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A skein of Wabi-Sabi
Wabi-Sabi knit up
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Yarn Profile:
Alchemy Yarns Wabi-Sabi

First Impressions
Wabi-sabi is a comprehensive Japanese aesthetic that emphasizes transcending the way we look at the world. It is the beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. Materially, it represents that which is unpretentious, earthy, irregular, and intimate.

How fitting that the folks at Alchemy Yarns chose that name for their new silk blend, for this yarn embodies many of the underlying concepts of wabi-sabi.

Wabi-Sabi (the yarn) starts with a thick single strand of smooth silk. Around it is gently wrapped a delicate mass of merino fibers that have been distressed to the point of pilling—with the resulting visual effect of raw silk.

The combined yarn is then triple-mordanted to ensure optimal dye absorption, before being hand-painted by Alchemy owner and artist Gina Wilde, washed by hand twice, hung to dry on bamboo poles, twisted into skeins, tagged, and bid adieu as it leaves for a store near you.

Color constitutes only part of the intrigue of this yarn. Silk absorbs dye much more readily than merino, and it reflects colors much more intensely. When the entire skein is exposed to the same dye, each fiber reacts slightly differently, resulting in a very faint yet harmonious striation in the yarn.

For me, the greater intrigue is the pairing of two such stark contrasts: a thick, crisp clean silk and a fine, slub-filled merino—perhaps a manifestation of the wabi-sabi notion of irregular beauty.

In all my years of yarn exploration I've never seen merino presented this way. You'd think it counter-intuitive to present merino as a slubby, pill-filled mass, and yet the results here are captivating.

This yarn was introduced last month at TNNA's winter trade show. Gina is painting her first batches of it for shops this week, which means you'll have to wait until the end of this month to get your hands on it. Until then, let me tell you what to expect.

For this review I used color 88a, Hush.

Knitting Up
When knit in a smooth form, silk can be an unforgiving fiber. Any slight change in gauge will be immediately visible in your stitches because there's no real crimp or elasticity to absorb it. One way to combat this is to introduce textured stitches, such as lacework. Another way is to use a yarn with a textured ply combination, which is precisely what Wabi-Sabi has.

When knit up, it has the effect of rippled velvet. Best of all, the fabric's innate textured finish means you can be as inconsistent as you like. Ironically it's as close a cousin to Mission Falls 1824 Cotton as I've seen yet—only this is silk with a shimmery, firm velvety hand.

To keep the yarn snug on the needles and avoid snagging, I used a pair of dull-tipped bamboo needles from Plymouth. With perhaps one exception in all my swatches, there was no snagging at all.

After just a few rows I was able to knit by touch alone, making Wabi-Sabi fair game for absent-minded knitting in dark movie theaters—but then you'd miss watching the yarn, which is half the fun.

A word of warning, however: If you're one of those people who must remove any lumps or pills in your yarn, as am I, Wabi-Sabi may drive you nuts—just remember the slubs are intentional. Don't pull them!

Blocking / Washing
The wool immediately absorbed water when it hit the bath, while the silk took a bit more squeezing to saturate. My swatches relaxed in their bath, emerging as far more cohesive, fluid pieces of fabric. There was no bleeding.

I blotted them with a towel and set them out to dry, with no blocking required whatsoever. They were perfect squares. The gauge—I knit a tight 4 stitches per inch on US 9s—was unchanged.

Because the merino was so jumbled right from the start, I did have some concerns about how it'd withstand additional wear. Interestingly enough, the innate slubs in the merino stayed intact when the swatches were exposed to friction.

As the friction continued, the surface of my fabric began to blur with a combination of silk and wool fibers. Gradually little clouds of loose fibers covered the surface. After more time, my worn swatches looked organic and earthy, yet this was countered by a discreet silky sheen peeking out from under the blurred surface.

As with La Lana Phat Silk, these little clouds were firmly rooted in the long silk fibers in the fabric, making tugging them off a bad idea. Far better to use a sweater shaver and snip them at the base, leaving the surrounding fibers undisturbed.

Even though it has 34% wool, silk is still the predominant fiber in this yarn—and this shows in the yarn's wear. While the wool does add extra loft to the silk, there's still more shimmer here than elasticity or bounce. Over time I knew my swatches would benefit from reblocking.

Borrowing a phrase from Tara Jon Manning, this yarn invites mindful knitting. You'll want to take time to feel the yarn slide through your fingers, watch the shades of color shift ever so slightly, study the play between the velvety confusion of the fine wool and the smooth shimmer of the silk, and experience the textured knitted fabric unfold on the needles. Why rush through the heart and soul that's in each skein?

Another reason not to rush Wabi-Sabi is cost. The extra time and energy required to create this yarn result in an SRP of between $19 and $24 a skein (we're waiting to see what prices stores set when the yarn reaches them). At that price, you want to savor each yard. A plain medium-sized women's drop-shoulder pullover would require about 1100 yards, or 13 skeins. That's...$280. Gulp.

I see Wabi-Sabi in smaller-ticket items just as well, like a cropped bolero-style top with three-quarter-length or short sleeves, or even a summer tank top in simple stockinette stitch, since the yarn's texture does all the work.

But the more I played with my swatches, the more I grappled with this question. Great care has gone into the development of this yarn. The spin and ply were created just for Alchemy, the dye process is painstakingly slow and methodical, and the price reflects all these factors.

Yet once it's knit up, the end result is actually quite simple and unassuming. Dare I say my swatches even had a serene melancholy, or wabi-sabi.

Some knitters may want a garment that more clearly indicates its high cost. And some will be more comfortable in the quiet, solitary understanding of what they're wearing. Either way, Wabi-Sabi encourages us to transcend the way we look at yarn.


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