definitely leaving myself open to changing this vision as I go.  The one thing I know is that this project will work with several different yarns and have STRIPES – after all, everyone loves stripes.

I’m working with a few different yarns, all the same base – Madelinetosh Sock.  I really adore Madelinetosh, and this is one of my favourite yarn bases.  It’s just the right amount of twist and sproing, without being so tightly twisted that it hurts to work with, as some yarns do.  I started by using this skein:

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As you can see, it’s an older skein – just look at that tag!  The colour is Scarlet, and it’s just the right shade of red for what I have in mind.  I bought this off of someone on Ravelry, and it came to me in that caked form.  Now, I’m not a fan of yarn that has been previously caked by someone else for several reasons.  To start with, caking stretches out and stresses the yarn fibers if it is either caked too tightly or has been sitting in its caked form for too long.  I cake yarn just before I’m going to begin a project, and if it’s a project that will take multiple skeins, I typically only cake the first skein at the beginning.  I know that I can be easily distracted by other projects, the change in weather, or that I can suddenly realize that this yarn and this project are not going to work out at all.  If I had caked all 6 skeins that I needed for a sweater from the beginning, I would be left with sad little cakes that were slowly losing the bounce in their yarn.  In this type of situation, it’s best to reskein the yarn so that the fiber isn’t being stretched and stressed – my friend Sarah did this amazing post on how to skein your yarn for free, no equipment needed.

In this instance, I didn’t reskein that cake because I thought I was going to cast on for the shawl much sooner than I did…now I realize I probably should have just reskeined it because that cake was definitely wound too tightly.  This is something that I’ve seen people do before, and it always frightens me.  I’ve seen people choke up when balling yarn by hand, and I’ve seen people wind a cake of yarn so swiftly on a ball winder that the fibers have no choice but to be stretched by the process.  I’ve known people who wind the yarn *so* tightly by hand or by cake that you could probably bludgeon someone with their finished ball and do some serious damage.  Years ago, someone on Ravelry posted a fantastic picture of what happens to yarn when it’s been wound only once on a ball winder, and Sarah explained the differences beautifully:

“I know someone who has a trick for keeping her yarn caked but making sure that it is done loosely enough so that it doesn’t stretch the yarn. According to ______, you recake your yarn by first caking it on the swift and then you remove it from the swift and recake the cake. Wow. That sounds confusing. Here’s what she has to say about it:

Basically the tension it takes for the ballwinder to turn the swift around stretches out the yarn.  If you leave it caked in the original cake, the yarn stays stretched out – but will return to its original state once you wash it.  Which will mess up your gauge.  If you recake, you take that tension off the yarn and it’ll stay in good condition.  Once I finish the first cake, I take it off the ballwinder and rewind from cake to cake.

Here’s a picture of a two of her yarns, one caked originally and the other already recaked. Isn’t that CRAZY how tightly the first cake looks in comparison to the second?! The really interesting this is that the first cake isn’t badly done – it’s nice and squishy and seems nice – but it is actually too tight.”

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Crazy, right?  Look at those two cakes next to each other – it’s like the one on the right has doubled in size simply by allowing the yarn to breathe. 

I kept thinking of this image as I was starting to wind up the second ball of yarn at knitting this Saturday.  I like to handwind my yarn using a nostepinne – something that occasionally baffles the women in my knitting group, no matter how many times I do it in front of them or explain it.  I like to interact with the yarn before I knit with it – hand winding it gives me that chance to see what it feels like, how it moves, what the structure of it is like and how that might translate into a garment.  I like to see if there are knots or splits, is there a ton of vegetable matter, parts where the yarn things out….basically, what is this thing that I’m going to be working with.  I do have a ball winder and swift, and they’re both high level, professional grade items – but I don’t really like to use them that much because I love hand winding more.  I pull them out when I have multiple skeins to do for bigger projects – sweaters and blankets and the like – and have already gotten to know one of the skeins from hand winding and knitting it before.  After all, no one really wants to wind up 2000 yards of yarn, 100 yards at a time!

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Personally, I always like to ball the yarn before I begin to wind it up on my nostepinne.  I’ve just discovered that I can wind it more easily that way.  Sometimes skeined yarn sticks to itself and then can tangle, and it’s hard to deal with all those little moments of strings crossing over one another when you’re trying to wind an even cake on a nostepinne. 

(BTW, how pretty is this skein?  I love it – it’s the Citrus colour of Madelinetosh, and it just glows.)

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Now, I knew that the Scarlet had been caked for too long and had probably been done on a ball winder – just look at these two cakes side by side:

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Notice how much taller the Citrus is in comparison?  It also just looks more tidy, in my opinion, less likely to collapse in on itself as you work with it.  But it wasn’t until I started knitting with the two yarns together that I realized how stressed the fibers in the Scarlet had been – I had suspected that it was wound too tightly as I had been knitting with it already.  Every now and then, the yarn would get stick coming out of the center pull, trapped on the tightness of the inside of the ball, and then a huge yarn barf would pull out as it tried to release itself.  In my experience, yarn barf is generally a sign that the ball was wound too tightly.  But when I looked at the yarns side by side, I realized that the Scarlet was most definitely damaged:

ImageJust look at how thin and stretched out the Scarlet looks compared with the Citrus.  It’s almost like I’m holding two different weights of yarn, isn’t it?  The big difference is that the Citrus still has breathing room, still has elasticity.  The Scarlet was wound too tightly and then held in that position for too long, so it’s elasticity has gone away.  I’m hoping this doesn’t result in something insane happening when it hits the water for the blocking process.  The crimping in the Scarlet is in large part due to it staying in the cake for too long – and really, who knows how long it was caked like this in the previous owner’s stash before coming to me – but it’s also a reflection of how tightly something was wound.  You want your yarn to draw easily out of a center pull ball – that’s one of the main reasons for making it into that form!  If you can’t easily put your fingers into the hole in the middle of your center pull ball, it’s probably wound too tightly.  You want to be able to be able to squish it, to feel the ball moving when you give it a squeeze.

So please, please please – don’t strangle your yarn.  Some people naturally wind tighter than others do, just as some people have much tighter tension.  If that’s the case, use props – wind your yarn around a ball, then pull it out, or use a nostepinne or lint brush or a ball winder.  All of these things are designed to help give your yarn space to breathe once you remove it from the tool.  And if you still wind up with a cake that’s hard as a rock, just rewind it again.  Re-caking yarn usually results in a larger cake the second time around…and really, who doesn’t want more cake?

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