A skein of Phat Silk
Phat Silk knit up
click each image to enlarge
Yarn Profile:
Phat Silk Phat

Note: La Lana Wools is closing. Its last day will be February 29, 2012. Read Melanie Falick's profile of Luisa Gelenter and La Lana Wools.

First Impressions
La Lana Wools has a nearly mythical reputation among hardcore yarn geeks—of which I am one. The Taos, New Mexico-based business specializes in yarns and fibers that have been dyed in extraordinary colors using all natural dyestuffs.

Many of these dyestuffs come from native New Mexico plants, sending the La Lana crew scouring the countryside for these plants and harvesting them at the right moment each year. These dyes are complemented with other natural dyestuffs such as cochineal, indigo, madder, and logwood, to produce a nearly mind-boggling array of colors.

Originally most of the plant-dyed yarns at La Lana were semitextured handspuns, but a few years ago La Lana began offering less-expensive millspun in partnership with the Taos Valley Wool Mill. They are priced slightly less than the handspun, and they provide a more consistent spin.

I visited La Lana last fall during the Wool Festival at Taos and came home with a bag of yarns I knew deserved a second look. This ingenious combination of equal parts Bombyx silk and wool was at the top of my list.

While most silk/wool yarns tend to be thorough blendings of each fiber, the fibers in Phat Silk are allowed to stay distinctly separate. The result is a core of plush wool encircled by smooth, lustrous waves of silk. The play of silk against the wool background reminds me of clouds against the sky—it's striking.

But it's also a bit of an anomaly. Normally silk absorbs dye more intensely than wool, which means that the silk should be more deeply colored than the wool in Phat Silk—and yet it's much lighter. Consider it part of the mystery of the small-batch natural-dye process. (I asked La Lana owner Luisa Gelenter about this and she couldn't explain it either. "Part of its charm, right?" she joked.)

Phat Silk is available in a fine (Phat Silk Fine) and worsted weight (Phat Silk Phat). This review focuses on Phat Silk Phat.

Knitting Up
Phat Silk was a breeze to knit. Very rarely did my sharp-tipped needles snag. When they did, it was usually on just a small portion of the outlying silk, and it didn't cause any permanent physical distortion to the stitches. Still, you might want to use a duller-tipped needle.

Silk on its own doesn't have much grab on the needles, and you often have to use slightly smaller needles to compensate for the slippery needles. But in this case, because of the 50% wool content discretely tucked into this yarn, it hugs the needles and gives great fiber memory.

My stitches were lofty and fairly even. The random lay of silk on the yarn gave my stitches a heathered, slightly textured effect. As with most singles, the yarn's spin tightened and loosened depending on how I was wrapping my stitches—but it had no significant impact on the finished fabric.

The thicker the fiber mass in a single-ply yarn, the less twist is required to hold it together. Yet this worsted-weight single-ply yarn has a fair amount of twist. If there's too much twist, and not enough loft in the fibers to balance it out, your resulting garment will tilt in the direction of the twist. I was pleased to see that my swatches remained perfect squares—no bias whatsoever.

Blocking / Washing
This yarn doesn't come with washing instructions, so I followed by own standard routine. I dipped the swatches in a lukewarm bath with a gentle soap, squeezed them a few times until the fibers relaxed, and then rinsed the swatches in lukewarm water. Even in that initial dip, there was no bleeding whatsoever.

Some silks exude an awful smell when you wash them, often a sign that the fibers weren't processed thoroughly. Phat Silk had no such odor.

I blotted my swatches and set them out to dry on a flat towel. They only required minimum prodding to return to their original perfect shape. Sometimes a yarn won't show its bias until after you wash it, and I was glad to see Phat Silk held no surprises here.

Wearing
Wool and silk pair well. They both absorb moisture and retain heat, making them comfortable against the skin. And they compliment each other visually.

Where silk is shiny and lustrous, wool can be deep and velvety. Where silk is luxuriously smooth with a relaxed drape, wool can be finely crimped with loft and elasticity.

This is a 50/50 pairing in which each fiber has been kept fairly distinct, so you get both visual and tactile complexity, the lustrousness of silk with the memory of wool.

Because the fibers haven't been thoroughly blended together, however, I did have some concern about how the yarn would endure excessive friction. Would the fibers separate with wear, and if so, which fiber would be the predominant shedder?

Sure enough, as the friction began, the crisp surface began to blur. The wool appeared to be the lead shedder. But because the wool is enclosed in silk, it pulled some silk with it. I couldn't easily tug the pills off without dragging neighboring fibers in the process. You want to use a sweater shaver to snip the pills without disturbing the other fibers.

Even after a great amount of wear had covered the swatch surface with fuzz and tiny pills, they were only visible within a few feet.

Against the skin, Phat Silk feels soft with a hint of silky crispness. It's not at all scratchy, but nor is it qiviut.

Conclusion
Cost is a sad but necessary element of all La Lana yarns. The natural dye process takes significantly longer and requires far more human intervention along the way, resulting in significantly higher prices than you'd pay for the mass-produced chemical alternatives. I like to think that the extra attention lends a little more tenderness and soul to your finished garment.

But I also know that many of us can't afford $240 for a long-sleeved sweater in this stuff. And the good news is that you don't have to.

I'm a firm believer in using yarns like Phat Silk sparingly, either alone in a small item or for accent within a larger item. The yarn knits up at the same gauge as the other La Lana worsteds, so you can mix and match for a truly unusual combination.

If money is really an issue but you want a full-sized garment, you could knit an Icelandic-style sweater using Valley Yarns Berkshire for the body and punctuating one of the yoke colors with Phat Silk.

Or you could narrow your scope and knit a simple rolled-brim hat or farrow-rib skinny scarf out of just a few skeins, with gorgeous results.

Ordering from La Lana takes a little more work than your average yarn store. If you're at all interested in any La Lana yarns, I recommend you order the color cards first. It's nearly impossible to fathom the depth and variety of their colors from a mere picture. Then you can start picking and playing to your heart's content.

You wouldn't use an entire container of saffron in a single recipe. Likewise, a little bit of Phat Silk will go a long way.

 
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