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A skein of Merino Worsted
Merino Worsted knitted up and washed
click each image to enlarge

Yarn Profile: HandPaintedYarn.com Kettle-Dyed Pure Merino Yarn (Worsted)

First Impressions
Please note: Since this review was published in February 2005, HandPaintedYarn.com no longer maintains a regular supply of this hand-painted merino on its Web site. It is now most commonly available in the U.S. under the Malabrigo Yarns label.

The moment I set fingers on this yarn, I was in love.

This plush, single-ply merino has been kettle-dyed by a women's cooperative in Uruguay using natural dye extracts. It is sold through HandPaintedYarn.com and on eBay through Serendipity in South America, and you can also find it in some U.S. stores under the Malabigo Yarns label.

All three "doors" lead to the same family-run company, but you'll tend to pay less per skein buying through HandPaintedYarn.com.

HandPaintedyarn.com is often compared to Manos del Uruguay, another provider of handspun wool yarns that have been kettle-dyed by a cooperative of women in the rural villages of Uruguay.

Although both companies appear to get their yarns from similar sources, their prices differ dramatically: 135 yards of thick/thin handspun kettle-dyed wool retails for $12.50 under the Manos del Uruguay label and only $5.40 from HandPaintedYarn.com.

Meanwhile, HandPaintedYarn.com's lace-weight version retails for only $5.95 per 850-yard skein (I succumbed and am knitting a shawl out of it right now).

Ordering from HandPaintedYarn.com can feel like an adventure. You may get an error message about their expired SSL certificate—it expired December 10, 2004 and the new one isn't showing up yet. Internet Explorer still showed my transaction as secure, so I proceeded (just look for the gold padlock on the bottom right corner of your screen to make sure). I hope they fix this soon, because it could put off a lot of customers.

You'll get at least one email from an ever-cheerful Marcos updating you on the status of your order. When you get your box in the mail, you won't find any separate note or transaction receipt inside.

Your skeins will have only a small black-and-white tag listing the yarn name, number, color, and the HandPaintedYarn.com URL—no pretty graphic or glossy paper, no sweet story about the Uruguay cooperative, no details on skein yardage or gauge, no washing instructions.

What most intrigued me at HandPaintedYarn.com was their thick, single-ply merino yarn that knits up at a more versatile 4.5 stitches per inch and is available in the same splendid kettle-dyed colors—and that's what I chose to review here.

If you buy it directly from HandPaintedYarn.com in Uruguay, your 218-yard skein will cost $7.90. Stores importing it under the Malabigo Yarn label must add their own markup, resulting in the same skein costing approximately $12 retail.

Knitting Up
Because there's very little spin holding these short merino fibers together, I played it safe with a pair of moderately dull-tipped Brittany birch needles. I also started out more slowly than usual so my fingers could get comfortable navigating the looser bulk.

This yarn seemed to sing in my hands. Before I knew it, I'd reached a fast and steady pace. Although the yarn looks somewhat unevenly spun on the skein, it evens out under tension, and my plump swatches looked absolutely perfect.

The yarn's relative thickness made it possible for me to knit by touch alone, although it took a while before I stopped peeking to make sure my needles hadn't gone astray.

Occasionally I could feel slightly rough spots on my fingers dragging the yarn's fine fibers, but it never produced a visible snag.

Blocking / Washing
I know several knitters who avoid merino altogether for fear it'll felt the minute it hits water. Although merino does have this reputation, especially when loosely spun into a single-ply yarn, my swatches survived their wash with flying colors.

I simply filled a sink with warm water and a small amount of mild soap. I submerged my swatches in the warm water and gave them several gentle squeezes to make sure they were fully saturated.

Then I lifted them from their bath, drained and refilled the sink with the same temperature rinse water, and dropped them back in. I gave them a few more gentle squeezes until I was satisfied all the soap was out, then I rolled them in a towel to blot out the excess water and reshaped them before letting them dry flat on a towel.

There was a faint bleeding of color in the first wash, but that was it. Much to my delight, there was no felting, no shrinkage, no stretching, no visible fading of color, no nothing.

The fibers gently bloomed, producing a more cohesive and cozy fabric. And they survived their trial by water beautifully.

The yarn's faint vinegar smell (presumably left over from the dye process) disappeared after the wash.

I am reminded of the Calvin Klein commercials where a young Brooke Shields declared, "Nothing comes between me and my Calvins." In this case, were I to have a sweater made from this succulent yarn, nothing—and I mean nothing—would come between me and that sweater.

As with all good things, such magic does have a slight downside: after a moderate amount of friction, my swatches began to blur and look more feltlike. Small cloudy pills started to form and multiply.

I happen to like this weathered look (see a close-up picture of an untouched and well-worn swatch, side by side), but some might miss the crisp stitch definition.

I'm guessing that with the help of a battery-powered sweater shaver—available at most major drug stores—you'd be able to remove the larger pills and get at least one or two seasons of formal public wear before retiring your garment to the weekend wardrobe.

This is one of the softest, most magical yarns I have ever touched. Ironically, it's also one of the least expensive. A medium-sized woman's sweater will cost less than $40.

HandPaintedYarn.com is based in South America, but orders are shipped first to fulfillment house in Florida. There packages are sorted and shipped out via Priority Mail twice a week. Depending on when you place your order, it could take between 10 and 14 days to reach you.

The benefit of this system is that you don't have to pay higher international shipping costs, and you don't have to worry about being hit with any unexpected import fees down the line. In fact, shipping costs tend to be less than what you'd pay at U.S. stores.

Now, I cannot say how long any of these yarns will be available. Nor do I know if the HandPaintedYarn.com Web site will continue to operate once they've firmly established a wholesale presence in this country.

But if you have a penchant for softness, like vibrant hand-dyed colors, and enjoy working with smaller yarn companies from around the world, act quickly. This is too good to miss.

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