In Praise of Vanilla

In further support of my newfound (obsession) exploration of toe-up socks, I stash-dived a couple of skeins of inexpensive craft-store yarn I thought would be okay to experiment with.  I banged these out over the weekend, and thought myself fairly clever for it.  I'm finally starting to get my head around why people say that socks are such a wonderful canvas for exploring stitch patterns.  I know: Duh.  Call me a slow learner.  Chevrons! and Twisted Stitches!  On socks!  Your indulgence is appreciated.

I really enjoyed making these.  And the finished socks are a delightful super-fine weight - as in, they can be worn with any shoes, not just clogs or Birkenstocks.  Which got me thinking:  It was time ro revisit my roots, and say hello to some old friends, yarn-wise.

As a lucky-pants knitting designer, I'm now in a position to request yarn from the people who make it, and have them send it to me.  The color, amount, and type are up to me to choose, from pretty much anyplace I can think of - mine for the asking.  But this wasn't always the case.  And it hasn't been very long since then.  Spending time with this simple, unpretentious yarn reminded me of whence I came, yarn wise, and recalled some hard and important lessons I learned when I started out as a designer.

Before I made friends with yarn companies, I was dirt freaking poor of limited fiscal resources, where my knitting budget was concerned.  I had to learn how to work with what I could afford, which yielded extremely variable results.  One notable low was a short-lived mania for recycling thrift store sweaters.  Without so much as a niddy-noddy to make skeins with.  Again, the results were mixed, at best.  At worst, they were frustrating, and even smelly.

I turned to readily-available craft store yarns, which were at least new, if not luxurious.  And you know what?  They really worked just fine.  There is a reason these mass-produced yarns are sold everywhere, including the store where you get your groceries and your motor oil.  I learned that as long as I stuck to fiber content I could easily pronounce, I could make good knitting with some of them. 

Now that I am blessed with the luxury of working with gorgeous artisanal skeins, it was good for me to be reminded of some simpler ones.  I came up with a short list of the favorite yarns from my old days.  These are honest, unpretentious skeins.  They have short ingredient lists, but long yardage.  They have limited palettes, but reliable performance.  Are they heirloom quality? No way.  But then, not everything I knit is (or should be) an heirloom.  Sometimes I just want to grab a skein of something non-cherished to practice on.  And when I'm less emotionally connected to the yarn, some surprising things have happened with my knitting.  Turns out if I'm not treating some perfect skein of cashmere with all the reverence it deserves, I'm a whole lot more likely to create something daring and new.  If I'm going to gut and rework the same stupid armhole shaping five times, I don't want to do it with yarn that's fancy.  Just something serviceable, and well, vanilla.

Herewith, I salute my favorite craft-store yarns: Cheap and Cheerful, and Ready to Serve:

The aforementioned sock yarn.  It comes in cream, black, and a host of engineered stripes that look like the inside of a goat's stomach.  I have no idea what the Aloe thing is about, but the 75% wool, 25% nylon blend is positively utilitarian.  I have a pair of socks in one of the intestinal colorways that I swear are 11 years old.

Ahh, Good old Patons Classic Wool.  Knitting with this yarn is like having coffee with an old friend; There's almost no mindset it can't improve.  Smooth, elastic, and reliable.  Cable it, strand it, felt it.  It does everything Cascade 220 can do, only backwards, and in heels.  And the colors aren't bad either, once you get past the scary variegated ones.  This is the stalwart I turn to when I have a bona fide knitting emergency, and can't even wait for the shipping of something else.  I don't know about you, but a fit of startitis can strike at any time - I actually try to keep a sweater's worth on hand in case of Sudden Inspiration/The Apocalypse/Early Craft Store Closing Time.

And while I'm lovin' on the Canadian yarns, let's not forget this little gem.  The colors are actually very pretty (well, the solids, anyway - the multis are somewhat on the cat-vomit side of things).  I don't know what causes a cotton to be "mercerized", but Patons Grace has a gorgeous pearly luster that other cotton yarns lack.  When I think of summer knitting, this is the yarn I think of first.  Super-pretty for lace, and the delicate gauge keeps things from getting too heavy.  It's also the perfect waste yarn, because it never sticks to the stitches you're holding with it, or breaks if you have to get rough.

I'd be a fool not to love Lion Brand Fishermen's Wool.  Its gauge is listed as worsted, but I've pressed it into service as a DK before, and loved the result.  The colors are absolutely gorgeous, all 7 of them, because they are all the natural colors of sheep.  And sheep, as we all know, are extremely snappy dressers (though not great at accessorizing).  And let's not forget the absolutely staggering yardage on one of these skeins, at 465 yds!

Probably the weirdest yarn on my favorites list, Kashmira (there is nothing cashmere-like about it, by the way) comes from Turkey, by way of JoAnn fabrics.  It's always on sale.  It only comes is black, white, sometimes red, and a truly heinous multi of green, white and black, which should be avoided at all costs.  It's sold as a worsted weight, but it's not.  It's a true DK, with - get this - 10 plies, twisted almost horizontally.  That crazy twist gives it the most incredible sproing, while the superfine plies make it Uber-smooth.  Perfect for colorwork (if you don't mind dyeing your own colors).  It also has crazy-generous yardage, at 284 yds per skein.  Get yourself a pile to keep in the bomb shelter.

The great thing about vanilla yarns is that you can keep them on hand, in amounts that prevent you from being precious with them.  All painters need canvas.  I encourage you to stock up, with impunity.  Especially if it's on sale.  Then you can be twice as smug.

Now you tell me:  What's YOUR favorite flavor of Vanilla?