While most animal fibers grow as fleece or hair, silk is created from the spit of a moth. To create its cocoon, the silkworm generates a fluid called fibroin that hardens into a thread which is wound around and around the animal.
Sericulture workers unwind the cocoon and then spin it to create silk fiber. Cultivated silk is made by killing the moth while it is still in pupa stage, as this means that the fibers remain long. Wild silk, on the other hand, allows the animal to escape the cocoon, breaking threads in the process; thus, this kind of silk produces a rougher fiber. Both kinds can be used to make yarn.
Pure silk yarn can be a challenging knit. By itself, the fiber does not have much resiliency; unlike other animal fibers, silk will stretch out. Great care must thus be taken to make sure that one’s tension is even. The resulting material will reward the knitter with a breathable fabric that will insulate in cool weather but ventilate in the heat. In addition, the finished project will have beautiful drape and sheen. Because of this trade-off, pure silk yarns are generally used for scarves and shawls rather than for sweaters.
Those wishing to experiment with pure silk yarn have a few options. Treenway Silks offers a variety of weights, from worsted to lace-weight. The yarns are offered in their natural color, with hand-dyeing available for an optional charge. If you’re looking for multi-colored yarn, Schaefer Yarns’ “Andrea” is a lace-weight, 100% silk hand-dyed in a number of different colorways. Darn Good Yarn offers recycled silk yarn that is made as part of the fair trade movement. While none of these are inexpensive, these luxury yarns will create beautiful gift or heirloom pieces. First-timers who want to go easy on the pocketbook can order “Luminance” lace yarn from KnitPicks, which is approximately one-quarter of the cost.
When silk is mixed with wool, cotton, or another fiber, magic happens. The silk adds warmth and luster, and wicks moisture away from the body. Wool will give the structure needed for a sweater; while cotton is also a stretchy fiber, its weight gives more stability. Also, silk and cotton are both hypoallergenic, making this blend a warmer option for those who can’t or won’t wear wool.
A number of silk blends can be found in local yarn shops and on the internet. Debbie Bliss “Angel” is a mohair/silk laceweight yarn that has long been popular for warm, lightweight accessories or layering pieces. Rowan’s “Kidsilk Haze” is of similar weight and blend, and has also been beloved for many years. Heavier weight silk blends include Noro’s “Silk Garden,” a combination of wool or mohair, silk, and some synthetics; this yarn has beautiful texture in addition to the signature company colorways; it’s offered in both fingering- and worsted weight. Knit Picks offers “Diadem,” a combination of alpaca and silk, in both DK and fingering weights, as well as “Aloft”, which is a lace-weight combination of mohair and silk. Manos del Uruguay’s “Silk Blend” and Malabrigo’s “Silky Merino” are respectively worsted- and DK- weights; both companies are fair trade companies that offer living wages to workers who might not otherwise be able to support themselves. While none of these yarns are inexpensive, the choices from Knit Picks are again less expensive than the others.
Silk and silk blend yarns are luxury goods, and thus may be more suitable for small projects or for special occasions. When the cost is warranted, however, the results are amazing. Happy Knitting!