DECO revisited

While looking at the distinctive material properties of WOOL this Wovember, I have been considering how different yarns perform once they have been knitted into garments. In the online world of knitting blogs, there is a tendency (of which I myself am guilty) to post amazing photos of Finished Objects once they have been created, and then to never mention them again.

Not during WOVEMBER, however! In WOVEMBER, different knitted garments I possess shall be discussed in terms of the wear they have had, and in terms of the way that the WOOL they possess has responded to the demands of daily life.

We shall begin by discussing DECO, which is knit in 100% WOOL yarn, from these sheep who produced the raw fibres required for Susan Crawford’s range of ‘vintage yarns for fashion lovers.’ This yarn was initially developed by John Arbon; the yarn (fibre composition etc.) and name were developed by John, and took approximately 3 years to get to the finished stages. Once this had been achieved, John and Susan collaborated on the colours to make Excelana a complete, saleable yarn.


Photo used with the kind permission of Susan Crawford

You can read a bit about the yarn on Susan Crawford’s post on its unveiling here, and – later in the week – on the Wovember blog, where we will explore the process through which this contemporary British yarn was devised. For now, let us turn our attentions to its performance as knitted clothing.

Susan’s requirements for Excelana were that it would perform in a similar way to the 100% WOOL yarns used in past eras – particularly the 1940s and 50s – and that it would be suitable for knitting vintage garments. I am lucky in evaluating the yarn in this respect, as I own a garment (not knitted by me) which is knit in actual vintage, utility yarn leftover from the 1940s. This is what it looks like closeup;


Actual vintage 4-ply

…and here is the Excelana knit up:


Excelana 4-ply

I don’t know about you, but I find the resemblance here uncanny. It seems to me that both knitted fabrics display a sense of internal structure, as though there is good twist and strength in the yarns involved. I also like how the stitches in each sample of fabric are so well defined.

As well as intending Excelana to give good stitch definition, Susan intended for this yarn to be “lustrous with a soft handle”. I would say the yarn is successful in achieving this, and from a wearer’s point of view, these qualities mean that my cardigan has a slightly glamorous feeling to it, because of its subtle sheen. This lustre is to do with the individual fibres produced by the two sheep breeds whose fleeces have been specifically selected for the purposes of creating Excelana. The Exmoor Blueface and the Blue Faced Leicester both produce fibres which are relatively smooth. Light reflects off the smooth fibres of their WOOL in a way which gives the final yarns a slight luminescence and a dull shine. I am pleased to note that after a couple of months of constant wear, my DECO retains the same glow, crispness and softness that the yarn originally promised. If you look at Excelana yarn on the shelf in the shop in Prick Your Finger, you can see how evenly spun the yarn is, and its slight lustre;

…now please observe that these qualities are retained in the fabric after several washings and 2 months of constant wear;

In 2 months of usage, the stitches comprising my original Finished Object remain clearly defined. All those slipped-stitches pop in neat columns today exactly as they did when I first completed the cardigan, and there has only been a very slight amount of pilling under the arms, which is a place in a garment that sees a lot of friction, (especially when the wearer is given to marching about, arms a-swinging)!

You might think that of course, after 2 months’ worth of wear, the sweater would still be as it was when it was first knit, but this is not the case! Does anyone remember THE GREAT PILLING DISASTER of 2009?

2 weeks after knitting this sweater in Sublime Angora, (80% merino wool, 20% angora, from memory) I combed 26g of pills off it, and those were the blobs of loose fibres which had not gotten into my mouth, tea, shoes, cupboards, fridge, cheese, milk, beer and places best not thought about in this respectable discussion of yarn-performance. I remember the intense dismay that I felt when 2 WEEKS after my most significant knitting endeavour to date had been completed, it looked like a small creature had been living in it. In the time that has passed since, the sweater in question has been semi-felted, and I have combed the pills off it many times, and it is still my first and favourite sweater. However, it has never been a “smart” garment in the way that I had hoped it would be, and the way that the yarn performed in the case of that particular sweater speaks volumes about how the way that fibres are spun – and the selection of those fibres in the first place – affects the way they perform once they are knitted up.

My knit-buddies in Reading were so appalled at my response to the Sublime Angora that I have been dissuaded from ever knitting with it again. In contrast, at least one of them has purchased some Excelana after seeing the beautiful way that mine knitted up, and the way that it continues to behave as a much-loved garment.

Some notes on Exelana;

This yarn achieves I think everything that it set out to achieve; it is stretchy and soft to knit with; it recovers easily from wear and it bounces back into shape when you block it gently. It also shows off stitch-patterns very well and is thus pleasing to the knitter who takes great pride in their handiwork. Finally, it is glamorous without being even remotely gauche. It feels hard-wearing and soft, and the yardage is very good. As a purchaser of this yarn, I also like the fact that I can discover so much about its origins online. The transparency of the process by which it was created is extremely pleasing to me, and for all of those reasons, I think Excelana is EXCELENTA.

Further notes; because of the well-defined stitches (and depending on how you look at it) Excelana might not be the best yarn for a beginning knitter to work with. On the one hand it is good to be able to see one’s mistakes, but on the other hand, I feel a yarn which showcases fine handiwork like Excelana does is better suited to a knitter who will really appreciate that quality rather than a beginner who is apt to make a lot of mistakes and who might not want to see them in HD. As an aside – and this is really more to do with Kate’s pattern than with the yarn itself – I also think that in the case of my DECO, the grosgrain ribbon which re-enforces the button-band has added years to this garment. Even with the finest spinning and the best selection of fibres available, a 100% WOOL knitted fabric will eventually be stretched and strained by buttons being thrust in and out of it on a daily basis. The plastic poppers, grosgrain ribbon and lack of knitted buttonholes are an excellent way of lengthening the life of a button-up garment knitted in Excelana or any 100% WOOL yarn. There is a wonderful video here by the Knitmore Girls for anyone interested in learning how to make reinforced button bands to lengthen the life of the wool in their cardigans.

What I love best of all about Excelana is that it does not strive to be all things to all knitters; this is a specific yarn created for the specific purpose of creating well-fitting, intricately designed, multi-textured vintage patterns. Because of the extra information supplied by its makers about what it is for, how it behaves, what is suitable to make with it, etc. I was able to perfectly match it to my project. This specificity is precisely what needs to be encouraged in all areas of textile production, because – in terms of WOVEMBER – the more specific information about textiles is, the more informed choices we consumers can make. Additionally, by developing exclusive and niche products such as Excelana made from Exmoor Blueface and Bluefaced Leicester WOOL, forward-thinking knitwear designers like Crawford can glamorise a product which has historically been somewhat devalued by being lumped in all together with many fibres of inferior quality, as “British Wool”.

Highlighting the difference between “British Pork” and “Gloucester Old Spot” sausages (for instance) has contributed to an amazing culture of regional farmer’s markets and local-produce cookery enthusiasm in the form of television programmes, celebrity chefs and endless cookery books. I feel that products like Excelana are part of a corresponding WOOL movement towards differentiating between our various UK Sheep breeds, and developing products which highlight their distinctive, individual specialities.

Knowing your Exmoor Blueface/Bluefaced Leicester WOOL from your random Merino/Angora blend is how you end up with clothes that you absolutely love, and which you know will last you for years and years.

16 Responses to DECO revisited

  1. Joanna says:

    Wovember is turning out to be such a feast of thoughtful and fascinating writing about WOOL. I love your description and analysis of Excelana and am excited about the idea of becoming more familiar with the relationship between specific breeds of sheep and the WOOL that they produce.

  2. I go along fully with Joanna. This was a lovely read just before turning the lights off yesterday, I drifted off with a “wooly head”.

    It must feel very rewarding to knit with this particular yarn especially for this pattern. A perfect match.

  3. Valerie says:

    I appreciate this post immensely. Too many times I have made a sweater with an expensive, popularly acclaimed yarn (often merino), only to find that its performance is very disappointing. I often wonder if others who have used these yarns actually wear their sweaters. I do wear mine, and greatly appreciate an honest evaluation of the specific qualities of a yarn so that I can choose wisely for each project. We knitters need more discussions of this sort, and more frank evaluations of various yarns. Thanks for your discussion of Excelana; it definitely sounds like a yarn I would like to try for a long-wearing sweater, and looks perfect for Deco. Love your Deco, by the way!

  4. Susan says:

    I have an UFO that’s in an angora blend, and I can tell already that the sweater is going to pill like blazes. Then again, from having it on my lap as I work, I can also tell that it will be like wearing my own personal mini-furnace. So, I’ll be inelegant but extremely warm. When I finish it, that is….

    (Did you get my email thanking you for the truly lovely parcel?)

  5. Georgie says:

    Brilliant post, so interesting and useful!

  6. Pingback: A full stop… | ClassicCableKnits

  7. Kristen says:

    Lovely post and lovely sweater! Blue Faced Leicester is quickly becoming my favorite fiber in terms of wear and beauty, and this particular yarn looks very exciting! Thanks so much for the review.

  8. CAROLINE says:

    So good to know about the lasting properties of wool!
    Loved your post and Kate’s too!
    Someone gave me a heap of that Sublime Angora – gorgeously soft, but jesus, I can barely ever wear the jumper I knitted from mine as it sheds so much and pills so much….sad. If only someone told you that at the start, you would knit something more apt out of it. I also found it really sagged with the weight of itself and hasn’t much elasticity….so depressing!

  9. Annie says:

    I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this post Felix, thank you.

    I have four balls of this yarn, bought at Woolfest, waiting for the right pattern. Reading this has made my fingers itch.

  10. Bridget says:

    Fascinating stuff – and something which I’ve not really been aware of before, i.e. breed-specific wool. did you use 4-ply for the Deco cardigan? I notice from Kate’s blog that it can be knit in either 4-ply or a light DK. Would be very interested to know as I LOVE that yellow colour!

  11. Pingback: Excelana – from sheep to skein « Wovember

  12. Philippa says:

    What is the superlative of useful? If I knew it, I would use it! Brilliant post, thank you.

  13. Beth Janvrin says:

    What a lovely post! Thank you so much for writing it. I chanced upon Wovember last night and was having a conversation about “proper sweaters” with my husband afterwards. You know, the sweaters that people used to buy when they could only afford one and it had to last the next 10 years. Not throw-outable clothing! I love the fact that there is now more information about the wool itself, as you said, not just a generalizing, ie “British Wool”. Because I don’t know. I wish that we had the savvy of previous generations taught to purchase the best quality they could afford and keep their clothes properly mended and cared for. But we’re not taught. Mindful purchasing and wearing must be brought back.
    As I can’t knit at all, just yet, I shan’t be trying out Excelena. I only crochet so far and crochet just doesn’t make a proper sweater. But I really appreciate the post and the fact that you’re interested in showing more than just the “showcase” photo. How does it wash? How does it wear? How does it look down the road after constant wearing? That is information of infinite value to me.
    Thanks again! Happy stitching!

    • Thank you, Beth. I am so happy you enjoyed reading this, it was a pleasure to write it and I think it’s useful sometimes to learn a little bit about how clothes wear once we have put all that work into making them.

  14. John Arbon says:

    Hello,

    Thank you for the comments about Excelana, this is the most exact and best road test I have had for my yarn and goes beyond what I did in the development stages for this yarn in terms of testing for pill resistance, strength,twist, performance and stitch definition. A well thought out and excellent review.

    I would only like to correct one small item that the yarn (fibre composition etc) and name Excelana was developed by me and took approx 3 years to get it to the finished stages. Once this was achieved I contacted Susan Crawford and we collaborated on the colours and Susan fitted the bill with her vintage designs and made Excelana a complete yarn.

    Cheers

    John Arbon

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