Multi-strand knitting: One for the cost of two?

One of the knitting trends which I have noticed recently is using two (or more) strands of different yarns held together.  The yarn company Shibui Knits is in fact built on the idea that yarns can be “mixed” to achieve particular effects.  On their website they say:

“Mixing or multi-strand knitting, gives you the freedom to fashion your own bespoke fabrics by combining two strands or more of any Shibui Knits yarn. Choose similar hues for subtle tonality or contrasting colors for bolder statements. All of our yarns are carefully chosen and dyed to work together, giving you infinite possibilities.”

I have been admiring Shibui patterns for some time now.  They have gorgeous designs and a recognisable style with a Japanese feel to it – spare with simple lines and lovely drape.  It all feels organic and fluid.  However, whenever I see these sweaters, the cynical me starts clamoring in my head.  Cynical Me says something like this:

Knitters spend a lot of money on yarn.  Knitters who love luxury yarns can spend an awful lot of money on yarns.  But we can only knit so many sweaters, right?  So how can we spend even more?  I know, let’s knit each sweater with two strands of yarn held together! One for the cost of two!

Here is an example. Today I was admiring the lovely sweater design Calyx by Elizabeth Doherty:


© Elizabeth Doherty

I think this is beautiful.  It is knit with two strands held together: one strand of Shibui Twig and one of Shibui Reed. To knit it in my size with the recommended ease I would need to use 6 skeins of Twig and 5 skeins of Reed. In the UK, the Twig retails for £17.25/skein and the Reed for £17.95/skein.  This means a cost of £193.25 for this sweater. At today’s exchange rate that is US$273.  (Note that this is the cost of the yarn alone and does not include labour.)  This is an awful lot of cake.

But wait, I hear you regular readers of this blog proclaim: didn’t you just knit a sweater with two yarns held together?  Isn’t Cynical Me being a bit hypocritical?

As it turns out, knitting two strands together doesn’t always make for a more expensive knit.  I knit the pattern form by Lori Versaci (blogged here). The pattern calls for Woolfolk Far, a worsted weight luxury yarn.  For my size I would need 11 skeins, at £17.25/skein, or £189.75 (US$268).  I doubled up on my yarn using 4 skeins of Isager Spinni at £8/skein and 4 skeins of Shibui Silk Cloud at £18.99/skein for a total cost of £108 (US$152).  Thus, I “saved” money by doubling up.

In the interests of full disclosure, let me say that I never bothered to run the maths until I started writing this post; before that, I was convinced that I had fallen into the “one for the price of two” rabbit hole.  (In other words, Hypocritical Me was in the driver’s seat, and Cynical Me was riding shotgun.) I had the Spinni in stash because I loved the rich red colour, and I also had a tiny bit of the Silk Cloud in stash – enough to do some swatching.  I fell in love with the resulting fabric first and then picked a pattern to knit it with (not my usual progression).  I ordered enough Silk Cloud to pair with my stashed Spinni and never considered price.  Here is where Hypocritical Me gave way to Deluded Me: since I already had the Spinni in stash, in my head it counts as “free” and so only the extra yarn cost counts.

I am willing to bet that much of the time, however, using two strands of yarn together is going to make your garment more costly.  The pattern Cirrus by Nancy O’Connell is knit with Shibui Pebble and Shibui Silk Cloud:


© Shibui Knits

In the second size, it would cost just under £200 (US$283) in the Shibui yarns, but could be knit with a single strand of a very luxurious sport or DK weight blended yarn knit at a looser than normal gauge for 50 – 75% of the price of the multi-stranded Shibui.  One could knit it with a far more economical yarn, of course, to save even more money, but the lightness of the fabric is hard to achieve.  The truth is that the multi-stranded Shibui mixes are fantastic on the hand and to the eye.

While these are examples of mixing the same shades of different yarns to achieve a particular type of finished fabric, yarn mixing is often more about colour.  The huge popularity of marl (in which you hold two different shades of the same yarn together to produce colour effects) exemplifies this.  I love the Mélange scarf by Jared Flood, which achieves its colour effects by knitting with five strands of yarn together.


© Brooklyn Tweed/Jared Flood

The pattern calls for six skeins of BT Vale, a laceweight yarn.  Let’s look at a cost per yard comparison with a comparable chunky yarn that would knit up at the same gauge.  Using the US$ prices from Brooklyn Tweed’s website, I can buy chunky aran weight BT Quarry for $0.09/yard or BT Vale for $0.03/yard.  If I hold 5 strands of Vale together, then it costs $0.15/yard, a significant increase on the Quarry.  However, knitting with the Quarry is never going to get you those beautiful marled colour gradations as knitting multi-stranded with the Vale is.

I love the idea of combining different base yarns and getting a unique and interesting fabric.  It is a bit like alchemy, or maybe just experimenting to find the very best chocolate chip cookie recipe.  But it is hard to completely silence Cynical Me.

What do you think? Is the proliferation of pattern designs using multi-strand knitting a cynical ploy to get us to spend more money on yarn, or is it a fun new way to indulge our creative streak and create new fabrics?

Yarn buying habits – a personal reflection

Recently, I wrote a paper (for my MBA studies) about digital marketing and the yarn industry.  While writing the paper, I looked at the range of producers in the sector, in particular new entrants.  I also researched how people buy yarn, for example, what kinds of things influence when and how we buy yarn.  This made me think about my own patterns of buying yarn.  I don’t have a record of all the yarn that I buy and where and when I buy it; some people use Ravelry’s Stash function to keep track of this, but I am not that organized.  However, I do have records of all of the projects that I have knit since joining Ravelry in late 2007, and of which yarns I used for each project.  I looked at 2008, the first full year that I was on Ravelry, and discovered to my amazement that every single project I finished knitting in that year was made with Rowan yarn!  I had only just moved to England in August of 2006 and was still very thrilled to be able to walk into my local John Lewis store and buy Rowan.  That seemed the height of luxury at the time to my yarn-buying self.

I then compared 2008 with last year, 2014, and a very different picture emerged, as you can see from the below:

blog my yarn use

I must point out that these charts show the percentage of projects made with each yarn and NOT the amount of yarn bought; nonetheless, they show a pretty compelling trend. To me, the most interesting thing about the 2014 distribution is that with the exception of Rowan and Noro, which is a Japanese yarn company founded over 40 years ago, each of the other yarn companies I have used in 2014 is a new company: Madelinetosh started in 2006 and Brooklyn Tweed, Quince & Co and The Uncommon Thread all started in 2010.  More than 80% of the projects I knit last year were made with yarn from companies that didn’t exist 10 years ago.  New entrants into the sector are rapidly changing the market, at least for premium yarns.

I didn’t show pie charts for 2009-2013, but I am a pretty eclectic yarn user.  During these years, in addition to lots of Rowan and the companies above, I knit projects using Debbie Bliss, Cascade, Studio Donegal, Hanne Falkenberg, Blue Sky Alpaca, Malabrigo, Mirasol, the Plucky Knitter, Blue Moon Fibre Arts, BC Garn and Wollmeise.

Though my Rowan projects have fallen from their 2008 pinnacle, I still find it a great product.  In particular, I am totally in love with Kidsilk Haze, Felted Tweed DK and Fine Tweed.  As long as Rowan keeps producing these (and maintaining quality), I will keep buying them.  This year, I have so far made four projects, and two of them – the spectacular Soumak Wrap and my Gossamer pullover – used Rowan yarn.  When I lived in Australia and Germany, I considered Rowan a luxury product; now that I’m in England, it is more like the standard for me – I use it as a benchmark to compare yarn prices and qualities.

I realize that my yarn-buying profile reflects the fact that I am willing to spend a lot for yarn.  In my mind, both yarn and books fall into my entertainment budget.  Let’s say that the yarn for a new sweater costs 100£.  Well, if that sweater will take 100 hours to knit, then I am spending 1£/hour on entertainment.  A bargain!  (Compare to a cinema ticket!)  A cashmere cowl that costs 120£ but takes only 10 hours to knit is very luxurious but still costs 12£/hour for knitting enjoyment.   While I might splurge now and then, my general idea is that if the yarn costs less to knit per hour than a cup of coffee in a nice coffee shop, then it’s a good deal.  This kind of thinking (where I consider the yarn as entertainment rather than part of my clothing, or gift,  budget) is perhaps reflective of the fact that I am still more of a process knitter than a product knitter.  On the other hand, for the past few years I have made fewer impulse yarn buys.  I tend to buy yarn for a specific purpose and this seems to be more in line with a product knitter.

I think that part of my willingness to buy expensive yarn reflects the fact that I am knitting less these days.  When I am knitting more, then I am conscious of cost and try to use more yarns that are good quality but affordable, like Cascade 220 for instance.  I seem to be edging now into a more active knitting phase and I find that this is accompanied by a wish to search out some new affordable yarns (Quince & Co, while very high quality, is pretty affordable; it is moving up fast in my go-to list.)   Having two daughters in university is another compelling reason to seek out more affordable yarns, or at least to knit fewer luxury projects.  It is good to have a selection of yarns to knit with, and some of them should always be outrageously luxurious to the senses, because knitting, like cooking, is a sensual art.  How about you?  Are your yarn buying habits changing?  Are you buying more, or less, luxury yarns?  Do you calculate cost per hour of knitting (surely I’m not the only one)?  Do you plan every purchase or are you an impulse buyer?  Do you only buy local, or organic, or machine-washable?  Inquiring minds want to know…….