Thursday, February 10, 2011

Killing Acrylic - sounds like it's good for the environment

I know lots of folks who really wish they could wipe out acrylic yarn forever, but that's not what we're going to discuss in this post.  I count myself among those knitters who try to use "natural" fibers and avoid the petroleum based versions, but I know that all yarn production leaves some kind of environmental footprint, and that acrylic yarn really isn't the scourge on the environment that some make it out to be.  Coats and Clark, the maker of the much maligned Red Heart Super Saver (aka RHSS), has been very transparent in their environmental impacts and improvement programs.  Much information is readily available on their website.  Most other major manufacturers have provided little if any such information - so I really respect C&C for this effort. 

And let's face it, a fiber that is virtually indestructible does have it's uses.  A scarf that can be readily thrown in the washer and dryer without impunity has a good chance of making it through a few winters, maybe even generations of winters.  Sure wool scarves can easily last as long if cared for correctly, but let's face it, many don't or won't apply such care to a wool scarf.  So those wool scarves end up felted and in the trash long before the acrylic one goes that way.

Why this outpouring of affection for acrylic yarns, you ask?  Because I've been using some acrylics to knit up more super scarves.  Why use acrylics in lieu of my beloved Cascade 220 and Alpaca with a Twist Touchdown yarns?  A couple of reasons:  1 - I needed to test some new designs, and after visiting 2 local yarn stores, I couldn't find both the blue and white colors in either brand.  (as an aside - that's really good news because it means that lots of scarves are being made here in Indy), and 2 - many of the new knitters I'm working with have elected to use the acrylics that are readily available in the big box stores they are more likely to frequent (until we can get them turned on to a LYS!), so I wanted to see how my scarf designs would knit up in these yarns.

And I'm really glad I tested in the acrylics because the slip stitch and mosaic stitches really do knit up differently in the acrylics.  I've tested both RHSS and Lion Brand's Vanna's Choice.  First, these yarns tend to be on the thicker side of worsted weight, so I went up a needle size in some cases to get the right drape.  Second, these yarns knit up stiffly, and the slipped stitches tend to distort the fabric more.  Therefore, blocking scarves made in acrylic is essential.

Blocking can be an intimidating concept for both new and seasoned knitters alike.  I myself used to avoid it like the plague, but then I decided I needed to get on the band wagon for more professional results.  Now I can't wait to block my knitting and watch the transformation as the knit stitches relax, bloom, and take the shape I had in mind all along.  With animal fibers like merino wool and alpaca, I find that blocking is best achieved when I give these fibers a soak in warm water, then gently squeeze out the excess, pin into shape and allow the piece to dry.  The transformation is magical, especially in lace.


But I digress from the topic at hand, killing acrylic.  This is a term applied to blocking acrylic such that the results are permanent.  Blocking most natural fibers is somewhat temporary and must be reapplied when the item is washed or gets wet.  But with acrylic, the application of  enough steam will permanently set the yarn in the blocked shape.   Trying to wet block acrylic just won't get you anywhere.  Acrylic is pretty much the same as plastic, so the fibers won't absorb water.  But steam is another mater - steam will soften the acrylic fiber, resulting in a much more desirable drape and hand.  


Here's how kill your acrylic scarf:  You'll need a source of steam, like an iron, one of those steam cleaner things, or if you are seriously into this, a real garment steamer.  You'll need a place to lay out and pin your scarf, like a covered ironing board or a folded towel.  You'll need some water proof pins for best results, but I've also just used my hands to pat the knittng into place and the results were ok.  You'll need a tea towel or other thin cloth to cover your knitting to protect it if using an iron.

Now, lay out your scarf and pin it so that the edges are straight.  You can do this in sections if your surface isn't long enough to lay out the whole scarf.  Don't hesitate to pull it both horizontally and vertically to get the desired shape.  Apply the steam (I used a wool setting on my iron) but DO NOT let the iron touch your knitting.  Ironing directly on the scarf will result in either a very flat piece that has lost all stitch definition, or a melted mess - neither is very desirable.   Apply steam until the knitting relaxes and maintains the desired shape.  You will see the difference.  Let the piece cool before handling and the scarf will be permanently set.  

For professional results, don't skip the blocking step - even when knitting with acrylics.  It really is easy, and the results will set your knitting apart in a good way.  

Patterns for the scarfs shown in this demo will be out shortly.

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