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Guess It Up: Knitting With Denim Yarn

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Dear Ann,
What with all the summer scandal the New York Post is serving up these days (Madge & Alex! Christie & Hub Number 4!) I am kind of busy, you know? But people have been asking me questions about knitting with denim yarn, and I want to help. But I must be brief; there is also a YouTube of a dancing young man I have to watch a few more times today. (People ask me: “How do you do it all, Kay?” I really don’t know, honestly. I suspect I may be one of those SuperMoms.)
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(Note: This label, while charming, is out-of-date as to stitch gauge and recommended needle size.
Denim yarn, with its label warning of shrinkage, freaks some people out. But I have the sure knowledge, deep in my heart, from the hundreds (truly) of skeins of denim I’ve knitted, that there is absolutely no cause for freaking. Don’t waste a perfectly good freakout on this! Denim yarn is pure joy. It’s easy to adapt a pattern that is not written for denim to become a beautiful denim sweater. All that is required, when you get right down to it, is a little faith that the extremely long thing on your needles is not going to be an extremely long thing when it comes out of the dryer. It’s going to be a just-right thing. Plus it’s going to be a gorgeous weathered blue that gets softer and better with age. (Or gets softer and better with a little help from the emery board.)
What Do We Mean By Denim Yarn?
There is a fair amount of yarn out there with the word “denim” or “jeans” in it, which often means only that it’s blue or it’s got a faux faded coloring. That’s NOT what I mean when I talk about denim yarn. To me, denim yarn is yarn that is 100% cotton and indigo-dyed (with synthetic indigo), so that it is intended to shrink and fade when you wash it.
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The brands I know well are Rowan Denim, Elann Den-M-Nit, and Elle True Blue (left to right in photo above). These yarns are quite similar, but their labels all vary a little bit in what they say about gauge and shrinkage. For purposes of this exercise, we’re talking about Rowan Denim.
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(From the Museum of Denim Yarn–i.e., my closet–an old Rowan label, from back when they called it Den-M-Nit. I love it So. Much.)
HOW TO RE-GAUGE A PATTERN FOR DENIM YARN
Like the Supreme Court, we start from First Principles. Denim yarn shrinks 5-20 percent (depending on which label you’re reading–I think 5 percent is too low and 15-20 percent is more like it) the first time you wash it in hot water and dry it in the dryer. (Fun fact: all those other 100% cotton yarns we knit with? They would also shrink if we washed them hot and dried them in the dryer.) (Corollary of fun fact: If you want to mix denim with other pure cotton yarns of the same gauge, for example to achieve red,white & blue stripes, they will shrink at about the same rate. Unless they are treated not to shrink, like old-fashioned “Sanforized” jeans. I have never seen a cotton yarn that has been treated not to shrink, but it may exist. Let’s ask Clara!)
One more mystery and wonder: when knitted up, denim will shrink in length only. Ergo, the stitch gauge remains the same before and after washing. The stitch gauge for Rowan Denim is 20 stitches over 4 inches/10cm. In other words, 5 stitches to the inch. What this means when you are adapting a non-denim pattern for denim: you don’t need to make any adjustments to the pattern in terms of the number of stitches you cast on, or increases or decreases as they affect width measurements. We are going to adjust the length of the garment only.
To adapt a sweater pattern to denim, your goal is to add back that 15-20 percent in length that you expect the fabric to shrink.
Pause for a Totally Obvious Point That Did Not Occur To Me Until Quite Recently
If you decide that you are NOT going to wash your denim sweater in hot water or dry it in the dryer (i.e., that you are going to treat it like other 100% cotton handknits), YOU DON’T NEED TO MAKE ANY ADJUSTMENTS TO THE PATTERN. If the pattern is suitable for the pre-washing gauge of the denim, just follow the pattern.
Back To Our How-To
I’m assuming that the pattern is compatible for denim’s stitch gauge (in the range of 19-21 stitches over 4 inches). You should make sure of that, because I am not telling you anything that is going to help adjust for a different stitch gauge.
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Let’s take the Baby’s First Aran pattern as an example. At the start, I cast on the number of stitches that the pattern required for the size I was knitting (because stitch gauge is not affected by the shrinkage). Like most sweaters that are knit flat in pieces, after the ribbing at the bottom edge, the pattern tells me to work the chart until the piece measures a certain length: in this case 6 inches.
The pattern specifies a row gauge of 24 rows over 4 inches/10 cm, or 6 rows to the inch of length. I know (because the ballband says so, and because I’ve knit so many denim sweaters), that the POST-WASHING row gauge for Rowan Denim is 32 rows over inches/10cm, or 8 rows to the inch of length.
So all I have to do is multiply the length specified (6 inches) by the POST-WASHING ROW GAUGE (8 rows per inch), to get the number of rows I need to knit: 48 rows.
With a pattern like Baby’s First Aran, in which you’re working from a cable chart, you don’t need to count rows, you just need to work the chart the right number of times. (In this case, it’s a 24 row chart, so I worked it twice.)
You do this simple calculation for every length measurement in the pattern. For Baby’s First Aran, after the “6 inches” (which looked more like 8 inches, because I hadn’t shrunk it yet), I did the armhole shaping and the pattern then instructed to keep working the chart until the armhole measured 5 inches. At that point I multipled 5 inches by my POST-WASHING ROW GAUGE of 8 rows per inch, so I knit 40 rows of the chart.
By bind-off time, I had a sweater for a Long Tall Baby. I did not worry, I swear to you. When it came out of the dryer, all shrunk up, the cables and texture stitches popped beautifully, and the sweater had Regular Baby proportions.
Variations on a Theme
Obviously, not all patterns are written as straightforwardly as this one, but a lot of them are (especially Aran style sweaters, which tend to be Boxy But Good). Here are some variations and how I approach them:
What if the pattern tells me to knit a specific number of rows?
If the number of rows is very small, like “work 6 rows of ribbing for the edge”, I just work 6 rows as instructed. Over this short distance, the shrinkage is not going to have a noticeable effect.
Over a longer distance, like a sleeve or the body of a garment, I simply knit 20 percent more rows. (I assume the maximum shrinkage because I wash my denim sweaters really hot and dry them hot, and I’d rather err on the side of the sweater being a touch too long than a touch too short. (This preference may be all about my personal tummy situation; you may be willing to risk tummy exposure.) (Ya floozy.)
What if there is–GASP–shaping?
That is a totally justifiable gasp. If there is shaping–say, at the waist–you don’t want to add all your additional rows before or after the shaping. You want to work them into the shaping. This is easy to do if you follow my basic method of figuring out how many rows you need to knit in total, and then re-spacing the decreases and increases so that they are spread evenly over the Area of Shaping. Sometimes this means that you are working these increases/decreases every 7 rows instead of every 6 rows, which means that you are not always working them on the same side of the piece, but this is not so hard. Stay with it. It will work. You don’t need to be surgically precise in placing the increases/decreases, as long as they are in the right area of the garment. As my boy says, when you’re not sure, just “guess it up”.
Isn’t there a danger of the cable pattern ending in an awkward place, if you’re adding all those rows the designer didn’t contemplate?
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(This cable–adapted to denim, and to a little boy’s size, from (RAVELRY LINK) Durrow–has a lot of awkward places to stop; pretty much anyplace would be awkward, so I felt I should complete the whole chart each time I started it. It was a pure stinkin’ miracle that the sleeve came out the right length. Luck trumps skill.)
Since patterns typically tell you to work to a given measurement–not a specific point on a cable chart– it doesn’t seem to me like the designer usually knows (or cares) where the cable is going to end on any given version of the garment. When I’m knitting cables–denim or not–I will sometimes work a couple of extra rows on the chart, or stop a couple of rows early, to end the cable at an elegant (or at least non-bunchy) point in its twining. Again, a couple of rows more or less is not going to affect the length of the garment enough to matter, so go ahead and guess it up.
Now I’m ready for any comments and emails others may have about this vital topic. I’m sure there are things I haven’t thought of. I’ve described the way I’ve been doing this myself, with results I’ve been happy with. One piece of advice for nervous first-time denim-knitters: make your first project a pattern that was written specifically for denim yarn, so that you don’t have to make any changes. Once you’ve seen how it works, you will not be as worried about how the shrinkage is going to affect your garment.
Back to my New York Post and my strangely moving international dancing guy.
Love,
Kay

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41 Comments

41 Comments

  1. Thanks for the tutorial, I have been curious, but too lazy to research. Now I just have to add some denim yarn to the stash. About that rec to just use a pattern designed for denim on the first time out, doesn’t that take all the sport out of a new experience like this?! Just a thought.

  2. You are a star and I shall think of you when I rummage in my wardrobe for the 50+ balls of Sirdar Indigo that are lurking there. I just have a crisis of confidence when faced with the stupidly long bit of knitting and no amount of maths gets over that. I can tell myself that it will all come out ok but I don’t believe me.

  3. Ah, but we take luck any day when it comes to Durrow and Rowan Black Denim! Wow! Your son’s Durrow isn’t black any more. My guy hasn’t worn his nearly enough to have it fade that beautifully. That’s one of the challenges of knitting sweaters in southern California.

  4. You passion for denim led me to using it for a top-down (an ideal style for knitting with denim since you can measure as you go) baby sweater. I used Elann, and that toddler sweater came out of the dryer looking fabulous! People didn’t believe me–that I’d “man-handled” my knitting. But it’s awesome stuff. It came out soft and met the dimensions of the pattern perfectly (15% shorter, on the nose).

  5. Now I too am fascinated by the dancing guy. I love the dancing guy! Me and 5 million people love the dancing guy. I love the internet!

  6. Wow. You are both awesome.
    I love seeing your latest projects!! The denim yarn is really awesome.:D Thanks for sharing!!

  7. The video made me smile and cry at the same time.

  8. There was a yarn store that had Rowan denim on clearance once, and I bypassed it, thinking what the heck would I do with that? Then there was your book that showed the baby bib in denim. And by that time, of course, when I went back, the denim that was on clearance had been scooped up by some other knitter with more vision than I. And now, your lovely tutorial. I’m now on a quest for denim yarn.

  9. Wonderful tutorial! I would add, though, that even if you are knitting from a Rowan denim pattern, measure carefully and use your own judgement and Kay’s First Principals. My first big denim project was Seahorse from “Rowan Denim”. (In black Rowan denim, which I scored on eBay after reading about it right here.) Knit as written, even after shrinking, it was a good 5″ too long, and required major surgery. (I cut off the bottom, picked up the live stitches, and knit new ribbing with the rescued yarn.) If it seems like it’s really way too long, do the math.

  10. Yoinks!
    What about a log cabin knit in cotton? Since the shrink is in length only…would a hot water wash and dry result in a strange, ripply blanket, where the length shrinkage pulls in the width of the attached blocks?
    xoxoxoA

  11. In response to Alice’s Excellent Question:
    Denim works beautifully for a log cabin or mitered blanket.
    For Log Cabin, I think the reason this is so is because you turn the work for each strip–so the “length” goes in both horizonatal and vertical directions. The log cabin blanket on the bottom of the first picture above (also pictured in our book) is denim, and it has stayed ruffle-free after many washings.
    For miters, it works the same way. Because of the severe decrease line down the center, the “length” of the knitting goes in both horizontal and vertical directions, so the shape stays square after shrinking it. I’ve done denim mitered blankets as well. (One is pictured in our archives as the Taro blanket.)
    xo Kay

  12. Kay,
    I’m worried about the weight of a sweater made of denim. Have your kids complained about them being too heavy? Do the wee babies struggle to move their tiny arms trying to crawl? I want to make a denim sweater for myself(the beaded one from denim people)but I’m scared it will be so heavy I’ll scarce be able to stand.I’ve made one sleevless sweater from 100% cotton and in addition to being all wrong for me, the stitch pattern was not good for a gal blessed with busty-ness also the front came to a point the point was too long and accentuated my ladyparts in an unattrative and unanticipated manner. Yikes! Besides that whole mishegaas it was really heavy and it was sleeveless. Talk me off the ledge please.
    Thanks

  13. Here I am in the comments again.
    Heaviness is a matter of personal opinion, I’m sure. I have given up on sleeveless cotton knits for summer, vastly preferring linen for such tops because it’s lighter and doesn’t droop or get soggy. (Moisture makes linen crisper somehow.)
    But for long-sleeved pullovers and cardis, I like and really wear my denim garments. Mind you, I would never go above a DK/Worsted weight of cotton yarn–chunky cotton is heavy and tends to be too loosely spun in general. But at the Rowan Denim gauge I find that cotton makes a perfect jacket/cardi/pullover. If you’re used to wearing wool, it might feel heavy, but it’s not heavier than a woven cotton jacket.
    Plus denim doesn’t itch. It doesn’t felt in the places that see friction. It doesn’t pill. And it fades. I love it. (As we know.)
    Kay

  14. this glimpse into one woman’s stash is awe-inspiring. and that’s just one type of yarn! o, the possibilities.

  15. You’re bang on about the designers not caring where the cables end. Generally. Some do, some don’t, the ones I know are about 50/50 on it, but it shouldn’t stop anyone unless they’re a complete perfectionist freak. As you say, go with it.
    My only addition to your utterly brilliant tutorial would be to advise the truly worried to knit a swatch, wash and dry it in the way they wish to wash and dry the finished garment and measure and calculate their personal row gauge from there. I say this as I like the stuff a bit floppier than the Rowan recommended, and frequently use bigger needles to get a washed and dried gauge of 28 or 30, depending on current fancy. Generally I think the 32 row gauge is a bit cardboardy.
    You are a knitting goddess.
    B x x

  16. scarves and hats
    no worrys about most any thing
    i need to know how big
    for an adult bib picnics or lobster
    please- it is so hot here this
    is florida only with record breaking
    heat thank you mam

  17. Obviously the answer is to wash a gauge swatch, but I am wondering whether wash in cold water and then dryer makes a difference in the shrinkage. Or wash in warm water and then dryer. I don’t wash in hot water and have reduced my use of warm in the interest of saving energy. However, I’m not washing clothes for active small children.

  18. Obviously the answer is to wash a gauge swatch, but I am wondering whether wash in cold water and then dryer makes a difference in the shrinkage. Or wash in warm water and then dryer. I don’t wash in hot water and have reduced my use of warm in the interest of saving energy. However, I’m not washing clothes for active small children.

  19. I love the dancing guy!! He makes the world seem smaller!! And, he makes me want to dance too!!
    Deb in Nebraska
    PS: Now I want to make something in denim…I think I have something in my stash that claims to be denim…I’ll have to check it out to see if it is REALLY denim! Thanks for the great tutorial.

  20. Thanks. I saw the video, and for some reason it moved me deeply to see all those people dancing with him. Lesson to learn: Not to be afraid of being awkward or funny without intending to be. Just being and doing the best is good enough. Wanna hear me sing?? ;-)
    (And some day I might even try knitting w denim…)

  21. thanks so much for this informative explanation of this type of cotton yarn shrinkage—it is so helpful when knitters share their experience–(keeps other from repeating the same mistakes?:-)
    You made me want to go buy some of this yarn and start knitting–even though I have a pretty big yarn stash right now and over 4 projects on the needles….

  22. Thank you, this is wonderful. My fingers are itching and I feel brave about denim. I had been wondering for awhile now. Small garments are the way to start, too!

  23. I started a Rowan Denim pattern (the one that looks vaguely like a cowboy jacket). I abandoned it for various reasons but remember that the pattern suggested sewing the fronts & back together at the shoulders & washing & drying them & the sleeves together & THEN sewing the sleeves to the body & the side & sleeve seams. Do you think this is necessary? I am planning on knitting an Aran for the grands out of the yarn.

  24. The Dancing Guy made me cry and smile, also. It was wonderful to watch something so full of joy.

  25. Thanks for sharing that video; I think I spent all day watching the related “Where is Matt” videos on YouTube – and of course, the now all-important Where is Matt FAQs (and less FAQs):
    http://www.wherethehellismatt.com/faq.shtml
    Thanks for sharing! Best trip I’ve never taken!

  26. To Donna:
    I am collecting info for a followup post and I will certainly voice my LOUD opinion that all that business about pre-washing the sew-up yarn and washing the pieces before sewing is a lot of HOOEY!!! It’s just another thing that makes people think denim is too fussy to work with, and it’s not necessary at all.
    I often wash the pieces before sewing up because I like the yarn to be a little lighter in color (the indigo is very dark and hard to see stitches) and the washing tends to smooth out the edges. But you definitely, definitely don’t have to pre-wash the pieces if you don’t want to. Stuff and nonsense. (I humbly submit.)
    Sorry for the strong language. (Hooey!)

  27. Thanks for the advice. I agree about cotton sweaters, a tad heavier, but feel great, and my husband hates wool (despite that fact, his family gives him wool sweaters at every opportunity).

  28. I recently saw that German denim yarn on sale… the one that is “schnell und trendy”. Any experience with that? I think it doesn’t say to shrink it. I didn’t buy it, but I can always go back….
    Yes, love the dancing guy, too.

  29. Kay:
    You. Are. Brilliant.
    Thanks for the tutorial.

  30. You said “If you decide that you are NOT going to wash your denim sweater in hot water or dry it in the dryer (i.e., that you are going to treat it like other 100% cotton handknits), YOU DON’T NEED TO MAKE ANY ADJUSTMENTS TO THE PATTERN.”
    I am NOT a cotton knitter in general or denim knitter in particular, but I’ve felt some garments knitted up in denim before washing and they seemed really stiff and scratchy. AND the knitter complained of the dye coming off on her hands and clothing during the knitting. So wouldn’t you always want to wash in hot water and dry in the dryer to soften the garment up and get rid of the excess dye? Seems like a garment in denim not so treated would be very uncomfortable to wear. JMHO.
    Thanks for the great tutorial!

  31. Thanks for this Kay. So does this mean that for crochet granny squares, I won’t need to worry about either the four sides scrunching up lengthwise, nor the crochet seams before the big wash?

  32. Because I can not stop with the questions. Do you have any tips for the fraying ends on the not seen side of the knits? I worry they will fray right up into the stitches of my many knitted baby bibs o’ love and baby genius burp cloths.
    Thanks you rule!

  33. So glad to see I’m not the only one who got a little misty when I first saw the dancing guy. Now I’ve been watching him for days, and it makes me smile every time.

  34. Hi, Kay,
    My hands are currently blue from my first Denim project. I’m making the almost ubiquitous Indigo Ripples skirt. Exact calculation for length isn’t going to be much of an issue here but I’m sure I’ll be taking up another Denim project. It’s surprisingly nice yarn to knit with. Great tutorial!

  35. If you just work the chart for 20% more length/rows, won’t that distort the pattern?
    It seems to me that anything square would turn rectangular, and so on…
    For (regular) cables, my guess would be to increase the number of rows between cable crossings instead… (So cabling every fifth row would become every sixth row instead, which is a 20% increase in rows.)

  36. Kay, thanks so much for the tutorial. I’m a denim newby so your info is much appreciated. I started small with a baby denim jacket (Rowan pattern) that turned out fabulous. Second, I knit the Elann denim lace cardigan. Body turned out great, but the sleeves! OMG! I could leave the ground with all the flapping goin on! I’m going to frog it (eventually) and reknit the denim into something different. Must be a reason they show the model bent over and you never get a good look at the underarms! Just sayin. Thanks again!

  37. I haven’t worked with denim yarn yet but this has me chomping at the bit…thanks.
    An even bigger thanks for introducing me to the dancing guy. And I’m glad others talk about getting misty when they watch it. I have tears rolling down my cheeks because it makes me feel so good. I especially love the Rwandan children who dance with such joy that even thinking of them makes me choke up!
    We knitters are a tender hearted bunch.

  38. I haven’t worked with denim yarn yet but this has me chomping at the bit…thanks.
    An even bigger thanks for introducing me to the dancing guy. And I’m glad others talk about getting misty when they watch it. I have tears rolling down my cheeks because it makes me feel so good. I especially love the Rwandan children who dance with such joy that even thinking of them makes me choke up!
    We knitters are a tender hearted bunch.

  39. Now I can’t wait to start a denim project, but everything is on the back burner until after we move. It’s dragging out too long, and I still have many rooms to paint. So much yarn, so little time!
    Laughed out loud on your mention of your “personal tummy situation.” I have that same syndrome. Perhaps it’s contagious?

  40. Wow. So if I’m short and everything is always too long on me anyway, I could just knit a regular sweater (without straining my brain on calculations), wash it and dry it, and then it would be size petite? (This could change my whole world.)

  41. He makes me feel so happy! Watching those groups of people all join in and dance just makes me smile.