Grandma Knitty Home
Knitty: little purls of wisdom
letter from the editorfeatured articlesKnitty's fabulous pattern selectionarchive of back issuestell us what you think of KnittyKnitty's favorite linkshelp knitty keep on keepin' onknitty's virtual sNbjoin the Knitty notifylistknitty's tiny little shopping malltake home something Knitty


the Knitty FAQ

submission guidelines for designers and writers
the obligatory legal statement
the rabbit

© Knitty 2002-2006. All rights reserved. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited. This means you.


Cool stuff! Techniques with Theresa Thinking beyond Travelling knitter Watch this space
Patts 103 Color Pass it on! Maniacs Masters Achoo! Charity Knitting camp

Note: Knitty and the author are not physicians or allergists. This article is written from the perspective of a knitter, and the staff of Knitty and the author cannot diagnose allergies, suggest medicine for allergies, or offer any beyond knitting advice. Any information beyond knitting content is meant to raise awareness, not give medical advice.

You're ready to knit a sweater for Aunt Midge and you just bought wool for little Victor's mittens but you've hit a snag. Every year at your holiday party, Aunt Midge wears the last sweater you knit, but her eyes start watering after half a day and she puts it away until the next year. Last year you gave Victor a hat, but he told his mother it was too scratchy. The hat was lost as soon as his mother turned her back.

I can hear you asking, "Why should I worry about allergies on top of color choices, pattern selection, and swatching until I get the gauge right?"
It isn't the color or the fit.... In fact, everyone in your family has clamored for you to knit them something special because you're good at creating beautiful pieces that receive compliments. So what gives?

The problem could be allergies.

The chances are that someone for whom you knit -- a relative, a friend, even yourself -- suffers from allergies. According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, an between 9 and 16 people out of every hundred in the US is likely to have allergies.[1] What's worse is that the rates of allergic asthma, hay fever, and atopic dermatitis (a type of eczema that is most often seen in children) seem to be increasing. In 2002, the Center for Disease Control (US) surveyed 12,524 children below the age of 18 years and found that 12% had respiratory allergies (10% from hay fever and 11% from unspecified allergies).[2] Adults surveyed (31,044 over the age of 18 years old) said their doctors had diagnosed them with asthma (7%), hay fever (9%), sinusitis (14%), and chronic bronchitis (4%).[3]

Knitting isn't done in a vacuum.

How do allergies affect knitting? Knitting isn't done in a vacuum. Every aspect of knitting -- yarn types, dyes used on the yarn, inclusions that are stuck in the yarn, and even the environment where work gets done -- can expose a recipient of your work to a potential allergen.

There are many potential allergens to consider. People may be allergic to pollen, cat or dog dander, mouse droppings, mold, dust mites, cigarette/tobacco smoke, and even dyes, synthetic fibers, perfumes, and rarely, lanolin, which is found in wool. When you knit, if an allergen is airborne or touches your knitting, it can contaminate it. Even in clean homes, mold spores and dust mites can be present. In other cases, it may be the type of fiber you are using, or the dyes or cleaning products used on the yarn. Just because it's "natural" does not keep people from having allergies to something.


What are allergens?

An allergen is a particle, like tree pollen or pet dander, that is inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through the skin and causes an allergic reaction. Allergic reactions range from itching, wheezing, coughing, and sneezing to runny eyes, hives, and sometimes asthma, swollen tongue, and anaphylaxis (a life-threatening allergic reaction and the most severe).

Allergies are specific to the individual, and you can't catch an allergy from someone else. Genetics sometimes play a role -- people who have relatives with allergies sometimes have the same ones, or simply be more likely to develop allergies.


People with allergies have options in treatment: avoidance of the allergen, medicine for the symptoms, or immunotherapy. As knitters, we generally can't provide medicine or shots to immunize friends or family with allergies. What knitters do: encourage people with allergy symptoms to see their doctor for a checkup; knit while trying to avoid things that might expose friends and family to allergens. The system I'm suggesting is that we treat the yarn and finished objects as though they were allergic to something themselves.You may not be able to cover all the bases, but these are general ideas you might find helpful.

What Knitters Can Do

Choose yarn carefully, since allergies can include acrylics, the lanolin in wool, and the dust that sweaters attract. Knit with yarns that are friendly to the recipient. And, if you notice plant fibers and burrs stuck in the yarn, cut out the section that's affected when you're balling your yarn.

Choose yarn based on its ingredients: dyes used, processing, and fiber content.

If someone you know has an allergy to dust mites, you might think of knitting with another fiber than wool. A yarn that can take multiple washing in hotter wash water might be a good choice, since hot water kills mites. The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology reported that a study in Australia found that "Wearing a wool sweater increased dust mite exposure 10 times above exposure levels when no clothing was worn on the upper body."[4]

The dyes used on yarn can cause problems, even if they're listed as organic. Sometimes trial and error is the only way to find out what works. Talk with your yarn salesperson and read thelabels.

Select Appropriate Projects
Small projects may help you find appropriate yarn for larger gifts. However, if your recipient has allergic rhinits (hay fever, i.e. runny nose and eyes), socks might be kinder than a balaclava. A recipient who is allergic to wool might be able to tolerate a wool mix if the gift is a sweater for layering.

Avoid Environmental Allergens
If the allergy is to mold, don't knit or store knits in a moist environment. Mold travels in air, and once it gets into clothing or knits, it is difficult to get out. Try using a dehumidifier indoors, and cleaning up wet spills in your environment before mold grows. Knit indoors during autumn: decaying leaves add to the mold spore count.

Fur is not the main problem for those
allergic to cats; it's the dander.
Pet dander allergy: keep yarn away from cats, dogs, birds, rabbits, other animals, and furniture that these animals have been sitting on, to minimize exposure to animal dander. The problem isn't the hair or feathers, but the protein from saliva, urine, and dander that becomes airborne. Wash hands, use a lint brush to remove fur and unseen dander on your clothing, and store yarn in sealable plastic bags to keep out dander.

Tobacco/cigarette smoke allergy: make sure no one smokes around your work. Smoke gets anywhere, and can infiltrate your projects. Wash your hands before picking up your work, and make sure your knitting needles are clean.

Pollen allergies: Try knitting in a room that has closed windows and an air conditioner to filter out pollen.

Where to Knit
If you find that your recipient is allergic to too many things in your home, try knitting elsewhere. Libraries offer free air conditioning in the summer; knit while you visit and then store knitting in your car to keep allergens away from your work. Lunch breaks at work can become knit breaks.

Many allergens be removed in the wash. But read the labels of detergents carefully. Some have lanolin, some have chemicals that are harsh, some contain fragrance that will bother the wearer. Make the wash water as warm as possible, based on your yarn care instructions, and rinse thoroughly.

Block your work in a location that limits access to the main allergens you are avoiding. For instance, cats are fond of attempting to sleep on warm, damp sweaters, so skip places to which they have access. Try blocking elsewhere -- if you have a friend with no pets and an airy or well air-conditioned room, you might be able to block your work there. Or, if you have an understanding boss and room at work, baby booties or a small hat might block well in the filtered air.

Do your your best, then relax; you can't control everything.

If you need information about allergies for you or your family, consult your physician.

For more information on allergies in general, check out the following Web sites:

American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology

Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

References (Writing isn't done in a vacuum either.)

[1] Allergy Statistics, January 2002 page. National Institute of Allergy and Infections Diseases Web site.

[2] Dey AN, Schiller JS, Tai DA. Summary Health Statistics for U.S. Children: National Health Interview Survey, 2002. National Center for Health Statistics. Vital Health Stat [PDF online]. 2004;10(221).

[3] Lethbridge-Çejku M, Schiller JS, Bernadel L. Summary Health Statistics for U.S. Adults: National Health Interview Survey, 2002. National Center for Health Statistics. Vital Health Stat [PDF online]. 2004;10(222).

[4] What you wear impacts allergies: Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology findings on the development of childhood asthma and allergies and allergen exposure [Press release online]. American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology Web site.



RJ Nelson knits and works in the Philadelphia suburbs. If not working as a medical writer/editor or knitting, she seeks out to bring out the inner Victorian in her 1950s split-level home.

Her beautiful model, Malkin, is a professional mouser. He offered to help knit, but chewed on the needles instead.