Special Yarn Preview:
Something big is happening, and you're lucky enough to be right in the middle of it. A major yarn retailer has decided to bypass its vendors, going straight to the mills to produce its own broad and deep line of yarns—and passing almost every cent of their savings on to you.
Suddenly a merino afghan can be yours for under $30. A woman's merino jacket for under $15. An alpaca lace shawl for as low as $8.
Indeed, the prices on Knit Picks yarns are so scandalously low that I wonder if the catalog should be shipped in a plain brown wrapper.
Who, and How?
Launched in 2002, Knit Picks is the knitting branch of consumer catalog and online marketer Crafts Americana.
It is headed by the husband-wife team of Kelley and Bob Petkun. Bob is the self-proclaimed numbers guy, while Kelley—with a genuine and infectious passion for knitting—heads all creative operations.
After Knit Picks' first two years, Kelley and Bob decided that they needed to completely change the way they were doing business. Bob believed that by going directly to the mills and producing their own yarns they could pass a substantial savings on to their customers.
He began by crunching numbers to determine the best-selling yarns from the last two years, and presented the results to Kelley. It was quickly apparent that their best-sellers were basic, standard yarns.
The Quest for Good and Basic
An ardent Elizabeth Zimmermann fan, Kelley firmly believes that "good, basic yarns in natural fibers are the only way to go." Reassured to see that her customers felt the same way, she decided to focus on offering good quality yarns, simply spun from natural fibers.
Bob researched mills and contacted local consulates in Italy and Peru, and within a few weeks he was off to establish relationships with mills.
Peru quickly became their country of choice, not only because their mills offered a good product but because Kelley liked the ability to include alpaca fiber in her yarns. Kelley played an active role in developing these yarns.
As an avid spinner, she insisted that the yarns be four-ply, which she knew was more balanced. She also had fun explaining yarn fundamentals to her husband Bob, for example, that it's OK for self-striping yarns to look so strange on the skein, and that even if the bulky alpaca is reasonably priced, it's too heavy and hot for anybody to wear.
Kelley has finally unveiled her new yarns in the Winter 2005 Knit Picks catalog. The resulting 11 new yarns—many of which contain some element of alpaca—have been flying off the shelves almost faster than they can stock them.
The first question on everybody's mind—including my own—is are these yarns any good? Having just received a care package with generous samples of each yarn, I can offer these initial impressions.
Wool of the Andes
Peruvian wool is a cross between merino, which gives delicate softness, and Corriedale, a more rugged merino-cross with reasonable softness and greater durability.
This four-ply yarn is priced at $1.79 per 110-yard skein and knits up at 4.5 to 5 stitches per inch on US 6-9 needles. It is available in 24 rather strong, saturated colors (including the Mulled Wine you see here).
The yarn behaved fine when I knit test swatches, with no snagging or other obvious troubles.
Agreed, it felt a little dry and lifeless in my hands, and my stitches looked rather uneven (they smoothed out after a warm wash). But remember: We're discussing a pure wool yarn priced at a mere $1.79 per skein.
Pure merino tends to be more rare and delicate, bringing the bill for Merino Style up only slightly to $2.29 per 123-yard skein. This four-ply yarn knits up at 5.5 stitches per inch on US 5 needles, and is available in 24 lighter but still saturated colors (pictured here in Rhubarb).
Distinctly softer than Wool of the Andes, Merino Style was perhaps my most pleasant surprise. Knitting was fast, smooth and easy, and the swatches were soft, even, and light. How exciting for new and budget-conscious knitters to get to experience merino without intimidation!
But here are a few notes about this yarn, only for those seeking perfection. First, it didn't have as much bounce and elasticity as other, more expensive merinos I've tried.
Second, when I pulled a few individual fibers loose from the yarn and tugged them, they quickly snapped. This snap test is something you usually you do when testing a fleece, but I was curious how it would work with these fibers. (You grab a lock of fibers from a fleece and tug them firmly. You want a fleece whose fibers don't break.)
But again, at $2.29 for 123 yards of pure merino, this is a fantastic bargain—regardless of whether or not the individual fibers snap under pressure. Held tight with four plies, the fibers will hold together just fine.
Possibly my favorite of the Knit Picks line, this plush and soft combination of 70% baby alpaca and 30% silk comes in 110-yard skeins priced at $4.29 apiece. For alpaca and silk, that's still a bargain.
Elegance knits up at 5.5 stitches per inch on US 5 or 6 needles. It worked up quickly, easily, and evenly for me, producing a next-to-the-skin soft and plump fabric. It has the visual shimmer of silk paired with the slinky drape and warmth of alpaca.
It is initially available in 12 colors, including the Wild Rose you see here.
This is the only yarn in the Knit Picks offering about which I have slight misgivings. Although luxurious in principle, with 55% super fine alpaca, 23% silk, and 22% merino, the fibers somehow didn't quite come together in this batch.
Blame it on rushed processing, perhaps? As I knit, I kept finding tiny flecks of what I presume to be silk noil that—with lengthier and more careful processing—probably would've been removed. However, lengthier and more careful processing would also up the price from $3.29 per 96-yard skein (a catalog typo listed it at 110). So, again, put these remarks in context.
To its credit, the yarn has an extraordinary sheen, softness, and drape. It is available in 14 strong, saturated colors (including the Orange pictured here).There are also six colors under the label Andean Silk Twist (pictured here in Pumpkin Patch). In this case, each of the four plies has been dyed a different color.
The resulting lively blend of colors works perfectly in projects that also feature larger areas of each color in the twist. You can use the Andean Silk Twist to transition from one solid to another.
Of the yarns I didn't yet have time to try extensively on the needles, this is my favorite. This four-ply yarn contains baby alpaca dyed in 12 gorgeous heathered colors, including the delicate Lilac pictured here.
The yarn comes in 110-yard skeins for $3.79 (so low a price, I almost feel like I should whisper it), knitting up at 6 stitches per inch on US 3 to 5 needles.
The yarn's exquisite softness makes it perfect for any next-to-the-skin garment, especially one that could benefit from alpaca's heavy, relaxed, fluid drape.
Alpaca Cloud and Shimmer Kelley chose to begin with two lace yarns, each of which prominently features alpaca fiber spun in two plies.
Alpaca Cloud (pictured at left in Sunlight) is pure alpaca and ships in 440-yard hanks for the almost shameless price of $3.99. It is initially available in 12 earthy colors, ranging from an airy blue Horizon to deep heathered brown Autumn.
Shimmer (pictured at right in Grape Hyacinth) is so named because of the "shimmery" addition of silk (30% silk to 70% alpaca). It is hand-dyed in eight colorful blends. Each 440-yard hank is priced at $4.99.
Some lace-weight yarns tend to be made from soft, bouncy wools, producing lightweight shawls that seem to float over the body. But with Alpaca Cloud and Shimmer, shawls are anchored by the sophisticated, elegant drape only alpaca provides.
Sock Garden and Sock Landscape Never one to leave sock knitters out of the loop (so to speak), Kelley included a 100% merino sock yarn. The two above are identical in fiber composition. Sock Garden comes in 220-yard skeins, Sock Landscape in 192-yard hanks. Both retail for $3.99 apiece.
Sock Garden is so called because Kelley chose garden-inspired color combinations (including Pansy, pictured here), while the eight colors of Sock Landscape were inspired by, you guessed it, landscape images (including New England Foliage shown here).
A standard pair of socks will require approximately two skeins of either yarn. They both knit up at 7 to 8 stitches per inch on US 1 to 3 needles. (Hand wash or dry clean only.)
Simple Stripes And finally, fans of self-patterning sock yarns rejoice: there's one for you too! It comes directly from Italy and is nearly identical to the competition... except that it's only $3.69 per 231-yard skein. (You'll need two skeins to make a standard pair of socks.)
The superwash yarn is 75% wool, 25% nylon, and knits up at 7 to 8 stitches per inch on US 1 to 3 needles. It is currently available in eight color combinations (I chose the perky Sweet Tarts, pictured here).
Kelley is already hard at work on summer cottons. She told me about her rather unconventional criteria for choosing a cotton. "I am very careful about not getting sunburnt," she said, "but sometimes I get a little pink. You know that chilly feeling you get when you are sunburned? And your skin is so sensitive. Well, I chose cottons that I would like to have against my skin when I am sunburned."
She's been knitting test swatches and running them through the washing machine and dryer to see how they fare, with good results so far.
Beyond the summer cottons, she is also working on introducing more colors. She's also adding scarf components that you can use together to make "silly, sassy scarves," as Kelley described them.
And this fall, even more new lines will be introduced, although it's too soon for Kelley to give details.
What About The Other Guys?
With such inexpensive yarns now available on a large scale, should other yarn companies be nervous? That depends.
If they've been delivering a product nearly identical in quality to the Knit Picks yarns but pocketing a substantial markup for themselves, then yes. That practice may not be able to endure once customers get used to these lower prices.
By cutting out the middleman, Knit Picks has revealed just how inexpensive these yarns can be. But in doing so, they require that either yarn manufacturer or yarn retailer must go.
Why Pay More?
So, now that you know you can get a skein of merino for under $2.50, why bother paying more elsewhere? Again, that depends.
So much goes into a skein of yarn that you cannot possibly judge it by price alone. My best advice is for you to get your hands on some Knit Picks yarn and play with it for a while. Let your hands become familiar with its texture, the way it moves and plays on the needles.
Then, the next time you visit a yarn store, you'll be far better prepared to evaluate similar yet more expensive yarns. Your hands will know the difference and tell you if the value is worth the extra money.
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