Extreme Slow Fashion

I’m not entirely sure when I started my obsession with denim yarn, but what I do know, is that the first time I read about it, was on the ever entertaining Mason-Dixon Knitting blog. Knitting with cotton is quite a departure for somebody who is totally committed to wool, but knitting something with the intent of shrinking it took it immediately to a whole new level I had never entered before!

Whitby Sweater in Rowan Original Denim, pre-wash

My Whitby Sweater before the nerve-wracking boil wash: hem to shoulder measures 30in (76cm)

The yarn I used is a denim yarn: it is rope-dyed with indigo (rope-dyed means it is dyed after the yarn is spun, just like the threads used for making denim fabric) and this means the yarn is not dyed through to the core. Over time it will fade, just like love-worn jeans. When I posted an knitting-in-progress picture on Instagram late last year, a student brought along her 20 year old denim sweater to a darning workshop.

Old Denim Yarn Sweater with fading

An old denim knit: 20 years old, and still going strong

The colour fades over the years due to wash and wear, but only where it’s exposed. So in all the nooks and crannies of each stitch, the darker colour remains, and it makes the cables really pop. The effect is so beautiful, and this made me realise that my sweater is not just slow fashion, but Extreme Slow Fashion: in 20 years time, mine will look as beautiful as this one, and be incredibly soft.

The other thing that makes for such a beautiful knit, is the super-tight gauge for the yarn weight. Unlike my Cornish Knit-frock, which was wrested from 5-ply Guernsey yarn on fine needles, the denim yarn knit gets its tight gauge from something else altogether: a boil wash. Yes, you throw your jumper fresh from the needles into a hot wash and wait for it to shrink!

Whitby Sweater in Rowan Original Denim, post-wash

After a boil wash, my sweater shrunk a whole 4in (10cm) and now hem-to-shoulder measures 26in

Denim yarn patterns take this shrinkage into account, and nobody has written better patterns for denim yarn than Jane Gottelier, who founded the Artwork knitwear label in 1977, together with her husband Patrick. In 2007 they released a knitting pattern book called “Indigo Knits” and it’s this book the Whitby Sweater pattern comes from. The book is full of hints and tips on how to get the best out of your denim yarn, from that all-important first wash, to fake fading with bleach.

It’s a good thing I’m a very patient person, as I don’t like pre-distressed clothes. It never looks quite right in my eyes. Nothing beats authentic ageing, particularly when it comes to denim. So no bleach to highlight cables for me, just years of wash and wear ahead of me.

Whitby Sweater in Rowan Original Denim, cable eleganza

Cables that pop, thanks to the shrinking process

Most denim yarn knitting patterns advise you to knit a garment in pieces, and throw them in a hot wash, together with some extra yarn, so that everything shrinks before you sew it up with the shrunk extra yarn. However, I found out through Kay from Mason-Dixon Knitting that Artwork tended to sew up their garments before the hot wash. So if it’s good enough for a luxury fashion label, it is good enough for me! I’ve grown really fond of the exposed three-needle bind-off as a way of seaming sweaters, so I used this method on all the seams here, too.

Whitby Sweater in Rowan Original Denim, 3-needle bind-off shoulder seam

Three-needle bind-off for the shoulder seam…

Whitby Sweater in Rowan Original Denim, 3-needle bind-off side seam

…And for the side and underarm seams

Another finishing touch I really like, is the transition of the main fabric to the collar, by way of some crochet.

Whitby Sweater in Rowan Original Denim, crochet chain collar transition

My favourite neckline finish with a crochet chain

I bind off all sweater pieces, seam the shoulders, and I then crochet a chain all around the neckline. I like this because it makes for a stable opening that doesn’t stretch out of shape; something that is particularly important for this heavy cotton cable knit. I then pick up a stitch through each chain to knit the collar. I used another little trick here: the first few rows were knitted on the same needle size as elsewhere for the ribbing, but after five rows I used a needle one size smaller, and after another five rows, I went down yet another needle size to complete the funnel neck.

One thing I was a bit nervous about, was sewing in ends. Although this denim yarn isn’t as slippery as a mercerised cotton, I did notice that during knitting it, knots from knotting together the end of one ball to the beginning of the next, easily came undone. So I left very long tails, and all wove them in in the same direction in the seams, so that they would be able to shrink, without puckering up the seams.

Whitby Sweater in Rowan Original Denim, tail ends inside

Erm, yes, that is a tail (and knot!) NOT at the end of a row…

I really enjoyed knitting this sweater. It was a slow knit, but compared to how long I’m planning to wear it, it was done in a flash, and I’m dreaming about designing my own sweater in denim yarn. So I’ll share the only picture I have so far of me wearing it. You can see me in conversation with Sarah Corbett, founder of the Craftivist Collective. We had a really lovely afternoon together, and I can’t wait to share with you what we have been up to, so keep an eye for a new blog post soon!

Whitby Sweater, Tom and Sarah Corbett Craftivists Collective

Sarah Corbett, me, and That Sweater


34 Replies to “Extreme Slow Fashion”

  1. There is nothing at awakens an old hippie like indigo dye. Can’t wait to experiment. Thanks for the finishing tips. Haven’t worked in cotton much, but remember keeping its shape is always a consideration. Tom. Always good work!

  2. Lovely! As is your Cornish knit-frock. I just requested “Indigo Knits” from my library. Attached is a photo of (another) gansey-type sweater I designed and made for my significant other which commemorates his family farm. Not as dense as a real gansey, different yarn (Rowan Hemp Tweed), and regular set-in sleeve construction. I love your crocheted edge to stabilize a neck edge. I am thinking of re-doing a sweater of mine in that way. Do you ever travel to the U.S. for workshops? Julie

  3. Love love love it. I didn’t know this yarn existed but it will probably be my next purchase!!

  4. Lovely, like to see it in a few years.
    Did you pick up stitches to do the three needle bind off on the side seams?
    Thank you

  5. So beautiful! Really really wonderful to see this, Tom. I can’t wait to see it 20 years from now . . .

  6. Thank you for this! I have Indigo Knits and the yarn, but I keep putting off starting the sweater. Also I was considering going the bleach route, but after reading this I am convinced that I need to get busy and make this garment and then go have an interesting life.

  7. Gorgeous sweater, Tom! I’ve often thought about knitting myself something in Rowans denim yarn and this post might have pushed me over the edge

    The craftsmanship involved in creating this was really interesting to read. I loved your idea about crocheting around the neckline – totally going to try that out on a heavy sweater I’m knitting at the moment.

    I’m also eager to see what you are up to with Sarah! She is such an inspiring woman.

  8. Hello Tom, This is the first blog of yours that has arrived in my inbox since subscribing some months ago. I read about you in Selvedge magazine and did a bit of Google searching as well, I am a novice knitter and a somewhat more competent sewer! My question is regarding the three needle bind off which I have watched on YouTube, it looks reasonably achievable but how do you do it on sleeves and side seams? I am trying to achieve neat consistent seams and have yet to find the correct method.

    I look forward to your reply,


    Sent from my iPad


    1. Hi Laura. To explain this in detail is not easy in a reply, so I might do a blog post about it one day. In short: you will need to pick up and knit stitches along each seam, using long circular needles (although a number of DPNs would also work.) I usually pick up one stitch for each row, or one stitch in each previously bound off stitch. Then you do a 3-needle bind-off as per normal. The picking up of stitches will take time! You will also need to try out what needle size to use, as too big or too small a needle will make for very ugly seams. Last but not least, I can highly recommend Catherine Lowe’s The Unrav’lled Sleeve for a very good and detailed description. The only draw-back for some people is that there are no diagrams in that book, it’s all explained in writing only.

  9. Hello Tom. What a surprise ! Cotton yarn? This gorgeous sweater must be so heavy! And I did’nt know it could shrink so much. Is this denim yarn from Rowan or can you find it somewhere else? (English is not my mother language and i’m not sure I understood everything.) Anyway, your sweater is beautiful !

  10. So interesting. I never realized why old faded jeans are so much more appealing than manufactured “distressed” ones. The rope dyeing process. Thanks for clarifying this.

  11. wow, i love this!
    i’ve just started on my first cotton knitting project and it’s a bit … trying. at least in the beginning i’m getting quite a lot of thread separation, so knitting each stitch is practically like trying to knit 7 together. Hoping it’s going to get easier as i go along. it is definitely a departure from wool.

  12. Hi Tom, this is simply stunning. I second a request for a more detailed description of the three needle bind off for sides. Do you think it would work equally well for the armhole in set in sleeves?

  13. This is a lovely sweater. Well worth the time and love you put into it. Did you have problems with the dye rubbing off onto your hands and clothing while knitting? Is one washing enough to prevent the color from coming off on the shirt worn with the sweater? Does one hot washing provide all the shrinkage, or will subsequent washings cause more? So many questions! Thank you.

    1. Yes, I had blue hands during knitting it. One wash was enough for shrinkage. Subsequent washes I did at a lower temperature. I’ve not noticed any colour coming off on my clothes, but I tend to wear a dark t-shirt underneath, so it’s hard to tell.

  14. This is a really great-looking sweater and a nice blog post – thank you!

    Would you recommend doing anything in particular to try and achieve neat edges while knitting a pieced sweater (e.g. slip the first stitch of every row), or should I not worry about it and just follow the pattern? My pieces tend to end up with little knots or misshapen stitches along the edges, which seems like it might complicate seaming.

    1. As seaming usually takes place one or two stitches in from the edge, any misshapen stitches should not interfere. I don’t worry about slipping stitches, but I do happen to have a fairly even tension for the edge stitches.

  15. Ah, good point about the seaming happening a stitch or two away from the very edge, anyway. I’ll not worry too much about it.

    My own future Whitby sweater is around 1/4 complete now! Thanks again for the inspiration. It’s been a really enjoyable project, and I love the prospect of such a nice piece of handcrafted clothing gradually increasing in character over decades of wear. 😀

  16. Hi Tom, I absolutely love denim yarn and this style jumper – my mum used to have one just like this (but without the high neck) and I have been searching for a similar thing for years. Do you know where I could purchase one or get one made!?
    Thank you!

  17. came to find this after I caught a glimpse of this at EYF. Absolutely gorgeous work. I’m thinking of denim as my summer sweater, having just done a project with it and fallen for it hard.

  18. Thank you for this post! I am staring at a heap of this yarn, and I want to replace one I knit almost 30 years ago that I have–ahem–outgrown. (Plus, it got bleached in not a nice way when I was wearing it while cleaning, and spilled a bleach-containing cleanser on it. Remember to take it off before you do that.) I couldn’t remember how much to allow for shrinkage. Very helpful. (And I washed that old sweater after it was sewn together, and wish I had a dollar for every compliment I got on it over the past thirty years. I’ll miss it.)

  19. Hi Tom, How much yardage did you use for your size large? I see the pattern calls for 2000-2400 yards, with sizes that look like they either go from XS-L or S-XL. I’m curious if you found the yardage accurate or if you needed more than recommended.

    1. Hi Kathleen, I’m sorry but I don’t remember. I did buy a bit extra, but then didn’t use it all up. Unfortunately I don’t know how that tallies up with the recommended yardage. Tom

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