FALL COLORS: Lithuanian Wool
When I first thought about this post on Lithuanian wool, I envisioned writing about sheep and hand spinning and woolen mills. But now that I’m sitting here to get started, I find that I have a more British definition for “wool” in mind. I am using “wool” as a synonym for “knitting yarn”!
As I was going on part one of my Vilnius yarn shop crawl the other day, I realized that I had not planned to write a section about yarn shops in my book. Can you even believe that? I couldn’t! Perhaps because I was thinking the book would mirror the contents of Arctic Lace, which had neither a history nor a yarn shop section, and perhaps because I was also modeling my ideas off of other books about knitting traditions from around the world, I had come up with a table of contents that didn’t quite match what I know and have learned about Lithuania. So I am going to write about the yarn shop scene here. My co-author June Hall will be writing a TON about sheep and wool and spinning so you won’t miss out on that info in the book.
Slideshow below. Click to start.
So here’s some info about Lithuanian wool, some of which is linen. (Is that kindof like Texans calling all softdrinks “Coke” even if they are ordering a Sprite or Dr. Pepper?)
The first thing you will probably notice when you visit Vilnius yarn shops is how many of the yarns and brands you recognize. Whether it’s Noro, Red Heart, or Filatura di Crosa, many of the labels will be familiar to American and Western European knitters. But if you look a bit longer, you will also find yarns from Turkey, yarns with Polish and Russian labels, and even a few Lithuanian yarns.
The Lithuanian yarns I’ve seen are linen, wool, and wool blends.
The linen is quite fine and can be used for lace or fingering/sport weight – somewhat sheer – fabrics. Knit on very small needles, you can get a fabric that is dense enough for a nice pair of summer socks or fingerless gloves. These items were very popular in Lithuania in the past, but I don’t think linen is soft and cushy enough for socks. Cotton is just as cool but can be spun with a loftier, fluffier hand. But finely knit, lacy fingerless gloves made of linen would be quite lovely, especially as par of a bride’s ensemble.
Linen is everywhere in Lithuania, especially in the summer. Although the summers are short here and I’ve been told that wool has been much more important to Lithuanian culture because of the cold climate, with most of the garments constituting the national costume being made of wool, this isn’t apparent if you look at what’s been written in books about history and culture or if you look at textile exhibits in museums. In print and in exhibit you will find much more information about flax and linen than about wool. You will see many more photos in books and museums, and find many more tools and artifacts on display. There are folk tales and sings about growing and processing flax, none about sheep and wool.
For me, this is quite disappointing because wool is my favorite fiber for knitting. On the other and, it’s exciting that June’s chapters on sheep and wool will include information that is almost impossible to find in print. In fact, it’s taken June years of traveling around Lithuania gathering first-hand info from farmers, knitters, mill owners, spinners, and weavers to complete the research for her portion of our book.
There are two reasons you don’t find very much Lithuanian knitting yarn. First, merino and alpaca and mohair are all hugely popular and available from so many sources. Second, the wool from Lithuanian sheep breeds is somewhat course and the woolen mills that are here prefer to import merino from New Zealand. Apparently this is also less expensive than processing wool from Lithuanian sheep which mist be sent to Poland to be scoured since the Soviet collective farming system eliminated all wool scouring locations in Lithuania.
Lithuanian knitters tell me all the time how coarse Lithuanian wool is and what poor quality the yarns are. But I don’t agree. The wool is certainly softer than Navajo Churro, Herdwick and other coarse wools that are used for rugmaking and the like. And while it might not be the quality of the higher end yarns such as Rowan and it may not have the unique features of boutique yarns like Koigu, Lithuanian wool and wool blend yarns are affordable, functional, and aesthetically appealing. It works well in most texture knitting and is excellent for the colorwork designs used in Lithuanian mittens, gloves, and socks. (Although you can find stronger wool for socks, with a tighter twist and a better ration between wool and man-made fiber.)