Made from the long, straight fibers of the flax plant’s stem, linen is cool and drapey, the perfect thing for knitting warm-weather garments. If you have never worked with an inelastic fiber though, linen can feel pretty different the first time you try it. So here are a few tips for getting comfortable with this most glorious fiber:
Relax. Linen yarn doesn’t conform to the needles the way that wool does, so it creates a slightly larger stitch. In response, many knitters tension the yarn tightly, trying to achieve the same size stitches they’d get with wool. Don’t. Ease up, and go down a needle size or two. You’ll probably need to use a much smaller needle than you would for wool, but it will ultimately be a more pleasant experience.
And try bamboo or wooden needles. The grippier texture will help even out your stitches, and is often more comfortable than metal at small sizes.
Swatch. And wash. The ‘hand’ of linen yarn changes dramatically when it is washed and blocked. Linen fiber is ‘toothy’, so when stitches are formed, they tend to stay put. If you pull the needles out, the stitches will just stand there. Because of this, the working gauge and fabric can be quite different from the finished gauge and fabric—depending on the stitch pattern used. Once it has been washed and dried a few times linen becomes incredibly supple and drapey. And the drapiness increases with wearing, so it’s useful to preview what the final fabric will look and feel like.
Stockinette fabric usually doesn’t change gauge too radically between the unblocked and blocked fabric, though stitches will even out a bit. Garter stitch, however, is another story. The photos below are of the gauge swatch for my Lina and Colina tanks. The top one shows the unblocked swatch; the bottom, the same swatch after washing and drying in the dryer twice, and then steaming. Washing and drying has completely changed the aspect ratio of the fabric, allowing the stitches to condense horizontally and relax vertically.
Soaking the swatch and drying it in the dryer is an excellent way of finding out what the fabric will look like a few washings and wearings down the road, as the tumble-action of the dryer helps to transform the linen fibers. I find that it takes three or four trips through the dryer to achieve a soft, supple, ‘finished’ fabric. Depending upon what kind of equipment you have, however, machine washing and drying can cause some color loss, so use caution with the actual garment.
Pull from the outside. Linen fibers can cling to each other when they are wound together, so a center-pull cake is usually not ideal. Working from the outside of the ball or cake will minimize the possibility of tangles.
Rein-in your stitches. When working flat, use a longer needle than you ordinarily would. Stitches in linen yarn don’t compress as well as wool (before washing, anyway), so a longer cable will keep them from jumping off the end of the needle.
Count on drape. While it is not best suited to garments that need a lot of elasticity, (no socks!), linen is magical for projects where a fluid, supple fabric is desired. And your linen fabric will become softer and drapier over the life of the garment, the more it is washed and worn. Expect to love it.