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Spin-Off into the Printed Silk Cardigan

Jan 25, 2010

A note from Kathleen: One of my LYSes here in Spokane is Paradise Fibers. They stock roving of all kinds and myriad knitting, spinning, and weaving supplies. I recently bought some Tussah silk there to make a Fleece Dog version of my dog Poppy. As I was feeling it, I wondered how you could possibly spin these gossamer strands of silk into yarn.

Well, enter
Spin-Off editor Amy Clarke Moore, who could probably spin zip-ties into the softest of yarn for a sweater! Amy set out to make her own version of a high-end yarn to knit the lovely Printed Silk Cardigan (which we featured in our Decade of Interweave Knitting post, too; it's a classic). Here's her story.

Silk into Yarn

I fell in love with Connie Chang Chinchio's Printed Silk Cardigan (PSC) in the Spring 2008 issue of Interweave Knits after seeing the Knitting Daily galleries of my co-workers wearing it. The cardigan fits wonderfully into my Sense and Sensibility fantasy life and being made of pure silk, it would be not only elegant, but warm. I decided I wanted to make one for myself. I have to save up for things I want, making sure that important things like the mortgage and the groceries are covered first. So, even though I wanted to make the PSC, I knew I didn't have the funds to purchase the yarn. Also, I'm a spinner—and my recent experience with my Dad's cardigan taught me a valuable lesson—I prefer working with handspun yarn, even if it isn't perfect.

When I got the fever for the PSC, I darted down to the Knits office to see if I could try on the sweater—I had just missed it—it had left the building on a trunk show tour. I asked if they had any yarn left over from the project. They gave me the remaining yarn—a tiny ball of pure perfection. Fiesta Yarns La Luz is gorgeous and well worth the $25-a-skein-price-tag (and let me tell you, I can especially appreciate the cost of the yarn after attempting to replicate it!).

1½ pounds of Tussah silk before it was dyed My brillo-pad Tussah silk swatches
(honey-colored), Merino (green), and Fiesta Yarns La Luz (cactus bloom).

With the yarn sample in hand, I started spinning and knitting swatches. I began by raiding my stash and sampling fibers—I started with wool and quickly moved on to silk—gravitating toward Tussah and bombyx combed top ("combed top" describes a way of preparing the fibers for spinning). I made a whole stack of small skeins of yarn and swatches.

At first my silk samples had too much twist—the swatch had nice stitch definition, but felt like a silk brillo pad. Having knit up a swatch with La Luz, I knew that part of the appeal of the cardigan was the drape provided by the very softly spun silk singles (singles is a yarn that is not plied—it is composed one strand of yarn rather than multiple strands).

I experimented spinning a fat, silk singles yarn and realized that this project would challenge me (that's a good thing, right?). I can spin a consistent, thin yarn pretty easily—but a consistent fat yarn is harder for me to achieve. And spinning pure silk has always been a bit of a struggle. [What's that? You thought I must be an expert spinner to be the editor of Spin-Off? Oh, well I hate to disappoint, but the truth is that I spend a lot more time in front of my computer than at my wheel (not that I'm an expert on a computer, either, yikes!). Anyway—I still have a lot to learn when it comes to spinning. I find the more I learn about spinning, the more I realize I have to learn.] I had to really work at not putting too much twist into the yarn and drafting out a consistent amount of fibers so that the diameter of the yarn didn't change dramatically. I had to settle for the fact that there would be slubs in my yarn.

Finally after a lot of experimenting, I felt good about my ability to make the yarn and I set off to buy enough fiber. I decided on Tussah silk instead of bombyx silk. The Tussah silk is made from the silk of wild silk moths that have a varied diet rather than cultivated Bombyx mori silk moths that eat only Mulberry leaves. Tussah silk is not quite as smooth as bombyx and it has a beautiful honey color. It is also less expensive.

I wanted a blue cardigan—and so I dyed the 1½ pounds of Tussah silk top (before I spun it) with freeze-dried indigo. That is a whole story in and of itself—turns out that dyeing silk top is not advisable because it is too big of a surface for the dye to adhere to, and so the dye never really bonds with the fiber and consequently, it rubbed off on my hands as I spun and knit the sweater. I recounted this tale to Judith MacKenzie who said I should have dyed the yarn after it was spun instead of the pre-spun top. Spin and learn, right?

I started spinning by taking a length of the top and splitting it in half length-wise and then predrafting the top to open up the fibers and get them closer to the diameter I wanted for the yarn. I used my largest whorl on my Lendrum double-treadle wheel so that I wouldn't introduce too much twist and spun slowly to try to create a softly spun yarn. I had to work slowly and carefully to make the yarn that I wanted. I stopped and measured the wraps per inch frequently and adjusted my spinning to match the sample of La Luz as closely as I could, and then knitted up samples to make sure my yarn would knit up to gauge.

For a little bit I hovered in indecision—I know that most experienced spinners recommend spinning all the yarn for a project before starting to knit. But even though I had knit up many little swatches, I was feeling nervous about completing all the spinning before I started the cardigan. What if my calculations were wrong and I needed a slightly thicker or thinner yarn? So I spun up 500 of the 1,760 yards needed and started knitting. I have about fifteen inches of the back done so far—it is soft and drapey—it'll be warm. There are slubs throughout, but I love the texture they add to the fabric.

Left: Indigo singles on my niddy-noddy (a niddy-noddy is a skeining tool)

Below: Work in progress—the back of the PSC

While my progress on this sweater has been slow, I have enjoyed every moment immensely—every time I pick it up, I have the pleasure of silk slipping through my fingers. I've lingered making it in the same way that I slow down when nearing the end of a good book—I don't want the experience to end.

Best wishes,


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Printed Silk Cardigan Knitting Pattern

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Twisted stitches show off pure silk singles yarn


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lilmamak wrote
on Dec 14, 2010 10:45 PM

aahhh! Thank you so much, this was EXACTLY the information I was looking for! (Oh to the complainers....I was a knitter/crocheter before picking up the spindle & wheel to you.)

crvictour wrote
on Feb 8, 2010 10:51 AM

Great article!  I watched someone spinning wool at a craft show recently and thought I would like to try making my own yarn too.  I had no idea there was so much to it.  

roselady wrote
on Jan 30, 2010 9:15 AM

Dear Amy, I enjoyed reading about your experience with the silk spinning. I'm curious, did you ply the yarn after you spun it before knitting? Bonnie T.

CynthiaT wrote
on Jan 28, 2010 12:29 PM

I'm beginning to think a weekly newsletter with headlines that are links might serve our knitting community a little better.    I am just getting too many emails from Knitting Daily, which are often more about crafts other than knitting, as well as many sale and promotional emails.    Fewer emails with more content choices to click on might be a kinder service for all of we busy creative people!

agladewe wrote
on Jan 25, 2010 6:56 PM

Hello! Sometimes I don't know what to say about comments I see on blogs. Dear Lord, please let people be a little more forbearing, patient and loving! Besides that said, I loved seeing this article. I immediately went and subscribed to SPIN OFF. I'm a newbie at spinning; but like Kathleen I love to challenge myself and never want to settle for the mundane. I want to spin silk. too! But, I bought a lambswool/ silk roving( which I've yet to receive as it was just shipped today from Little Barn Fibers). I'm hoping the wool added will make it easier for me to spin.

For those who question the connection of knitting and spinning. Besides the obvious, many of us like the whole arena of fiber arts. Besides, spinning your own yarn allows for the acquisition of normally expensive yarn at a much lower price, not to mention the satisfaction of DYI. The art lies not in just the knitting but designing the fiber from the beginning; and that is a major factor of knitting for me---the art of it! The design element goes from alpha to omega as I normally design and chart my own items. I don't consider myself a knitting snob. I like good ole Red Heart classic yarn too!  When I teach knitting classes for my local A C Moore store, I explain a little bit about the nature and spinning of yarn. I believe it adds to the skill of knitting to understand the medium that you're using. So I would encourage all knitters to expand your horizons; you do not know how much you may miss out on enjoying! So, thanks for the article. This is one ole gal who has been encouraged by it!

ArlaS wrote
on Jan 25, 2010 2:38 PM

Please tell me what spinning has to do with knitting???? I realise that all yarn is spun to some degree, but this is supposed to be about knitting , not spinning...

kathy b. wrote
on Jan 25, 2010 10:14 AM

Even though I don't spin, I loved this article by the editor of Spin-Off.   She put her personal story into it.   If I WERE a spinner, I would subscribe to the magazine as a result.   As it is, I still buy the occasional issue off the newsstand if I find it interesting.   As for Arlene, this is the way Knitting Daily is going these days.  They have their reasons, namely that it is good for business.   And in this economy that's a good thing.   Give'em a break.

koleraba wrote
on Jan 25, 2010 9:52 AM

to Arlene1943: Why, Oh why, would you immediately complain so bitterly on something that could reasonably be expected to be interesting to people who knit?

On the same note: every time I read comments I'm really unpleasantly surprised by the number of mean and hostile comments addressed either to KD as such or to the particular articles or to Kathleen's writing. Why wouldn't you people who so sorely lack graciousness simply not come here in the first place?

On the other note: thank you for articles that are informative and interesting and for free patterns. Best regards!

ConnieP@11 wrote
on Jan 25, 2010 9:15 AM

I absolutely loved the article on spinning the silk into yarn.  The pictures are beautiful and made me lust over every bit of the project from the dyeing to the spinning and the eventual knitting.  

Fiberlicious wrote
on Jan 25, 2010 8:18 AM

This big trend toward "fly away" - which really means "open below the bust" is great for people with ideal bodies, but terrible for people like me who carry weight in their abdomens. From the "February" sweaters to this one, the style serves only to call attention to my worst figure flaw. "This is my gut. It is right here. See how big my gut is? My gut is BIG."

Many of my friends agree that this trend needs to be over sooner rather than later.

Arlene1943 wrote
on Jan 25, 2010 8:15 AM

I thought this was the KNITTING daily email, not the SPINNING daily!

on Jan 25, 2010 7:34 AM

MITTENS INTERRUPTED pattern-there was no problem this morning down loadind this and printing.  Read printing instructions carefully.  Took me only 5 minutes to print.