A skein of Optimum
Optimum knitted up
click each image to enlarge

Yarn Profile: South West Trading Company Optimum

First Impressions
Optimum is made from merino wool, but it's not like any merino you may have tried in the past. That's because the merino fibers in Optimum have been stretched to a finer thickness and permanently re-set.

Instead of a plump, squeezable little dumpling of yarn, you have a relaxed, smooth, fluid skein. What began as a 19 micron merino fiber is thinned down to 16 microns, making it comparable to cashmere.

The stretching process—called Optim—was first introduced in Australia in 2002. It permanently alters the molecular structure of merino wool, giving it greater luster that, in turn, reflects dyed colors more brilliantly than the standard merino counterparts

I love soft yarns, but I also love the bounce and elasticity of merino. I also tend to mistrust processes that seek to improve upon an already perfect nature. With this bias lingering in the back of my mind, I began knitting up my swatches.

Knitting Up
Fine, smooth, and extremely relaxed, Optimum knits up quickly and easily. Within a few rows I was able to knit by touch alone.

From afar, the yarn seems perfectly smooth, fine, and even—almost too even. But as I worked with it, I began to notice variations in the thickness of the yarn.

In a few cases I even encountered variations in the thickness of the two plies that make up the yarn, one distinctly finer than the other.

These differences reflected in slightly irregular stitches and rows in the swatches, but nothing a simple ribbing, seed stitch, or lace pattern wouldn't hide.

Blocking / Washing
Here's where the Optim processing became most evident. Whereas raw merino will relax slightly during wash and then pull itself back together again once dry, the Optim swatches had clearly lost their elastic fiber memory. My unwashed swatches averaged 6 to 6 1/2 stitches per inch, while the washed swatches had expanded to 5 stitches per inch. Definitely keep this expansion in mind if you plan to knit a garment out of Optimum.

With each wash, they grew larger, thinner, and more relaxed. The thinner they became, the more evident were the previously mentioned thickness irregularities.

Wearing
With just one wash, my swatches had become relaxed and almost worryingly thin.

From a touch standpoint, Optimum is as soft as anything I've ever touched—cashmere included.

Optimum's fibers have a longer staple length than cashmere, both because they're merino and because the merino has been stretched. I was surprised to see how much abuse my swatches endured before showing any signs of pilling.

When they finally did surrender, it was in the form of tiny flecklike pills evenly distributed across the surface. From a reasonable distance, the yarn's natural luster helped conceal any signs of distress.

Conclusion
The Optim process produces a truly soft and luxurious fiber that's comparable to cashmere. Not identical, mind you, but very comparable.

Its rich, silky sheen is even more vibrant when the yarn has been dyed. Although South West Trading Company currently offers Optimum in 10 colors, I recommend buying a white skein and dyeing it yourself for a truly one-of-a-kind skein.

An Optimum shawl would be divine, especially if you used any sort of stitch pattern that would conceal the faint irregularities in the yarn's thickness. The relaxed, elegant drape is almost unsurpassed.

Another reason to use Optimum for a shawl or scarf instead of a full-sized garment: price. Optimum currently sells for $26 per 144-yard skein.

A modest scarf alone would require two to three skeins, while a medium-sized women's pullover would use upwards of 12 skeins (or over $312). The yarn is as soft as cashmere, and it's also as pricey.

 
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