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?