I have a confession to make. When I’m feeling low and have already eaten all the chocolate in the house, I take myself to Virtual Yarns and pretend I’m shopping for a new project.
I can spend hours there browsing through dozens of stunningly complex and beautiful patterns. After I settle on a design, then comes the fun part: choosing a color. Page after page after page of color choices unfold before me, each with a magical name and story behind it.
When I’m done, whatever cloud was bothering me has disappeared. With a mix of sadness and gratitude, I close my browser window and get back to my life.
A few weeks ago, however, I closed the deal and purchased one such kit. What I received in the mail was so magical that I had to write about it here.
Virtual Yarns is an online store and Web site owned by the renowned knitwear designer Alice Starmore. Her intricate colorwork and complex textures are so memorable that her earlier out-of-print books routinely sell on eBay for over $200.
Virtual Yarns represents a collaboration between Starmore and her younger daughter Jade, both of whom work from their studio in the Hebridean village of Gress, on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland. They make their patterns available as complete kits. Some have predetermined colorways, others let you choose the colors. And if you’re overwhelmed by all the color options, you can email them for pairing recommendations.
Patterns are not available except in kit form, but you can purchase yarn by the skein if you’re not yet ready to commit to a full Starmore project. Shipping is free—even for U.S. customers—on orders over £12.
I chose Valtos, a cropped, textured pattern by Jade featuring the Hebridean 3 Ply yarn. My order was lovingly packed in tissue paper and reached me safely within two weeks.
The Starmores know their colors, especially where heathers are concerned. I was immediately struck by the subtlety of this yarn’s color blending. What looked like a simple light brown from afar (and without my glasses) actually had veins of yellow, red, and purple running throughout.
The yarn’s woollen three-ply spin was perfectly applied to a body of lofty, well-crimped fibers, resulting in an airy yet substantial and well-balanced yarn. I was easily able to set the hank on my lap and wind it directly into a ball without using a swift or ball winder.
Each kit includes enough yarn to knit a test swatch so you can be sure your gauge will match with the pattern.
Because these yarns were specifically created for colorwork and textured knitting, in addition to my standard stockinette review swatches, I also knit a test swatch using the stitch pattern from my kit.
Knitting was smooth, fast, and easy. The yarn’s overall jumbled surface works miracles to conceal those occasional uneven stitches. My work appeared steady and even.
A few times I did notice that one of the three plies hadn’t made it into a stitch, especially when working cables on the textured swatch—but it could have been a result of my tension and technique. Otherwise, it was smooth sailing.
Blocking / Washing
My swatches stayed firm and strong throughout their warm soapy wash, with no bleeding or fading. After rinsing them and gently squeezing out the water, I set them on a towel and blotted them dry.
Immediately I could see that the woollen fibers had bloomed into place, creating a lovely cohesive fabric. When I held it up close in direct sunlight, it was like looking into an Italian mosaic—the subtle, intricate color blending was marvelous.
I suppose the subtlety could be lost on some people, who’d say, “Looks like wool to me. What’s the big deal?” But the sensitive and tactile knitter will appreciate this.
The colors and fiber blending may be delicate, but the yarn itself is strong and durable. My swatches endured extraordinary amounts of wear and tear before showing any signs of fatigue. When they did, it was only in the form of slight pills.
The yarn has a refined rugged feel that, although not distinctly scratchy, may not be comfortable directly against the skin—especially if you have sensitive skin.
The crimp of the fiber and the woollen spin preparation combine to produce a lofty material that will hold your body heat and keep you toasty warm during the cold winter months.
A medium-sized women’s long-sleeved sweater with some patterning would require approximately 1,800 yards, or 17 skeins. At current exchange rates, this brings the tab to almost $180.
That’s a steep price, but think of this: Depending on how tough you are on your clothes, a garment made from this yarn could last years, if not decades. Any Starmore project would be an heirloom.
Alice and Jade painstakingly created this yarn with their own designs in mind—they they make it easy to pick a design and buy the yarn in kit form. But if you love the yarn and don’t like any of the kitted patterns, you’re free to buy the yarn separately and use it for something else. But considering the relationship between the designers and the yarn, you may not want to email them for advice on that other project.
Embark upon a Starmore project, however, and you have years of challenge and delight ahead of you.
Hebridean 3 Ply
21 to 23 stitches and 28 to 32 rows per 4 inch (10cm) square on 3.75 to 4.5mm needles; in stranded two-color knitting, 21 to 22 stitches and 24-26 rows per 4 inch square on 4.5 to 5mm needles
50g / 109 yards
None given. We suggest gentle hand wash in lukewarm water, no bleach, dry flat.