What is the best yarn for lace? And what is lace, anyway?
Your basic knitted fabric—stockinette, garter, ribbing, and the likes—is all about filling space with fiber and creating something cohesive. We knit those fabrics out of plump, well-rounded multiple-ply yarns, and we’re happy with the results.
Lace, on the other hand, is all about the artful placement of openings. An ideal lace yarn enhances those openings rather than trying to close them up. It is spun fine, which allows you to “paint” a more detailed picture with your stitches.
It has two plies, no more. Those two plies are like warring siblings, always pushing away from one-another as they rotate around and around in the yarn. As they rotate, they hold open far more space in the fabric than their fibers actually occupy at any given time.
Lace yarns work beautifully when they have a smooth surface, which helps elaborate patterning stand out (imagine drawing a picture with a smooth rollerball pen). And last but not least, they love a little shimmer. We usually obtain this by adding some silk.
When all these principles are in place, the fineness and ply structure, smooth surface and faint shimmer, all is well. A good two-ply lace yarn is like a calligraphy pen. It makes even the most mundane of lace patterns look utterly elegant.
Here, from Blacker Yarns in the United Kingdom, is a perfect lace contender. This fine, two-ply yarn is composed of Bluefaced Leicester wool, fondly referred to by some as “BFL.”
Bluefaced Leicester is easily the second most popular breed-specific wool on the market, second only to Merino. The fibers tend to have a longer staple length than Merino, a more open crimp (or natural curl pattern), and a hint more luster—all of which lend themselves perfectly to lace.
Yarn locavores will especially appreciate that this yarn not only has fibers from a famous British sheep breed, but the sheep were raised in Britain, and the fibers were scoured, carded, combed, spun, skeined, and labeled in Britain.
While fine yarns can sometimes be a little fiddly, this one hugged my fingers and the needles alike, willingly moving wherever I took it—no matter how elaborate or demanding my stitch gymnastics. The yarn rarely snagged and never split, and it didn’t present a single slub, knot, or deal-breaking irregularity as I worked. It’s a smooth, perfectly even yarn whose ply structure beautifully mimics the crimp in a fine lock of Bluefaced Leicester.
Blocking / Washing
Until you wash it, most lace knitting looks like a crumpled tissue. It looks very unimpressive, especially to the non-knitter.
Blocking is when the magic happens, when we moisten all the fibers and stretch the fabric wide open. As we do so, what was a jumbled mess gradually reveals a series of vines, or chevrons, or Lilies-of-the-Valley, or whatever gorgeous motif you may have chosen.
Pure Merino is so innately springy that it can be a challenge to block. (Here’s a tutorial on how to block lace.) As soon as you remove the pins, everything goes “boing” and pops back to its original shape.
Although the fibers in this yarn have been combed to remove any shorter or irregular fibers, they still created a faint halo after the wash—another ideal quality for lace. The loose fibers reached out into the open spaces created by the yarn-overs, making the holes seem like frosted glass panes in a window.
Lace has never been a high-wear kind of material, but even so, it can be fragile. You’re knitting a fine strand of yarn using far larger needles than you normally would, and you’re punctuating that fabric with even larger holes. One snag can snap the whole thing.
Which is another reason why Bluefaced Leicester is such a good companion for lace. It has longer, stronger fibers that make for a more resilient yarn. Yes, a hearty tug will still cause this yarn to snap—but not nearly as quickly as other fiber blends might break. In the meantime, it creates a gorgeous fabric that is both springy and slinky, with a touch of luster and no itch whatsoever. Since we tend to wrap lace around our shoulders and necks, the itch factor can’t be overlooked. It has a somewhat dry crispness to it that’s quite fitting for lace.
Not a lace fan? Blacker Yarns offers other weights of Bluefaced Leicester as well as many other British breeds, plus wool from Welsh and Scottish sheep breeds and those from the Falkland Islands. The more rare, limited edition yarns are especially splendid for learning about the many faces and feels of wool. All are spun with careful attention to, and respect for, the different qualities of each breed.
The connection between breed and mill deserves note, because this isn’t just a yarn ordered from a random mill catalog. Blacker Yarns is The Natural Fibre Company, which spins all these yarns. Sue Blacker and her husband bought the mill in 2005 and have been making a steady push to connect with farmers and create a viable market for their wools. As a knitter and knitwear designer herself, Sue understands what we’re looking for in a yarn. As a mill owner, she also understands all the back-end work that goes into producing a good product.
Want to meet Sue and see the mill? Here’s a virtual tour.
In the meantime, if, like me, you have spring fever and are hankering for a refreshing lace experience, here’s a beautiful yarn that’s slightly off the beaten path but well worth the adventure.
£7.80/skein (as of February 2017, this is about US $9.75)
50g / 380 yards (350m) (Note: When this yarn was first reviewed in 2013, the yarn shipped in 50g / 440 yard [405m] skeins)