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Knitting with Inelastic Natural Vegetable Fibers: Quick Tips for Success

We often hear from frustrated knitters express a lot of interest in knitting with natural vegetable fibers but are unsure how to get an even look in a finished garment. While it’s true that inelastic fibers lack the kind of give most of us desire when knitting, when knit correctly and used for the right kinds of projects, they’ll deliver stunning results.
It’s time to stop shying away from vegetable fiber yarns and start creating. By taking control of your technique you’ll master plant fibers in no time.

First, what are the characteristics of vegetable fiber yarns?

Cotton is the most common vegetable fiber used for yarn, but linen, bamboo and hemp are also popular fibers. Unlike animal-based yarns such as wool or silk, plant-based yarns tend to lack elasticity and produce fabrics with little or no “memory.†This means anything you knit in these fibers will tend to stretch out over time and stubbornly resist returning to its original shape.

If this is the case, why do we bother to knit with plant fibers?

  • They’re lighter and more suitable for warm-weather garments
  • They can be cleaned in the washing machine, making them ideal for dishcloths and kids' clothes
  • Textured stitches “pop†more in these yarns
  • Each has a unique drape and luster
By making a few simple changes to your knitting technique, you can bring these distinctive characteristics to your next project without hassle.

1. Dealing with Gauge Troubles

One of the biggest complaints we have as knitters is not being able to “get gauge,†especially on rows. Most of us can figure out the right size needles to use for accurate stitch gauge, but row gauge remains elusive. This can throw off the spacing of decreases or result in a stunted garment when knitting from a chart, whether you prefer English or continental knitting.
Problems with row gauge are usually the result of knitting tighter than you purl or vice versa. The fabric winds up looking uneven, and it’s harder to correct the inconsistencies with blocking when the yarn is inelastic. Since it’s even harder to train yourself to change tension on one type of stitch, we recommend you try these two methods to obtain the correct number of rows:

  • Adapt the Design to Knitting in the Round
This works best for sweaters and hats knit flat before seaming, but you can also transform flat scarves into tubes by doubling the number of stitches and repeating the main pattern twice across the round.

  • Use Different Needle Sizes for Knitting & Purling
Make a few test swatches with the needle you used to get stitch gauge and a needle one or two sizes smaller, switching to the smaller size for the looser stitch type.
Whatever method works best for you, make sure you always knit to the end of a row or round before setting your project aside. Your tension is never exactly the same each time you knit, and picking up in the middle of the row can create visible differences in the texture of the fabric.

2. Preventing Cables from Stretching

Cabled fabric requires particular care when you’re knitting with vegetable fiber yarns. Every time you cross a cable, the stitches get pulled in the direction the cable leans. Slipping the stitches to a cable needle can stretch out the fibers of the yarn, making the cables appear uneven.
An easy way to prevent this is to use a cable needle a couple of sizes smaller than your main needles. If you don’t have a cable needle in the right size, use a double-pointed needle instead. Wood is a good option for slippery plant fiber yarns because it provides a textured surface to which the stitches can cling. Practice on a swatch first to make sure you’re using a small enough needle to cross your cables and to ensure you pull the yarn tight enough on the surrounding stitches to avoid visible holes.

3. The Importance of the Swatch

We tend to be impatient when a new pattern and fresh skeins of yarn are waiting to be knit up into something magical, but skipping the swatch and jumping right in always leads to disappointment. You not only miss the chance to experiment with needle sizes and get the right gauge but also wind up lacking a helpful preview of how your finished garment will look. All yarn behaves differently on the needles than it does after being washed and blocked, and the tendency of plant fibers to stretch can make these differences more pronounced.

Using the same needles you’ll use for the full project, knit swatches in both the stitch pattern recommended for checking gauge and the main pattern motif. Wash and block your swatches according to the care instructions for the yarn, and don’t officially start your project until they’re fully dry and you’ve had a chance to measure them. Use the stitch and row gauge you get after blocking to guide you through the project.
Repeat this process every time you start a new pattern, even if you’re using a yarn you’ve used before. Slight variations in fiber structure, processing methods and even the mood you’re in when you knit can have an effect on the look of the finished fabric.

Although plant fibers have different characteristics than more familiar materials like wool, you can still get a gorgeous, evenly knit fabric when using these yarns. Practice makes it easier to obtain the finished look you want, and you should always let your swatch be your guide.

Try experimenting with different vegetable fibers, needle sizes and projects to find the best types of yarn for different stitch patterns and techniques. Keep your own unique knitting style in mind as you explore, and remember every project is yours to personalize. Use the fibers you like, keep track of any inconsistencies in your fabric, and continue making adjustments until you settle into the right rhythm to achieve the desired results.

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