You have probably heard: “Alpaca doesn’t have any crimp.” … “Alpaca has no memory, so you have to blend it with wool.” … “Things knitted from 100% alpaca droop/sag too much.”
If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard one of these unfortunately oft-trumpeted sayings, I’d probably have $23.60 by now. Recently a fellow knitter on the popular online forum, ravelry, asked what was the best way to go about knitting an alpaca sweater since it “has no memory.” The poor woman is probably up to $1.35! Her question is what led to the following soliloquy:
There are a few things at work in the idea that alpaca has “no memory.” As someone who has worked extensively with alpaca fiber from raw fleece to yarn to knitting, I can say it definitely has memory…and that it drives me crazy that people keep parroting the ol’ “no memory” mantra, to the detriment of these incredible animals we all love so much, when it’s likely their own fault that a garment has sagged out of shape. “Memory” relies on several things or some combination thereof:
1. the crimp architecture of the fiber(s) used in the yarn (Suri breeders, fear not–this article has good info for you, too.)
2. the scale structure of the fiber(s) used in the yarn
3. how the yarn was spun / plied
4. the weight of the yarn (i.e.: lace, fingering, sport, worsted, etc.)
5. how it is knitted (needle size : yarn weight ratio, stitch patterns employed, shaping, etc.)
Example 1: a cotton singles yarn, spun at a worsted weight, and knitted on 5.5mm needles in stockinette will probably sag and droop out of shape eventually. Example 2: a 4 ply (not the UK version of ply, but a yarn with 4 actual strands) fingering weight yarn that is spun and plied somewhat tightly, and then knitted into stockinette on 3.25mm needles will likely hold its shape much better even though cotton fibers have no “crimp” because allowances were made with the spinning and knitting of the yarn.
A little backstory on the fiber itself: many alpaca yarns are spun for loft and drape. They are intended to be soft and light because alpaca is a very warm fiber and a little goes a long way warmth-wise. Add to this, most alpaca yarn hails from Peru, even if the company selling it does not. Most South American alpaca breeders don’t breed for “crimp.” They breed for fineness and density because that is 1. what the mills want (fineness), and 2. how they can make the most money (density). Crimp doesn’t affect softness, so most of the breeders down in South America ignore it. US alpaca breeders are different. US breeders are going for a more over-all perfect critter, and crimp is visible evidence of fiber character (this just means “it looks pretty” in fancy terms). It just so happens that tighter crimp makes for a fiber with more memory, and the practical applications of this are numerous. (Some US breeders don’t care about crimp and some do, but I’d err in the favor of most caring about it quite a bit, especially as they learn more about their animals.) To paraphrase: Since most alpaca yarn comes from animals with varying crimp, and is spun for loft and drape, odds are it won’t have as much memory as say, your average merino yarn which could be knitted on needles way too large for its gauge and still be bouncy because it has such a high crimp frequency. Think of pulling a curly human hair straight versus pulling a wavy human hair, if this helps you visualize what crimp does.
Another factor at work here is scale structure of the individual fibers. Wool has a lot of small scales that stick up slightly, whereas the scales on alpaca fiber are larger, flatter, and smoother. This is part of what gives alpaca its luscious handle. Unfortunately, if one isn’t mindful of this, you can end up with a saggy garment because the scales don’t create enough friction against each other to hold things in place, say, when you pick up a wet sweater from its bath. To alleviate this, you need to make it less easy for the fibers to slide around: this is where the spinning and knitting comes in.
Much memory is also dependent on how the yarn was spun and knit. Some alpaca yarns are lofty and light and will produce garments that will not bag out of shape when properly knitted. This is without even being blended with wool. Either way, if you knit too loosely (I personally feel that most ballbands give too loose a needle size. Others may disagree–and have–but this is just my very strongly-held opinion, especially where alpaca yarn is concerned), it will be floppy. This will be true with basically any fiber, memory or no memory, crimp or no crimp. For alpaca yarn to have more memory you want more twist in the yarn, which means more plies. Go for a 3 or a 4 ply yarn over a 2 ply, unless you plan to knit that 2 ply pretty tightly. No matter how the yarn is spun, if you knit it at a slightly denser gauge it will keep things much neater than if you knit at a “normal” or loose gauge.
Brevity is the soul of wit, but rarely the soul of clarity! My advice is to pick the alpaca yarn you want–do try to choose one with more than 2 plies, look for the size needles called for on the ball band and go down at least a .5 millimeter from that size, make sure you knit the pieces of the sweater separately to give yourself seams to help give the garment structure and keep the slick fibers from pulling apart, which is probably the most likely culprit of the “no memory” business. The fabric may seem dense, but when you block it, it will loosen up a little, and be soft and luxurious.
Suri yarns, especially, can benefit from this advice. Say you have several skeins of 2 ply yarn you finally got back from the mini-mill, and you want to make into a sweater from your favorite dreadlocked critter. By carefully choosing the needle size, knitting pattern, and using stitch patterns that help your garment hold its shape (knit-purl combinations, ribbing, texture patterns, or cables), you can make a garment that will last longer and wear better over time. It will also be a better showpiece for your animals.
© 2010 Bethany Hendrickson. All rights reserved.