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.
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?
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?"
The problem could
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. 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). 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
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
What are allergens?
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).
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
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."
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.
Pet dander allergy:
is not the main problem for those
allergic to cats; it's the dander.
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
Do your your best, then relax; you can't
(Writing isn't done in a vacuum either.)
 Allergy Statistics, January 2002 page.
Institute of Allergy and Infections Diseases
 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
 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
 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
Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology