Saturday, 28 January 2012

Practical Knitting for Babies and Toddlers, (or, what to knit when you're expecting.)

Over the last two years I have, as you might expect, knitted quite a lot of baby clothes and learnt a great deal about the practicalities of dressing little ones in handknits in the process. I’ve also learnt a lot about knitting without a pattern, making sensible yarn choices, and choosing projects appropriate to their intended recipient, most of it from making stupid mistakes. What follows is a series of posts intended as advice to anyone who is interested, but shouldn’t be taken as either a) didactism[i] or b) a hint. We are going through a baby boom at the moment, after all, so I can’t be the only one with baby knitting on the brain.

When I found out that I was expecting my first daughter, I was so excited that I cast on a baby blanket using the first yarn I had to hand, which happened to be a ball of mint-green 99p acrylic double knit- you know, the kind of stuff you can buy in Wilkinson’s (although apparently it’s gone up to about £1.25 now, what with the recession and all). I knitted the first patch, before deciding that my 3mm dpns were too short to do the job comfortably (i.e, without all the stitches falling off the ends of the needles) so went to try and get longer ones. The shop didn’t have any long enough, but they did have 2.5mm so I thought to myself “That’s close enough” and bought them. It wasn’t close enough, and to this day the blanket still has a weird bulge on one side where one patch is bigger than all the others. It’s like the Quasimodo of lacy acrylic baby blankets.

I’ve already mentioned the blue cotton matinee coat and the dk/ 3-ply mix-up, which admittedly worked out fine in the end. There was also a pair of bootees which should have been knitted in 4-ply and which I made up in Debbie Bliss Cashmerino Aran- although anyone who knows my daughter and her gigantic flipper feet will have worked out by now that that might have been for the best. The item I was most proud of though, was a yellow lace angel dress knitted in Patons fairytale dreamtime 3-ply, and which I frogged at least 12 times before it was done. It took months, it was horrendously impractical and I think my daughter wore it twice, because by the time she grew into it, it was far too hot to put her in a woollen frock.
The point I’m trying to make here is that I’ve made a few silly mistakes, but I’ve also learnt a great deal. In three weeks when daughter number 2 puts in her appearance, no doubt I’ll learn a fair amount more, and possibly have to post an eggy-faced retraction of all the advice I’m about to offer.  

The Practicalities of knitting for Newborns and Toddlers

There are three major factors to consider when knitting for a baby: Yarn, design and construction. The order you consider them in is entirely your business, I only ask that you read the following before embarking upon a potentially heartbreaking knit mission. Yarn choice being by far the biggest topic, I’ve given it a post all to itself.

A Note on Standard Yarn Weights.
Standard Yarn weight means a standard “thickness” of yarn, which knits up at a specific number of stitches to a 4” square. If I had known this two years ago I would have saved myself so much distress! If in doubt, look at the Tension or Gauge instruction on your pattern- if it specifies one of the following, you can usually substitute a different yarn from the same group.
3-ply: 32st/ 4”
4-ply: 28st/ 4”
DK (double knitting): 22st/ 4”
Aran: 18st/ 4”
Chunky: 14st/ 4” (approx)

Yarn Choice: As a general rule, “animal” yarns tend to be better suited to winter babies and “plant” yarns tend to be cooler and therefore more appropriate for summer babies. Synthetic yarns are a separate category. You should always consider a number of factors when choosing yarn: what time of year are you knitting the garment for? Are the parents in question particularly passionate about buying local/ Fairtrade?  Are they vegetarians or vegans and therefore more reluctant to wear animal products? Are they the kind of person who is happy to hand wash a garment, or are they the absent minded type who will happily throw a precious handknit into the washing machine?

King among the animal yarns is lovely, dependable old wool. It’s hardwearing, cheap, warm, dirt and flame retardant and can absorb 30% of its own weight in water without feeling damp. You can also get a vast array of machine washable and even tumble dryable wools these days, and the choice of colours for baby wool is amazing compared to the traditional spectrum of pastel blue, pink, lemon and mint.
 The British wool industry is having something of a revival, thanks in part to The Campaign for British Wool, ( championed by Prince Charles, so for anyone keen to buy domestically produced yarns or help promote traditional British sheep breeds, now is a great time to start looking. I’ll put some links at the end for anyone keen to buy British.

A family of lovely British Sheep.

Alpaca is also a good choice, as it shares many of the benefits of wool, but is often lighter, softer and warmer. Again, you can get machine washable alpaca yarns (although always check the ball band to be sure).

Seriously, how could you not want to make a jumper out of these guys?

 There is also a growing market for luxury yarns with which include cashmere, silk[ii], possum, buffalo and even mink. Although these might seem impractical, and certainly aren’t suited to things which are likely to get very dirty, for things which need infrequent washing, like hats, they can be a surprisingly good choice. A cashmere bonnet is deliciously soft and warm, and isn’t likely to need washing often so it makes a wonderful gift for a special baby. They also work out less expensive than you might think, as a baby hat takes relatively little yarn and you can often get two gifts from one ball or skein.

Plant yarns, aside from being a good choice for warm weather clothes are also great to give to vegans or people who can’t wear wool. The most commonly used is cotton, which is controversial as many knitters simply don’t like to knit with it. It’s the relative opposite of wool, being cool and inelastic with virtually no “spring” or memory, however good cotton can also be very soft and lovely for summer babies. It isn’t the best choice for ribbed garments, as it will stretch over time, which defeats the object of knitting rib. There is an increasing market for organic and fair-trade cotton yarns, if that’s the kind of thing you’re into, and doesn’t irritate the skin like some animal yarns do. Be warned that cotton is quite heavy, so if you are substituting it into a pattern written for wool or acrylic (as most vintage patterns are) you will probably need considerably more than the pattern recommends. Look for a yardage (the number of yards the pattern requires) rather than a weight.
 The Yarn industry is also becoming increasingly inventive when it comes to “bio-synthetic” yarns, with yarns made from bamboo, seacell (seaweed), soy, taly (sugarcane) and even milk pretty easy to come by with a little research. They aren’t as hardwearing as cotton, however so less appropriate for toddler clothes which have to take a lot of wear.

Things to Avoid When Knitting for Babies.
Acrylic: always a controversial issue. I don’t actually object to acrylic in general, and can happily agree that it has its benefits, being machine washable and relatively pleasant to knit with. There are some pretty fancy acrylics out there these days which knit and wash beautifully and are perfect for people who can’t wear wool and don’t want to shell out for some of the more expensive alternatives. All this aside, I don’t like to use acrylic for babies for a few reasons: it doesn’t absorb water the way wool does, which means that a baby who gets hot in an acrylic jumper ends up very sweaty and then if the temperature drops, wet and cold. It’s also not flame retardant, in fact, it can melt and bond with the skin if, heaven forbid, the item should end up being worn during a fire.
Anything fluffy: some of those fluffy yarns just scream “baby!” There are lots which contain angora, mohair or even some alpaca blends which you just want to cuddle and squeeze and which might seem initially like a brilliant choice for a baby jumper. In fact, fluffy is a really poor choice for babies: ever got a bit of fluff in your eye which you couldn’t get out? Imagine how awful it must be for the poor infant with mohair fluff in their eye, when they don’t even realise they have eyes. Smooth is definitely better for babies.

Links and stockists has a great list of suppliers of British wool, including Jaimeson and Bluefaced Yarns, both of whom I really like. is one of my favourite sites for yarn online, and their customer service is really very good. Tricolette is an absolutely gorgeous shop in St John’s wood, London. They also have a fab online shop and stock a huge selection of both major brands and smaller, more obscure yarns. You can learn all about the Campaign for Wool here. are based in America, but have an absolutely amazing selection of ethically produced yarns.

Bergere de France do a good range called Origin which includes yarns made from silk, alpaca, cashmere, soy, bamboo and milk.

As far as ethically produced yarns go, I’ve tried Manos Del Uruguay, Mirasol, Aracunia and Debbie Bliss’ Eco Baby, and would recommend them, with some reservations. Some of the ethical yarns lack the polish of more commercial ones and it’s been noted that skeins coming from South America in particular are often badly wound and incredibly frustrating to transfer from skein to ball, but generally, they knit up very nicely and the choice of colourways is often spectacular.

I hope some people might find this helpful, or at least managed to get to the end without wanting to kill me. Next time I’ll be talking about design and construction (i.e., what to actually make with your oh-so-carefully selected yarn).

[i] I have no idea if this is a real word. You can substitute “smugknowitallism” if you like.
[ii] Often a particular no-no for vegans, as it always tends to end badly for the caterpillars.

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