As I type this, the first snow of the winter is falling in Chicago. This means that, without a doubt, knitting season has begun. (Avid yarn crafters will point out that knitting season never really ends, but those who don't like to knit or crochet when it's 95 will agree that it's time to start up again.)
I was talking with a fellow knitter over the weekend and the conversation turned to elitism. We agreed that the presence of "yarn snobs" can make a knitting group less welcoming. Yes, knitters can be elitist. I have noticed that many of my knitting books were written by yarn snobs. It is not hard to tell from reading the "Guide To Fiber" section, or something similarly titled. What follows is a non-snob's guide to different yarn fibers.
Basic info: Acrylic yarn is synthetic, as opposed to coming from an animal or plant. It has a (somewhat unfounded) reputation for being cheap and uncomfortable for that reason, but technology has advanced enough that today's acrylic yarn can actually be quite nice. Lion Brand has two that I really like: Wool-Ease is 80% acrylic and 20% wool; Vanna's Choice is nice and soft and comes in a wide variety of colors.
Pros: Acrylic yarn is inexpensive and very easy to come by; most of the yarn at craft and fabric stores is either acrylic or an acrylic blend. It is also machine-washable.
Cons: The really cheap stuff can be scratchy. Before you buy a skein, pick it up and feel it. Try and get your fingers inside. If the yarn feels uncomfortable in the skein, it will not be fun to work with, and the finished product will not feel much better. Walking around with a big skein of acrylic yarn is also the easiest way to draw the wrath of yarn snobs.
I use it for: Afghans; craft projects like stuffed animals; Christmas stockings.
Basic info: Wool is the most common of the animal-based fibers (and Captain Obvious would like to remind you that it comes from sheep). There are two basic flavors of wool yarn. The original will shrink when washed in the washing machine, which is exactly what you want for a felting project but not so good for a sweater that you have been working on for two months. Superwash wool has been treated to prevent shrinking; if you have a felting project this is the kind you do NOT want.
Pros: After acrylic, wool is the easiest fiber to find. It is soft and warm and will keep you dry even when it gets wet. It is wonderful to work with. Price-wise, it is less expensive than the other animal fibers.
Cons: Just be careful when you buy it and when you wash it. If it says "Superwash" on the label, it can be washed in the washer (though you might want to do it with your delicates). If it does not, wash it by hand and let it air-dry unless you want it to shrink. Super-soft wools, like merino, tend to "pill" (those little tiny balls of yarn that appear after it has been worn for a while).
I use it for: Mittens and hats. Wool is the only thing I will use for mittens, because of its near-miraculous waterproofing abilities. Seriously, if you have kids who like to play in the snow, they need wool mittens. I only wish I had known that growing up. Superwash wool is also excellent for winter socks and sweaters.
Basic info: Cotton is the most common of the plant-based fibers. It can be hard to dye, so it usually comes in lighter colors than wool or acrylic.
Pros: Cotton is also easy to come by. It is pretty soft, especially if you think wool is itchy. It will not pill or shed like acrylic or any of the animal fibers. It is usually machine-washable, although the colors will fade after a while. It is the least expensive of the plant fibers. If you are worried about how "green" your yarn is, organic cotton is easy to come by.
Cons: Cotton gets heavy when wet. It can also be difficult to work with, because it does not have any stretch. If you make a mistake and need to rip out a few rows, the yarn will be more kinked than wool or acrylic would be. It is not very warm.
I use it for: Dishcloths and dish towels (one application where wool would be disastrous; you'd end up with fiber all over your dishes). It is also good for lightweight tops or a knitted swimsuit (no, I'm not kidding. There are patterns for it).
This post is becoming much longer than I thought it would be, so I shall finish there for today. Stay tuned for more; next time we will get into more exotic (and expensive) fibers. For the non-crafters, stay tuned for a post coming soon about the Chicago TARDIS convention.