Most knitters have heard of cotton and linen yarn for Summer knitting – these are bast fibres. However, there are many other types of bast yarns similarly produced from plants and with roots reaching deep into history. Flax, hemp, nettle, jute, kenaf and ramie are the ones that jump to mind.
Producing yarn from the woody stems of the plants involves much preparation. The stems in effect need to be broken apart by natural fermentation (yes, rotting) to release the long, strong fibres from inside. This is not a modern process and there is plenty of evidence of Stone Age use. They have somewhat fallen out of favour owing to the work intensive production method, the somewhat rigid yarn which is initially produced and the wide colour paletter of synthetic yarns. However with the increased interest on sustainability, the green credentials of bast fibres are pushing them further into the production limelight. These plants require fewer pest control, grow in a wider range of environment than cotton, use less energy to manufacture than synthetics and in the final analysis are biodegradable. Fabrics made from bast fibres are easy to wash, non-allergenic and comfortable to wear in hot weather.
In all honesty. all this goodness pales into insignificance when you first touch and use any bast fibre. They feel scratchy, rigid and produce stiff fabric with irregular stitch definition. All rather dispiriting on the hand and eye. However, with a little perseverance, these fibres repay your efforts.
My first foray into linen and hemp came with making my girlie summer bag . It was dispiriting to handle the stiff yarn and unpleasant on my fingers. But I really wanted to produce a natural summer bag that would be washable too, so I persevered. Then it took me a while to settle into the pattern and had to frog my swatch and the actual project several times. And then I noticed that the yarn I’ve handled several times was much softer and had a wonderful drape. It just felt and looked very natural and lived-in. A bit French shabby-chic but without actually looking used. Really wonderful.
I would definitely use bast fibres going forward but with the following changes to my normal routine:
- use the least slippery needles you have – no metal or plastic ones to save your wrists;
- don’t expect the yarn to have the same flexibility as wool based yarn so if you’re a “tight” knitter think about needle size and swatch, swatch, swatch. The good news is that by doing this you’re also improving the yarn pliability!
- whilst working on your project keep the yarn in a holder/plastic bag. I spent endless hours untangling the ball of yarn which I left on the floor in a neat ball, only to find it in a hopeless mess five seconds later;
- carry a small pair of scissors – you can’t break bast yarn with teeth/hands. It is extremely strong as it’s spun from very long fibres;
- when you’re joining a new ball of yarn you must do something unheard of – you must KNOT the ends together ! That is the most secure way of ensuring that they don’t work loose and end up gently unravelling your hard work;
- swatching is essential – bast yarns tend to become narrower and longer when washed. Bear that in mind when swatching. And if you also wash your swatch you realise the wonderful item you’re creating.
Give bast a try – the colour range is becoming very attractive and many household items as well as clothing can be made from the growing array of yarns on offer. Have a blast with bast!