It's kind of funny. When I started dyeing yarn, I didn't really know all that much about chemistry. The last time I'd had any real interaction with it was Mr. Horner's class in high school. Then Lorna's Laces came into my life and terms like pH and acidity became all the rage in my vocabulary. I'm still no whiz and the folks at Pfizer don't need to worry about their job security, but I have a little better handle on things these days.
I chugged along for quite some time thinking that I was doing pretty well with my little corner of the science world and out of the blue came Outlast. A space age fiber that we've incorporated into two yarns, Solemate and Sportmate. I understand how they work but I've found it hard to articulate.
To my delight, the fiber world has its own textile engineer/rock star, Maura Kirk.She blogs about things here and you can find some of her designs here.
Maura understands Outlast on a level I don't and offered to write a guest post about it for us. I think she did a great job of explaining how it works. I may just turn into a science geek after all.
The National Needle Arts trade shows are an amazing sensory overload for any fiber enthusiast. However, I have never been more excited than the first time I saw Lorna’s Laces Solemate exhibited last June. I regaled anyone that would listen about phase change material! And the microencapsulation! As a textile engineer, I spent my days researching groundbreaking and innovative fibers, and as a knitter, I’d come home to entangle my fingers in unparalleled wool. All of a sudden, here was everything I loved converged in one gorgeous, hand-dyed skein.
Now Lorna’s Laces is expanding their line with Sportmate, a sport weight version of this incredible yarn. If you have warm hands like mine, the first thing you’ll notice is that it feels slightly chilled to the touch when you hold it. That’s the magic of this fiber blend. Outlast is a passive thermal regulator, meaning it’ll cool you when you’re warm and warm you when you’re cool. It is a viscose fiber, like rayon and bamboo. Spun into the fiber itself are microencapsulated beads of phase change material (PCM). A PCM is something that changes states from solid to liquid and back again. Ice is a really common example. Outlast’s PCM is proprietary, but it might be something like paraffin, a wax with a narrow temperature range.
All this talk of melting and solidifying sounds like it might get messy, but that’s where the microencapsulation comes in. Think of them like teeny teeny tiny Advil gel caps. They’re so small, you can’t feel them and you’d need a microscope just to see them, but they’re holding the PCM that’s going to draw the warm energy away from your skin to cool you and release it back when you’re a bit chilled. It’s not a coating or a finish, so it’s not going to change the way the yarn feels or wear away over time.
And wool! I think we can agree that wool itself is amazing, but do you know why? On a microscopic level, the fiber resembles a spring. The coils of the spring are linked by molecular bonds, so they’ll stretch, but bounce right back to their spring-like shape. This provides a lot of natural resiliency, keeping your handknit garments in the shape you knit them in to. Science and engineering can replicate a lot of wool’s characteristics, but fall short in some crucial ways. You can make a synthetic spring-like fiber, but those bonds holding the coils in place? It’s almost impossible! If you’ve ever knit a sock or a sweater in a manmade fiber and had it stretch out beyond recognition, you’ve experienced this first hand.
So you take the best of what nature has to offer and this amazing bit of new fiber technology, and you’ve got a perfect match. Wool itself is a great thermal insulator and fantastic at wicking, and with some cooling properties, all of the sudden, you can wear your handknit socks year round. You can make a hat for your hot-blooded Uncle Bob who wears tee shirts in an arctic chill. And, if you’re like me, you can geek out about this technological upgrade to wool’s natural near-perfection.