There is nothing like browsing through shelves of yarn at shop that speaks weaving, and in particular, rigid-heddle weaving. I live in a small town and the only local yarn available is at Walmart, the local Alpaca farm, and the occasional yarn swap at my local guild. I’m about an hour and a half drive from the nearest full-service yarn shop and within a day’s drive of a plethora of fiber goodness.
Relatively speaking, I’m luckier than most. The fact is that many weavers don’t have these kinds of resources within driving distance. (If you aren’t sure if you have a shop nearby that speaks your language, check out your loom manufacture’s website for a list of their dealers. You never know, one might be closer than you think.)
Most of us have some sort of big box store within a reasonable distance, and I get asked all the time, “What yarns should I buy at the big box for weaving?” Here are my recommendations.
Craft Cotton is a 4-ply, unmercerized yarn, with moderate twist. It tends toward light worsted weight. Depending on the quality of the cotton, it can be an excellent choice for absorbent, soft towels, other household items, and garments. It isn’t going to create heirloom-quality fabrics, but it will hold up quite well to daily use.
The colors may fade over time, so I look for yarns with highly saturated colors. The most common brand found at the big box is Sugar ‘n Cream or Peaches & Creme. I’m partial to Lion Brand’s Kitchen Cotton, but it isn’t always available at your local store.
Crochet cotton is mercerized with tight singles and ply twist. The high degree of twist makes the yarn firm and the mercerization gives it its sheen. (See this blog post for more info on the different kinds of cotton.) The good stuff is spun opposite to most conventional yarns—spun S (left) and plied Z (right). This keeps the yarn from raveling when used for crochet and tatting and the tight twist allows small delicate crochet stitches to pop out of the cloth.
Crochet cotton comes in a variety of sizes and is a decent substitute for mercerized or pearl cotton. Size 3 is approximately the same size as a 3/2 pearl cotton. Size 3 has a balanced plain weave sett of about 14 and will sett well in a 12-dent rigid heddle although it will be every-so-slightly warp faced. It is a good choice for placemats, table runners, and lightweight scarves and shawls. Your local store may only carry a few colors of crochet cotton. Most big box stores offer you the option to buy online where you may find more colors and have the yarn shipped to the store at no extra cost.
Although 3/2 pearl cotton and size 3 crochet thread may be approximately the same size, they will act differently. The firm twist of the crochet cotton keeps the yarn from blooming as much as pearl cotton during wet finishing.
To give you an idea of how this translates to the finished cloth, take a look at the three fabrics shown here. All of these are woven by Jean Ahearn, aka “Jeen” on Ravelry, who is renowned for her pinwheels. When she heard that her Pinwheel Mat was one of the projects that escaped during the great train wreck of ’16,she lickety-split wove up a few new runners and samples for me. Better yet, she wove them in different kinds of cotton so they are a great format to compare and contrast the difference in the yarns I’m discussing. From top to bottom are, 3/2 pearl cotton, size 3 crochet cotton, and craft cotton. Both the pearl and crochet cotton are slightly warp faced, but since the pearl cotton blooms more, it fills in the gaps and makes the fabric look a little bit more uniform. The craft cotton is more to square and distinct, yet soft-looking. All are lovely fabrics with subtle variations.
Acrylic is petroleum-based and it has less stretch than its cousin, nylon. Fabric made from acrylics are lightweight and quick-drying. It is inexpensive and designed for lots of wash and wear. Generally speaking, the yarn is very stable and doesn’t bloom much when wet finished. Acrylics are not very absorbent and won’t make a good choice for kitchen and bath items, but do make fine scarves, shawls, and pillows. It is not as warm as wool or other natural protein fibers, making it a great choice for those who want to make scarves, wraps, and shawls for warmer climates.
Acrylics can be made in an infinite variety of styles, from smooth, fine uniform yarn to nubby novelties. The same rules apply to acrylics that apply to other yarns when evaluating for warp, it needs to be strong enough to hold up under the tension of the loom and beware of too much texture—sticky warps are a bummer. Save those textured, fuzzy yarns for the weft.
I was particularly inspired by a pillow Claudia Pizzi recently shared with me. She wove it with a craft cotton warp and acrylic weft, a great example of fabric you can weave using the yarns mentioned in this post.
Shopping at a big box craft store like Joann’s and Michaels’ offers you more choice. They carry more yarn blends that include synthetic and natural fibers. I tend to like these yarns more than 100% acrylic because they bloom more like a natural fiber. If you are looking for help in substituting a yarn for a pattern you have on hand, check out this blog post on yarn substitutions.
Think Outside the Aisle
While you are in the box, wander around the other aisles. Beading twine, crafting cord, kitchen twine, and other types of yarn-like things weave up into interesting fabrics. The Hemp Hot Pads in Handwoven Home are a good example of what you can do with these kinds of materials.
Yarn doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive to weave up well, you just have to apply a little know-how when selecting yarns for your given need. Know-how is what Yarnworker is all about.