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A skein of Juniper
Juniper knit up
click each image to enlarge

Yarn Profile: Alchemy Juniper

First Impressions
Knitters have been asking Alchemy to produce a sock yarn for years. When Gina Wilde finally did introduce the superwash Merino sock yarn Juniper at TNNA this January, the buzz was quiet—not necessarily because of the yarn, but likely because of the show itself.

Gina Wilde is the creative spark behind Alchemy Yarns of Transformation. A musician, sculptor, dancer, and performance artist, she is also an extraordinarily gifted colorist who is very exacting about her canvas. She spares no expense in seeking the right yarn, sometimes working years with a hand-picked mill until the twist and ply and fiber blend are just right. Which may explain why this is not your average sock yarn.

For starters, it's spun differently. Most commercial superwash Merino sock yarns on the market are either made from two tightly twisted plies, creating a textured strand that looks like a string of pearls; or they're composed of three or four smooth, loosely plied strands that create a smooth, steady yarn.

When spun for high-abrasion items like socks, Merino wool likes a little nyon reinforcement. If the reinforcement can't come from nylon, it needs to come from the construction of the yarn itself. Plies add strength, so you could conceivably just add more plies and have a stronger yarn.

But a more intriguing and subtle way to add strength is to group these plies into finer strands of plied yarn that are, then, plied together into the final yarn. When everything is plied in the same direction, the construction is called multi-strand or S-on-S cabled yarn (I cheat and just call it "cabled"). As I explained in my book, cabled yarns are incredibly strong and stable, making them an ideal choice for socks.

We see this kind of construction in heavier yarns—Karabella's Aurora 8 is the most famous example, although Alchemy also has one called Temple—but we rarely see it in fingering-weight yarns. Which is a pity, since all those plies give you a perfectly strong, bouncy, and full-bodied sock yarn.

Knitting Up
The label suggests you use US 2 (2.75mm) needles for a gauge of 8 stitches per inch. I tend to knit finer yarns a little more loosely, so I chose size 0 (2.0mm) needles. I also did this because multi-strand construction can produce a very round yarn with less expansion and surface blur than its conventionally plied counterparts. The last thing you want is for your sock fabric to have gaps between the stitches. The more airtight your fabric, the longer wearing it will be—but of course you don't want the fabric so airtight that you can't even get it on your foot.

The yarn knit up quickly and easily, with nary a snag in sight. Snagging can be a problem with this kind of yarn construction, so I pulled out my hypodermic Knit Picks DPNs to see what it took to bring down poor Juniper.

About an hour and one bleeding fingertip later, I had succeeded in making the yarn snag several times—usually when I glanced away from my work. Once there's a snag, you need to be very careful that you recapture all the plies and work them in the correct stitch. I don't know about you, but the sight of a loose ply or two several inches down in my work drives me nuts. Use blunt-tipped needles or take care to check your work routinely.

Blocking / Washing
My swatches washed without a hitch in cold water. In warm water, they released a cloud of darker color into the water. Two rinses later, the water ran clear. There was no difference in gauge or color saturation, and my swatches—especially the miniature sock—blocked to perfect form.

Wearing
Gina chose a superfine Merino for this yarn. "Superfine" is a fiber class that averages a diameter of 15 to 17.5 microns. (A micron is one millionth of a meter, and the lower the micron number, the finer the fiber is.) To give you a point of comparison, the internationally accepted micron count for cashmere is 19 microns or less.

Which means that Juniper is just as soft, if not softer, than a lot of the mainstream mass-produced cashmere yarn out there. The softer a fiber is, the more vulnerable it is to abrasion. Spun as a simple two- or three-ply yarn, I'd worry about Juniper. But in its mulitple-ply format—with three two-ply strands spun together—Juniper keeps these delicate fibers close and tight.

Conclusion
A small handful of yarns inspire my deepest, darkest hoarding instincts, and Alchemy yarns are among those I covet most. I know the yarn itself will always be good—spun well, and of quality fibers. But what resonates much deeper are the colors, masterfully applied in a way that gives depth and movement, dare I even say emotion, to your yarn. I have a bowl of Alchemy Haiku that sits in my office and gives more pleasure than any bouquet of flowers could.

Having revealed my weakness for all things Alchemy, I do have a beef with Juniper. Each skein only holds 232 yards. An unspoken rule in the hand-dyed sock yarn world is that each skein holds enough yarn for a basic pair of socks (usually anywhere from 350 to 400 yards).

The only time you'll see a yarn company break the 50g skein rule is with sock yarn, when the skein is usually bumped up to 100g or more so that you'll have sufficient yardage for socks. There's a functional reason for this generous skein put-up, too. Hand-dyed yarns can differ slightly from skein to skein, even when done as professionally as Gina dyes hers. Having your entire project in one skein ensures you won't have any strange surprises halfway through that second sock. As currently packaged, you'll need two skeins of Juniper to complete a basic pair of socks.

Otherwise this is an excellent sock yarn. I should note that Juniper would also render lace beautifully and produce stunning shawls.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to calm my hoarder within and feed my own Alchemy stash.

 
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