A skein of Swans Island Certified Organic Merino Yarn
Swan's Island Certified Organic Merino Yarn knit up
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Yarn Profile: Swans Island Certified Organic Merino

First Impressions
A certain mythology exists around Swans Island Blankets. They are lovingly handwoven mostly from the fleeces of Maine-raised Corriedale sheep. The Rare Wool blankets are woven from the coats of sheep that spend their winters all alone, untended, on a small outcropping called Nash Island.

The fleeces are sorted and sent to Vermont's Green Mountain Spinnery for a gentle, eco-friendly processing and spinning before returning to Northport, Maine, where they are dyed using organic materials and then woven by hand into exquisite blankets that last a lifetime and retail for as much as $1,350 apiece.

A while back, Swans Island Blankets added certified organic Merino to its lineup, using the fine wool fibers to make softer, lighter-weight throws and baby blankets. With no sufficiently large domestic certified organic Merino flock yet available, Swans Islands sources its organic Merino fiber from South America. But the fiber is then processed, spun, mordanted, dyed, and skeined right in Maine.

The dyeing is done using non-metallic mordants, which are less potentially harmful to the dyer and more ecologically friendly; and all dyed colors are derived from natural substances including indigo, cochineal, weld, madder root, and osage.

Until recently, you could only purchase a finished Swans Island product. All that changed this year when Swans Island started skeining its organic Merino and offering it to the handknitting market. The merino yarn is currently available in two weights: fingering and worsted.

For this review, I chose a wavering blue/green shade of the worsted weight.

Knitting Up
This smooth, easygoing yarn posed no problems whatsoever during swatching. In no time I was knitting by touch alone, with no snags, kinks, or other troublesome issues. Progress was so smooth that I grew impatient with my stockinette square and, instead, cast on a pair of Sweet Fern Mitts (pattern from my Knitter's Book of Wool).

The yarn never grew tired of being flipped back and forth from knits to purls, holding tight to my fingers but also slipping along in an even tension. It also let me turn my cables without a cable needle. Its well-rounded three-ply construction gave perfect clarity and relief to the ribbing and cables.

My only frustration was at the very beginning when I was winding the hank into a ball. Twice, my swift stopped dead in its tracks as the yarn suddenly wanted to go backwards. I eventually had to remove my ball-in-progress from the ball winder and finish the winding by hand.

Blocking / Washing
Initially my mitt refused to surrender to its warm soapy bath, so I gently squeezed it a few more times and then let it rest. When I came back a few minutes later, the mitt had made peace with the water. There was a hint of blue in the bowl—a light, sunny day kind of blue that ran clear in the first rinse.

As my mitt dried, I could see that the fine Merino fibers had relaxed and bloomed into place, giving the ribbed fabric a much smoother, more cohesive look. (Unwashed mitt at left, washed one at right.)

This is a tidy, well-processed yarn with nary a trace of barnyard left. You won't smell any lanolin, nor will you find many twigs or burrs. And the fibers are quite soft and lively to the touch.

From an itch perspective, there is none. The fabric has an extremely pleasant, innocuous quality with just a hint of that powdery dryness you can sometimes get in finewools.

After that initial bloom, the fibers in my washed mitt were quite reluctant to give way under friction. Gradually the fabric grew softer and the surface fuzzier, but it didn't actually surrender and start pilling until it had been subjected to an extraordinary amount of friction. Most delicate Merino yarns will pill on the second date, and this unexpected strength had me baffled.

Then it hit me: The yarn's suggested needle size is US 9, and I knit the mitts on a US 5. For a durable and resilient fabric, I honestly can't imagine knitting this yarn on anything bigger than a US 7. It'd be far too open and vulnerable a fabric. Swatch for yourself and see what you think.

In an era of $6 wool yarns, I can understand how a $30 price tag could put off a lot of people—especially if they hear that the organic Swans Island Merino isn't from a Maine island but, rather, is imported from South America. (Truth be told, it's a sheep-friendly solution since Merino don't like cold, wet conditions and would never thrive in these parts.)

But the bigger issue is availability. No sufficiently large domestic organic Merino flock exists...yet. The more we demonstrate a demand for these materials, the higher the likelihood of such a flock eventually existing.

The other cause for a higher price tag is the dyeing itself. The materials required for natural dyeing—things like indigo, cochineal, weld, madder root, and osage—cost a lot more than their synthetic counterparts. You also need vastly larger quantities of the materials to dye each skein of yarn. Therefore, it costs more.

But do keep in mind the yardage here. Each worsted-weight skein has 250 yards in it, and the fingering-weight skeins have a whopping 580 yards. With the worsted-weight yarn I could easily get a pair of Sweet Fern mitts and a hat out of one skein; or perhaps not one but two breathtaking Koolhaas Hats. Two skeins would make a most cozy and memorable Peaks Island Hood.

If you want to go all the way, a medium-sized women's sweater (knit at a tighter gauge of at least 5.5 sts/inch) would need about 1500 yards, or 6 skeins. That'd set you back $180. Considering its gorgeous natural colors, easy knitting, and surprisingly good wear, I'd trust this yarn for that kind of investment.

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