Thursday, April 17, 2008

Polar fleece: an excellent fabric to combine with hand knits

If you're a hand-knitter who's never used Polar Fleece, you have a wonderful surprise waiting for you! Although it is not without drawbacks, Polar fleece is EXCELLENT when used in small amounts for lining hand knits. THIS TECHknitting post shows how to line a hat with a polar fleece, headband style, while THIS TECHknitting post shows how to fully line a hat with Polar fleece without measuring anything, just by using your head and your finished hat as the template. But before all that, here is a free-standing write-up on just what Polar fleece is, its advantages, disadvantages, and characteristics.

Polar fleece is the name for a certain type of fuzzy, stretchy KNIT yard goods invented by Malden Mills. (Malden Mills, you might remember, is the corporate feel-good story of the 1990's. When the factory burned down, the owner, Aaron Fuerstein, didn't close down or move overseas: he used millions from his insurance money to keep the workers on full pay and benefits as he rebuilt the mill). The company was eventually sold, and is now called Polartec LLC, with "Polartec" also being the brand name of their very premium fleece. You can buy generic fleece at big-box fabric stores, and that kind is good enough for linings. If you want the really good stuff, Polartec brand fleece is available at high-end stores as well as on-line. Polar fleece is also called "microfleece," although (confusingly) this name is also used to indicate thinner yard goods, like those used for undershirts or pajamas.

Fleece is an entirely synthetic fabric made from PET plastic, often from recycled soda containers. The plastic is heated, then turned into thread by extruding it through shower-head- like nozzles. Giant machines then use this extruded thread to knit enormous tubes of fabric, usually with with loops on both sides like a towel, although single-sided fleece continues to be produced. The loops are "napped" into fuzziness by more giant machines, then trimmed to a uniform length like a velvety shag rug. (Read more here.) Fleece is made in different thicknesses, with the medium thickness (called "200 weight") being the most all-around useful.

There are several truly WONDERFUL things about combining Polar fleece with hand knitting. Not least among Polar fleece's marvels is that ANYONE who can sew AT ALL can make a really nice job of using it as a lining. (Really!)

1. STRETCHY: because it is knit, Polar Fleece stretches. This means that if you line a handknit with Polar fleece, the garment will continue to be stretchy. This is very different than using woven material to line a handknit. Woven material does not stretch very much, and what little stretching there is, is on the bias. Translated into regular English, this means that you have to use a lot of little dressmaker's tricks to successfully line a (stretchy) handknit with (not-stretchy) woven fabric. By contrast, very few tricks are needed with Polar fleece because the fabric is so similar, stretch-wise, to handknit fabric. In other words, the stretch-factor means that if you can operate scissors, thread a hand-sewing needle, and do the simplest sewing stitch, you can make a good-looking Polar fleece lining for your handknit hat (Really, really!)

2. CUT-AND-SEW: Although it is a knit fabric, Polar Fleece is heat set, so it will not unravel like handknit fabric does (or like woven cloth does, either). This means (frabulous day!) that you can cut it and sew it without having to worry about hemming it. (Polar fleece is simple to use!)

3. NAP HIDES THE SEWING THREAD: Polar fleece is so fuzzy that your sewing thread will sink right in. This means that if you hand sew with a small stitch and a single strand of polyester thread, and then run your thumbnail firmly several times over the stitches, the nap will rise up and completely hide your sewing. (NOW do you believe that your lining will look great?)

4. NOT ITCHY: Polar fleece is well-tolerated. Most people don't find it itchy at all, not even pressed against ears or neck. Picky little kids who flail and fling themselves to the ground at the approach of a disliked garment don't scream or fuss at the touch of Polar fleece.

5. DRY: Polar fleece "wicks." This means that it draws moisture away from your skin. Even after WAY too many hours of sweating into a Polar-fleece-lined hat on a cross-country ski slog adventure, your forehead will be dry, long after the woolen outer shell is soaked.

6. LIGHT-WEIGHT: if you line a hat with Polar fleece, you won't notice any additional weight.

7. EASY-PEASY TO WASH: washing Polar fleece couldn't be easier: It doesn't shrink, it's tough enough to be endlessly machine washed and dried, yet it sheds dirt so easily that hand-washing with a swish through sudsy water cleans it just as well. Therefore, fleece is suitable to line any sort of hand-knit hat, ranging from the most delicate "hand-wash-dry-flat" mohairs, through hardy superwash wools, and all the way to bombproof wash'n'dry acrylics.

8. CHEAP: a quarter yard won't set you back more than a couple of bucks, and will line a whole bunch of hats in the headband style, and even a couple of hats in the fully-lined style. That's because this stuff is seriously WIDE -- somewhere around FIVE FEET -- the denser stuff measures 58 inches, while the thinner stuff measures up to 68 inches wide.

With so many excellent qualities, you just KNOW there are some downsides, and so there are.

1. FLAMMABILITY: This is the very biggest disadvantage. Regular Polar Fleece is horribly flammable. Just like the plastic it is made of, it goes up like a torch. Nowadays, there ARE fire-retardant fleeces (mainly for military and fire-fighter use) but you have to really hunt for these. It is for fear of fire that I, personally, feel best about using Polar fleece in small amounts. Specifically, I use it mostly for lining the inside of nice, safe wool hats, with the wool on the OUTSIDE. Certainly, I would never, EVER sew a non-flame-retardant fleece garment for an infant.

2. NOT GENERALLY WIND RESISTANT: nowadays, it IS possible to find windproof fleece, but, like the fire retardant ones, you really have to hunt for these, and when you find them, they're rather thick and stiff. Ordinary fleece, like that at big-box fabric stores, lets the wind through. As a lining for a close-knit woolen cap or under a windbreaker, no big problem--for a garment on its own, avoid!

3. STICKY: most linings, especially arm linings, are slick, which is why you can pull your ski jacket or dress coat over a woolen sweater. In a small garment like a hat, a Polar fleece lining is no particular problem, especially as hair is fairly slick. However, an outerwear jacket lined all in fleece would be nearly impossible--you'd stick like a bug in a web as any sweater you were wearing tangled with the fleece jacket lining.

4. STATIC-Y: fleece is very static-y, more static-y than any wool, and the electric shock factor in dry winter air can be VERY annoying. This is another factor which usually leads me to restrict the amount of Polar fleece in garments I make.

5. MELTS! Polar fleece will melt under the heat of even ordinary ironing. This means that steam blocking an wool hat lined with fleece is out. Avoid the iron and wet-block, instead.

To be sure, other than the fire issue, the good FAR outweighs the bad. Polar fleece is as close to a miracle fiber as you can get, and WILL look good as a headband lining or a full lining in even the fanciest hand-knit hat. Even if you never thought of using it before, if you should ever find yourself in a fabric store, snag a quarter yard to mess around with, and see for yourself.

As stated above, Polar fleece is knit in giant tubes. After the tube is knit, it is slit open. When the fabric is finished, it is folded in half and wound onto bolts to become "yard goods," (fabric sold by the yard, rather than the piece or panel). At that point, the slit-open edges are the LONG edges of the fabric. These lengthwise edges--the "selvedges" of the material, are not napped (not fuzzy)--they are naked looking.The BAD thing is that, since the edges were slit open, and because they are all naked-looking, they are a bit raggedy. This means that, unlike woven cloth where the selvedge is a valuable part of the cloth (because it doesn't unravel) you wouldn't want to use a fleece selvedge right at the edge of a lining, where it might show. If a selvedge are still attached to the piece of Polar fleece you plan to use, either cut it off, or fold it under and sew it to the inside--between the lining and the hat. The GOOD thing about the naked, un-fuzzy selvedges is that you can use them as landmarks when you come to sew with Polar fleece.

To explain: The S-T-R-E-T-C-H of Polar fleece is directional--it stretches a great deal from side to side (from selvedge to selvedge) but stretches far less along the length. BE CAREFUL that you cut a headband-lining or a full lining so the direction of stretch is going AROUND your head (the long way of the headband-lining) NOT "up and down" on your head. Having the stretch go AROUND you head will be far kinder to your ears and forehead!

Double-sided polar fleece comes in two flavors:
1. the (expensive and relatively rare) fancy kind that is really two different fleeces fused together--a truly reversible fabric, which may even be a different color on each side.
2. the (far more common) "regular" kind which has a thicker "good side" and thinner not-so-good side.

On "regular" double-sided fleece, the good side pills less and is denser and nicer than the not-so-good side. To tell the truth, this ISN'T VERY IMPORTANT for lining a kid's hat, or a sweater for the dog. But if you're lining a hat for the new boyfriend, or that fancy creation to hand around at your next guild meeting, you probably want to keep track of which side is which. Usually, you can tell by just looking and feeling--the denser fuzz is on the good side. If you're unsure, ask the nice ladies at the fabric store to tell you, then mark the good side with a pin or a piece of tailor's chalk.

Another thing hand-knitters can mostly ignore is "nap." This means that the little velvety cut loops, the "fuzz," runs directionally. If you're sewing two pieces together, it would look more pleasant if the nap caught the light the same way--if it ran the same way on each adjoining piece. For 99% of handknit lining applications, however, you can ignore nap--this info is just here so if you decide to abandon knitting & take up sewing as a hobby, you'll be all set.

Next time: how to line a hat with a fleece headband.

--TECHknitter (You have been reading TECHknitting on: Polar fleece--information for hand knitters.)