Svalbard Chapter 1: Listening to My Yarn

Aviary from Tolt Yarn and Wool in Carnation, Washington
Aviary from Tolt Yarn and Wool in Carnation, Washington

In the last weeks of 2014, just before I took my solemn yarn budget vow, I was bewitched by this yarn from Tolt, and had to have it in a sweater quantity.

Even though I hadn’t totally devised my yarn resolutions yet, Aviary fit a lot of my new, picky, criteria for a good purchase. It’s a limited-run farm yarn, which meant whatever I made out of it would be totally unique, something no one else had. It was undyed, a captivating off-white with little slubs of natural black (the blackest natural black I’ve ever seen). So, it’s a neutral, which will be versatile in my wardrobe, it’s 100% undyed wool, and even better, it’s yarn that tells a story.

I tend to pick out yarn before I pick out a pattern. If I love a yarn but not enough to make a sweater out of it, I’ll buy one skein for a hat or cowl, or to keep in my stash in case I need to make a gift. I spend tons of time browsing patterns, but I rarely decide that I’m definitely going to make a particular pattern and then start shopping for yarn.

In her book Sweater Design in Plain English (which is sadly not in my library), Maggie Righetti talks about the process of letting yarn tell you what it wants to be. She suggests spending time with the yarn before you start knitting, kind of like how you should spend a long time playing with a litter of kittens before you decide which one to take home. Working in yarn stores, I practiced the art of “spending time with yarn.” And I’ve found Righetti’s advice to be true. Give yarn the time and space, and it will tell you what it wants to be.

This idea came back to me recently as I was reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo, a new book with the power to make cleaning house exciting even to me. Like Righetti does with yarn, Kondo attributes a sort of sentience to material things. She advises the reader to handle each and every one of their possessions, in order to “bring the item to life.” She also thanks her handbag when she gets home from work at night, and she prays to her clients’ dwellings when she goes on her private tidying consultations.

seriously, find a copy of this book
seriously, find a copy of this book

Before my Aviary arrived in the mail, I had a pattern 90% picked out. With a yarn like this one, the pressure of picking the perfect pattern can be intimidating. This was a beautiful yarn, that might never be available to me again, so I had to get it exactly right. Tolt described the yarn as between DK and worsted, and I wanted a garment that would show off the yarn’s natural irregularities in color and texture. Most of all, I wanted something I would wear all the time, something that made a statement, but was simple enough to wear every day. I’d had my eye on Dusk, and from this description, this yarn seemed like a perfect match for the pattern.

When Aviary finally arrived, though, something about my pattern choice just wasn’t working with the yarn in my hand. It was heavier than I’d anticipated; the 200yd skeins weighed 120 grams, not 100. The wool itself reminded me of Bluefaced Leicester: long, silky fibers with a little sheen. A pullover in this yarn would be oppressively warm, and something in plain stockinette stitch, with lots of ease, might end up hanging forlornly, losing the yarn’s specialness. Instead of casting on my project right away, I put my six new skeins in a little heap next to the couch, for easy reach, and periodically would pick one up, pet it, and listen to see if it was ready to tell me what it wanted to be.

By chance, I was admiring a design I’ve loved for awhile, when the yarn called to me from its little camp by the couch. Svalbard is a cardigan, in an allover ribbed pattern that would help the garment hold its shape while playing up the slubs and subtle stripes. The sweater looked classic, but the pattern was deliciously complicated, according to many project notes on Ravelry. This was it. The yarn told me what it wanted to be.


I’m about 80% finished with my Svalbard, which I’ll talk more about in another entry. So far, it’s one of my more successful pairings of a yarn with a pattern. How do you pick your projects? Do you choose a pattern first, or a yarn? Have you ever mismatched a yarn with a pattern (I know I have!), and what did it teach you?

4 thoughts on “Svalbard Chapter 1: Listening to My Yarn

  1. Lauren January 27, 2015 / 11:50 pm

    This has been the hardest thing for me to learn when I picked up knitting! Coming from a world of sewing, I would always pick a pattern first. Then you go hunting for a fabric, and it’s so easy to imagine how it will feel in the garment since the fabric is already there in your hands! With knitting, it took me a while to understand that I was creating a fabric, more then constructing a garment. My first cardigan should have been a close fitting, slightly cropped piece great for throwing on over all my flowy tanks. But I picked a cotton tencel that once washed became a heavy, droopy mess. Swatching is queen for me now! I love to feel the fabric in my hands before I construct it into something, to have an idea how it will move and feel. Whether it wants deep texture or a lovely expanse of stockinette to show off it’s goods.

    I love hearing about other people’s creation process, thanks for sharing!

    • Huelo January 30, 2015 / 11:53 pm

      Thank you for bringing up swatching! It’s conspicuously absent from my post- but not because I didn’t do it! It’s by far the best way to figure out what yarn wants to be.
      It’s really interesting to hear the perspective of a sewist-turned-knitter. I have barely any sewing experience, and in fact I only learned about the characteristics of different fabrics within the last couple years (I’m still a pretty terrible machine sewist, and a sporadic but enthusiastic hand-sewist). But your observation about creating a fabric as you knit is very important.

  2. Zairi February 10, 2015 / 2:09 pm

    I too just started the Svalbard. I bought brooklyn tweed’s Shelter yarn, because I wanted to experience it and it’s loftiness, and not mess up the cardigan. I admire you for picking a different yarn, and I’m glad your sweater is coming out well.

    This pattern is super complicated though. I would have appreciated a chart, because I don’t know where I’m going, and feel like I’m flying blind and I just have to trust the pattern, rather than relying on my knitting skills.

    • Huelo February 10, 2015 / 4:28 pm

      Hi! Thanks for commenting; I totally agree that the pattern is a doozy! In fact, I’m writing another post about starting the sweater and how I managed without getting lost. It really helped to read other people’s project notes on Ravelry, to at least know what I was getting into. Your comment has inspired me to finally finish and publish my next Svalbard post. 🙂

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