Some of the fabulous features of acrylic are:
It’s generally great value for money.
It’s extremely widely available.
It’s easy to care for (machine washable etc.). It’s sturdy and holds up to a lot of wear.
It comes in a massive range of colours, holding intense bright dyes really well.
It’s good for those with allergies to natural fibres, or who have other reasons for not wanting to use animal/natural fibres.
You may read/hear a lot of, sometimes quite dismissive, opinions about acrylic yarns. That they are all plasticky, scratchy, cheap-looking, not fun to work with etc. Of course everyone has their own personal taste in yarn, but as far as I’m concerned the humble acrylic very much has its place in knitting, with so many types to choose from. They are definitely not all the same, the products are constantly evolving and they all have different properties.
Budget is a massive consideration for many of us, it just is! There are so many beautiful patterns out there, but many of them call for expensive yarns that are often way beyond the pocket of a lot of people. There is nothing wrong with substituting with an acrylic that you like. That way you can still have that beautiful sweater etc. without agonising over how to pay for the materials, and have more money left to spend on patterns and books and tools.
Personally, I enjoy writing a variety of patterns, some of which were knit in 100% acrylic. This capelet design was made in acrylic from a budget store, for example. The yarn cost £1.69 a ball.
Of course it’s my work so I’m biased, but really I don’t think it looks any less beautiful for its cheapness. I was attracted to the vibrant colour and also it worked with the money I had at the time. The stitch definition was excellent and it worked great for what I wanted to do.
It’s great sometimes, to have some things that are very easy to care for. Acrylic is eminently practical.
Baby clothes, blankets and toys are things that are (hopefully) going to get a lot of love and use. For these, having something that a busy parent doesn’t have to worry about throwing into the washing machine or worry about accidentally felting or shrinking can be a big plus.
These toy hippos were both knitted in 100% acrylic yarn. They can take some tough love!
The Spin on Acrylics!
Acrylic yarn comes in most weights (although anything finer than fingering weight can be harder to find). It is constructed and spun in many different ways and varieties.
Where you see an acrylic labelled as “baby yarn”, it isn’t any different particularly, it just means that that particular yarn may be a little softer than regular yarns by that manufacturer, and generally comes in a more limited range of colours, usually pastels. The “baby” is just a marketing term. You can knit what you like with it, or knit baby items in yarns that are not specifically “baby”. Of course!
Here is a scarf/shawl I made in acrylic baby yarn, for my grandmother, who likes soft yarn and doesn’t like wool.
Some acrylic yarns are quite tightly twisted and you’ll find with these that one side of a stitch is going to twist up a little more than another, which can give a rope-like effect. I really like this look, but if it’s something that you don’t, then it might be best to avoid these types. Rest assured that this isn’t your knitting doing this, it is just the nature of the yarn. These yarns are very hard wearing.
Others are a little looser and slightly more fluffy, so they are bit softer to work with and you won’t get the “rope” look going on. They can be really nice and gentle to knit with.
I like to use these ones with metal needles as I find the fuzz will drag and stick a little bit on wooden ones, in a way that natural wool doesn’t so much.
The softer acrylics do fluff a little more with washing and use, so can be a bit more prone to pilling with wear. Washing them with plenty of fabric softener can help to prevent this.
Any unwanted pilling that occurs over time can be removed with a clothes shaver, if it does happen
Some really basic budget brands you may find do have that undesirable scratchy plastic feel, making them a little rough to work with, not all acrylics are going to feel wonderful, and yes some are quite harsh! If you have some and are wondering if it will work for you, don’t despair.
If you can manage to work it, a wash with lots of fabric softener will really soften the whole thing up, dramatically. If it is still too rough, you can run it through the dryer on a gentle heat (see your yarn ball band and take a look at the section on blocking at the end of this article). Also there is no rule that says you can’t put it into hanks and wash it and dry it to soften it up before working it!
You may also find that a yarn you don’t find too nice to knit with, feels better to crochet with, or vice versa. So if you do both crafts, see which works best.
Here is a blanket I made. I had bought several balls of acrylic that I didn’t enjoy the texture of too much knitted, it was quite crunchy and rough and plastic feeling. So I used it up in a crochet project. It was much nicer to work with. I finished it off with the washing in softener and throwing in the dryer technique. It came up delightfully soft and I just love it. I’ve had it for several years now and it’s wearing as hard as iron, yet still soft and cuddly. It was well worth trying to use that yarn.
Three interesting types of acrylic that you might not know yet…
Crepe – these are very tightly chained yarns made up of multiple tiny threads.
This results in a slightly textured “crepe” appearance in the knitting, with a bit of a feel of thick nubby cotton.
Miss Emily’s dress and pantelettes here were made with crepe acrylic, to give her a bit of old-fashioned charm to her clothes.
The texture also makes the colours more muted, which is quite nice in pale shades.
These are acrylics that mimic the look of natural fibre yarns such as mohair and angora. they have that fuzzy halo.
They are a fun choice to work with if you are sensitive to these natural fibres but like the look, and being acrylic, they don’t shed little fibres everywhere.
In these, the yarn is fluffed up and teased or “brushed” to get the effect. Here is a sock on the needles, using brushed acrylic.
Twirl – The yarn is crimped and twirly, looking a bit like old telephone handset wires!
When knit or crocheted it gives the piece a highly textured kind of bouclé appearance. These are generally very soft as they are made up of quite loose fluffy fibres and have a pretty sheen to them.
Here’s a scarf I made in twirl yarn. It’s not as catchy and sticky as actual bouclé yarn (which has loops in it), so much easier to unravel if you need to.
The two biggest acrylic myths…..
It’s not for “serious” knitters …
One thing that I have found about knitting in pure acrylic, it forces you to be quite serious with it! It it is absolutely less forgiving than working in natural fibres. By far. Pure wool and many other natural fibres will “bloom” a little on washing and can be stretched and manipulated into shape, it is not too difficult to work with them after making something, to get the item to look even better, it can even be “fudged” and not show it too badly. I would argue that working in pure wool is going to make anyone’s knitting look better. Acrylic won’t do that as much, guaranteed, it is going to show you all your mistakes and show up any unevenness in your knitting. It forces you to work a little harder on technique.
It takes a bit of skill to knit beautiful looking items in it, particularly things with colourwork or long stretches of stockinette stitch. You really have to work it as well as you can! But it will also show off great knitting better than anything else I’ve seen. I have a friend who knits so beautifully that she can make something worked in acrylic look as gorgeous as if it were made in a much more expensive yarn. That is pure skill to me, and when I see that kind of work in acrylic, it always impresses me.
You can’t block acrylic…
Of course you can. Just don’t try to block it and treat it as if it were a natural fibre. It won’t cooperate and this doesn’t work. This is where the misconception that you can’t block acrylic comes from. You can’t wash it and pin it out and expect it to hold much of a shape, or for this to do much for evening out the stitches. Don’t waste time trying that. But just because this doesn’t work, doesn’t mean it is not possible to block. It’s manmade, so it just needs a more industrial solution! You can still make it hold a shape, and you can still help the stitches to even out.
Acrylic needs to be blocked with a combination of heat and moisture, and the most effective way to do this is with steam. Ever seen a pattern for acrylic yarn that advises to “press with an iron, under a damp cloth”? That is exactly what this does, the pressing with the iron heats up the damp cloth to produce mild steam into the fibres, to “set” them into shape. The cloth also protects the work. There are two other types of steam blocking you can do to acrylics, which I’ve named “gentle” and “killing”.
Note: steam blocking of acrylic is PERMANENT. Whatever you do with it, will be set into the fabric, for good. So don’t be too impulsive with it. Always test what you want to do on a swatch if you’re unsure how your acrylic will react to steaming.
Gentle: lay out your pieces or item neatly, steam over, from a few inches above the piece for a short burst, and then pat the piece into shape with your hands and to smooth out any stitches. Don’t rub your hands over the stitches as this can stretch them out of shape, just pat. You can use a household steam iron for this, you don’t need any special steaming equipment.
Killing: killing acrylic means partially melting the fibres with steam (but not so much that they melt into a hardened burnt mess!). This is harsher than the gentle blocking. For this, steam for longer and very close to the fabric. You can even touch the iron onto it if you want it to be more aggressive (but adjust the iron setting to a low heat for this, so you don’t completely melt and harden the stitches). Killing will permanently change the drape and texture of the fabric. Stitches will become flattened out and the fabric more thin and drapey. Killing is great if you have a lace piece for which you want to really open up the stitches. You can knit a fine lace shawl in acrylic, and you can pin it out and block it to open it right up, and that blocking (unlike with natural fibres) will be permanently set, once done. Depending on the yarn and how heat resistant it is designed to be, acrylic items can also sometimes be killed by putting a very wet item into a dryer on a high heat, to generate the steam, however you can’t control what happens with this as well as if you steam block by hand.
Like all fibres, acrylic works best in a project where it is best suited to the look and feel and purpose of the project, as well as the needs of the person who will end up using and caring for the project.
It will also give you great results if you take a little time to experiment with it, and get to know how to work it to its advantages. Plus it can be great where budget is a big consideration. So it has really more than earned its place in the fibre world, just as much as anything else!