We live in a merino world

I think I can pinpoint two distinct events which prompted me to order Clara Parkes’ newest book, The Knitter’s Book of Wool. First, Clara mentioned the upcoming release of this book about a year ago, when she was the guest speaker at a Common Cod Fiber Guild meeting. She said that even though there are dozens of sheep breeds, and countless ways to process their wool, what we see most commonly in our local yarn shops is 100% superfine merino. “She’s right,” I thought. It’s an obvious fact which, until that moment, didn’t really sink in. I came home, looked at my stash of wools, and was hard pressed to come up with anything other than merino.

(Side note: I do have quite the collection of non-wooly fibers, including linen, soy, cotton, silk, chitin, synthetics, and the like. But that type of variety was simply missing in my wools.)

Certainly merino is the right wool for the job sometimes, but in which instances? And for projects where merino isn’t the right choice, which wool should I pick? And where do I get it? And how should it be processed, spun, and plied? So many questions!

Clara broadly addresses these topics in The Knitter’s Book of Yarn, but the world of wool is deep and wide and sometimes Bluefaced. And certainly deserving of its own book!

Second, I have recently started to pay closer attention to… all things small-scale. For example, imagine this: a yarn handspun from a small batch of artisan hand-dyed fiber, which was purchased at a local festival from a small-production farm, shorn from a sheep named Janice. I know I would cherish that yarn and its entire lineage.

Furthermore, this is exactly the type of scenario that would allow a person to try non-merino wools! Just because you can’t buy it commercially doesn’t mean you can’t make it! I’m not a spinner myself, but my eyes are wide open: when I go to sheep & wool festivals, I look for yarns which are not merino (for example, the Bluefaced Leicester I got at the last NH S&W).

When friends parade around in drop dead gorgeous shawls knit out of yarns not available in any yarn shop, I ask, “What is this?” (Well, I actually asked, “Is this mohair?” because the mohair and I are not BFFs, heh.)

And thank goodness I now have a book to help me make sense of it all. Finally! Yes! I can definitively tell you that the Bluefaced Leicester I bought will be perfect for socks – more durable than merino, but still very soft (pages 38 and 62). I also learned that the Wensleydale wool from which Stacie knit her shawl is a longwool like Bluefaced Leicester! (page 40)

So, if you, like me, are interested in broadening your horizons beyond the world of merino, this book is a must have. Clara Parkes details more than 30 breeds of sheep in the context of handknitting. That’s important! No offense to the cute sheep, but I’m most interested in knowing whether their wool is good for a sweater or a shawl, not other random facts ;). There’s enough solid information in the book to make sense of breeds not mentioned, too! Following that, there are some beautiful patterns using all kinds of wools, propelling us to explore all the different varieties, testing the properties for ourselves. I include pictures of some of my favorites in the extended entry.

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39 thoughts on “We live in a merino world

  1. Mandy

    I have eagerly awaited this book and appreciate your thoughts! Can’t wait to get my hands on a copy, because your preview pictures are making me drool. Cool!

  2. njstacie

    Thank you so much! I’ll have to show you the blue/green one some day. And thank you so much for this thorough review – I just came across this book the other day, and it sounds like it’s FANTASTIC.

  3. cath

    I’m dying up some BFL and SAF combed top (from Hello Yarn) tonight. Bought them specifically because my only spinning experience (all of 8 oz worth) was with merino and I wanted to expand my horizons. This book is at the top of my list of books to order! Thanks for your review!

  4. Joanne

    I’m in a spinning course where we have to spin 10 breeds – doing each as worsted and woolen – to see how the different breeds are each best suited to different yarns. None of my 10 is merino 😉

  5. GinkgoKnits

    I think it’s impressive how her books are packed full of information and then include a great array of patterns. I’ve been looking forward to this book.

  6. Shaina

    Oooh, loved the Book of Yarn, will have to pick this one up. I’ve definitely noticed the merino saturation, especially as a spinner. I like to shop for hand-dyed fiber on Etsy but it seems to be 99.9% merino, with maybe some BFL thrown in. Hello Yarn is one of the few dyers I’m aware of who really branches out with breeds, but of course her stuff is impossible to get…

  7. Sarah

    Here in the UK British breeds such as Bluefaced Leicester are getting more popular, but it’s still hard to find anything that’s not merino sometimes. Merino’s great if you want something really soft, but sometimes I want something with a bit more structure, more “woolyness” to it, and also something that will last a bit better and not pill terribly! For example I want to knit a cabled cardy that will last forever and keep me properly warm, as the merino one I knitted 4 years ago is for strictly inside use only now.

    But yeah, it’s still hard to find them. For instance I wanted to buy laceweight Shetland at a knitting show not long ago. People looked at me like I was crazy and said “well, we have this merino/cashmere/silk laceweight, it’s really soft!”. I don’t want soft! I want scrunchy!

  8. Aberdonian

    Either you’re a truly amazing reviewer or your book choices are amazing (or a combination of both) but each time you review books I want to buy it.

  9. Lety

    Sounds like a must have! Other than Alpaca, I haven’t knowingly strayed from merino. Thanks for reviewing this. I was wondering how she could ever match “The Knitter’s Book of Yarn.”

  10. Diana-NYC

    Thanks for this review. There’s always something to learn that’s new and fresh in this knitting hobby of ours!

  11. Vicki

    Unlike some others I really didn’t have much interest in this book. I have never paged through the Book of Yarn and thought it was something I didn’t need. I know wool from silk from cotton and have a general idea of which is good for what. But after your review I am convinced I must have this book! I would have ordered it already but Amazon is already scheduled to deliver some books today and I thought I should give them a break. I’m a beginning spinner and would love to know more about different wools that I should search for. And the patterns look pretty intriguing as well. Thanks for opening my eyes 🙂

  12. Sarah

    I’m having a mad love affair with farm yarns myself. I started getting really interested in the variety of wools with Lisa Lloyd’s “A Fine Fleece” (and I’m not a spinner, either), and ever since I’ve been hunting up locally grown Wensleydale, Teeswater, Rambouillet, Coopworth, Shetland, BFL, and more. It’s a whole intriguing world and I’ve come to feel we’re really missing out by limiting ourselves to merino! Clara’s new book is definitely going on my Christmas list. Thanks for the preview!

  13. Becky in VT

    Right! I’ve added this book to my wishlist, it sounds wonderful! I just picked up some coopworth yarn at the VT S&W festival and I loved how it was a bit rustic but leaning more towards springy the scratchy. It feels pretty durable so I decided it would make good mittens. I suppose if I already had the book I’d be able to know instead of just guessing…

  14. kmkat

    Thank you! Although the last thing I need is another knitting/yarn book, I am delighted to learn that BFL is good for socks. I won a skein in a yummy color, and this is the incentive I need to cast on with it 🙂

  15. Margie

    I much prefer to see a book before buying it and haven’t been able to locate this one. Thanks for the review!

  16. Bertha

    I cannot wait to get this! The Knitter’s Book of Yarn is my all-time favorite knitting book, so I am so excited that her sequel is finally here! Ordering it immediately!

  17. Lisa

    Thanks for your review. My copy arrived yesterday and I dipped in right away. As a new spinner, I find the entire topic of different wools fascinating. I love that there is such a huge variety of fibers available and it’s encouraging to see some smaller producers with different fibers/yarn appear in the LYS.

  18. Stephanie

    It looks like I have another book to add to my next book order. It’s getting to the point of critical mass in the craft room… What to do with those knitting books I no longer use??

  19. Brenda

    It sounds like the book will be helpful to spinners also. I think you may have an inner-spinner waiting to come out. Then you can pick the fiber you love and spin it into the yarn you want.

  20. blogless grace

    Am off to the bookstore tonight. I had been waffling about the book (yes-no-yes-no-yes-no) for a while but it is a definite yes now. Thanks for a lovely review.

  21. Charity

    I agree with several comments made here about the availability of commercial yarns pretty much only found to be made from merino or merino blends. If you want a nice “scratchy” wool, single ply, organic.. contact lollipopcabin on Ravelry or email her at sheepfairy@lollipopcabin.com

    She was at Sock Summit and plans to be at Madrona & Stitches West. She sells to a few shops mostly westcoast, but does have an east coast rep. Anyhow… lots of nice hand dyed yarn that you normally don’t see in stores.

  22. Kate/Massachusetts

    Yes, it seems like everything is merino these days. Personally, I think merino is only a mediocre wool. There are other types that are nicer and wear better. Merino seems to pill easily. Since you live in Boston, have you been out to Ironhorse Farm in Sherborn? She has lovely hand-dyed yarns from her flock of critters as well as from other farmers’ flocks. Each week there is something different in her store. Here is the link:


  23. LauraSue

    An excellent review! Not just, “Here’s what’s in this book,” but also, “Here’s why we need this book and how it can be used.” I’m no longer on the fence about whether I want it or not!

  24. Kim

    Thanks for the review! I’ve heard a bit and played the “what wool am I” game, but what took my breath away was the photos of the patterns! I love them all!

  25. van

    Thank you for such a detailed review of the book and the beautiful photos (as always). This book will be on my wish list.

  26. Seanna Lea

    I really enjoyed the Knitters Book of Yarn, so I will have to look into this one. Most of what I knit with is wool by choice, because I find it less hard on the hands than some of the cottons and other fibers out there (which sadly doesn’t stop the purchasing, just the using). It would be nice to be able to put a face to a yarn for some of the less common wools I have.

  27. Danielle

    If you’re sampling breeds, I highly recommend the cormo blends from Foxfire. I’ve not knit with them, just admired them, but hear excellent things about these yarns.

  28. Anita

    I’ve hummed and hahed about this book, but thought since I’m not a spinner *yet* that I could do without it. But then I saw the pics of the patterns. Those shawls are divine, and my lace obsession can’t live without them! Thanks for the review! 🙂

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