Judith McKenzie tells one of those stories that's both truly horrifying and so funny you can get hiccoughs from the laugher. It concerns a loving husband who goes to the local wearable art shop, and after much agony and hand-holding from the concerned staff, buys a smashing handmade angora sweater for his wife's Christmas present.
The day arrives, the presents get opened, much delight on all sides. The story is set in Vancouver, where the mild climate allows for a quaint tradition: on Boxer's day everyone puts on as many presents as will fit and parades them up and down the waterfront, congratulating all comers and conversely. So the happy couple gets dressed, and fortunately the mild days allows for an open coat, showing off the lovely bundle of bunny fur inside. All the friends are impressed, this is so much cooler than diamonds, so much more sensitive, so much closer to her interests... They walk back and forth an hour or so, feeling on top of the world.
But alas, this is when the story turns to tragedy. In that short amount of time, the combined slight "dew" generated from the lady's walking, and friction from the coat had fulled and shrunk the back and sleeves of the sweater so much that the poor thing had to be cut out of it. Needless to say, it was a less than happy husband who showed up back at the shop the next morning. And there was an additional tussle between the shop and the designer about who was financially responsible.
Now this story was also very personally sensitive for me. It seems that the yarn for this sweater was a French commercial one of pure angora. And it just so happens that years before hearing this I had spent a lot more than the budget should have allowed on a few precious balls of angora, on sale at my then current corner store Adela's on Castro. First I screwed it up by trying to dye it (the white only was on sale..), in retrospect probably by trying to use Procyon rather than an acid dye. It turned out a less than pleasant shade of lavender, which I thought I should try to overdye again after the hat was done. But alas, I usually start a hat several times over, having only a general sense of gauge and desired shape. And by the 3rd or 4th attempt I had a sorry mess on my hands, basically an ugly felted rag. I never finished it, and never forgot how sadly it had turned out. In retrospect, I wouldn't be surprised if mine had been from the same batch of yarn as the unfortunate sweater.
So what Judith says is that fine, short fibers need to be fulled before they have a chance to encounter the real world. In short, you spin the yarn, you abuse it to within an inch of its life, and only then do you knit or weave it. The final product will never give you any trouble if you stabilize the yarn before getting to making it. This process is similar to pre-washing (and drying) fabric, something which should be done at least as brutally as the final product is going to get in the future, unless you wish to make all your smaller friends happy. Now notice that this applies to only fine, short fibers. Merino, rambouillet, targhee, shetland, corriedale. NOT lincoln, karakul, mohair etc. This generally makes the yarn a bit fluffier looking, so you might wish to spin something a tad smaller than what you expect in the end. It also, needless to say, considerably shortens it.
You can also abuse commercial yarn, as should have been done with this regrettable French angora yarn. You might have to put it in skeins first, but it's worth it if you have any doubts. Many of the yarns that would need this have amazing ball appeal, but a puff of soft stuff should be cause for suspicion. It's work to abuse it, but it can't hurt it, and it will save you enormous amounts of grief.
Yarn abuse is actually fun. The yarn must be in skeins, which is convenient if you've just spun it. First you dunk the yarn in very hot water, maybe with a splash of detergent. Splash it with cold. Back to hot. Maybe a bit of agitation? Judith recommends a nice (new) toilet plunger if you have a lot of yarn to abuse at once. Then you grab it and beat the hell out of it against a hard surface. The sides of the shower, the outside wall of the house, the kitchen counter, it doesn't matter as long as the surface is both hard and smooth so it doesn't snag your yarn. Think of your boss, your landlord, your local politicians, whatever will put some enthusiasm into that arm. You will be splashing a lot of water about, as centrifugal force efficiently gets rid of the water, so wear something impervious to water (or nothing) and pick a waterproof location. Take your skein and whack it hard several times, move your hand along and do it again. And again, several whacks each holding at least 3 or 4 places around the skein. Back to the hot water. You're done. Rinse if necessary, and let dry.
Let me point out here that many spinning books recommend blocking at this point. They tell you to hang your skeins and weight them so as to stretch them slightly. I've never been able to figure out why anyone would want to do that. Think of it: wool is hair, curly hair. If you stretch it dry, the first time it's not just wet but merely damp it's going to go right back to its original state. That first foggy summer evening in San Francisco will be enough. If you've made a sweater with it meanwhile, your little sister now has a sweater. Now don't get me wrong, I adore my little sister, but I want to donate deliberately. You can take a sweater that's shrunk this way and wash it and pull it back out somewhat, sometimes by pinning it or putting onto a suitably sized form, but again, why would anyone want to do that? If you get your yarn to a stable natural state and leave it that way, your knitting will be a lot more stable itself, and to me that's an excellent thing. So lay those skeins down nicely on a sweater rack or a towel, and let nature take its course.
Judith McKenzie taught me all I know about spinning, and particularly all about this technique and why it's necessary. But while she's too polite to say so, I don't think she really approves of the term "yarn abuse". That's the one that my friend Vicky Neff from Michigan and I came up with and it's stuck, because it's so true :-).
First published: 7/18/02
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