Summer of Socks: Selecting an Ideal Sock Fibre

Summer of Socks - Selecting the Ideal Fibre

From left to right: Superwash Merino+Nylon (fractal-spun traditional three-ply), Superwash BFL (fractal-spun 2-ply), Superwash Merino+Tencel (Navajo-ply)

Spinning your own sock yarn means that you get to pick and choose the best “ingredients”. Just like some apples are great for baking and others are better for snacking, there are also different fibres, each suited to different projects and techniques. Also, your socks don’t have to be 100% of anything… that would be like eating a dish with no seasoning. Creating your own blend of fibres, each with their own special characteristics is a great way to devise your own “ideal sock fibre”. Here are just a couple things to consider when you’re picking out fibres for your handspun socks.

What’s the purpose of the socks?

Socks designed to be worn in boots for the next ten years are going to have different characteristics than socks you might want to wear only at home and only in bed. Not every pair of socks needs to be industrial-strength, so there’s no way we can say there’s one and only one ideal sock fibre. We can, however, look at our list of desired sock properties and find a combination of fibres that will work best for your purpose. So, what do you need your socks to be? Strong, durable, non-irritating, smooth, warm, or elastic? All of the above?

Fibres that are strong and durable:

Wensleydale in Tapestry, available on special order from SweetGeorgia

Wensleydale in Tapestry, available on special order from SweetGeorgia

The tensile strength of a fibre describes how much weight it can bear before it breaks and in these terms, silk is stronger than nylon which are both stronger than wool. You’ll find a lot of commercial sock yarns that mix merino (or wool) and nylon for this very reason. Nylon is stronger and helps increase the wearability of a soft merino wool yarn.

Also important to consider is staple length or the length of the individual fibre. The shorter the staple length, the more frequent the points of weakness in your sock yarn. Longer staple fibres will also have less chance of piling. So fibres like cotton and cashmere which have super short staple lengths (1 to 2″) might be soft and lovely to feel but will have durability issues when used alone. Most often, sock yarns are made from Merino wool which also has a relatively short staple length (2.5 to 5″) and is less durable than longer wool fibres like Bluefaced Leicester. Really long wool fibres like mohair and Wensleydale can have staple lengths of 8 or 12″ are very durable and are great to mix in with your sock blend to increase the wearability.

Fibres that are elastic:

Wool fibre is inherently warm and elastic. The “crimp” of the fibre is like a spring, retaining bounce and stretchiness. This same crimp holds the fibres apart gently, allowing air to be trapped in the spaces between the fibres which results in the insulating properties of wool. And depending on the sheep breed, wool fibres can be very strong and durable. It’s no wonder that wool is a preferred fibre for socks. Can you imagine a pair of 100% linen socks giving those same characteristics? Think about the store-bought cotton socks that require the addition of elastic in order to give the socks the ability to hug your foot.

While I haven’t had a chance to fully try this myself, I’ve heard that Dorset Down makes a wonderful sock yarn that is super springy and bouncy. Almost 10 years ago, my friends adopted a Dorset Down sheep for me one Christmas and I still have the fleece from that sheep sitting in our studio. I’ve washed and spun a small tuft of fibre from the batch and do agree that it is sort of “spongey”. I’m looking forward to the chance to totally wash and process that fleece, one of these days.

Fibres that are warm:

The warmest, most insulating fibres are either down fibres like cashmere, qiviut, bison, yak, alpaca, and angora (rabbit) etc. Since these are generally down fibres with very short staple lengths, they tend to produce more delicate yarns which will not stand up well to wear. Also fibres like alpaca and angora don’t have crimp and so they are not elastic (won’t hug your foot and more likely to sag). So, a small percentage (maybe 5 to 20%) of these fibres could be added to your spinning fibre blend to add warmth and softness while the majority of the blend could be a harder-wearing wool.

Fibres that are non-irritating and smooth:

Who doesn’t love soft fibres that can be worn next-to-skin? Soft and fine merino is often a popular choice for socks, but again is not as durable as other longer wools. Other non-irritating fibres like cotton or bamboo could be added to the mix as well to make the yarn more “cool” and slightly less insulating.

Fibres that are easy-care:

One last thing to consider is if you need your socks to be superwash or not. While I would recommend hand-washing your beautiful handspun and handknit socks, I know I can be lazy and just toss them into the wash (sometimes accidentally). Superwash wool might save your socks from becoming felted messes. You’ll find that some wools are more prone to felting than others — those downs wools (Dorset, Suffolk) tend to resist felting.

Good blends

So what might make a good blend of spinning fibres? A good wool like BFL for a base, plus some nylon or silk for strength. Maybe cut in a little cashmere for luxe and softness? If you’re making industrial-strength socks, maybe include a good chunk of Wensleydale or mohair. You can card these fibres together by hand or with a drum carder. Or strip some spinning top from each type of fibre and hold the fibres together while you draft. Or perhaps spin a bobbin of each type of fibre and ply them together.

Where to go from here? I would highly recommend Clara Parkes’ two books “The Knitter’s Book of Wool” and “The Knitter’s Book of Socks” and you will learn so much about different sheep breeds and fibres and the characteristics of each. But fibre selection is just one part of the equation in making your own sock yarns. So many other factors determine the ultimate strength or success of your yarns, including drafting, twist, plying, and even finishing. There’s much more to cover in the upcoming “Summer of Socks” posts! Stay tuned!

In the meantime, what fibres have you chosen for your “Summer of Socks” project?