Acrylic Wars -- A New Hope
(aka Why Some Folks Think Acrylic Sucks)
One of the more tendentious debates we get into on knitting is the issue of acrylics vs. natural fibers. A lot of harsh words and hurt feelings can come out of these debates, particularly since acrylics are often cheaper than natural fibers. Any sort of economic issue seems to develop a particularly personal edge, whether or not people mean it to. So, in a nutshell, here are the various points that the pro-natural fibers crowd always raises in these debates; maybe if we address this early, we can stop it from getting as bad.
The first argument is that acrylic is hard to knit with. Because the fibers lack wool's natural crimp, the yarn doesn't stretch at ALL, making the knitting process much more difficult to the hands. Cotton, silk, and linen share that aspect, to be sure; but some acrylics, particularly the super-budget kind you get in gigantic rolls at the craft store, can be very harsh and rough to the hands, making the process even less pleasant. Acrylic yarns also won't block very much, so it's hard to achieve the same drape and fabric quality that you can get with natural fiber yarns.
Then, too, after you've struggled with the yarn throughout the entire process, you can be confronted with the fact that acrylic doesn't always make nice finished products. Acrylic products tend to pill and look ratty after comparatively little use. They also don't breathe , and can trap body odors that last through multiple washings. And since acrylic yarns often knit up very stiff for the gauge, they don't really drape like natural fiber yarns do, so you can end up with a big, boxy, stinky sweater. Nobody wants to put dozens or hundreds of hours of labor into something like that.
Traditionally, this is the point in the debate where people get out their wallets to point out that even if acrylic isn't as good, not everyone can afford to work with the best. And yeah, that's true. $2.19 US for eight ounces of yarn is a hard price to beat, even if you do get what you pay for. But, well, you get what you pay for, to a certain extent. Careful hunting can find you excellent yarns on sale for close to wholesale prices (http://www.elann.com), and in some cases, you can find online retailers selling pure wool yarn for only about two and a half times the price of the cheapest acrylics (http://www.knitpicks.com). By looking outside the knitters' market, you can find high-quality yarns being sold for much, MUCH less than you'd expect; look for yarns sold on cones to weavers, for example. You won't find the heavy worsted and bulky gauges that are marketed to knitters, but in DK weight and lighter, a lot of weaving yarns are suitable for truly heirloom quality work. And for value for your knitting hour, you'll save money even over super-cheap acrylics by doing fine work in fine yarns. Compare $10 for a sweater you can knock out in a couple of weeks, to $13 for a wool lace shawl that will take you months! WAY less money per hour.
Some acrylics are far better than others, to be sure. Not every acrylic yarn is the super-budget stuff; some are quite soft, drapey, and lovely to the hand. Acrylic yarn has its uses; for large things like blankets and afghans, or for stuff that's going to get VERY heavy wear, acrylic is often the way to go. Charities that collect things for premature babies often ask for acrylic only, because it's hypoallergenic. Many people prefer not to work with animal products at all, or are genuinely allergic to wool or other animal yarns; for these people, acrylic is a godsend. It's not all about economics, after all. But if someone in knitting advises you against choosing an acrylic yarn for your project, they might have some very good reasons for making that recommendation. Listen to what they have to say.