As spring slowly but surely moves towards summer here in the northern hemisphere, I thought I would bring you a second part in my hopefully-titled summer knitting series, Here Comes the Sun. (See part one: lightweight linen here)
Today the focus is on two more plant fibres that are well suited for summer garments: cotton and bamboo/viscose.
Included below: a quick introduction to the two fibres and their knitted fabrics; a few tips for knitting with their yarns; sources of further information; and finally, some inspiring pattern suggestions!
An introduction to cotton and bamboo
Cotton is spun from the fluffy, short-staple fibres found in the boll (seed case) of the cotton plant which make a soft but dense and inelastic yarn. When knitted, cotton fabrics are soft and breathable- pulling heat away from the body, and thus forming cool garments. Mercerised cotton is a processed form of cotton in which the fibres are more plump, giving a more lustrous finish.
Bamboo: most yarn labelled ‘bamboo’ is not created directly from the plant but is actually a processed form of bamboo pulp which is also known as viscose. This is why yarn labels for ‘bamboo’ yarns often have the fibre content described as viscose or rayon, terms which indicate a form of regenerated cellulose fibre. This viscose yarn was created in an attempt to make an artificial silk, and it does share many characteristics with silk yarns: it is inelastic, with smooth fibres, has a sheen and accepts dyes well.
The knitted fabric
Both cotton and bamboo/viscose yarns create fabrics that have none of the bounce or elasticity of a typical woollen fabric- in practice, this means that these fabrics are liable to lose their shape when they are worn, with garments becoming longer and looser. This can be a problem- e.g. when a v-neck moves from your collar bones down to your navel!- but can also give a drape to garments that allow them to flow elegantly over the body.
Both cotton and bamboo/viscose are noticeably more dense than most wools or acrylics. thus making a heavier end product. This can be beneficial when making an item such as a bedspread, but is sometimes a disadvantage when making a garment to be worn—e.g. an aran weight oversized sweater knitted in 100% cotton may feel a little unwieldy, especially for anyone with strength or mobility issues.
Tips for knitting with cotton and bamboo/viscose
Experiment with different ways of holding your yarn: the lack of elasticity and the super smooth texture of cotton and bamboo/viscose yarns can make it difficult to knit with or to get an even gauge. By changing the way you hold your yarn you may be able to alleviate these issues a little- e.g. I found that when knitting with a cotton blend yarn, I needed to wrap the yarn an additional time round my finger to stop it from slipping.
Experiment with different types of needles: the slippery smooth texture of cotton and bamboo/viscose yarns can also mean that stitches are difficult to manipulate or are prone to falling off the needles. Your knitting experience can be quite transformed by a change of needles- in this case, to a needle that gives more grip, such as a wooden or bamboo needle rather than a smoother metal type.
Consider the impact of fabric stretching in your calculations for sizing: the finished cotton or bamboo/viscose fabric is prone to stretching out of shape, becoming longer and baggier. While you can do little to prevent this stretching, you can accommodate for it in your sizing choices- e.g. you may choose to make a size smaller than you normally wear, knit the length a little shorter or make a neckline less deep than specified in the pattern.
Consider your choice of seams and construction: given the likelihood of the final cotton or bamboo/viscose stretching out of shape, you can make sure you use firm seams to maintain the overall structure of the garment- e.g. using a three needle bind off or mattress stitch rather than a grafting join like a Kitchener stitch. You may also consider choosing a pattern that includes seams, which add a little extra structure, rather than a pattern that is knitted in the round.
Consider blends of yarn: a number of the difficulties associated with cotton and bamboo/viscose- namely, its stretching out of shape, slipperiness, inelasticity- can be alleviated to some degree by combining the fibres with others, such as wool. Blends can make the best of the qualities of the yarns combined within them- e.g. the warmth of wool, the sheen of bamboo/viscose or the smooth finish of cotton.
More information about cotton and bamboo/viscose
SHAWLS: breezy skies by Jenny F (here) – although this bias-knit, mesh and garter stripe wrap was originally designed for 4-ply/fingering weight merino wool, it would make a perfect, light summer wrap made in a cotton or bamboo yarn.
Birch by Sharon Miller (here) – Perfect for covering up on cooler summer days and evenings, this elegant triangular shaped shawl features pretty lace combined with a choice of either stocking stitch/stockinette or garter stitch. Knitted in a lace weight yarn, the free pattern gives options for both a cool, sleek cotton yarn or a more warming, fluffy mohair blend.
Lovely Lizzy Shawl by Bekah Knits (here) – Knitted from tip to tip in a linen/cotton blend, this shawl drapes beautifully and features delicate lace, cabled borders, asymmetric shaping and an i-cord edging.
TOPS: Mirror by Yumiko Alexander (here) – this design makes the most of the drape of a 100% cotton, light fingering/3-ply yarn, forming a poncho-like, lace top that falls elegantly over tank tops and tees.
Siesta Tee by Nicole Montgomery (here) – this dolman-style, mesh tee is perfect as a cover up in the summer. Designed to be knitted in either a 100% cotton yarn that results in a very drapey, unstructured top, or in a cotton/linen blend that gives more structure and less drape.
Sprouts Tee by Nadya Stallings (here) – made in a blend of cotton and rayon, this vintage style top skims the body and features asymmetric lace, kimono style sleeves and subtle shaping. Part of the great spring/summer collection, Renew, by Knit Picks (see here)
Breeze Sleeveless Airy Top by Irene Lin (here) – this elegant, a-line tank top features dropped stitches and eyelets and can be worked top-down and joined in the round or in pieces and sewn together. See photo at top of page.
CARDIGANS AND JUMPERS: Wisteria by Amy Christoffers (here) – This simple, all-over lace pattern is combined with a DK cotton yarn to make a relaxed, comfy cardigan for spring weather or cooler summer days. Photo copyright amirisu.
Tess by Amy Christoffers (here) – perfect for a cool spring or summer day, this sweater is knitted in a cotton/rayon blend yarn and features eyelet and purl textures with raglan shaping.
Leafy Lace Cardi by soobeeoz (here) – this vintage style, v-neck cardigan is made from 100% mercerised cotton that gives great definition to the pretty all-over lace design, while the tie waist helps keep a neat shape.
Over to you
Do you enjoy knitting with cotton or bamboo/viscose? What are your favourite patterns for summer knitting? I’d love to hear about your experiences!