A friend recently contacted me and asked me to weigh in on the similarities and differences between Manos and Malabrigo yarns. As a connoisseur of Manos who has come to learn far too much about the two brands just so I can yak about them intelligently, I began a short reply, and found myself with a 1,000 word treatise deserving of a blog post. So I give you my take on the Manos and Malabrigo debate, complete with a history of the yarns and their creators.
Manos del Uruguay and Malabrigo Yarns, while often lumped together in one breath, are two utterly different yarns with only a tenuous connection based on region and ply. First, let me talk briefly about how they are alike. They are both single ply yarns. They are both kettle dyed by hand. And they are both imported from South America.
And that’s about where the similarities end. Seriously. That’s it.
Well, I should amend that. Because Manos and Malabrigo are often lumped together, even though they have striking differences, they’ve become each other’s competitors. It doesn’t help that they both were born in the same epicenter – Montevideo, Uruguay (to fiber enthusiasts it might just become the new mecca of yarn) and its surrounding countryside. It’s rather like they are cousins, of a sort. Consequently, the parallel paths these two companies follow means they often find themselves swaying toward each other to meet the needs of the consumer, like birch trees bending under force of the wind.
Manos del Uruguay was formed by women for women. It began as a small, non-profit cooperative for poor, rural women in 1968, and was an early venture of what today is now called “fair trade” practices, like that other widely-known company, Ten Thousand Villages. They sold a wide variety of handcrafts and woven goods, including yarn, starting small at local art fairs and spreading out from there.
The one variety of yarn Manos originally sold, a single ply, handspun worsted “virgin wool,” was dipped by hand into small kettles over open flames to create the striated effect. At first available only in large cities like New York, it had a rough and unforgiving texture, and, like Noro, it proved it was the genuine article by the amount of straw and other vegetable matter you had to pull out of it as you were knitting. I cannot imagine it was that highly coveted in the 1970s, but it was! Perhaps I am spoiled by today’s uber-soft yarns.
Eventually, however, Manos grew more savvy to the needs of its knitting customers, who themselves were growing more picky as the luxurious ’80s rolled in. While they were determined to on one hand to eradicate poverty through sustainable economic development, on the other hand they found themselves shaping themselves to the tastes of their clientele. Though it is not well known about them in the knitting community, their cooperatives create fashions that are well-known on the runways and in famous designers’ closets, handcrafted pieces worthy of Fifth Ave art galleries and top-of-the-line yarns and fibers.
Their current classic sweater weight yarn, which all of their yarns spring forth from, has morphed into “Wool Clasica” and is spun out of Corriedale wool, a breed that was born over 100 years from a Merino-Lincoln cross. An aran weight single ply, Corriedale has the plushness you typically see in Merino breeds with the added strength of Lincoln wool, which gives it a bouncy appeal when knitting with it. It is a true aran weight – there is no doubt that it is thicker than worsted, and its handspun appeal makes it distinctive. Manos has the only mass-produced yarn on the market today that is spun by hand – others are spun by machine in a way that is designed to look handspun. This is a distinction that should be emphasized. Since handspun is so much more costly and time consuming to make, it makes Wool Clasica truly a unique product.
Manos is specifically designed to be thick and thin. While it knits up at an aran weight, probably the largest parts of a skein veer on the bulky side while the thinnest could almost be called a heavy fingering. It retains it’s kettle-dyed “stria” heritage with a wide range of colors that have no dyelots, though I doubt that native Uruguayan women still stoop over small black kettles and open fires to create its vivid colorways (in fact, they use lovely, bright stainless steel pots).
Most recently, Manos del Uruguay went through a long evaluation process and was admitted as a full member of the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO), which is the global Fair Trade representative body. This group of over 350 organizations is committed to 100 percent Fair Trade, and is the final stamp of approval backing up Manos’s mission to eradicate poverty through sustainable economic development, pioneering social and environmental policy and practice, and continual reinvestment in marginalized artisans, farmers and producer communities.
Malabrigo, by contrast, is a much, much younger yarn company. Family-owned, it is also located in Uruguay, and also uses local women to create its yarns for them. It started in 2004, when Antonio González-Arnao was dissatisfied with the hand-dyed yarns on the market and decided to dye his own in his kitchen. His wife, Carla, was bemused. By 2005, Antonio, along with his business partner Tobias Feder, began peddling their wares around the United States and Europe, finding it difficult to make headway in some places as they were told there wasn’t much of “a market” for hand-dyed yarns. Ha! As we all know, in just a few years they’ve successfully turned that idea on its head, as all anyone can do is when touching their showcase yarn, Malabrigo Worsted, is stutter and blather. The actual base that Malabrigo uses seems to have been around for a while in other forms, sold for lower prices with generic hand painted names on eBay and other websites. But what makes it stand out as Malabrigo is mostly likely due to Antonio’s eye for color and the company’s skillful marketing.
Malabrigo Merino Worsted is 100 percent Merino wool, and the short staple of the wool creates a softness so sweet that rabid, crazed fans have been known to faint at its touch. I exaggerate, of course, but Malabrigo does have a smooth, cushy feel to it that reminds me of falling into a feather down comforter. A single ply worsted weight, it has a mainly even texture, which creates stitches that are just slightly rustic in appearance.
It is a kettle-dyed yarn with a wide range of semi-solid and variegated colorways, and the company never stops adding new colors and texture to its line-up. There are downsides to that magical deliciousness, however, mainly in that Malabrigo, the single ply yarn is more prone to pilling. But overall, it’s brilliance cannot be denied.
The name Malabrigo, ironically, means “bad shelter” in Spanish. The company’s name came about because of a tiny town in San Jose known as “Mal Abrigo.” Apparently, this town was so named because it is extremely windy and long ago when travel didn’t involve warm, climate-controlled vehicles, those looking for shelter at night weren’t about to find it atop ol’ Mal Abrigo. The founders of Malabrigo said they were inspired by the idea of a place so cold everyone cozied up inside their homes knitting warm, wooly sweaters together.
Recently, Malabrigo has been emphasizing its own distinctiveness by becoming environmentally friendly. They’ve been reducing their carbon footprint at places like their mill (where all that magical Malabrigo is spun), where they installed thermal heating systems for sustainable hot water. Malabrigo only works with wool that comes from mulesing-free sheep, and the company employs environmentally safe practices for processing it as well. They believe in using as little water and as few chemicals as possible, and water, wool waste, and dye waste that cannot be re-used are transported to a detoxification plant to be cleaned and treated for re-use.
As for which is better, Manos or Malabrigo – well, that’s all in the eye of the beholder. For those who enjoy the rustic nature of an artisanal, handspun yarn with a cushy, sturdy texture, Manos’ Wool Clasica is the one to reach for. For those who want the luxury of babyfine wool slipping through their fingers in a cascade of colors, nab yourself some Malabrigo. Or have both! There are so many differences in the feel of the two yarns that there is plenty for everyone. Because they knit up at slightly different weights, and because each brand has colorways unique only to them, there isn’t much overlap. The biggest difference between them is one of price. Manos is priced at around $12-14 (semi-solid) and $16-18 (stria variegated or naturals) for their Wool Clasica and has 138 yards per skein, while Malabrigo’s Merino Worsted comes in at around $11-12 a skein. There is greater yardage in Malabrigo’s worsted yarn, meaning that at 210 yards a skein you can make yourself a sweater more economically. However, because Manos was founded primarily for the purpose of being a tool of social and economic change in people’s lives, their higher cost is finding its way back into the cooperatives’ pockets, and therefore the local women’s hardworking hands.
Ironically, while Malabrigo is driving the yarn market right now by constantly rolling out new, innovative bases – for example, creating a silk/merino DK weight that Manos has mimicked (though again, with minor texture differences) – without the Manos cooperatives, which currently employ roughly 800 women, Malabrigo would most likely not exist. It was because Manos spent 40-years building fine flocks of sheep and communities of women artisans that companies like Malabrigo were able to find themselves a niche market to grow and expand in. Today, Uruguay is an epicenter of amazing wool fiber and yarn production in vivid colors. Between the many yarn companies that have set up shop in Uruguay, the wool industry is blossoming there, making affordable, hand-dyed and handmade yarns available for everyone the world over. Viva la competencia!