A skein of Air
Air knitted up
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Yarn Profile: Zealana Air

First Impressions
Even without knowing what's in it, you instinctively know this yarn is something special. The skein sits in your hands like a hummingbird nest, and it feels just as exotic and precious. Each fine strand nestles within its neighbors, and together they reflect light in a vague sheen that's muted only by the tender halo embracing the skein as a whole.

It's called "Air," and it contains a blend of 40% cashmere, 20% silk, and 40% of New Zealand's luxury fiber export, possum down. (Note: New Zealand possum is not the same as what we call a possum here in the United States.) The fibers have been intimately blended to the point where you can't tell one from the next—except for the sheen indicating silk and the halo of slightly darker fibers that indicates possum.

I was so blinded by the sheer notion of this yarn that I immediately bought a skein, popped off the label, and cast on. Only after a few snags and funky tension did I take a closer look and realize just how unusual this yarn really is.

Knitting Up
Most lace-weight luxury blends are given a wobbly two-ply construction, which is ideal for emphasizing the soaring open spaces in lace motifs. It also helps you get more yarn from your fiber.

Air takes a different approach. It contains not one, not two, but four plies that have been neatly twisted together to produce a yarn that's as round and smooth as a strand of freshly boiled cappellini. Such construction is far more fitting for a sock yarn than for any of the luxurious, lace-based accessories you'll probably be making out of Air. (If you're tempted to knit socks out of Air, go forth and good luck; just know it doesn't have the strength or elasticity to hold up very long.)

Nothing in this blend suggests bounce or elasticity, not from the cashmere, the silk, or the possum down. These are delicate, warm fibers that want to embrace and adorn. As soon as I cast on, tension became a problem. My hands took a while to get comfortable gripping the yarn and keeping it under tension. The minute I moved my hands between rows, the yarn popped free and made a run for it, forcing me to start the tensioning process all over again.

I switched from nickel-plated brass needles (far, far too slippery) to blunt-tipped bamboo and immediately regained more control. But even with those blunt tips, something still felt weird. That's when I stopped, looked more closely at the yarn, and realized the source of my confusion: This was a Z yarn. By this I mean that each of the four plies have been initially spun in the S direction, then plied together in the Z direction. Most commercially spun yarns are initially twisted in the Z direction and then plied S.

Knitters and spinners love to discuss the merits of working with S or Z yarns. For me, the immediate effect of switching from one to the other (especially if you aren't aware of it) is that vaguely off-kilter feeling of having swapped your contact lenses by mistake. You can still see, but something isn't right.

(You can tell an S or Z ply by looking at a vertical strand of yarn and imagining the letter S or Z imposed over it. Whichever direction the ply angle tilts tells you if it's an S or Z. Most of what we use has been plied S because that construction is the most balanced for weaving, and woven fabric manufacturers tend to be the biggest customers of spinning mills.)

Air does a beautiful job with stockinette and purl-based stitch patterns, but it also thrives in any stockinette-rich lace motif. The yarn's roundedness tends to make the YO holes more cozy and less dramatic, which is where the added stockinette base comes in handy to balance out the pattern. Air even gives you a beautiful, even ribbing, although without that bounce in the yarn, your ribbing will be more cosmetic than structural.

Blocking / Washing
Any yarn with 80% down fiber—whether it's cashmere, qiviut, or possum—is going to bloom in the wash. It's what those short fibers were born to do, and it's part of why we love them so. My swatch emerged from its warm soapy bath with a delicious fuzz across the fabric surface.

The lack of any real elasticity made blocking a treat (another reason this would be so good for lace), and by the time my swatch dried, I was already picking out stitch motifs for a follow-up cowl.

The color didn't bleed in the wash or rinse, even after I increased the temperature to the warmer side of lukewarm.

Wearing
Testing a lace yarn can be hard. How do you simulate everyday wear and tear on a pretty swatch that was made to wrap around your neck and never see any kind of abrasion?

Two Air swatches

In my case, the answer was a second swatch worked in the round and approximately the same circumference as my hand. I darned in the ends, gave it a good wash, and after it dried, I slipped it on my right hand. (It works best if you put it on your dominant hand, since that one sees most use.)

One day became two, which became three, and that same swatch (still on my hand as I type this) has become a trusted friend whenever the sun dips behind the clouds. After easily a week of faithful duty, this swatch still shows no signs of wear whatsoever. No pilling, no excessive stretching, no nothing.

Against the skin, it is eager to maintain a perfect temperature for you. It's warm, soft, and friendly, and now I just need to knit a second cuff to keep the other wrist warm.

Conclusion
I first laid eyes on Air in 2012 at a TNNA trade show. At that time, Zealana was showing it as part of its Frontier Project Challenge to "engineer a high-performance, light, and warm yarn blend that is as soft as 100% cashmere." I've been biding my time until the yarn became commercially available, but the wait was worth it.

Air exceeds the scope of that original challenge. Not only is it easily as soft as 100% cashmere, but it has depth and nuance from the other two fibers. Its unique construction—once you get used to the Z twist—further enhances what is a unique knitting experience. Fine, soft, warm, and well-wearing, it begs to become scarf, cowl, shawl, or basically anything you can wrap close and snug around your neck. Just keep in mind that, on its own, the yarn has very little bounce. If you want something with greater squish and body, I highly recommend adding a little seed or moss stitch wherever you can.

While the yarn's $25-per-skein price may make Air prohibitive for full-sized sweaters, there's plenty to do with just one skein. You can make a pair of Light as AIR Fingerless Gloves (designed by Nathalie O'Shea for this yarn), or if it's your neck that needs cozying, take that skein and whip up one of Stephanie Pearl-McPhee's Pretty Little Things. The single-skein nature of these projects makes them ideal candidates for holiday gifts, and the yarn can be as much of the story as the finished product.