November 24, 2009

Finishing colorwork and moving on to lace

I've been happily finishing my Fair Isle design, which will be published by Classic Elite sometime next year. I feel like I was very lucky, because I got the design I envisioned with a minimal amount of swatching. (Not that I don't like swatching - I do! - it's just more time-consuming.) I chose my basic pattern by trying out about five pattern bands in different colors on the needles and then decided how to put them together relying exclusively on my excel spreadsheet. It boggles the mind how well a spreadsheet can approximate the real thing, but it can, and it did, and the result is both pleasing and time-saving. I'm sure not everyone is a spreadsheet fan, but I've gotten into quite a groove with it this fall, charting cables, color, and lace. It's added an entirely new element to my design process. Charting is such a discrete activity - there are clear starting and ending points - that it makes it much easier for me to parse out the work of pattern-writing in such a way that I am more efficient and more creative. I also know my own design more intimately when I reach the point of sample knitting, which opens up greater possibilities for departure. Before I often found myself wanting to tweak something after the knitting was done. Now I can tweak as I go. It's great fun. I highly recommend charting to anyone who dreams of designing, and I am once again going to tout the wonderful tutorials of my friend Marnie. All you need is microsoft excel and a little knowledge on how to set up spreadsheets to chart colowrok, cables, and lace. It's a fabulous tool.

One of the lace patterns in the Alpaca Sox. The pattern gets a little obscured, but I like the mossy texture the yarn brings to the lace.

So on to lace. Having played with color a bit, I decided to go in an entirely different direction and design a lace shawlette. My goal was to use a skein of Classic Elite's Alpaca Sox. It's in a lovely color called "Dress Gray" and has a very earthy feel to it. My only definitive design concept for this yarn is to find lace patterns that display that earthiness. I'm going for something that would be worn on a walk in the woods on a cold, misty day.

I've been pouring over stitch dictionaries and I have tried out five different lace patterns - four in Alpaca Sox and one in a pretty laceweight merino silk that I picked up while in Portland, Maine this fall. (I acquired the Alpaca Sox at that time, too, so maybe the Eastern Autumn crept into my subconsciousness.) I was a little concerned that the variegation of the Alpaca Sox would be too stark to read well, but I'm instead finding that it reads quite well, and the variegation adds depth and interest. It's really interesting to see how the different stitch patterns work. I've found that an open lace works best for a variegated yarn (or at least this variegated yarn), and for this particular yarn I'm drawn to patterns that undulate because of the way they display the variation in color. I'm planning to self-publish this pattern, so I'm free to share the details of the process as well as some photos, which is a nice little treat. One of the perks of self-publishing is that you have license to share as much as you like, and for me that is a great opportunity to re-connect with you, my knit-bloggy friends.

Words cannot express how little this photo does to capture the beauty of this lace. Just trust me. When I'm done I'll get photos in natural light.

In the process of swatching the Alpaca Sox, I've also fallen in love with the laceweight merino silk. I actually don't think that the two substitute for one another particularly well, and if I planned to use the pattern that I swatched in the merino silk for the Alpaca Sox shawlette, I would re-swatch it. But in working with the merino silk I've found that I am compelled to make two shawlettes, each very different in character. While the Alpaca Sox suggests the misty woods, the merino silk makes me think of a an open field somewhere in the midwest (most likely in Iowa, where I lived for a few years). I just can't resist the temptation to follow the stitch pattern in this lighter, almost flaxen yarn. The two are like yin and yang. It will be fun to work them simultaneously and experience how yarns of different fiber and color push my design choices in different directions while working within the same shawlette structure.

Posted by Julia at 08:35 PM | Comments (6)

October 30, 2009

Thinking About Color

It's been a while since I wrote about knitting. I've been doing a lot of designing in the last few months, and the only piece that I've finished since my cowl pal's cowl is for publication in spring of next year, so I have very little in the way of show and tell these days. Although I love to see fellow bloggers stretch their wings and publish, it is always sad to me when they stop blogging about their current knits. Many of my blogging "generation" have gone on to publish patterns, author books, and/or mother children, and as a result there is less knitting content out there to peruse. The published content and wee ones are wonderful, but I do miss knitting blogs. As a consequence of missing other blogs, I've decided to try to share some of my thoughts on design and process with you as I work through some pieces this fall and winter. The posts will probably still be a bit sparse, as I've been in more of a doing place than a writing place, and I find myself spread between mommying, wife-ing, working, designing, reading, exercising, etc., which leaves me rather thin. But I miss everyone and I enjoy the back and forth, so I'm going to give it a go.

Yes, I am lamely posting photos of the books
in this post. But they're good!
Lately I’ve been focused on color. Although I enjoy color, I tend to gravitate to texture and line in my designs, so I really haven't taken the opportunity to design much colorwork in the past. But I've been doing a bit of designing for Classic Elite recently, and when I saw their shade card for one of my favorite CEY yarns, Wool Bam Boo, I was inspired to play with some color combinations for a Fair Isle piece or two.

I started the swatching process by turning to one of my favorite Fair Isle references, Ann Feitelson's The Art of Fair Isle Knitting, and re-read the chapters on technique and use of color. The book was even better than I remembered. Most of the references I've read on color in the past have discussed traditional color theory - primary colors, complements, shades, etc. - and which combinations are likely to look pleasing together. This is all fine and well, but it has never been particularly helpful to me. I understand how to put two colors together, but it's much trickier to put several colors together, and color theory has not taught me much about how to go about doing that. For me, Feitelson's book has the answers, or at least the starting points for finding my own answers.

The Art of Fair Isle Knitting discusses the ways in which color combinations work in different media. In painting, colors blend into one another, creating depth easily, almost thoughtlessly. In quilting, particularly when working in solids, the transitions are stark, creating a one-dimensional “blocky” structure naturally, which can be counteracted by shading, using varying pattern sizes, and other techniques if one is going for depth. Fair Isle, particularly with traditional Shetland wool, falls somewhere in between. There are lines of contrast to be sure, but the fuzziness of the wool allows certain colors to grade into one another in a way that falls in the middle of the spectrum. By keeping this distinction in mind, I began to have a clear mental picture of how different colors of wool would react with one another.

A new classic on designing with gorgeous patterns.
Feitelson lays down a primary rule of Fair Isle knitting in her book: you must be able to "read" the pattern through the color changes. This seems like a simple enough rule, and one that is probably self-evident, but if you look at enough Fair Isle patterning in designs and stitch dictionaries, you will notice that not everyone follows it. Sometimes breaking the rule works - the designer alternates between segments where the pattern "reads" and sections where it is murkier, creating a pleasant striping effect, which is inevitably a by-product of all Fair Isle designs. Other times, not so much.

As I looked at different Fair Isle patterns, categorizing them in to those that followed the rule and those that didn't, those that worked for me and those that didn't, I was reminded of another good source book that I picked up recently, CookieA's Sock Innovation. Sock Innovation doesn't delve into colorwork, but it does discuss general principles of harmonious design, and one of the take-away messages that I found useful in it was that breaking the laws of symmetry and mirroring in texture patterns is acceptable, and often desirable, but it is important that a break from the expected appear purposeful rather than looking like a mistake. Looking at the Fair Isle patterns that didn't work for me it was obvious that this was the problem. The color combinations that did not work did not read as deliberate choices - they read as mistakes.

In choosing color combinations, Ann Feitelson's personal method, which has worked well for me so far, is to choose two to three color sequences and then combine them. If you have read The Twisted Sister's Sock Workbook, you will recognize this technique. In it, Lynn Vogel discusses how she often combines yarns from two or more different rovings (which are each composed of a color sequence), and knits by alternating the yarns in different ways throughout the sock. The results are stunning and create depth and complexity in a simple, non-patterned sock. Another example of use of this technique is the well-known and well-loved Chevron Scarf, which employs two different colorways of sock yarn that might not usually harmonize well to make a lovely, cohesive scarf. The color combination works because each color grouping within the two colorways reads as a sequence.

One of my favorite spinning books.
It only makes sense that this would work for Fair Isle design as well. Color sequences can be chosen in a variety of ways using our old friend color theory. You can create sequences of tints, shades, tones, etc. (The Art of Fair Isle Knitting discusses many more ways to create color sequences and provides photographs depicting the results, which is incredibly helpful.) The important thing is that each color grouping used reads as a sequence and that the elements of each sequence are distinct enough that the background and the pattern stand out clearly when knit. To determine whether the colors you've chosen truly from a sequence, Feitelson suggests that you make a swatch of each sequence, simply striping the colors in sequence order (to visualize this, just think of a shade card for house paint colors, ordered to grade into one another in a way that the eye follows logically). When you have two or three sequences that you like, swatch in the Fair Isle pattern of your choice (preferably several) to see how the sequences work together. Sometimes there will be glitches and a color or two will need to be replaced with another, but for the most part the method works.

There are many other methods and tips in The Art of Fair Isle Knitting that teach how the sequences you choose are likely to interact and which colors will pop or blend when used together. If you are really interested in designing your own color patterns, I highly recommend picking up a copy and studying it. Feitelson provides an exhaustive array of swatches to depict her methods and show you how they work in practice. The book also includes a section on the history of Fair Isle knitting and several of Feitelson’s own original designs. The patterns in the book are traditional in shape and should appeal to you if you prefer a classic Fair Isle look, but the color combinations and stitch patterns can also be employed to create more modern, edgy pieces if that is your preference. I generally look for a little edge, and I found the designs to be a helpful, inspirational resource.

Using this as a starting point, I turned to my own color and design preferences. Again, this sounds self-evident, but often the colors that I gravitate to will not effectively achieve the final effect that I am aiming for. Thinking out how to best approach creating the final look early in the process avoids the pitfall of creating a pattern I dislike from a group of colors that I love. So right from the start I spent some time thinking about what I want in a final design. I like a Fair Isle pattern to read consistently, but I generally prefer that the demarcations in the individual sequences and between the sequences not be too stark, so I chose my color sequences with those parameters in mind.

Going about the process deliberately has made a huge difference. One swatch led to another and each pattern suggested a new direction to follow. After a little swatching with different patterns I found a combination that felt right, and several color combinations that worked well together. I took the stitch pattern and laid it out in Microsoft Excel (Marnie has a great tutorial on how to do that here), and played with varying combinations of the two color sequences I chose to create a large repeat, which will serve as the basis for my Fair Isle designs. When the repeat looked right I began to knit. The sequence looks wonderful so far. I love the interplay of the colors. As it has unfolded it has taken me in new directions with the lines of my original design concepts. Next I will play with edgings and finishing treatments, and the process will evolve again….

Posted by Julia at 08:11 AM | Comments (12)

April 17, 2009

The Unintentional Spinner

That would be me. I've been reading Judith MacKenzie McCuin's The Intentional Spinner with a fervor - reading and re-reading it in fact, which is impressive attention to give to a single book given my current lack of reading time. I would love to say that I'm going to give you a review of The Intentional Spinner, but as soon as I say that I won't get to it, so I won't say it and we can all just be pleasantly surprised if I do. Fair enough?

The Singles, feigning innocence.

Anyhoo, this book has given me some real "Ah-ha!" moments, so if you are in need of one as an intermediate-ish (beginning intermediate?) spinner, I'd highly recommend it. As far as ah-ha moments go, this book shares a space with the Twisted Sisters Sock Workbook and Sew U for me. A real connect-the-dotter.

It would be great to be able to say that I have been practicing all that I have learned from this wonderful book, but so far all my fervor has produced the same type of spinning that I always do, on pretty much the same fiber, with the same preparation. I do want to work on my techniques at some point, but for now the book has simply been inspiration to spin.

So now for the unintentional part. The only way in which I deviated from my normal spinning practices was in the twist I gave my singles. Somehow I managed to spin one S and one Z. I'll give you a moment to contemplate that. One S. One Z. You can't make those play nice together. For all of you non-spinners who are glazing over right now (why are you still reading?) think oil and water, square peg, round hole. I didn't even notice until I attempted to ply them and one became very tight and wiry while the other practically disintegrated before my eyes.

I could have cried. I had been so intent on spinning that I had two bobbins with two ounces of fiber on each. I considered Navajo plying them, but I didn't want long color runs. I was really aiming for barber-pole 2-ply, and the only way one gets that is to ply the singles together. Luckily, I have a great resource in the Spunky Club on Ravelry, and soon after I posted about my spinning woes there were many suggestions about what I should do.

The one that really struck me was Andean plying. Why had I not thought of that? That was a D'oh! moment. I think it didn't occur to me because I've only Andean plied on a spindle, and with each bobbin holding two ounces, that's quite a bracelet. Again, there were several suggestions as to how to tackle that problem, including this nifty idea of "book plying." I am taking the path of least resistance and Andean plying from a center-pull ball.

So far, I have only managed to wind the singles off the bobbins into skeins, and look at them skeptically. There is no reason that Andean plying would not work -- all my spindled yarn is plied this way and I have made some lovely yarn and knit it with success (more on that later - my first FO of the year was a spindle-spun hat for Griffin that I have yet to blog). Still, I feel some trepidation, having managed to forget which way to ply a singles in the space of three months. I'm not sure I can blame it all on sleep deprivation. Cross your fingers for me and hopefully I'll be back soon with tales of pretty yarn.

Posted by Julia at 06:00 AM | Comments (9)

February 17, 2008

It's a Hoolia Wheel! Crochet and Creativity

I've had a bit of monkey mind lately (just what it sounds like, but here's a link), probably induced by cabin fever. Whenever monkey mind strikes, I feel the need to experiment a little, with no particular goal in mind. Sometimes I am able to do this with knitting (and that 's a great thing), but my knitting is pretty structured, so in the last year or so I've turned to crafts that are newer to me to blow off a little creative steam. These are things I'm not nearly as systematic about - spinning, cross stitch, crochet - and so I feel a lot freer to just do without any planning ahead, and see what happens.

The Hoolia Wheel.
I am very inexperienced in crochet. Whenever I have Miss Marnie around for a few days I can make what would seem to be great progress, but as soon as I am without a guide, I tend to get lost. I have a hard time remembering how many times to wrap what and how to get from one spot in a motif to another elegantly. I have an easy enough time understanding the charts in Japanese craft books, but I'm not sure exactly where to start and there are techniques and conventions that I just don't "get" yet. I cannot read "written out" crochet patterns to save my life!

Yesterday, inspired by this beautiful washcloth, I decided that I would attempt yet another crochet motif. The only motif that I have ever completed without getting lost halfway through is the granny square. An accomplishment? Yes! Cute? Yes! But I kinda need to move on from there. So I looked through my crochet stitch dictionary and found several "intermediate" motifs that I liked. (Apparently there is no such thing as a "beginner" motif - even the granny square is "intermediate". Seems unfair.) The problem was that all the directions were written out, and I could not for the life of me figure out what to do once I got to the second round of anything. So, back to square one. I decided that since there were illustrations of the single crochet, half-double crochet, double crochet and triple crochet, I would work through those systematically, and learn to use them in rows and rounds. I did that, and I think I understand the stitches better, though to be honest, I have to go back and re-read how many times to wrap the yarn around the needle, etc. again before making a particular stitch to remind myself that I do know how to do it.

I got bored with these exercises, and I really, really wanted to make a motif. Reading the written out directions I just could not get it, though. So I decided that I would just make one up instead. I know the stitches (or can look them up! Einstein said that you should never bother to memorize anything you can look up...), I can work in rounds, and I understand the basic principles of increasing from knitting. I can do this, right?

I did! Voila! The Hoolia Wheel! Can I just say that I love it? Now, I know that I have surely just re-invented the wheel (pun intended) because what I did was so simple that I am sure someone (and perhaps many someones?) have crocheted it before. But. It's new to me, I did not learn it from a book, and so somehow it is more mine than many other complicated things I've done. It's just freaking glorious.

Okay, so here's the creativity part of the title. I had a boyfriend right after college who was wonderful at drawing. He did a self-portrait that I will never forget, both because it was so well-rendered and so introspective - he was really able to capture an aspect of himself that would be identifiable to anyone who knew him. But he would never call himself an artist. Only a draftsman. He explained that a draftsman was someone who was trained in the technical execution of drawing, but that an artist was someone who created organically without having to know the rules, working from within himself rather than from within the context of "art." I question whether he was right about himself, but I think there was a lot in the definition that he gave me.

Again. 'Cause I like it.
Almost every knitting friend whose designs I admire has told me that she started designing because she found it to be too much trouble to work from a pattern. I realize that in my early knitting days this was the case for me, too, because although I did have access to Vogue Knitting, for the most part there weren't a wide array of commercial designs that appealed to my 20-something sensibilities. I heavily modified a lot of things - a Filatura di Crosa tank became a mini-dress! - and designed some of the more complicated pieces I've done. Not because I was trying to design (I certainly was not resizing!), but because it was really the only way to make things I liked. They had to come from my head. I wasn't limited in the techniques I used, because I didn't have a knitting community to help me gauge what was difficult. I just had June Hemmons Hiatt as a guide, and well, she did everything.

After a few years, I discovered Rowan Magazine, and I fell in love with patterns. I found more and more designers I really loved in Vogue soon after that (can we say Norah Gaughan?), and by the time Melanie Fallick's Knitting in America was released I was a goner. I was such a pattern junkie (still am!), and I gained a lot from that transition, but I lost something, too. Somehow having so much available to me caused me to stop creating things myself. There were good aspects to this - I could learn a lot by following someone else's footsteps and enjoy a way of thinking other than my own. But the more I learned, the more "rules" my structured little mind created. I became more proficient over time (and to toot my own horn I think I became a very good knitting teacher), but I also really boxed myself in. "Designing" and "knitting" became separate things.

My design "technique" now mostly comprises piecing together known elements in new ways. There is nothing wrong with this, and I think it can be helpful to think of design in this way, because for many of us, this is exactly what it is. You see a neckline that you like and think, "Now how could I incorporate that into something lacy and delicate?" and you play around and find a way to mesh things that you'd like to see together. There is creativity there, but for me it's much more at the "draftsman" (craftswoman?) level of creativity - nicely done technical execution with the "flair" originating in the combination of elements.

When I think of artistry, I think of designers like Mary Walker Phillips, Norah Gaughan, Teva Durham, Annie Modesitt, and Debbie New. You may not love, or even like, everything that these women create, but their designs often reach heights that other beautifully rendered but contextualized, structured pieces will never attain. There is something undeniably special about them. These are not the workhorses of your closet that will get everyday use - they are the statement pieces that uniquely define us.

I think that the artistry of these designers comes from transcending the rules of knitting and looking beyond the techniques that are known and on into those places in their own minds which still just contain possibility. For my own little mind, the easiest way to do this is to not know the rules. Structure is so much a part of how I learn that if I have it in place, it is nearly impossible to leave behind. I have to push myself to mess around and do "creativity exercises" if I want to come anywhere close to pushing an envelope. I work to be artistic, and often that takes so much work (almost always, actually) that I revert to being a sound craftswoman - it's my natural mode. Now again, I am not poo-pooing myself or saying that I don't enjoy that kind of creativity, because quite honestly I do, and if I never engaged in it there would be fewer of those great staples in my closet that I rely on. But. There is a real thrill when you do something that is totally out of the blue - really just out of your head - and look at it and think "That is good."

Making the Hoolia Wheel was that way for me. A small thing, really - just a motif - but at the same time a personal revelation. Because of this, I've decided to do two things: First, push myself to do a few more of those "creativity exercises" in knitting, and second, go about crochet an entirely different way. I am not going to seek out the rules, read patterns ravenously, or study it up in the way that I do with everything else. I'm just going to do it and see what happens. It will probably kill me - wish me luck!

Posted by Julia at 07:34 AM | Comments (10)

February 10, 2007

Iron Knitter: Battle Daktari

Ignorance is bliss: the beginnings of Daktari near Kauaii.
2006 was not the year of the knit for the Hoolia. Everything I touched seemed to be destined to have issues, and as a result the few FO's I managed to slog out consisted of the types of patterns I can do in my sleep - socks and berets - or rectangles. My biggest triumphs were both just fancy rectangles - the River Stole and Project MIL (a sweater for my mother-in-law), and those were definitely not without their trials and tribulations. Now that I believe myself to be safely past that nasty year of knitting - oh, the hubris! I am doomed now - I am starting to think it was a good learning experience, because in the instances where I stuck to it and fought back, I ended up with some beautiful pieces. In the end, knitting is like the serenity poem: you must have courage to change the things you can, serenity to accept (and rip) those you cannot, and most importantly the wisdom to know the difference. With that introduction, welcome to Battle Daktari:

My experience with Daktari began quite happily. Despite the fact that I was knitting a skirt which appeared to have quite a bit of stockinette at the top to slow me down, the fabric sailed off my needles. Within the span of about a week I had knit almost all of the first panel. I was excited. Even better, we were getting ready to spend a week in Hawaii on vacation with the family, so I knew that I would have hours of time ahead of me in planes, boats and cars, where I could knit away contentedly on my skirt. Perhaps I could even finish it and take some lovely shots on those lush Hawaiian Islands.... I got pretty far on the skirt over vacation, and blocked the first panel with stunning results soon after we returned. Then suddenly, I hit a snag.

The not-so-fine line between cappuccino and mocha.
Exhibit A. Do you see the problem here? Within the same dyelot there is a very dramatic shift in the densities of the color. It is even more dramatic than what you see in the photos, though I think its pretty clear from those as well. To be fair, Daktari is a hand-dyed fiber and comes with the disclaimer that there will be variations in the color. The label also wisely suggests that you alternate skeins every other row to overcome this issue. (This works well to combat pooling in variegated yarns as well.) If alternating skeins had solved the problem and just created a little variation, I would have no issues with the yarn. However, alternation of skeins in this case creates stripes (no photos, just use your imagination).

I would now like to draw your attention to the fact that there are four skeins of yarn knitted up in these photographs. The first three skeins flow together fairly seamlessly, with some expected, yet subtle, variation. Given this state of affairs, I thought that perhaps I had a rogue skein, so I decided to go back to my LYS and purchase another. Interestingly, the newly purchased skein, also in the same dyelot did not match the first three knitted skeins or the "rogue" skein, but was instead a shade somewhere in between the two. The difference was not as stark as before, but still not negligible enough that alternating the yarns would do anything to alleviate the problem.

I had several possible plans of attack for solving the problem with this new, closer-to-the-original-color skein, most involving some variation on ripping out most of the skirt and incorporating the darker-colored skein into the lace in alternating rows on both panels, so that there would be less of a noticeable difference both horizontally and vertically. DaktariCIMG5961.jpg
Close-up of the offending skein.
I think that one of these plans would have worked, but at the time I was pissed. So pissed, in fact, that I just could not stomach even looking at the skirt. So I balled it up and put it away.

Then last weekend, when we had that lovely bought of unseasonably warm weather, I was inspired to pull the Daktari skirt out again. I still wasn't in the mood to rip it all out and start from scratch, so instead I ripped out the offending very dark skein, and decided to make use of some information that I learned while blocking the yarn. I knit the rest of top of the second panel with the medium-dark skein, and then I took a little gamble. When I blocked the first panel I noticed that the fabric bled a lot. So I thought why not dip the top portion of the panel in scalding hot water a few times to see if I couldn't get enough of the color out to make it match the rest? Daktari is cotton, and cotton can handle the heat. So I soaked the top of the panel in three changes of really hot water over the span of an hour, and worked. Not perhaps the most reliable cure for this issue, but you can't argue with the results.

This one goes to the Challenger. Next up: pattern notes.

Posted by Julia at 09:21 AM | Comments (12)

October 01, 2006

Addendum to Prairie Tunic Shooz

Britt wrote to let me know that her lace section turned out to be about 28 sts to 4.5 inches, which would give the correct measurements noted in the pattern for the Prairie Tunic. Others have written to let me know that their measurements for the lace section are closer to mine. So, this means that the pattern is completely fine as written, but you will need to swatch the lace to be sure that your lace gauge is what it should be before beginning.

This was a pretty interesting revelation for me, because I had always assumed (and many patterns out there also assume) that if your Stst gauge is on, your patterned stitch gauge will be as well. It makes sense that this might not always be the case and that some knitters might yo a little more tightly or loosely than others. Since this is the first pattern I've knit using a large swath of stockinette next to a lace panel, I hadn't noticed it before. So, it's kind of a cool learning experience.

Since I can't change needle sizes in the middle of a row (well, I suppose I could with Denise Interchangeables or Knitpicks Options, but I'm not going to!), I'm going to have to knock out some stitches - either stockinette or lace. I'll probably knock out some stockinette, as the lace is more fun, but we'll see. I also may swatch Blue Garter's closed lace pattern option as I kind of like the idea of a little less flash. While I'm at it, I'm going to consider some shaping and other tweaks as well. Ultimately, though, I think this is one that will get knit next year. It's time to move on to wool, while I still can!

Posted by Julia at 12:07 PM | Comments (3)

July 05, 2006

Leaving River

River in repose over the window.
Click here to see the entire length.
River has gotten quite long now, and I'm noticing that my progress has slowed lately. I have not lost interest in her. I have become attached. I have noticed this phenomenon in myself with really great, really long novels as well. When I get near the end, I stall. I enjoy the reading, and I want to know what comes next, but I know that as soon as I finish I will have to leave the world that I've been in while reading, and I don't want to. I know that River is going to be lovely when it's blocked, that only blocking will let me know just how much length I can get out of 2 skeins of kidsilk haze, and that I can't wear my stole in its current balled-up state with the needles hanging off of it.

But still. We've had a nice ritual. I get up early, grab River and the i-pod, and sit on my front deck for a few hours before work, listening to either Knitcast or Fibercast, drinking my tea, and knitting away. I've worked through a lot of my mohair issues with River. Prior to this, I've collected mohair at an almost frightening pace (thank you, Suzan), and yet rarely knit with it, because I hate knitting with mohair. By perservering through Birch, and now River, I think I understand where my issues lie.

I'm a very visual knitter. I work off pattern at the earliest point possible by reading the rows below as I knit. I rarely need stitch markers or a row counter, because I can simply look at what I've already done and see where the next increase or decrease lies. Most of the time, this is a great way to knit, but it does not serve me well with mohair lace. I find that mohair is easiest to knit when all the stitches are bunched up close to the ends of the needles. This means that a 17 stitch repeat will be shoved into a space of about 2 mm - not great for viewing what's gone before.

Detail of the lower edge rippling.

Through the course of knitting River, I've learned that the method that works best for me is to place stitch markers between repeats (since the repeats undulate horizontally this is not exact, more on that with pattern notes), and engage in a mantra of continual counting. On the pattern side I count off stitch repeats - 4 sets of 5 plus 2 knit stitches; pattern repeats - 4; number of lead and end knits - undulating, with positive and negative values, and edge stitches - 3 at each end. On the resting rows I count off stitches between markers - 22, 17, 17, 23. The process is unique to the pattern (and this one is unique to my version - this River has 4 horizontal repeats rather than 3), but it works. Break the components into logical categories, count the categories off, repeat. I'm sure I've lost many of you with this gibberish that has no application for anyone but me, but the main point is that it works, and that the counting in this odd little system has become a kind of Om for me. I count. Sip my tea. Count again. It's morning and the sun is coming up over the mountains. Count again.

I will miss it. Perhaps this means more of my mohair will get knit.

Posted by Julia at 08:06 AM | Comments (8)

September 19, 2005

So this is why they call it Crack-Silk

I am a woman of strange talents, and one of the talents that I have is the ability to see connections between things that other people might not notice. (Or aguably, connections that may not really be there.)

Today I've been knitting cracksilk haze and pondering the similarlities between knitting lace in a fine-gauge mohair after a long hiatus and, say, mountain biking up a steep trail after a similar lapse.

RiverRep1Close2.jpg Kidsilk in the window on a fall morning. Looks benign.

Long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away in The Time Before Moxie*, I had a boyfriend who was a kick-ass cyclist. We met while I was training for my very first sprint distance triathlon, and to this day I credit my ability to complete that race to this boyfriend, who was surprisingly sweet and patient in the face of myriad newbie triathlon problems, such as how to get one's full-length wetsuit off fast enough to race into the port-a-potty without losing considerable amounts of time and how to pretend to be a competitor while dog-paddling in the swim portion of the race, etc.

This boyfriend ("The Cyclist") raced mountain bikes and road bikes, and it was inevitable, especially given that I was presumably training for a triathlon, that we should start riding together. Soon, one of our favorite places was Kettle Moraine in Wisconsin, where there are some wonderful single-track trails on rolling hills through the woods, with lots of fun trees, rocks and other woodland obstacles to hop over as you race along. During the year that I dated The Cyclist we went out riding almost every weekend, and after a while I became a respectable mountain biker (for a girl), if not a good one.

The thing about mountain biking the very first time, or any time after you've had a bit of a break, is that it is SCARY AS HELL and REALLY SUCKS. For some reason I forget this, and am seduced back by its siren call every once in a while only to remember when I am in the midst of careening down a mountainside at top speed saying to myself:


If I can make it past the phase of total and complete fear of death and get back out on the trail a few more weekends in a row (which I also spend careening down a mountainside at top speed saying to myself "FeatherthebreaksFeatherthebreaksFeatherthebreaksForChissake!!!!"), I can actually do alright and get to the point where I am not thinking of my immanent death at every moment and maybe even manage to have some fun.

So, too, kidsilk.

RiverBed.jpg The River, she prefers not to be photographed in bed. It does not suit her.

Just as there is a beautiful Jamis mountian bike in my basement collecting dust, there is a pile of gorgeous mohair in my yarn closet that grows every day without hope of being knit. I am seduced by its gorgeous colors and lovely halo even though I know that if I am honest with myself I will admit that I hate working with it.

And yet. It's there, right? And it's beautiful. So I must. And after at least a year has passed and I have forgotten the last round of trauma, I do. And so the farce that is Julia Knitting Mohair (very similar to the farce that is Julia Mountain Biking) begins.

RiverRep1Black.jpg The black background, it is classic. It better shows what the first repeat of the River, it should look like.

Inevitably, I boff. Boff, for those of you who do not know, is a technical term that describes a very complicated manuever on a mountain bike, which entails falling uphill and is usually the result of a combination of large boulders and tight toe clips (those wonderful contraptions that secure you to your pedals so completely that it can be impossible to free yourself from them as you topple from the highest heights over the roughest terrain. Thou shalt not be seperated from thine bike, even in the falling). The knitting equivalent of the boff is the yarnover or yo! (as in "Yo! you forgot to put me in again!)**

It usually takes a couple weeks of boffing, yo!ing, tinking, frogging, ripping, cursing, knitting? (yes, occasionally there is knitting), boffing, yo!ing, tinking, frogging, ripping, cursing, and knitting (yes! knitting!) before the light appears at the end of the tunnel, and I can begin to think to myself (quietly, in a whisper): I might just be able to do this again.

Then slowly after more weeks of knitting, still tinking here and there with the occasional boff, but mostly knitting, I think to myself (louder this time): Well, damn, I think I am doing this.

And then finally, finally I shout (often in the middle of the night, just to give those crazy f*ckers who call themselves "neighbors" a dose of their own looney):
YeeFrickin'Haw! Wooooooo! Hooooooo! We're riding in the Big Ring boys! We have a Repeat!

And it becomes a little addictive. And I find myself thinking: I AM HAVING FUN. I LOVE THIS. I WILL DO THIS ALL THE TIME. MOHAIR IS GREAT.

RiverRep1Closest.jpg The fresh air of the window, it is best.

Until I look down and I notice that the downhill, it is very very steep. I have one repeat. It took me four weeks to make the one repeat. The pattern has twelve.

And that, folks, is why knitting lace is like mountain biking, with the notable exception that lace-knitting, unlike mountain biking, can be performed from the safety of one's bed while having a morning cup of tea, which is why I did not find myself on the single-track today.

*When I was a virgin.

*And, yes, I know you can pick up a yarnover on the purl row that follows it, so please don't give me any great advice on how to fix things on the next row. My problems always occur several rows down!

Posted by Julia at 08:32 AM | Comments (18)

September 01, 2005

Socks are the short stories of knitting

Alternately Titled: Why I Am Not Really A Sock Knitter

OldRoseHeel.jpg The cutest short row heel ever

My knitting life closely parallels my reading life (and, for that matter, the rest of my life, but that's another post). My favorite kind of fiction is epic in scope - a huge honking tome of a book (or even better, series of books) that you can really get lost in. There is nothing that makes me happier than a book that takes a really long time to read and makes me feel empty afterward because I miss the world that it has created. The Lord of the Rings trilogy springs to mind. So does John Hersey's The Wall. (That's why I'm waiting with such anticipation for Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell to come out in paperback next month.)

The knitting equivalent of these books is an Alice Starmore sweater, a really complicated lace, or anything a bit clever that I have to work out for myself. These are my absolute favorite knits. And when they're done, even if they turn out wonderfully (so wonderfully that I have to get up in the middle of the night and look to make sure they're really as fabulous as I imagine), I miss them when they're over. Because honestly, after a knit like that, where is there to go?

However, there are large swathes of time, "seasons" as I refer to them, when no matter how much I would like to, I just can't manage a book (or knit) of this scope.

I have, mmmm..... completion issues.

Sound familiar?

At that point I usually have to turn to a short story to get me through. I love short stories, but at heart, I'm a girl who reads novels. The short stories just allow me to keep reading when the little brain is feeling littler, and can only concentrate on small chunks.*

For me, socks have come to serve the same function. They keep me entertained and generally interested in the medium. They are complex and satisfying in a very contained way. I've knit a lot of socks this year. This is my fifth pair. Still, they'll never be novels for me.

Which is why I'm not a sock-knitter.**

Though I do knit socks.

*I just finished Vintage Murakami - it's a wonderful series of short pieces that will launch you right back into novels again. Murakami novels in particular.

**Real sock-knitters are those people like my comments buddy Mary. These stalwart devotees never leave a knit shop without a skein or two of sock yarn, continually have multiple socks on the needles in various states of completion, and can happily knit socks for years without so much as a glance at a sweater. This, despite the fact that many of the intricate stockings they produce contain as many stitches as an afghan. Now that's a sock-knitter!

Posted by Julia at 08:26 AM | Comments (7)

July 10, 2005

Playing Around

cable.jpg Click me for a closer view.

Although I've been absent from the blog, I've been accomplishing a lot in my absence. Looking back on my aspirations from earlier this year, I'm proud to say that I've done pretty well. I wanted to work more on my own designs rather than answering the siren call of commercial patterns, keep a realistic number of projects on the needles, and balance my life out by reading more and exercising more regularly. In the months since I first "aspired," I've designed seven new pieces, three freebies and four that will be published, read several great books (I highly recommend The Life of Pi and The Kite Runner), and run a half-marathon (slowly, but the next one can be faster, right?). Three of the designs that I completed this weekend are going to be in an upcoming book that a friend is working on. I can't tell you what an amazing experience it is to really put your nose to the grindstone and finish such an endeavour. My hat goes off to Harlot and the girls over at MDK - I can't imagine what it must feel like to finish an entire book. All I can say is that if you've been making modifications for a while and dreaming of designing - go for it! It's a very rewarding experience once all the math and ripping is behind you.

Still, I haven't been all work (yes, even knitting is work if there is a deadline - trust me!). Even when I'm cramming to finish something and working crazy hours I have to cheat every once in a while and play around with something that I don't have to work on. Hence, the cables you see above.

A few months ago my best friend and I met in Charlottesville for a half-marathon (a word to the wise: if the race is called "bad to the bone" or some other scarily descriptive name, it may well be a good idea to avoid it and instead opt for the "flat as hell" race the following weekend). I was supposed to work on one of my submissions while we were there - cabin in the mountains, best friend who knits, hours of productivity, right? But she mentioned that she would like to make the cable-eight top in Interweave Knits in a finer gauge. And the fabulous LYS we visited had Tahki Cotton Classic in a lovely leaf green (por moi) and light orange (for her). So it really had to be done.

We sat around under the covers in our cute little cabin (it was still cold then and we had run over 13 miles, so staying under the covers the next morning sounded like a great idea), and re-gauged the pattern. It was very fun, and the swatch that I made (above) turned out beautifully. Most of all, it was fun to do with a friend.

Even better, we learned some things. Usually, if I make modifications to a pattern I usually feel they make the piece better, or at least better for me. This time the result was simply different. I love what we came up with using a new gauge, but I also had a really fun time "rediscovering" why the designer did what she did.

Originally, I thought that the piece was a bit bulky, and I thought it would look better at a smaller gauge. I also thought that it would be more flattering if it draped, rather than stretching as it is designed. The thing is that the large gauge really does give the cables a much more dramatic look (our version is lovely, but more subdued) and the stretch that is incorporated opens the cables and gives them the figure-eight look that they have (ours have nice drape but the shape is elongated). It was very fun to walk in the designer's footsteps and learn a little about the design.

Anyway, that was my playtime, and just as I aspire to design work, I also aspire to this kind of play. Anyone else have a similar experience during their playtime?

Posted by Julia at 07:35 PM | Comments (17)

February 10, 2005

The Mighty Mitre!

Every once in a while I interrupt something that I'm working on rather diligently (in this case, the Crusoe socks) to play around a bit with something I haven't done before.

MitreRightSide.jpg The reverse side is even lovelier, in my opinion.

The swatch project du jour was mitred squares, inspired by the amazing Kay over at Mason-Dixon Knitting. Both Ann and Kay are famous for their over the top, quilt-inspired (and sometimes simply quilted [scroll just a smidge]) projects, and the Psychadelic Afghan that inspired my swatching is one of my personal favorites. (Click here for the original story on the Afghan.)

This type of random swatching is something that I like to do to get the creative juices flowing. I teach a beginner's knitting class, and my goal for my students has been to start them off in a manner that will make them feel free to experiment. We rip constantly, and we swatch a lot during the sessions to try out and compare different techniques.

Recently, two students of mine were learning seed stitch. They hadn't ever used the knit and purl stitches in the same row before, so they didn't know that the yarn must be carried between the needles when moving between the two. Since they were helping each other they both ended up making several yarnovers. After a few of these, they realized the mistake and asked what was happening. I told them to keep on as they were, knit another row and see what happened. As a result they discovered lace! (Wooly lace, but lace nonetheless.) Their excitement over the discovery and interest in seeing what would happen was really inspiring to me, and reminded me that it might be time to play around a little myself.

The way that I knit is generally pretty structured, and I think that can sometimes stifle my creativity. Since I am a naturally structured person, I make a point of departing from my planned projects whenever I'm feeling a little stale and just swatching around without much of a goal in mind other than to see what I can come up with. Today's experiment was the mitred square, a simple technique that I've never gotten around to using before.

I worked with scraps of three very different cotton yarns (though it may be hard to tell this from the photo). The first yarn is Filatura di Crosa's Brilla in Burnt Orange - a stiff, shiny mercerized cotton. The second - also a solid yarn, though softer - is Brown Sheep's Cotton Fleece in Perry Primrose (a pretty raspberry color). The third is GGH's Mystic, leftover from my Honeymoon Cami prototype, in Cream. It's also a mercerized cotton, but not at all like the Brilla. It's soft and drapey and splits if you look at it sideways. The combination of the three is very nice. It's the perfect mix of drape, softness, and structure.

I have to admit that the colors do remind me vaguely of my Great Uncle Haddie's crocheted doilies,* but I like them together nontheless. Moxie thinks they are the color of curtains from a 1970's vintage VW bus. Whether you take that as a compliment depends on your feelings about the '70's, I suppose. I choose to be flattered.

As predicted by Kay, I find that the mitres are quite addictive.** So addictive, in fact, that like a craft crack addict, I have to make at least a small attempt to get you hooked. [To get this candy, go to the extended entry below.]

*My Great Uncle Haddie was a WWII veteran who walked with a cane and lived in a trailer in the western Pennsylvania mountains. He crocheted at least 500 rather intricate doilies during his lifetime. These doilies varied from one another only in color. Imagine, making the same doilie pattern 500 times. I only wish he were here today so that I could ask him about them. That is resolve, folks. Of the doiliest kind.

**Not quite as addictive as doilies, perhaps....

Lest you think that I forgot my Crusoe sock completely:

CrusoeHeelOut.jpg We have heel! Click here for a close-up of that little beauty.

A recipe for a mitered square of any size in any gauge:
[Use any yarn combos you like, alternating every two to four rows and carrying the unused colors up the side of your work.]

First, make a test swatch and determine what you would like your gauge to be. Reduce that gauge to sts/inch.

Next, decide how big you want your "big square" to be. It will take four of the "little squares" shown above to make one "big square". You can decide how big you want the "really big square" or Afghan to be later.

Multiply the number of inches that you would like your "big square" to be by your guage in sts/inch. Cast on this number of stitches. [Your cast on edge will actually form two sides of your "little square". When you put two of these together (2x1/2 cast on), you get one side of the "big square" - get it?]

Calculate what one half of the number of sts cast on minus two is - we'll call that number "M" for mitre. Knit M sts. K2tog twice. Knit M more sts.

On the reverse side you can either purl (for a stockinette st square) or knit (for a garter st square) - you choose! Mine is a silly garter.

On the next (3rd) row, Knit M-1 sts, K2tog twice, Knit M-1 sts, again. Continue on, knitting one less stitch before and after decreasing on each subsequent row. [M-2, M-3, M-4, etc. See, basic algebra is useful!] When you are down to four sts, K2tog twice. When you have only two sts left, slip one, knit one, and pass the slipped stitch over. Cut your yarn and put the end through the loopy thing. Voila! Make three more - get crazy and vary the stripes if you like - and seam. You have a psychadelic square.

Some "Progress" Pictures:

When you first start out you will have evidence that the corner of the little square is forming in the middle of your row:

MitreNipple.jpg Check out the nipple in the middle of that cast on - risque!
The square above shows you where that corner will end up.

Here we are pretty far along. If you made two little squares, cast them off at this point, and sewed up the sides leaving little holes for arms, you'd have a Chevron Tank for a Blythe Doll.

Posted by Julia at 05:46 PM | Comments (19)

January 30, 2005

Desert Island Yarn*

It's always good to lead with a picture - it peaks the interest, right? Here are some of my top candidates for Desert Island Yarn:

The Animal:

Clockwise, starting at top left: Heather green Classic Elite Inca Alpaca, Electric blue K1C2 Douceur et Soie, Lavendar Jaeger Extrafine Merino DK, Fuchsia Rowan Kidsilk Haze, Raspberry Jaeger Extrafine Merino DK, and Tangerine Anny Blatt Fine Kid.

The Vegetable (and One Stray Variegated Merino):

Clockwise, starting at top left: Chartruese Tahki Cotton Classic, Olive and Navy Variegated Artyarns Supermerino, China Blue Tahki Cotton Classic, White Rowan All Season's Cotton, and Variegated Blue and ChartrueseTahki Tweedy Cotton Classic.

Here's how you play the Desert Island Yarn Game:

First, you must create categories from the yarn you currently have in your stash (or, if you have some restraint, would like to have - ha!) and that you would be likely to have with you if you were stranded on a Desert Island. Your categories may vary from mine. For instance, I'm not a big novelty yarn girl, so I have one big category that I label "Novelty". You may need to subdivide into "Eyelash" and "Fun Fur". (If so, I hope we end up on different islands. No offense. I'd just rather be stranded with a wool girl.) Here are my categories:

Cashmere blends
Rare blends (camel, quiviut, etc.)
Mohair blends
Tencel blends
Silk blends

My categories are predominantly by fiber, but yours may be organized in another way. I can imagine categories like sock yarn, lace weight, or felting yarn, for instance. Personally, if I could only have one weight of yarn on my island, it would likely be a DK or a worsted. Given a little more flexibility, I would add in sport weight or fingering for interest.

Once you've gotten the categories in place, choose the ones you feel you cannot go without. This should be a small number. Mine is six. Aim for five, but if you really have to, you can have seven categories. If you go up to eight you have to be honest with yourself. You're really not ready for Desert Island living, are you? Check yourself into a spa and knit with whatever you want for a week or so to get it out of your system and then try again.

Remember to take some thought. These may or may not be your favorite categories, but they are the ones you would really need to do a full array of seasonal knitting. (Or maybe not - maybe your Desert Island is in the tundra - it can happen - DC seems to have broken off from the Mid-Atlantic and floated substantially northward.) Categories may be yarn-driven as well. If you have a single yarn in a category that you can't live without, it may push the category to Desert Island status. Choose wisely.

My final, adjusted categories are:

Alpaca (favorite)
Merino (next favorite)
Cotton-worsted (Yarn-driven and also practical)
Cotton-sport (Yarn-driven)
Mohair blends (Mostly for the effect)
Merino Variegated (Yarn-driven)

Now, within each category, you must choose no more than five different yarns that you feel are your absolute favorites to work with - either for the great feeling you get from the process or from the effects they produce. Mine before further subdivision were:

Alpaca - Classic Elite Inca Alpaca, Cascade Lana D'Oro, and Blue Sky Alpaca's 100% Alpaca

Merino - Jaeger Extrafine Merino DK, Artyarns Supermerino (hence the subcategory), KPPPM

Cotton - Rowan ASC, Tahki Cotton Classic and Tweedy Cotton Classic (another subcategory), Brown Sheep Cotton Fleece, Rowan Cotton Glace.

Mohair - K1C2 Doucuer et Soie, Rowan Kidsilk Haze, Anny Blatt Fine Kid, GGH Kid Soft

Finally, you must choose only one yarn in each category that you would have to have on your Desert Island. This is tough, and you may have to subdivide categories to do it. Just remember - aim for five, no more than seven. (If you can get by on four, I'll be really impressed.)

My final choices are:

Classic Elite Inca Alpaca (Alpaca) - I love the beautiful heathered colors and soft feel of this yarn. It's timeless. I knit with it ten years ago and I return to it still.

Jaeger Extrafine Merino DK (Merino) - Surprisingly, I have been to only one yarn shop that carries this yarn (Skein in Pasadena). It gets overlooked because it's a basic, and generally shop owners choose a basic from another line - Karabella Aurora 8 or something Cashmerino by Debbie Bliss (not really a substitute in my humble opinion) in most cases - I'm here to tell you for a 100% merino this stuff cannot be beat for feel and beauty. I'll order EFMDK rather than get a quick fix from somewhere else. It's definitely my standard for merino.

Rowan All Season's Cotton (Cotton - Worsted) - It took me a long time to realize that this was a Desert Island Yarn, becasue in many ways it's a plain jane, but as I've been working on Asana (which is turning out beautifully) I've recognized that ASC's amazing qualities cannot be overlooked any longer. It has gorgeous stitch definition without highlighting flaws (a rare combo), and it feels like butta' next to your skin. Although the colors tend to be a bit muted, there's a good range. It's machine washable as well, and you know how I feel about that.

Tahki Cotton Classic (Cotton - Sport) - This is just a great yarn. It has an amazing range of uses - knit it tight and you can create sculptural pieces with a lot of structural integrity, knit it at a normal guage and achieve a lovely draping fabric. It's excellently priced as well, at $4-$5 a skein. Cotton Fleece is extremely similar (and has great yardage at 215 yards/skein), but with a huge selection of rich colors (I believe it's around 140 - more if you count the Tweedy Cotton Classic) Tahki gains the edge.

K1C2's Douceur et Soie (Mohair blend) - Despite the fact that I look like an ass every time I try to pronounce it, I love this yarn. Right up front I will tell you that the only difference betwee DES and Rowan's Kidsilk Haze is color palette and the loose fluffy way that K1C2 winds their mohair. The fiber content and guage of these two yarns is otherwise exactly the same. Still, DES wins for color. It could be unseated by a recent acquisition pictured above - the Anny Blatt Fine Kid - which is a mohair/wool combo rather than mohair/silk, but despite the obvious draw of that gorgeous tangerine color I can't quite see DES getting beat out. It's hard to top the sheen of the silk. This mohair blend gives you a wonderful mix of warnth, shine and airy femininity that you just can't find elsewhere.

Artyarns Supermerino (Variegated Merino) - This is a new yarn on my list, as the Chevron Scarf was the first thing I made with it. It's such a lovely merino that I just can't resist it. And for a variagated yarn (not a big category for me) it's impressive. No pooling, puddling, flashing, zipping - whatever - that you usually get out of those deceptively pretty yarns. Once again, folks, machine washable. Oooh. Aaah.

Your turn! (If you play on your own site rather than in the comments, please post a link for me. I'd love to know what the favorite sock yarns, lace weights, etc. are out there.)

* I try to be conservative with this term in the "Impressions" section of my pattern notes, however, I do use it to describe the top yarn from a category that I may or may not have on my Desert Island. Berroco Suede, for instance, is a really close Desert Island call. It's so good that I might be tempted to take a "Novelty" to my own personal DI.

Posted by Julia at 07:30 AM | Comments (13)

October 27, 2004

To Purl or Not to Purl? (The overly long story of a very simple poncho)


Pants? Who needs pants?

PART I: The Purl

Every few months I seem to go through a rotation with the knit blogs out there and find a new favorite. For the most part, my list of blogs changes very little, but the favorite, for one reason or another, seems to shift. Lately I've found myself glued to the Yarn Harlot's site. I've been drawn to this particular blog partially for the wonderful projects and great writing that Ms. Pearl-McPhee is known for, but also because I like the way that she takes random knit-musings and crafts them into a post. Several of my favorite blogs do this. They take a knitting thought or philosophy that we all have strong subconscious feelings about and put it out there for discussion. And discuss we do. (I think Stephanie had about 80 comments to her most recent post.) It stimulates us out here in blogland (lurkers too!) to think about our craft and what it says about us. We get to know the knit and the person a little better. I like it.

During my recent hiatus, I did some thinking about the direction that I want to take with my blog. I am still pretty self-conscious about posting and am struggling to find my "voice". This may sound silly and overly dramatic for a knitting blog, but if you write one, you know that no matter what the subject, it is part blog and part journal, and though perhaps one-dimensional, it is a representation of yourself, out there in cyberspace, for all to see. Personally, I want my blog to be the kind of blog that I would like to read. I have these random knit thoughts all the time, and write about them in my head, but I rarely post about them because they lack a certain polish and perfection that I have recently realized I am all too attached to. I like people who are imperfect and I am a person who is imperfect, so I have determined that when random things come up, I am going to write about them.

Hence to purl or not to purl... The other day, the Yarn Harlot gave us her two cents about the best way to teach beginners to knit. (Go ahead, read the whole thing, including comments, and get totally engrossed. Just don't forget to come back!) The short story, if you're not up to following the link to read the long one, is that Stephanie taught her 13-year-old daughter's friend to knit on straight needles so that she would go back and forth and learn to purl right out of the gate and not be afraid of the dreaded purl stitch in the way that people who learn it later sometimes are. She wanted to instill fearless knitting in this intrepid young knitter from Day One, so that she would go forth and cable someday soon without worry. The controversy, (and I believe that it was a controversy of one) was whether this was the best idea given that the girl's first project was a pair of legwarmers, usually done seamlessly, in the round on circular needles.

Despite the fact that I have taught many, many beginners to knit, I have never really given the approach much thought. I teach people to knit the way my grandmother taught me - garter stitch on straight size US8 needles. I throw in the purl stitch after the person has gained a certain level of comfort. The theory behind this is that few people have good short-term memory for mechanical movements and that it's best to get one stitch movement to the point where it is automatic before introducing a second concept. I also think that it is easier to keep an even tension during the oh-so-crucial cast-on phase on straights. (Me of little faith...)

Although I hadn't given this much thought previously, I found myself to be very opinionated about the subject when it was brought to my attention. Here's why: I am drawn to the Yarn Harlot's explanation for why she teaches on straight needles. I don't think it really matters whether you teach someone to purl on Day One or not. I learned to purl about a decade after I learned to knit and it didn't affect my feelings about the stitch. Knit or purl, it's all the same to me. I don't favor one over the other. More importantly, I doubt it will affect too many new knitters to learn to purl, earlier or later, either. (Though hearing from other knitters that one is easier than the other might - ah, the power of suggestion!) BUT! I like to think of myself as a similarly intrepid knitter. I fear no stitch, no fiber, no construction! Onward! It shall be knit!

In contrast, I was also drawn to the controverter's plea that legwarmers should not have seams and are properly knit in the round. The idea that there is a better way to knit certain things also holds great cache for me, and in this case, had I given it much thought I would have been on the fence as to whether to have Meg's friend learn the purl stitch or do the legwarmers seamlessly. It is a knitting conundrum if I ever saw one.

For me, the importance of a teaching approach may be what it imparts about the teacher. We are fearless, and if we can teach fearlessly, our students will be, too. If we teach better ways to do things, our students will learn to search for the better method in each situation. Great thoughts, and ones that I will spend some time ruminating and blogging on, as I prepare to teach my next beginner class.

PART II: The Poncho

Which brings me to the not-so-clearly related second part of my post. This is where I illustrate why it is important to know both the out-of-the-box way and the better way to do something and be discerning enough to choose which method to follow in a given situation. As an extra-special treat in line with my new policy of showing imperfections, I will illustrate by telling you all about one of my own recent knitting misadventures.

Enter, the poncho. Interestingly, this garment was also inspired by Ms. Pearl McPhee, and mimics her Very Harlot Poncho in everything but yarn, guage, and neckline. I'm changing the name to the Maniacal Harlot Poncho, and here's why:

Right before leaving California I became totally enchanted with some black Berocco Suede yarn. Suede is fabulous stuff. It contains not an ounce of natural fiber, yet has a wonderful, springy feel to it and manages to pretty well approximate actual suede in it's feel. I had exactly 7 skeins of Suede and knew that its perfect use was a slinky, stretchy poncho. I also knew that ponchos can take up quite a bit of yarn, and that fringe can easily eat up a skein or two all on its own. You can tell where I'm going with this, yes? I was concerned about yardage.

To assuage my fears, I sat down, shoved the Chevron Tank aside, and knit an entire skein of yarn in one sitting. (This is impressive for me. I am not a fast knitter.) I then figured out exactly how many square inches of fabric one skein of suede produced. (Sadly, I did not write this down and have since forgotten the number.) I then set about trying to figure out exactly how many square inches of fabric I would need.

This was not something I could do precisely. I could not find a single poncho pattern in my collection (stunted collection - we were traveling and didn't have much) that gave a finished schematic or dimensions. I think the thought is that a poncho is a sack and how long you make your sack is really up to you - no schematic needed. This is all fine and well for those of you with an overabundance of yarn in a single dyelot. For me, it sucked.

What I did decide was that it was likely that I would be cutting it close. I also decided that I didn't want to knit the whole damn thing and then run out while I was fringing it. So I did some simple math. At a guage of 4 sts per inch, with 4 yarnovers every other row, my poncho would grow at a rate of 1 inch every 2 rows. That is a lot. It sounds practically exponential.

So, I got out my measuring tape and measured my circumference with my arms at my side. This is yet another number that I have failed to document since, but I think it was about 42-44". My goal was to figure out how much the poncho had to grow in order to accomodate my arm movements, so I added somewhere from 6-8" (the ease allowance of a really baggy sweater) for a total of 50" in circumference. This number, strangely enough, I do remember.

My plan was to go on my merry way, knitting and yarning-over until I hit the 25th row, which was the point where my poncho would be 50" in circumference. At that point I would introduce 2 pairs of decreases at each side down the midline of my arms to counteract the growth of the yarnovers exactly and keep the circumference at a steady 50" until the end. The result would be a trapezoidal shaped poncho. Somewhat closer-fitting but workable. Brilliant!

For those of you considering writing down this great wisdom or printing it out - DON'T! It doesn't work. 50" is way too small a circumference for anything other than a mummybag, as I can sadly attest. I have no finished pictures, but here is a picture, on the dock at Lake George after my third skein, showing the "seam" created by my funky decrease pairs:


Feel for me, for later I frogged all the way back to the top of this seam...

I continued past this point and knit another skein to finish my mummybag. Because I tried the poncho on when it was on circulars that were too short to give it full volume, I was totally unaware of the mummy quality until after I had cast off.

This is where things got really interesting. I knew that I could not leave the poncho as it was, and I was now fairly certain that I had at least very, very close to enough yarn to make it full-sized. I was also in a rather intrepid mood. I knew that the right thing to do would be to rip back to the 25th row and take it from there. I am not sure why I did not do this. I don't have any problems with a good frog if it's necessary (it was!), and I had plenty of time to rip and re-knit while sitting around at Lake George enjoying myself. Perhaps it was an overabundance of time that lead me to make my decision. I'm still not sure.

At any rate, I determined that rather than rip back my poncho, I would teach myself to steek on the diagonal with a crochet hook. (I doubt anyone will question that this plan was an intrepid one.) Armed with determination, a crochet hook, and a computer I set about to conquer the diagonal crochet steek.

As a starting point for my quest, I used a wonderful tutorial by BlogDogBlog on my steek's nicer cousin - the vertical crochet steek. This tutorial was indispensible, and if you ever wish to steek somthing that should be steeked (say a fairisle, or the front of a cardigan - NOT a poncho), I would highly recommend reading it.

All that remained after the steek tutorial was figuring out which stitches to bind together on a fabric with bias. (Again, no pictures - we had limited card space and were staying in a scenic area, so Moxie made it clear that an overabundance of knit photos was verboten.) The short story is that I did it. I steeked diagonally, I cut, the edges disappeared, and everything was beautiful in the world. The fabric held! (I promise to repeat this trick at some point, with photos to boot, for those who are interested. Just not now.) I was elated!

I then set about making a triangular insert which I planned to sew into the void that the steek had created. This, too, was a thing of beauty. Harmoniously designed with a row of double eyelets down the center to mirror the eyelets which run up the front and back of the poncho. I knit two inserts to make sure that I would have enough fabric before I cut the second steek. I did. (Here's where I made my first truly intelligent move. I didn't crochet and cut the second steek. I wanted to be sure that the first side gave the effect I wanted before cutting the yarn into ever smaller pieces.) I sewed the insert into the seam. My sewing was beautiful too. But the seam wasn't. It was just too honking big, and the poncho which should have draped instead clunked out at the side. I can't think of an analogy to let you know what it looked like. You'll just have to trust that it was unweildy and ugly.

My husband, who is often not quite as supportive as I would like when it comes to my knitting, chose this strange juncture to be unusually supportive. He thought that perhaps if both sides were steeked, it would look better. I should just try it and keep moving forward. Also strangely, I took the opportunity to resort to my better judgment. I ignored him completely, despite wanting to believe that he was right, and un-seamed my inserts, frogged my inserts, ripped out my beloved, perfect-except-for-being-too-clunky diagonal crochet steeks, and frogged back to round 25 of the poncho.

I then took the 2 full skeins of Suede that I had left and the longest pieces of yarn from my frogging adventure and knit the full poncho as intended. I used the remaining strands (and there were lots, from the steeking) to fringe it. It's a wonderful, maniacal, harlot poncho and I love it. I'll probably get more wear out of this one silly piece than from all my Alice Starmores put together.

The moral of the story? Ponchos shouldn't have seams, and sometimes intrepid knitting is overrated. How's that for random and imperfect? Project notes to follow.

Posted by Julia at 03:48 PM | Comments (14)