Q for You: Softness or durability?

Q for You: Softness or durability?

This question of softness vs durability in yarns (this false dichotomy, really) is a bit of a motif for me this week. I talked earlier this week about choosing the camel yarn for my upcoming cardigan because it manages to be both incredibly soft and extremely hard-wearing. I’m also working on tomorrow’s post about my finished black Anna Vest, which I knitted in Terra because I wanted it to be black and I happened to have the right amount of black Terra in my stash. Terra is not a yarn I would have considered for my vest, if not for that happenstance. Being a single-ply blend of baby alpaca, merino and silk, it’s what I would categorize as “too soft” for me (and also “too warm” and “too drapey”). I have a prejudice against soft yarns.

There, I said it!

It’s a silly prejudice. While one could make a sweeping generalization that gooey-soft yarns don’t wear well, not all soft yarns are tender or prone to pilling. There are merinos with extremely long staple lengths that don’t pill the way other merinos do. There are blends and hybridizations that balance softness and ruggedness in the same fiber or yarn. There’s how it’s spun, how it’s knitted. And so on. But when it comes to picking out yarns for anything I’m going to spend more than an evening knitting, my number one concern is not how soft it is, but how it will wear. My least favorite thing in the world is to knit something, block it, love it, and have it quickly start looking shabby. Plus, as I’m always saying, I like yarn that feels like it came from an animal, not a lab, and the softer a yarn is, the more it feels fake to me. Which is just me being weird. (And then there’s superwash — natural fiber processed into fakeness.) I like minimally processed yarns, “sticky” yarns, yarns that splice, yarns that smell and feel like sheep. If they’re plenty soft enough to wear but not pillowy, marshmallowy soft, I’m totally fine with that. Not to say I’m not thrilled every time I find a yarn that manages to be both (like the Thirteen Mile recommended in the Anna pattern), but I’ll always prioritize durability over softness. And that may be to my own detriment — Terra wound up being absolutely perfect for the vest, in a completely different way than Thirteen Mile, and I might never have known it.

Here’s the thing — there is no such thing as a straight continuum between cuddliness and ruggedness. It’s just not that simple. It’s more like an XY quadrant chart, with all sorts of factors (breed, ply, milling, etc) playing into where any given yarn would fall in the four quadrants. But I’m proposing we pretend it’s a continuum for the sake of discussion. And that’s my Q for You: Which is most important to you, softness or durability? And what’s your definition of soft?

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PREVIOUSLY in Q for You: What gauge are you?

59 thoughts on “Q for You: Softness or durability?

  1. Durability every time!! My favorite yarn is what I call “Crunchy farm yarn.” Something is too soft for me if it “catches” on my rough thumbs.

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  2. I do want and expect my things to last forever. That said, I am a city dweller and am not that physically active, so my clothes are not subject to a lot of wear and tear. I have always associated durability with a degree of roughness, which I find unpleasant since I am not really a shirt wearer. However, I find that the scratchy Shetland yarns of my youth were not particularly durable. My next project will be a sweater I can wear to bed and actually sleep in, because of the long cold winters where I live and my drafty home. Softness will be important, especially around the neck.

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  3. I am like you in that I like to tell it came from an animal. I purchased possum yarn in NZ and am knitting with it now. It is lovely and a nice change from the Owl yarn I just used but will have to wait and see. Give me a good solid yarn any day!

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  4. I am equal opportunity on this issue. However, I am realizing that in this stage of my life the sweaters that I wear the most are the ones that i can just pull on in the morning, without thinking of coordinating a whole outfit and worrying what will go beneath my cardigan, and so I am making more pullovers out of softer yarns.

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  5. Pilling drives me nuts! I have a sweater I love in a soft yarn. It’s my warmest sweater but if I had known how it would pill, I might have used a different yarn. I wish I could know before I started a project, if the yarn would be a major piller. I use a sweater stone on the pills and wonder at what point will there not be a sweater because of constant depilling.

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  6. I have always felt that if I was investing my time the yarn has to be quality yarn first and foremost. That being said I want it to feel nice but wear well. I made my fave Fetching mitts front Knitty in a beautiful, soft yarn for a friend who has arthritis in her hands. When I saw her with them on at a later date I almost fainted. Just awful. Limp, stretched pilled. The short fibers in the alpaca just didn’t work in an everyday use item. Never again. I always go for a harder finish now. Not scratchy, harder. My Anna Vest is stash yarn Brown Sheep worsted. Middle of the road. Good choice in life as well!

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  7. https://retrosaria.rosapomar.com/collections/fios-rosa-pomar/products/alfeire
    This is as close to “natural” as it can be (hand spun), but it’s the softest yarn I’ve ever worked with. I never, ever just buy a yarn because I love it, but with this one I fell instantly in love once I’ve touched it. So I asked for it for Christmas, and I found a project for it. I haven’t finished my vest, yet, so I don’t know how it will behave regarding pilling, wearability, durability.
    I don’t think I will wet block it, yet, because of your previous post on soaking (https://fringeassociation.com/2016/04/13/to-soak-or-not-to-soak/), I’ll just have to ask Rosa how it will behave once it’s washed (by hand, of course).
    If you like rustic yarn, then I recommend you try Rosa’s Beiroa: https://retrosaria.rosapomar.com/collections/fios-rosa-pomar/products/beiroa. It’s processed in a mill, but you can smell the sheep and the heather and the hills when you’re working with it, it’s great (I don’t mind scratchy yarn, I made two sweaters from Beiroa, and they’re my favourite). I can’t recommend any of her other yarns because I haven’t worked with them. Yet. But she does a great job, rescuing Portuguese yarn and yarn related traditions. You can see part of her work here: https://vimeo.com/laemtemporeal

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  8. soft verses durability?
    For me it is durability. I need yarn that is quite frankly a workhorse and not to expensive. I have a significant stash and really enjoy finding a pattern, knitting a sweater and knowing that it will be around for years. Less is more but that doesn’t apply to stash.

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  9. Since pilling is part of durablity to me I would like to know the best yarns that do not pill. Soft is nice but I often wear a cami or shirt underneath. Draping is more of a summer top/shawl/scarf for me. I would be willing to “invest” in a more $ yarn if I knew for sure it did not pill.

    Any good non-pilling aran yarns?

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  10. I’m of the same opinion as yourself – durability over softness. So often yarns that are towards the harder/rougher end of the scale soften through use anyway, so it’s not of much consequence to me (aided by a good tolerance for sheepy yarns, I’ll admit). I’m a terribly slow knitter so I want to know that that which I make will last.

    I used Kate Davies’ Buachaille yarn recently for a hat and was really impressed – all the desired qualities you described above – and it’s softened through use but lost none of it’s character. Sheepy and robust but just soft enough – lovely.

    Anna

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  11. I think what I intend to use an item for colors my choice between the two. I want durability in my cardigans and vests. However, if I knit a pullover or a t, I don’t want to always have to wear more than a bra underneath it. And I definitely am going to pick something soft to rub against my neck.

    There is also the question of what you are trying to achieve with a particular pattern. Do you want crisp stitch definition? or are you looking for fluidity and drape?

    And this is the other reason that we swatch…and wash and dry said swatch.

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  12. I am sensitive to itchiness, although this seems to be getting less acute. So I always check yarn against my face & neck. But I have been disappointed with yarns that have mostly alpaca in them because of the pilling and especially because they don’t hold their shape well. So I continue the search…right now I’m knitting Storm Mountain with Knit Pick’s Capra, a mix of merino and cashmere. It is quite sturdy and beautifully soft. I’m not sure how it will wear…that remains to be seen!

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  13. I think it depends on the pattern. I like soft and drapey, and I like stiff and durable feeling, although I like my soft fibers to be durable. I hate pilling! I prefer natural fibers, although I am currently working with a tencel yarn. Jury is still out on that.

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  14. Nice conversation, but I have a challenge for you….. learn to spin on a real wheel and then you’ll get exactly what you want, when you want it, and the color you want. My goal is to only knit my sweaters from my handspun while I continue to destash on the purchased yarns (except Noro!)

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  15. Good question! I think I have changed…..before I would just focus on softness and high percentages of animal fiber. Softness to me means being able to wear an item, such as a scarf, on my skin with only minimal in-between layers (a t-shirt under a sweater or a blouse under a scarf). Now that I’ve worn several sweaters in which a good amount of knitting time has been invested (I did a Channel cardigan…you’ll love it!), I see the value of durability as well. Basically, I want the best of both worlds!! Right now this very second I have on my Kate Davies Blaithin cardi knit in her recommended yarn….soft Donegal tweed. It is wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. I’m eager to try her Buachaille that someone mentioned above I see. All this to say I think I’m starting to develop more care/concern on a yarn’s durability too.

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  16. Strangely this doesn’t seem to have come up for me, at least consciously, when picking out yarns. There’s a combination of colour and touch, and I can be equal opportunity with soft and squishy (I happen to have won some Terra yarn from the Woolful podcast) or what some call “scratchy,” which is often interchanged with “durable” (just finished a top with LettLopi which I can wear against my skin with no issue). I like sheep. All kinds. I like yarn.

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  17. It depends on the garment and usage. For sweaters, I lean towards durability for two reasons: (1) the time investment in making, and (2) the number of times I will wear the sweater (I tend to knit classic patterns that won’t go out of style and are super comfy.) For an accessory worn around the neck, I go for soft for the opposite reasons.

    Also, I’m so with you on the minimally processed sheep-y yarns. A tangential thought is that it’s really amazing how wool from different sheep breeds can give us what we want in a yarn (softness, elasticity, durability) and how that wool is spun can give us different combinations of these qualities.

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  18. Great conversation! I have a challenge for you……… if you spin your own yarn you can get the exact texture you want, pick the breed of sheep you want, color you want, as much as you want!! I’m in the process of knitting only from my stash and when that’s gone to only knit from my handspun. I’m sure there must be spinning wheel dealers and teachers in Nashville. Try it, you’ll love it!!

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  19. Softness for me. I have very sensitive skin that is prone to breakouts of eczema. So anything that is even remotely itchy is not going to work. I’ve never owned anything that pills so I guess I make good yarn choices.

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  20. this is a hard one…i like soft yarn because i knit A LOT and it just feels better on my hands as i work. but that being said i like the garments that i have made from all natural or repurposed yarns the most because they have held up well over years of wear. i tend to give the other items away. ;)

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  21. UGH! So hard…too many yarns, too many options. I love them all! The choice of soft versus durable really comes down to the item. If it’s against the skin it has to be soft. If I can wear another shirt underneath, then I am loving ‘real’ sheepy yarns. I live in Arizona so my window of wearing woolens is limited to just a few winter months.

    In other sheepy news, check out this beautiful video of sheep herding in New Zealand. :)

    http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/watching-sheep-herding-online-is-the-new-counting-sheep?utm_source=Atlas+Obscura&utm_campaign=37faf3f962-Newsletter_4_28_20164_27_2016&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_62ba9246c0-37faf3f962-60139037&ct=t(Newsletter_4_28_20164_27_2016)&mc_cid=37faf3f962&mc_eid=dbf944e390

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  22. As a previous commenter said, it depends on the pattern. For cowls or mittens, or anything worn close to the skin, I favour softness. But for sweaters and socks or any home accessory, I would go for durability. And as you mention, these are not mutually exclusive.

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  23. I, too, can’t stand pilling and if I’m taking the time, I want to know the item wears beautifully. So I definitely read reviews for yarns. I’m also a big fan of using handdyed sock/fingering yarns held double because the wear factor is wonderful. I, too, am loving knitting with the Kate Davies’ yarns! But I also knit hats with handdyed superwash yarns because so many folks passing through our shop are wool-sensitive.

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  24. I vote for softness! I am sensitive when it comes to scratchy yarns, and the soft garments that I made get definitely more wear. I think, however, soft yarns need more care, like cutting off pilling, careful washing etc. … I prefer to make heavier used garments from fabric, not knitting them.

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  25. For me, Quince & Co wool yarn strike the best balance. I can wear it against my skin, yet it is sturdy and doesn’t pill like super soft merino would.

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  26. I’ve been part of the online knitting universe for years and am fascinated by the new focus on breed-specific yarns and the differing qualities of different yarns. I have really learned a lot, starting a year or two ago when I read Clara Parkes’ fiber guide. When I began knitting in earnest again as an adult (1999), the discussion was about rejecting acrylic in favor of wool. Also the advent of hand-dyed yarns such as Fleece Artist. The owners of yarn shops I went to at the time were knowledgeable and savvy but never talked about durability and sheep types. For those years in the U.S. it seemed like you could ONLY get merino. Which is all to say … in 2011ish I made a gorgeous sweater (Urban Aran) out of Cascade Eco Wool for a friend and was appalled by the pilling.

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  27. For me- it depends on what I’m making. If it’s a scarf or a hat- I don’t necessarily need it to last 86 years. So I go more for softness on those items. But for a sweater or something that will stay close to my body- I want a balance. Something soft enough that I won’t mind wearing it, but tough enough to survive ME.

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  28. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this question! Everything doesn’t have to be knit with merino. Too many knitters don’t think this through when choosing yarn for a project. As a former yarn store co-owner and now someone who raises sheep for yarn and spinning fiber, I’m firmly on the durability team. I love a yarn with some life in it! It doesn’t have to feel like steel wool, but neither should it feel like cooked spaghetti! I want my yarn to have a distinct character and to be durable enough to last for years.

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  29. I break out in hives if I use anything other than superwash, so to cope I have a great automatic sweater shaver! If you with your awesome knowledge have any recommendations for someone with my issue please do a post on that!

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  30. I want a yarn that is soft and drapey and sensual to touch while I am knitting; when the garment is finished I want that yarn to magically transform into something softish and drapey-ish and sensual-ish… and extremely hard-wearing. Got any ideas?

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  31. I think the chainette construction of Woolfolk Far makes it durable while the softness is unparalleled. It is an expensive yarn, no doubt (still cheaper than Clever Camel) but I had such a great time knitting it and the Grus cowl is just marvelous to wear. Yarns like Malabrigo do pill but I keep gravitating toward them anyway. :) And I’m getting myself some Clever Camel thanks to you, Karen!

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  32. Karen, the development of my appreciation of wool and tolerance of crunchy or prickly fibers has been a slow but enjoyable process. In the beginning, I only wanted to wear cotton or synthetics. Next, I was thrilled with superwash merino wool. Now I’m finding that there are other breeds of sheep that have the softness I want without the downside of superwash. (Besides pilling, I think sw wool is heavy, limp, and slippery.) I like Cormo and CVM, but not Corriedale. I expect to find other wools I can stand to wear against my skin. I like the adventure of knitting with different yarn. And if I try something that ends up itchy, I wear it over a cami and a shirt.

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  33. i think it all depends on the recipient — i would have been in the sort of in-between for myself (softness and durability) spectrum for both, but since having my children all of that has changed and i’ve had to sacrifice in some ways to find things they will actually wear – i thought i understood softness for my daughter (it nearly always has to be superwash to get near her skin, though i’m trying to find more natural soft options) but my son is a whole other ballgame in his touch sensitivity – even superwash is too “ouchy” as he says for him. i’ve resorted to drapey, heavily processed extra fine merino (the kind that usually comes from italy? gosh it’s probably awfully processed? i’m not sure – but it *never* pills despite hard wearing from two toddlers!) as pretty much the only thing he will even let me near him with (he’s still only four so hoping it will change as he gets older!). but great question and always a struggle. (un)luckily with kids garments, they usually grow out of them within a couple years, though i’ve managed to pass on all my hand knitted garments after going through my two children, so despite the need for softness, there is some durability to be had!

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  34. This is something I’ve been thinking and talking with other knitters about a lot lately! Having knit some wonnnnderfully soft sweaters that have pilled horribly, I’ve come to a point where I’m much more invested in how the yarn is going to wear. It’s often so hard to tell — lately, I’ve just been avoiding merino entirely in my yarn purchases, but that doesn’t seem like a tenable long term solution (or fair to merino — I know it doesn’t always pill!) And I’ve been using Ravelry a lot to look up if people complain about certain yarns pilling!

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  35. There’s a happy mix. What I find myself drawn toward is woolen-spun yarn. Something about that light fluffy yarn makes it softer (more space for a spiky fiber to compress, rather than continue to stick out of the yarn? I have no idea, but I’ve yet to find a woolen-spun that’s too scratchy for me), and although it pills, I find the pills a LOT less visible, and distinctly less obnoxious than pilling on worsted-spun.

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  36. I’ll take a less soft, more rugged yarn any day of the week! I live in eastern Canada, am often outdoors and in the woods, and need tough yarns. Yarns that hold up to tree snags, brutal winters, and all manner of nonsense are the ones I prefer, and so far, are the ones that have withstood my adventures. I do love soft things, but durability is the deciding factor.

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  37. For me it’s all about how the end knit is going to be used. Socks need to be durable. I do have some lovely merino/cashmere/nylon socks which are scrummy against my skin but my boots destroy them so tend towards BFL mix. Yarn with cashmere is now reserved for shawls/scarves/cowls. For sweaters and cardigans it depends whether it is going to be against my skin or not and whether it is something I intend to wear regularly. Shetland yarn is a little scratchy but creates wonderful, semi-waterproof garments.
    Have to admit I love texture when working with yarn. Currently I’m knitting with BrooklynTweed which gives me that crunchy texture, as well as Wool Days Scout and TonofWool Cormo which provide that buttery softness. Bliss.

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  38. I don’t mind yarn with “character”, so when I knit for myself, softness is low on my list of priorities. I don’t mind investing more in yarn, either. I don’t knit to be frugal and, after investing so much time in making something, it’s a real heartache to deal with terrible pilling or other durability issues. Since the majority of my winter knitwear is my own knitting, the long term appearance of my creations is a real concern. How well a yarn wears over time is also not something that I can always tell from swatching, at least in my experience.

    After some sad experiences, I’ve decided to to err on the side of “rough, but sturdy” when investing a yarn I don’t have much experience with for anything bigger than a hat. `

    The exception to this is socks: I go for high nylon and superwash wool because while I hand wash lots of stuff, socks and undies go in the machine, unless I happen to not have access to one. I’ve had great luck with Schoppel-wolle. The other exception is gifts for others, and unless I know otherwise, I assume people want soft and washable, so that’s what I give them.

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  39. I’m definitely on the side of durability. I’ve just ordered a sweater quantity of yarn for which I did lots of research to make sure that it will stand up to wear and tear. I want my wool yarn to really feel like wool, and I like the rustic feel that comes from minimally processed yarn. I’m much less interested in merino at the moment and instead am keen to try knitting with yarns like Romney, Perendale and Corriedale. Locally sourced wool is also important to me and I have a growing interest in undyed yarns. So yeah, at the moment I like rustic, hardy wool!

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  40. I feel like the correct answer these days is durability, but I prioritize softness. I’m allergic to almost everything that grows (plant and animal), in the itchy/hay fever way (not the “my throat swells and I die” way, thankfully), and tend to itching and rashes just generally. When I was a kid I could never wear wool, even over layers, without itching. I always considered this an allergy, although I don’t know now whether it was an allergy or just the kind of prickly irritation from scratchy fibers, and while it’s better now it’s still an issue. I also run hot, as well as live in a hot climate, so am almost never going to wear wool sweaters layered over a full long sleeved shirt or turtleneck either, so another tip of the scales to softness. I actually love superwash, even though I know it destroys wool’s natural scale and alters its natural qualities, because it’s still knitting with wool but I find it so much more comfortable to wear.

    Some of this is aesthetic, though – I admire the rustic woolly wools that are out there (especially the beautiful colors in lines like Harrisville and Brooklyn Tweed), but my preference for a whole bunch of reasons is usually to wear garments made out of the fine-gauge, smooth, sleek, drapey side of the spectrum.

    So for me the tradeoff with softness is worth it. I’m still used enough/immersed enough in fast fashion that I don’t really expect to wear the same items for years and years (and frankly my size and style fluctuates enough that I don’t keep a single wardrobe for a very long time). I do have a sweater I knit out of a merino-silk single ply that I kind of regret, because it’s beautifully soft and airy but developing a distinct haze all over, but it’s also just not the best pairing of yarn and pattern (it’s top-down in the round and this yarn could use the structure of set-in sleeves and seams).

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  41. I think you can have both. Though, of course, at a price. I am talking about cashmere. Good quality stuff lasts for years, is soft and does not pill much. I have a cashmere cardigan that my mom knitted out of 12ply aran weight yarn (my knitting confidence was then too low), then I wore it for a couple years, decided I didn’t like the natural gray or the style. Ripped it up, dyed, reknitted. I have been wearing it for 4-5 years in its second reincarnation. When I wash it I remove a few tiny pills from the under arm friction area but the rest still has beautiful halo and is so soft. And in the winter I wear it at least 4-5 days a week. Granted, I paid around $200 for the yarn about ten years ago. But I also have no other sweater that has lasted that many years without literally wearing through on the elbows.

    That said, my latest project was knitted from rustic donegal tweed. Nice and hefty. And about a year ago I knitted a gansey out of traditional gansey yarn for my then still husband. I think that should last for years (at 64 sts per square inch it better!). I do like durability. But I also like soft :)

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  42. I used to be drawn to soft yarns, the softer the better. But over the time when you see that the garment you invested so much time into turns into an unwearable mess, you start to reconsider :) So, I am with you – I would definitely choose durability over softness right now!

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  43. I have had lots of experience with scratchy yarn that wears out quickly. I try to find a soft yarn that is tightly spun. I find that multiple plies make a yarn more durable, and thinner yarn like fingering lasts longer as long as it is not knit very loosely. My skin develops a painful rash from wearing scratchy yarn near my neck so I try to avoid it; I have also found that long term unfinished projects have one thing in common: the yarn is unpleasant to knit.

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  44. It’s not softness that I dislike so much as limpness and lack of shape retention–for sweaters, at least, though I do use soft, limp yarn for cowls or shawls. I have a black Minimalist cardigan that I was foolish enough to knit in alpaca/silk. It’s lost its short boxiness, become long and shapeless, and the 3/4 length sleeves now look like I ran out of yarn trying to knit long sleeves. I like a good, “crunchy” wool for sweaters that I wear mostly outdoors, and for dressier “indoor” sweaters, a merino/silk, like Brook Farms Solo Silk, is just about my ideal.

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  45. It’s blowing my brain that there seems to be an either/or issue between soft or durable. I had never thought of softness as a marker for pilling, and I’m not sure I believe that’s the case even now. For instance, I made a fantastic super-soft lace cardigan three years ago out of Malabrigo (single-ply lace weight) and it hasn’t pilled once, even thought I wear it pretty much every single day during spring/summer/early autumn. My scratchier (but still on the soft side of the arguments above) Cascade 220 cardigan and Rowan merino sweater both pill like crazy.

    So if it’s not softness versus itchiness that determines whether a yarn pills, and if it’s not the ply (because the Malabrigo was a single ply and the Rowan was a multiple ply, pretty tightly wound) how can you tell how well something will wear? Just knit a bunch of things and then go back to the yarns that did right by you?

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  46. Hi Karen! Guess what….I had to chuck out my first ever knitted pullover this winter that I made with you at 4th ST. The black one. I was sad to let it go, but the Malabrigo Merino wool didn’t hold up for more than three winter seasons. Pilled and fluffed up badly. My Icelandic wool sweaters however are holding up fabulously in these epic Colorado winters. Lightweight to wear too under all the layering action that has to happen.

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  47. I’ve had rugged yarns pill. But the garment still looks great because it’s held its shape. I’ve also picked up a skein of soft chainette yarn that’s pilled just by sitting in my hand as I walked around the store. I prefer seams and structure to oozy drape.

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  48. Durability any and every day. I really can’t afford to spend $$$ and time on yarn that isn’t going to get more more than 1-3 wears. I don’t want to feel disappointment every time I look at the project that just started fuzzing before wearing or after one wear. So I always research a yarn someone suggests via Ravelry looking for comments regarding wear and tear, pilling, and sizing – did it grow? shrink? Some days I wish Ravelry could categorize yarn based on it’s durability or softness or pilling attributes :). I know you can search via fibers but that doesn’t always get me what I’m looking for.

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  49. Pingback: Q for You: What do you modify? | Fringe Association

  50. When push comes to shove, I guess I’d have to say, “durability!” As a person said above, I have to think about cost and what I get back for that cost. More money? I want it to last. If it were something “special,” and I knew that it would be kept properly, I would think about cashmere in a shawl or what-have-you. Otherwise, it’s durability that I’m after.

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  51. Pingback: Hot Tip: Abuse your swatch | Fringe Association

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