I’m allergic to wool. More specifically, I’m allergic to lanolin. It’s not just wool that can give me hives, it’s everything from lotions to soaps. And by “give me hives” I mean “give me some of the worst hives you’ve ever seen, where I get itchy bumps that swell up and get flaky and huge and gross and last for at least a week and can leave a scar when all I did was touch that darn sweater in the store.” This means that I didn’t even try to knit with wool until a couple of months ago.
It also means that trips to the yarn store are downright painful. Not only can I not buy the stuff, I can’t even walk up to the display and run a finger over a skein. Yarn-buying excursions are well-thought-out events. I first check the fiber content by very carefully picking up a skein by the ball band or asking someone to check for me. Wool, especially where it’s labelled by breed, is dangerous. If it’s highly processed, that’s a good sign; superwash varieties are usually fine, percentages smaller than 20% are sometimes okay, and anything labelled “organic” should be treated with great caution. You know how some knitters like to pick up yarn and smell it? Apart from the fact that getting unknown yarn that close to my face is incredibly dangerous, if the yarn has that nice, rich, wooly smell, it means that it has lanolin in it.
Alpaca and angora fibers are usually all right, as long as they’re used in conjunction with other safe fibers. Mohair is like this, too, although I’ve never tested any 100% mohair yarns, so I’m not sure if this is due to processing or the nature of the fiber itself. (As an aside, I’ve considered adopting an angora bunny or two. I grew up with house rabbits, and loved it. The majority of rabbits shed a lot, so I’d might as well get some fiber from all the plucking that I’d end up doing anyway. On the other hand, I also love the Mini Rex breed, which doesn’t shed, and my apartment right now doesn’t allow pets, so we’ll see.)
Once I’ve checked the fiber content, I pick a couple of yarns to test. I rub a skein against my inner forearm, and wait for 15 minutes or so. If I don’t have hives by then, I’m usually all right.
For example, Knit Picks Wool of The Andes ought to give me hives, because it’s 100% wool, and labelled by breed (a cross of Merino and Corriedale). I only bought a little bit of it the first time that I ordered it because I was so nervous. Knit Picks is a relatively safe brand for me, which I think has to do with the fact that they’re using faster, harsher processing techniques; a lot of small producers’ products are especially dangerous for me.
Now, Wool of the Andes doesn’t give me hives, per se, but if I knit with it for too long, it does make my hands very chapped and dry. If I let it go for too long (more than about 30-45 minutes of knitting) my knuckles will actually crack and bleed, which is clearly good for neither me nor the yarn. If I stop to wash my hands and reapply my super special sensitive skin hand lotion, things are better, but the handwashing itself takes a toll. The yarn is better after I wash it, too. In fact, the felted heel patches that I made for my fuzzy pants lo these many weeks gone are perfectly fine. I’ve even touched them to my face and neck with no adverse reaction. I’ve also soaked some Wool of the Andes in dish soap, and that seemed to clear up the itchiness just fine. Unfortunately, soaking whole skeins risks felting the whole thing, so I’ll continue knitting and then washing for now.
So, to those wool-allergic knitters, have hope! Try more highly processed fibers, test carefully before you buy, wash well before you wear, and if you come up with more ideas, let me know.