Can you use knitting yarn for tapestry weaving?

Growing up, I thought yarn was just yarn. I was perfectly happy with a big skein of Red Heart and my crochet hook. Then I learned more about yarn and dyeing and I became a little snobbier. I do apologize for that. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Red Heart yarn and a crochet hook. But I maintain that if possible, there are better yarns for tapestry weaving.

Knitting has been very popular over the last decade and yarns made for knitting are everywhere. There are so many indie dyers out there creating incredible yarns that it is hard to resist them when it comes to choosing yarns for tapestry.

But resist you probably should.

Many of you followed me down this little rabbit hole with the Holiday Tapestry Tree project last year. In that project I played with using sock yarn for tapestry. While I really enjoyed the ways that sock yarn is dyed and how that works out in weaving, I must say that almost all of them were very poor tapestry yarns. Many of you agreed and I've included some of your comments in the photos in THIS blog post about the project.

I wanted to find an option for small-format tapestry that you could get at your local yarn store (LYS). I believe it is critically important for the yarn industry that we support not only small yarn shops, but indie dyers and yarn producers (Clara Parkes talks a lot about this, so search out her work if you're interested!). You can certainly find some sock yarn at your LYS, but alas, even when I was really picky, the ones I found were pretty squishy for tapestry. And you should know that I live in Fort Collins, Colorado which is home to four fabulous yarn shops and there are a few more within an hour's drive. I went to most of them and another great shop in Las Cruces, NM (Quillin Fiber Arts)--great colors were to be found at all of them. But all of the yarns were quite soft.

So why isn't this kind of knitting yarn the best for tapestry?

  1. They are usually spun in a woolen fashion**. When knitting, we often want yarn that is lofty and full of air. This makes the yarn warmer and lighter--great qualities for knitwear. But lofty, airy yarns pack in a LOT when woven in a weft-faced fabric. The beautiful, lofty look of the yarn is completely lost when you beat the yarn all together in a tapestry weave.

  2. All that air makes it hard to weave. You weave and weave and weave and it keeps packing in! I felt like I was weaving and weaving but no progress was being made sometimes.

  3. Knitting yarns tend to be a bit stretchy. When a yarn is spun this way so that there is lots of loft, it also has a lot of stretch long-wise. When weaving, this can really come back to bite you in the butt. That yarn stretches out when you put it in the shed, but guess what it wants to do after you beat it in? Pull in on itself. It is hard enough to manage weft tension in a yarn that doesn't stretch, but add that extra variable, and the weaving is much harder... at least if you don't want your edges to draw in!

  4. A lot of sock yarns and many other knitting yarns are superwash. This makes sense. You might well want to put your handknit socks in the washing machine and not have them shrink. But the superwash process takes away something that is important when weaving with wool in tapestry. It strips off the little scales that make wool "itchy". Those little scales grab each other and when pushed together in a weft-faced weave, they create a textile that stays together. The fibers stop moving independently of one another and this seems like a good quality in a textile that you are going to hang on the wall.

So I do apologize for leading a bunch of you down the sock-yarn weaving rabbit hole. I hope you can use your leftovers for knitting projects, or that you were experimenting with leftovers from socks you're now wearing. Or perhaps you loved using it for tapestry a great deal and it is your thing! (If so, more power to you and I can't wait to see the marvelous things you're going to make.)

There were some fascinating things about weaving with this kind of yarn though. The best for me was the variety of dye styles.

Rebecca Mezoff, experimental tapestry weaving with sock yarn

The yellow yarn in the piece with the Christmas bulbs (above right) was a splattered yarn by indie dyer, Dedri Quillin (Quillin Fiber Arts). It was very soft, but I loved the effect of those bursts of color. 

The Christmas bulb on the right was a sock yarn that was dyed like this:

Lorna's Laces Solemate: Rocky Mountain Primrose colorway

Those large sections of dyed colors weave into little blocks of color. I wove that Christmas bulb with two butterflies, so you get hatching in the middle where the two butterflies met. It is endlessly fascinating to me how the way yarn is dyed or spun translates into a woven form. Of course the size of what you're weaving and the color repeat in the yarn has everything to do with how the final weaving looks.

If you want to see all the magnificent variations in these yarns and in the Christmas tree forms, take a look at THIS blog post. 

I should note that not all tapestry weavers use wool. The yarns I'm talking about here are primarily wool yarns. You may well be able to find silk or cotton at your LYS that is completely appropriate for tapestry weaving. I love wool and feel that its properties make it an ideal tapestry yarn, but there are people who are allergic to it or who prefer other fibers.

So what DOES make a good yarn for tapestry you're wondering? I'll tell you what I think next week.

Rebecca recommended starting with Harrisvilile HIghland [when learning tapestry weaving]. I of course went off roading on occasion and found that as a newbie the Harrisville HIghland was a consistently easy yarn to work with and practice getting an even weave, consistent bubbles and tension became a whole lot easier. She knows her stuff and knows how to get newbies get going on a strong and successful path.
— Ann Davies on Facebook in answer to a question about using acryllic yarn for tapestry

By the way, I finally did finish that second tree project. I wanted to demonstrate how different the shapes look when woven sideways. When designing for tapestry, thinking about which way to weave a design is important. Long lines that run horizontally are easy to weave in tapestry. Vertical lines are not. Sometimes turning something sideways makes the whole thing work. In this case, by weaving it sideways, I could make the sides of the trees perfectly straight.

Rebecca Mezoff, Winter Trees 2017, woven at 12 epi with Weaver's Bazaar 18/2 wool on a 6-dent Hokett loom

Did you try weaving with knitting yarn? What did you think? Leave a comment below.

** Woolen is a term used in spinning. It indicates a yarn that is prepped so that the fibers are not precisely aligned and spun so that there is a lot of air in the yarn, usually so twist is between your two hands in the spinning. Worsted spun is a yarn that is prepared with all the fibers aligned precisely and spun without twist between your hands. This sort of yarn is better for tapestry as it is firmer and doesn't squish together as much. But it makes a poor knitting yarn in many cases because it can be very heavy and without loft.