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When "Superfine" actually means itchy

I set out to create an ultrawearable spring knit tee

A wooden bowl filled with soft, creamy pale yarn. Set on a dark background with while silk flowers.

I’m working on a seamless, top-down, in-the-round raglan. I know, I know. WHO IS SHE?! Here’s why. I know a lot of you are newer knitters, or you struggle with your purl tension, or you’re most familiar with an in-the-round raglan. That doesn’t mean you don’t deserve a great fit, and it doesn’t mean you aren’t excited to dabble in making some of the modifications we talk about around here. When I say everyone deserves a great fit, I mean everyone.

A knit tee on a dress form. It has a v-neck and short sleeves and is creamy pale sesame.

Classic LBD is a fingering weight, stockinette stitch tee shirt with a moderate v-neck. I wanted something I could wear as a basic tee shirt, every single day, from February to May. I also wanted something affordable and neutral and clean.


I settled on Purl Soho’s Sweetgrass. It’s 65% cotton and 35% superfine alpaca. I typically work with wool and know that superfine merino (at 17.6-18.5 microns) is a very wearable fiber for me, so I thought, “bingo.” At $18 for a skein and 437 yds / 400 m per skein, I’m looking at a sweater that’s $36. Unheard of, perfect, wonderful. I knit it. I blocked it. I tried it on. I nearly collapsed in frustration.


Yarn descriptions are subjective

Why is this sweater so itchy?! It’s superfine alpaca, and I’ve never had an issue with that before! I emailed Purl Soho and they wrote right back. “The superfine alpaca used in Sweetgrass is 26 microns.” Ah. I see. I was furious. “This is a damn lie. How can they call it ‘superfine’ if it’s super coarse?!” After all, I teach about this. I know what superfine is. And this, dear reader, is not it.

Except, actually, it is (with caveats) Alpaca gets sorted into grades based on the diameter of the fibers (measured in microns, one millionth of a meter). The following information is from the Alpaca Owners Association (AOA).


"Alpaca fiber shall be recognized within the seven (7) grades defined by micron span as

follows: Grade 0: 15.0 – 16.9 micron Grade 1: 17.0 – 19.9 micron Grade 2: 20.0 – 22.9 micron Grade 3: 23.0 – 25.9 micron Grade 4: 26.0 – 28.9 micron Grade 5: 29.0 – 31.9 micron Grade 6: 32.0 – 34.9 micron The Fiber Committee chose not to assign names (baby, royal baby, superfine, fine, etc.) to the standards, as the committee found these terms to be inconsistent across the world. The committee used quantitative measures instead of subjective terms.”


WHEW. And names are not just inconsistent across the world, I found that they're inconsistent here in the US. Most sources I found identified baby/superfine as grade 2. But a rare few named baby at 19.5-20.5, and superfine at up to 26 microns (that’s into grade 4, y’all, and scratchier than most merinos). I wrote Purl Soho back, and let them know that for knitters, using a label that doesn’t mean the same thing everywhere is not helpful information. That we need the micron counts. The person I spoke with was very polite and assured me she’d pass that feedback on.


Transparency in micron count is good business.

We (gestures at the knitting industry at large) are here to serve knitters, and giving them accurate, helpful information that helps them predict the outcome of their project is not only the right thing to do, but it also helps knitters get confident with our products and with shopping for yarn and patterns online.


But for me, micron counts are kind of personal, and they feel like a justice issue. So many knitters have sensory processing issues, including but not limited to many autistic people. We deserve to have the information we need to make informed decisions. I’m optimistic that Purl Soho - and other dyers and yarn sellers - will begin adding micron count information to their yarn listings. I’ll definitely still be showing this sample. It’s cute, and almost all knitters will be able to wear it comfortably. I can’t, but I know I’m an outlier. It has a gorgeous drape and so much personality, and I love that the colors are undyed.


Jen wears a squishy, floaty, airy light gray wrap around her shoulders. It's suri alpaca and silk, and it is softly haloed and the color of clouds. With deep cables, it twists and winds and looks like cotton candy.

Not all alpaca is itchy!


Personally, I can wear baby alpaca with NO problem - it's even a delight. Cloud Waltz is knit in Little Fox Yarn's Nuages, and is 74% Baby Suri Alpaca and 26% silk. Baby Alpaca is usually grade 2, and I have no problem at all with it. Maybe I should knit another Classic LBD sample in a floaty, airy yarn?!


Resources: More about scratchy yarns


Knitting with Cormo and Corriedale - A discussion on breed specific yarns and the micron counts that influence how they feel, a good intro to microns.


Knitting Success: Wears-Per-Sweater - Comfort, aesthetics and knit appeal drive what we knit and wear. In this article, I dig into how I make scratchier yarns work in my wardrobe.

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