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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

She Blinded Me With Science

Please tell me you know that song!  Long live the 80s!!

My house is smelly right now.  I've been conducting science experiments.  On yarn.  Veeeeery interesting, I must say.

Let me start with a bit of back story.  I have a friend of mine who had given me a large amount of yarn, therefore he has first dibs on either of my kidneys, should he need them.  But they were mystery yarns.  I had no labels, and they were already wound.  They seemed to be made of wool.  They were rather scratchy.  I was keen to use them, but I also had no idea how many yards there were in each skein, and the weight of the yarn was somewhat less than worsted weight, yet not exactly was hard to say what was going on with them, actually.

I wanted to make some mittens for my son, so we picked out some yarn out of my stash.  He was interested in some of the mystery yarn.  I pulled it out and set to swatching.  But it didn't feel like wool in my hands.  Sort of inelastic, really.  I finished my swatch and washed it and then the weirdness hit a peak.  It didn't smell like wool.  No weird, funky wet-dog/wet-sheep smell.  It was more of a smell reminiscent of leaving your CD in the microwave and setting the timer to three weeks.  That kind of a smell.  The "uh-oh-we-have-synthetics" smell.  No bueno.

Now, I admit, I prefer wool (and I would hardly scoff at cashmere) to synthetics, but they definitely have their place, and I think they're getting better all the time.  You've got to admit, they were freaky-deaky back in the day when they first came out--I think we can all agree on that?  Nowadays, they can be very soft, come in an amazing array of textures and colors, and of course they are machine wash-and-dryable.  On the other hand, they don't do the amazing things that wool (and other natural fibers) can do.  Wool is warm, breatheably warm.  It takes some effort to make wool truly wet, since most liquids bead up on its surface, and (isn't this so cool?) wool exudes heat as it dries.  I read somewhere that in Scotland, in the bitter cold weather, they would dip their wool in water before putting it on (!).  I'm wondering who the first person was to try that little experiment.  "'s so freakin' cold, I'll just nip off to the pond to get my clothes wet before I put them on.  This'll be great!" 

Another plus for wool--it does not burn on its own.  It can smolder, but will extinguish itself once the source of the flame is removed.  That is why wool is such a great thing to put on small children, and why things like nylon and acrylic are a bad idea to put on children, considering those materials can catch fire, burn and melt like gangbusters (shudder). 

I wanted to find out what was up with this mystery yarn.  What was it made of?  Was my nose off?  Maybe it was wool, but I wasn't sure.  How could I find out, you ask?  Easy.  All you need is this:

No one can see my messy kitchen.  You've all been hypnotized.  It is spotless....yesss....

And this:

Lest you think I am some kind of chemist/genius, all I am doing has been done before and wonderfully explained in Stephanie Pearl-McPhee's book, Knitting Rules!  Can I confess something?  The first time I borrowed that book from the library, I apparently misplaced my sense of humor there and thought she had written a real Rule Book.  Dork!

So, Stephanie (aka the Yarn Harlot) has this tidy table that shows what to expect when you submerge various yarns/fibers in bleach.  Basically, if it is a natural fiber, it will eventually dissolve in full strength bleach.  Man-made fibers will not. 

The most fun came from testing the yarn with fire, however.  In the beginning, the yarn was looking so innocent...

but the seed of mistrust had been sown.  This is what it looked like to me:

Guess who learned how to doodle on photos today?

I started out with every intention of being a good little scientist.  I had a kitchen timer, a dish of bleach, a candle, a pair of scissors, and the camera.  But after a while, the fumes of burning yarn combined with the glee of burning stuff led to lots of blurry shots of yarn on fire.  It was hard to hold the yarn (whilst on fire, mind you) with my left hand while trying to focus the camera and take cool shots with my other hand.  The first victim sample did this:

Did you see that?  Those three shots all happened within maybe 2-3 seconds.  The fibers shrank from the candle flame (another sign it isn't a natural fiber--cotton, wool, silk will not do that), then flared into flame.  This yarn showed a blue tinge at the base of the flame,

and the smell was enough to knock your socks off.  It also dripped long black crumbly plastic-y ash.  Yuck.  This was a wonderful reminder to me that, as the mother of two small children, to never use such a fiber for their knits. 

The mystery yarn was horrified.

I tested all of the mystery yarn.  I was determined to learn the truth.  And the results?

All acrylic.  All of the skeins shrank from the flame, then went up in flames.  It smelled of burning chemicals.  None of the samples I submerged in bleach ever showed any hint of dissolving, even after 15 minutes. 

I decided to try some yarn that I knew had natural fibers in it.  I busted out some good old-fashioned kitchen cotton yarn:

And the flames were noticeably different.

Here you can see that there are no flare-ups, even though the entire strand is on fire, it is a steady burn.  There is no black crumbly ash, but instead you can see at the bottom of the strand, an ash gray remnant, still showing evidence of the plying done to the yarn.  Isn't that cool?  The smell of burning cotton was akin to burning wood, a relief to my nose at that point.  

I also burned a tiny strand of Noro.  Look away if this is shocking to you.

Noro has all kinds of fiber in it.  Wool, lambs wool, nylon, silk.  And it went up in flames, too, with the old crumbly black ash.  Bummer.

I decided to try some alpaca/wool blend yarn, and was surprised that it also went up in flames completely.  I had hoped that the yarn would behave like pure wool is supposed to.  That is, it would only smolder when flame was applied, and that would cease once the flame was removed.  I finally went for the Cascade 220 wool and decided to put it to the test. 

It did burn a little bit, I was surprised to note.  But the flame was very small and very quickly put itself out.  

All in all, it was a really fun experiment to do.  Even better was when my husband came home after 45 minutes of me burning acrylic yarns and was almost knocked backward by the smell.  "What the $%&# are you doing?" he asked.  I had burning fiber in one hand and our family camera in the other.  I can only imagine what he must have been thinking....

PS:  Even though you may do your experiment at the kitchen sink (handy place to put stuff on fire, and water is easily accessible, just in case), do not presume to wash your burnt yarn and bleached yarn bits down the drain:

PPS:  There is not enough apologizing you can do on a Saturday when the disposal is clogged by bleached, burnt yarn. 

1 comment:

NTDeej said...

Thanks so much for the lessons, Erin. Really good info to remember!

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