The start of an(other) obsession

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about sock yarn. More precisely, I’ve been thinking about spinning sock yarn: how best to spin it, what fibres to use, how to put it all together into The Perfect Sock Yarn. It started when I got my wheel last May. I started shopping, and because I’m a sucker for colour and really nice fibres, I fell deep into the rabbit hole of indie dyers. The thing is, indie dyers tend to sell their fibre in lots of 4 oz, which will make a hat, or a pair of mittens, or a neckwarmer…or a pair of socks. I live in Alabama. It’s hot here, and when it’s not hot, it’s sort of cool-ish. The slightest threat of snow sends locals running to the grocery store to snatch up the last bottled water, canned goods, and beer in a frenzy of hoarding akin to the arrival of the Zombie Apocalypse. You laugh (at least, I laugh), but they know that if we get so much as 1/2″ of the white stuff, the entire city will shut down, the grocery trucks won’t get through, and they’ll be left grocery- and beer-less, possibly for days. (True fact: it happened last year. We got a slight dusting of snow — almost too little to measure, but enough to ice up the roads — and the grocery truck from Atlanta couldn’t get through for days. I wound up scouring the grocery store for the last 1/2 dozen eggs. They were hidden behind some cheese.) This is a very long way of saying that we don’t really ‘do’ winter down here. I don’t need hats or mittens, and being a knitter deprived of those instant-gratification projects (and a designer obsessed with tubes of stranded colourwork), I have a plentiful supply of things to keep my neck warm. That leaves socks.

I thought I’d done all the reading about sock yarn that needed doing, but then two things happened: someone started this thread about the best fibres for sock yarn in the Fibre Prep group on Ravelry (only viewable by Ravelers, alas), and a lot of smart people who know a thing or two about spinning shared their ideas on the subject. Then Clara Parkes came out with The Knitter’s Book of Socks, in which she explains, in loving and painstaking detail, what goes into a really good sock yarn. I was sunk.

So what goes into a really good sock yarn? I could do a whole post on the subject (and probably will at some point), but in a nutshell: multiple plies for strength, high twist for strength and memory (so your socks keep their shape rather than puddling and sagging). In The Intentional Spinner, Judith MacKenzie McCuin recommends spinning in a combination style, which gives both cushiness and strength, so worsted spinning with woolen prep, or woolen spinning with worsted prep. For fibres, you’re looking for something with a good crimp (for cushiness and memory), and good resistance to felting (because I don’t care if you’re Princess Anastasia, sometimes your feet are going to sweat).

Coincidentally, the November breed for the Knitter’s Book of Wool group (yes, I’m a bit of a Clara Parkes fangirl. How could you not be?) was Jacob, a breed that came up over and over again as a favourite for sock yarns. One of the very cool things about Jacobs is that their fleece comes in different colours. On the same sheep. (Another very cool thing is that they can grow two, four, or six horns. Okay, that last sheep has five; you wouldn’t believe how hard I searched for a photo of a six-horned Jacob.) It looks deeply weird and yet elegant, in a way that appeals to me. But I digress. The multi-coloured fleece means that you can make, for instance, a striped sock, and theoretically, all that wool could have come from one sheep. In an age when many sheep have had the colours pretty much bred out of them, this is a rare and wonderful thing, indeed.

Spirit Trail Fiberworks had four colours of Jacob roving, so I bought 2 oz of each. (Now they have five, but four was plenty.)  I divided each colour into six sections by weight for two skeins of 3-ply. (Experience has taught me that it is well-nigh impossible to get the singles to match up, so if I spun it all as one skein, by the second sock the stripes could be completely out of alignment.) Then I divided each sixth into six again, just eyeballing it. I carefully lined up each colour on a tray (you wouldn’t believe how well I’ve honed my lining-things-up-on-trays skill at this point), and spun each singles with alternating colours. They looked like this:

Jacob singles. See how distinct the stripes are? Yeah. Um.

When I plied the singles, I realized that I had made a fairly major error: one of the first grey sections was considerably shorter than the others. Instead of the hoped-for self-striping yarn with some marling, I ended up with a marled yarn with some striping.

First Jacob skein. Not so much with the striping.

Ah, well. Such is life. The first skein came in at 305 yds/279m of worsted-spun 3-ply, about 13wpi (so around a dk weight). I washed it in hot water with minimal agitation, and ended up with the same wpi, so I didn’t bother re-measuring the yardage. For some reason, I forgot to weigh it, but it should be around 4 oz/113g.

The pattern I went with was Darjeeling (from The Knitter’s Book of Socks, natch). Darjeeling appealed for a few reasons: it’s toe-up, so I could keep the stripes that worked in the most visible place and also adjust the length to fit the amount of yarn; it’s fairly easy to adapt to a different gauge; and the unusual shaping (a Cat Bordhi trademark) made it incredibly easy to math-fu the pattern for the heavier yarn. So here it is: my first ever handspun sock:

Ta-daaaa! Okay, it’s not great, but it is extra-warm because it’s puffed up with pride.

It’s not perfect. The stripes are utterly borked. The textured stitch pattern is ill-suited to the yarn. (See how much nicer the plain stockinette sole looks?)

Ahhhh. So much nicer. Sadly, that’s the side I’ll be walking on.

However, it fits perfectly, it’s cushy and warm, and I love it so. Now to spin the yarn for the second sock.* And then spin more yarn. For more socks. I may never make anything else again.

* Yes, handspun socks take weeks to make. No, they’re not cheaper than store-bought. If you have to ask why anyone would bother, you’ll never understand. Just take it as read that the fibre-obsessed have…um…different priorities.

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