Guess It Up: Knitting With Denim Yarn
July 9, 2008
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.)
(Note: This label, while charming, is out-of-date as to stitch gauge and recommended needle size.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.
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.
(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.
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?
(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.