All your questions about silk yarn answered

Three balls of dusky dark pink silk yarn lying with a variegated pink hand knitted camisole

In previous summers, I’ve been all about the cotton yarn, whether that’s a pure cotton like the lovely Krea Deluxe Organic Cotton, a cotton-and-plant mix like Kelbourne Woolens Mojave or a cotton-and-wool mix like BC Garn BioBalance.

But this year I’m going in a different direction with my summer knitting, and I’m going for silk yarn.

I know. Unexpected.

Yes, silk has been on my knitting radar for years as part of mohair silk yarns, but it turns out it can do rather more than just providing a lovely stable core to spin with those super fluffy yarns. So let’s do a little silk yarn FAQ, shall we?

What’s so great about silk yarn for summer?

I mean, what’s not great about silk yarn for summer? It’s gloriously lightweight, has spectacular drape (which is just a fancy way of saying that it hangs really nicely) and it can do something ridiculous like absorb 30% of its weight in moisture without feeling damp.

Which obviously means that on hot, sticky days it’s a pretty good fibre to be wearing.

How ethical is silk yarn?

Silk has a bit of a bad rap when it comes to animal cruelty, and for good reason; a lot of silk production uses some pretty unpleasant methods that I won’t go into here.

But the good news is that a lot of supply chains are becoming a lot more transparent, which makes it a bit easier to find out exactly how your silk yarn has been produced. That said, the information isn’t available for all yarns, so if cruelty-free silk production is particularly important to you, then your safe bet silk yarn is Knitting For Olive Pure Silk.

If you’ve ever looked on knitting Instagram for more than about 30 seconds, you’ll likely have come across a pattern using this yarn, and for good reason; KFO Pure Silk is ethically produced raw silk, which means it’s harvested from the cocoons after the butterflies have already left. It makes for a slightly more rustic silk than you might expect, with a bit less sheen and a slightly thick-and-thin quality to it, but if you ask me, that just adds to the charm. I used it for my second sample of the Tallulah camisole, so I know what I’m talking about here.

Jacki wears a dark dusty pink hand knitted camisole with a frill at the neckline. She is looking down and pulling down the hem of the top

And have we talked about the colour range for KFO Pure Silk? Because we should. It’s absolutely stonking.

If you’re after a really special, rather more spenny alternative then La Bien Aimee launched a new, ethical silk tweed this year which again has a spectacular colour range. I can’t give this one a personal recommendation as I’ve not knitted with it yet, but maybe I should order a few skeins in the name of research? I mean, it’s basically my professional duty.

What is silk yarn like to knit with?

Honestly? A bit weird. It lacks the elasticity of wool, which means it can feel a bit rope-like to knit with. If you’re working with a pure silk, then you may find it a bit hard on your hands, which sounds counterintuitive given how gloriously soft the finished fabric is. It can be a bit of an eyes-on-the-prize experience, as you know the finished article is absolutely going to be worth it.

This lack of elasticity can also affect your tension, so it’s super important to make sure you swatch when working with silk yarn. Personally, I find that my tension is super loose with silk. Taking the Tallulah camisole as another example, the silk/wool mix of the variegated sample knitted up on a 3.75mm needle, whereas the pure silk version needed a 3mm needle to get the same tension. Which is a not insignificant difference.

Is there any way to knit with silk and have it be a more pleasant experience?

If you really can’t be doing with the pure silk knitting experience, the you might want to look into a silk mix. In general, yarns tend to behave according to whatever fibre is the biggest in the mix, and very often silk is mixed in 50:50 with fibres like wool.

This means that there’s enough of the other fibre in there to add a bit of that elasticity back in, and make it a bit less like knitting with rope. You’re also likely to find that your tension is closer to your “usual” tension.

What about silk mix yarns? Are they any good for summer?

It’s irritating answer time, because I’m going to have to tell you that it depends on what it’s mixed with.

One of the most common combinations is an alpaca silk, which for most of the year is an absolute bloomin’ dream of a combination. It’s softer than your average kitten, and has the most glorious drape and sheen you’re ever going to see. Sandnes Garn Alpakka Silke is a fantastic commercial example of the genre, and I will eternally sing the praises of Ainsworth and Prin’s hand dyed version.

The only issue with these yarns for summer is that alpaca is a pretty warm fibre. As in, warmer than wool. So if you’re thinking of using an alpaca silk for a summer knit, have a think about how you’re expecting to wear that project.

If it’s going to be your super hot weather go-to camisole, then maybe have a reconsider. If you’re after something that’s super lightweight to chuck on of an eve to keep the chill out, then you’re more likely to be onto a winner.

Speaking of winners, my absolute winner silk mix yarn is a merino/silk. It’s almost as soft as that lovely alpaca, without quite so much of the warmth.

I’ll merrily wear a merino silk tee through most of the English summer. My latest merino silk FO is a Pegetha top in some crazy beautiful one of a kind yarn from The Wool Kitchen, who produce my absolute favourite merino silk yarns. The combination of colour, shine, and speckling is just absolutely top-notch. 

What patterns should I be using with silk yarn?

As ever, your safest bet is going to be going with a pattern that’s designed for the fibre you’re using. If you’re on Ravelry it can be easy to lose way longer than anticipated by scrolling through the projects for a particular yarn.

In general though, silk tends to lend itself to patterns that are a bit flowy. It can make for superb summer basics (think tees and tanks) and can also make for some pretty nifty looking lacework.

And if you’re after some specific examples, then you might want to check out some of these babies (heads up – these are all links to Ravelry):

  • Sari Nordlund has umpteen patterns designed for Knitting For Olive pure silk, including the Karina Tee and Olive Tank
  • The Moon Glade Tee by Kelly Menzies would look superb in a merino silk

  • I’ve been meaning to knit a silk So Summer Shirt by Jessie Mae for ages, and might actually do it soon. Maybe.

  • The Tolsta Tee by Rebecca Clow is just begging to become a summer silk wardrobe staple

  • And, y’know, my own Tallulah camisole is top-notch in silk. Especially if you add the frill. God, I love the frill.

Got any questions about silk yarns? Let me know below.

One response to “All your questions about silk yarn answered”

  1. This is a great summary! Thank you for including the ethical suggestion too – that’s held me back on more than one occasion.

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