A skein of Balance
Balance knit up
click each image to enlarge
Yarn Profile:
O-Wool Balance

First Impressions
Each year more than 600,000 tons of pesticides and chemical fertilizers are applied to cotton fields in the United States. And the global cotton market accounts for some 25% of all insecticides used annually.

These facts alone have driven a global push to produce cotton organically. And more recently, the organic wave has expanded to encompass fiber-producing animals as well as plants. The goal is not only to raise the animals according to organic standards and principles, but also process the fibers in an organic, sustainable manner—including no harsh chemical scouring agents and no toxic dyes or mordant processes.

The Vermont Organic Fiber Co. has been supplying organic materials to the textiles industry since 2000 with clients that include retailers Patagonia and Sahalie. Just a few years ago, the company decided to launch a line of yarns for handknitters. After finding quick success with its O-Wool Classic 100% wool yarn, this spring the company introduced O-Wool Balance, a three-ply blend of 50% organic Merino and 50% organic cotton.

Cotton and wool are ideal bedfellows because each makes up for the other's shortcomings without getting in the way of its benefits. Cotton provides cool, comfortable wear in summer, with an ability to absorb more than 20 times its weight in water and release it through evaporation (think of your handknits as evaporative cooling units with sleeves).

On its own, however, cotton can be a little dense, and its very slow elasticity can cause it to stretch out over time. But when you introduce equal amounts of Merino to the mix, those same cotton fibers are kept open and lofty with the help of shorter crimpy wool fibers. Plus, wool adds memory, elasticity, and a subtle amount of luster to the final product.

I've seen cotton and wool blended to the point of total cohesion, but Balance makes a point of keeping the fibers somewhat distinct. A good percentage of the cotton in this yarn appears to be noil, or the shorter slubby bits of fiber left over from the combing process. These flecks give the yarn a lovely heathered look with a hint of texture that's visually reminiscent of Elsebeth Lavold Silky Wool, only thicker and with cotton instead of silk.

The Merino absorbs the dye more readily than the cotton. There's a core of rich deeply dyed fibers around which swirls lighter, almost pastel cotton fibers and little tufts of cotton noil. All together, the effect is very calm and earthy.

Balance is currently available in 18 colors, all of which err on the side of shades that occur abundantly in nature. Between the three-ply structure, the noil-laced construction, the lovely colors, and the low-chemical processing, I'll guess that this yarn may have been spun at the Green Mountain Spinnery. But it's just a guess. Note: Wrong! Green Mountain Spinnery is a Certified Organic Processor, and all of their yarns labeled 100% Organic are made from wool grown in Maine and Vermont. They don't touch O-Wool Yarns in any way, though. Thanks to the GMS folks for providing such a speedy and helpful answer!

For this review I chose the color Turquoise.

Knitting Up
I was already smiling before I even wound this yarn into a ball. That's because some kind soul at the mill thoughtfully used slip knots to secure each section of the hank. Normally only the smaller hand-dyers at festivals do this, and that's only because they wind their own hanks and know how annoying standard knots can be. Bigger operations tend to tie firm industrial knots that require either adept patience or scissors.

Balance behaved beautifully on the needles. The yarn has an overall cool, dry, "cottony" feel while also offering a subtle amount of bounce, fullness, and body.

Knitting was swift and snag-free. I found it helpful to stop after each row and give my stitches a little tug to pull them into place before proceeding. Stitches appeared pretty much even. A few spots looked a little lumpy, but I had a sense that they'd even out with wash.

Blocking / Washing
My swatches bled a little in both cold and warm water. In cold water, they rinsed clear almost immediately. In warm water, they rinsed clear after two rinses. Generally speaking, as long as you continue to rinse the garment until the water runs clear (thus not allowing any of the stray dye to set), you shouldn't have much to fear in terms of bleeding colors. Of course it always helps to make test swatches first.

As I'd hoped, the 50% Merino helped my swatches fill out into nice smooth cohesive pieces of fabric. There was no significant change in color saturation from the unwashed to washed swatches, so the colors that bled weren't critical to the final product.

The swatches blocked into perfect squares with just a little blotting in a towel and a few gentle tugs here and there. There was no change in gauge.

Balance has a somewhat weathered look right off the bat because of those little tufts of cotton noil. With increased friction, a few of those tufts started to get smaller and more dense before separating from the fabric and forming small pills on the surface.

It took quite a while for this to occur on any large scale, however, and from a distance you couldn't see a thing beyond the fabric's already heathered appearance. The swatches stayed remarkably intact for quite a while before showing any significant signs of wear.

Balance has a lot going for it. By virtue of having 50% Merino in the mix, it could easily serve as a transition yarn for spring and fall, when you're not totally in summer but you're not in winter either.

It has a flexible gauge, knitting up at anywhere from 19 to 21 stitches per 4 inches (10cm). This means you'll be able to use it for a variety of patterns and to achieve a variety of fabric effects from airy to firm. And then there are the colors, marvelous heathered hues that capture the subtlety of earth, sky, air, and water.

An average retail price of $7.75 per 130-yard skein is reasonable for 100% certified organic fibers and for such a well-constructed yarn. A medium-sized women's pullover would require about 10 skeins, bringing the bill to a little under $80.

Organic knits are especially appealing for newborns and children, and this yarn is well-suited for that purpose. The only drawback is that it is not machine-washable. While I'd still use it selectively for babies of knitters who aren't afraid to handwash, I'd stick to smaller items of clothing—friends don't make friends wash blankets by hand.


 Talk about this yarn in our forums