Canadian-Made Sock Yarn: A Journey in Many Stitches

27 April 2021

Sponsored in part by:

Ad description: Cover of the book Sheep, Shepherd & Land, and the words, "THE book about Canadian Wool, by Anna Hunter. Photos by Christel Lanthier. Buy now."

Ad description: The words, "The socks you knit won't last forever, but you can make them last for years and years. Shop now." Also featuring the cover image of the Sock Mending Guide.

I like knitting socks. I like the tiny stitches and all the different techniques I get to use, but what I dont like is when those socks that Ive spent so much time on start to break down within weeks of finishing them. This is especially frustrating when Ive made socks for my husband, who has large, wide feet. He loves his hand-knit socks, but they are a lot of work to make, and its so disheartening to see pills, worn spots, and holes appear shortly after a new pair has gone into rotation.

As a hand spinner, I’ve spent a lot of time considering sock yarn construction. What do I like in a sock yarn? What do I want from a sock yarn? What properties make a good sock yarn? For me, a good sock yarn has three main qualities. The first is ply: I like three plies at a minimum, and if a yarn has more plies, so much the better. Second, twist: High-twist yarn makes for good socks. The reason for this is that high twist, coupled with many plies, means the surface area of each fibre that is exposed to abrasion is reduced, which makes for a stronger yarn. Next, elasticity: Elasticity makes for a better fit, and will also allow a sock to move with, rather than against, a foot. Finally, worsted spun: Worsted spun yarn is strong and smooth, both of which I appreciate in a sock yarn.

Image description: a ball of yarn, in a bowl, and a partially knit sock leg.

Yarn on the needles.

There are other qualities, of course, but the one quality that isn’t that important to me is softness. Sure, I enjoy a soft yarn as much as anyone, but softness often means fine micron-count fibre, which is fragile and tender at the best of times. While I don’t necessarily want a sock yarn with the texture of sandpaper, an extra-fine, very soft yarn just doesn’t stand up to hard wear, and let’s face it: hand knit socks take a beating.

The one last thing I like in a sock yarn is more of a personal preference than anything else: I’d love more sock yarns that are synthetic-free. Nylon does have a purpose. It was, after all, developed as a silk substitute, but as person who is always trying to reduce her footprint on this planet, I try to avoid synthetics whenever possible.

In my own spinning, I can play with these qualities and variables to make all sorts of different socks—if I can dream it, I can do it. But hand spinning isnt something that everyone wants (or has the luxury) to undertake. And, even though I love to spin, given the amount of time it takes to knit a sock, adding more time to the process by spinning the yarn myself isnt something I always want to do.

With all of this in mind, I started seeking alternatives to the standard, commercially available sock yarns. I knew, from reading  The Fleece and Fibre Sourcebook, by Deb Robson and Carol Akarius, that Down and Down-type sheep were known for possessing strong, elastic wool that isnt prone to felting. So, I started to track down local shepherds raising Down-type sheep, such as Southdowns, Hampshires, Suffolk, and Shropshires. The trouble is, most of these sheep are raised for meat, so getting clean, useable fleece was a challenge. While I have  produced small-batch yarn from some of these local fleeces, its just that: small batch, which comes with many complications, including cost and the time it takes to have the yarn spun. Plus, the wool from some of these breeds has a very short staple length and many of the mills in Canada cant handle worsted-style spinning of these short-staple fleeces.

 I knew there must be a solution, but it would have to be one of my own making.

Image description: a basket holding a braid of spinning fibre.

The spinning fibre.

Through a chance conversation with Donna Hancock of Wellington Fibres, the solution presented itself. I had sent several fleeces to be processed at Donnas mill, and she called me one day to ask a question about one of the fleeces I had sent. Our conversation turned to uses for Canadian wool, as so much of it ends up in the landfill or being burned. She mentioned she had access to a mixed-breed flock that produced some really nice fibre, and asked if would I be interested in seeing a sample. Yes, please,” I said, and I asked right away if she thought the wool might be suitable for a sock yarn. Donna said yes, and she said her mill had been blending it with mohair from their own flock of angora goats.

It was hard to contain my excitement. Mohair is a wonderfully shiny, strong fibre, and I had already been using it in my hand-spun sock yarn experiments. It adds both tensile and abrasion strength to a wool blend, and in addition, it takes dyes wonderfully, adding lustre to the naturally matte appearance of Down-type wool.

The other wonderful thing about using mohair in sock yarn is that the fibre from adult mohair sheep is woefully under-utilized. Kid mohair is commonly used in commercial yarn blends, but it comes from the first shearing of an angora goat. After that, the fibre from subsequent shearings is no longer soft enough for most commercial knitting yarns, and while adult mohair fibre is still used in upholstery and weaving yarns, much of it goes to waste as those types of yarns are not as widely used as they were in the past. Blending mohair with wool to make a strong, shiny, elastic, Canadian sock yarn seemed like a fantastic idea. I immediately ordered a batch of both the yarn and the spinning fibre.

Im now in the process of dyeing my second batch of yarn, and have more spinning fibre on order. So far, knitters and spinners seem to enjoy it, and time will tell if it holds up to my husbands hand-knit-sock-killing-feet. It takes dye wonderfully, and early tests shows it is resistant to felting in my front loading washing machine (your mileage may vary, of course!).

But, my Canadian sock yarn journey doesn’t stop there. One thing we’re lacking in Canada is a true worsted mill, and that would make an even better, stronger sock yarn. Currently, we have woolen and semi-worsted mills, and while they’re doing a great job, having a worsted mill would be a wonderful addition to our fibre milling community. I’d also like to make a four-ply sock yarn, and I’m exploring opposing ply and cable construction in mill-spun yarns, both of which make a yarn stronger and more elastic. As well, I’ve got more breed-specific sock yarns in the works, with batches of North Country Cheviot, Shropshire, and Southdown wool at several small mills.

Image description: A basket containing 6 skeins of Barn Swallow sock yarn, in different colours.

A selection from the first offering.

My hope is, as I develop these yarns and can pay shepherds more for their wool, that shepherds will work on improving the condition of their fleeces so that their clip has a better useable yield, preventing all that wonderful wool from ending up in the burn pile or the landfill.

It’s all a work in progress, and I can’t help noticing the similarities between my Canadian sock yarn journey and the process of knitting a sock itself: Both take time, and both require many small stitches or steps. But, more than that, I’ve heard it said that if someone gives you a pair of hand-knit socks, you know the knitter really, really cares about you. My pursuit of Canadian-made sock yarns is a little like that—many stitches on small needles, going around and around, all the while knowing it’s all worth it in the end.

All images courtesy Catherine Knutsson.

Copyright © Catherine Knutsson except as indicated.
Profile Photo

About Catherine Knutsson

Catherine Knutsson the owner of the Small Bird Workshop, where she sells hand dyed yarn and fibre. She is a knitter, spinner, weaver, and fibre maven. When she isn’t working with fibre, she can be found hiking, singing, and gardening with her husband, Mikel, and their three cats. Catherine has also worked as a singing and piano teacher and as an author of fiction and poetry. She is a registered member of the Métis Nation of BC and lives on Vancouver Island. Her surname is pronounced “Ca-noot-sun” [ka-nut-sun].

Related Posts

Circular by Design: Slow Fashion by Anne Mulaire

Circular by Design: Slow Fashion by Anne Mulaire

Anishinaabe/French Métis fashion designer Anne Mulaire is part of an innovative movement of clothiers committed to building a slow, circular Canadian fashion industry. Inspired by teachings passed down through seven generations of her family, she creates garments that reflect her deeply held family and personal beliefs.

Get 10% off!

Join our mailing list to get special Studio Membership pricing! PLUS hear about new Digits & Threads content and community news.

Subscription success! Well done, you.