Saturday, September 30, 2006

I learned from my mistake, but is it a lesson that I will have to relearn later?

As I’ve mentioned before, I learned, really learned, to knit in the fall of 2005. In that time I made a chenille scarf, moved on to an eyelash scarf (I could live my life happily without seeing another skein of eyelash yarn), a cap, and four La Luz Eyemasks from Handknit Holidays. Around early December I began shopping for sweater projects, and chose a Notable Surge from a 1963 Spinnerin booklet, and the second sweater-of-all-time: the River Forest Gansey from Handknit Holidays.

At that time, my yarn shop did not carry the prescribed Cascade 220, so I asked for alternatives, and had my husband (the intended recipient) to pick out his favorite yarn from the selection shown me.

If I’d known then what I know now, I would have abandoned this project entirely until I could have ordered Cascade. But I was new, and I believed that the yarn goddesses at the shop would certainly guide me well, as they knew I was a beginner.


Cascade 220 is a lovely, lightweight, pliant yarn. It has a smooth texture, making the subtle patterning in the River Forest Gansey really pop. The pattern calls for the main body to be worked on a US 7 needle. Small, but not infinitesimal.

I purchased, however, a Donegal Tweed Homespun. The colorway is a dull black with cream slubs, and the yarn is stiff and difficult to work. So stiff, in fact, that to at least approximate the desired gauge, I have to work this sweater on a US 5. I probably should have gone down another needle size, but frankly the yarn is not wanting to bend much more than that, and Donegal Tweed is intended to be worked on a US 8. I’d already dropped the needle size three times. The color is like knitting a black hole, absorbing all light, so it is difficult to see where I am in the pattern. And the slubs tend to make the patterning disappear.

The yarn shop had to order the yarn because they did not have a sufficient supply of the dye lot, and by the time it came in (thankfully) I was busy with other projects, dealing with a family tragedy, and preparing to leave an a multi-week trip to South Korea. Because I had absolutely no business starting this sweater as a first-ever sweater project.

When I did, finally, and worked out the cast on (instructions in the previous post), the second thing about this pattern that made it confusing was the chart.

Oh. Did I mention I’d never worked on a chart?

The instructions for establishing the pattern say to knit, in my case, 7, work the 24-stitch repeat X times across, end 37. At first I thought that meant to knit 7.


Looking at the chart, both the rows and columns are numbered. Knit 7 refers to which column on the chart to begin. End 37 means to end the pattern on column 37 of the chart - adding a stockinette stitch selvage on both sides.

What have I learned?

  1. Not to use a bumpy yarn if I want to show off a stitch pattern.
  2. Not to use stiff yarn for a project that calls for small needles.
  3. Not to use dull black yarn if I want to be able to work on this under artificial light.
Oh, and one more thing. Don’t assume that the fine clerks at the local yarn shop will willingly share their bounty of knowledge. You might just catch them on a stingy day.

Friday, September 29, 2006

River Forest Gansey - Double Strand Cast On

I finished the back of the Gansey in Handknit Holidays, and it’s time to cast on for the front. The cast on is tricky. It calls for a Double-Strand Cast On, or “other elastic CO method of your choice.” This was maybe the tenth project I’d ever worked on, and I read and re-read the instructions detailed in the Special Techniques section at the back of the book. When I absolutely gave up, I drove to Yarn Barn, a.k.a. the Answer Center for All Things Yarn. There was a point when I doubted that even they would be able to decipher the instructions, but three employees and forty-five minutes later, I had my answer. That was in May. Now it’s late October. So it’s possible I’ve forgotten or modified an important detail, but I’m fairly confident that my hands remember what they’re supposed to do.

Step one: using two balls of yarn, cut two lengths as though preparing to do the long-tail cast on. Make a slip knot in both strands, but let one slip knot fall through, leaving only one slip knot on the needle. Cut one ball free, but not so close to slip knot that the yarn will pull completely free.

Step two: position the cast on needle and left hand as though executing the long tail EXCEPT there will be two tails around the thumb, and they are wrapped counter clockwise twice.

Step three: point the needle down and pull it to the back, allowing the ball yarn to form a yo on the needle.

Step four: point the needle up and pull it forward over the double strand, down and up through the loop around the thumb, up and over the ball yarn, back down (capturing the ball yarn), pull it back through the thump double strand, and tighten the loop on the needle.

For each cast on “stitch,” two stitches are formed on the needle. This means that, counting the slip stitch, you always cast on an odd number of stitches. Adjustments, therefore, are made by increasing when the pattern begins, if necessary. The directions caution not to knit into the back of the yo, because it will make the edging tighter, and the advantage of this cast on is its elastic nature.

Exhausted by her 4 a.m. duty:

“Wake up! Wake up! It’s time to knit!” Aspera returns to bed.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Everything I needed to know to knit, I learned in kindergarten

Count. Count everything. When casting on, use stitch markers liberally. Buy them by the truckloads in every configuration possible. Set them in 10-20 stitch intervals, and count twice to ensure that the right number of stitches falls between each mark. Then count the stitch markers at least three times.

Trust me. It's easier, faster, and less painful to add or subtract cast-on stitches, than it is to knit three inches of ribbing, then discover that the reason the pattern isn't falling correctly is that there are ten fewer stitches on the needle than there should be.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Secret to Completing Projects

I've been glowering at a set of baby booties for two months. Not one set. Four sets.

The problem with this project is that it has no deadline. That, and that except for making them in a range of sizes, they are identical.

A beautiful, lacy, billowy christening gown has been in my family since the late '50s. All my siblings were christened in this gown, as were my sister's children, their children, and now their children's children. The gown was made out of a gauzy cotton, trimmed in lace, and covered in hand-embroidered details.

In December of '05, my nephew announced that his first baby would be due in April. Less than a week before Christmas, his father (my brother-in-law) was killed in a fatal fire. The family home was nearly destroyed, and the fibers in the christening gown, which had been stored in a closet shelf on the floor where the fire was contained, had been degraded to the point the gown could not be salvaged. It wasn't a matter of cleaning. The heat from the smoke was so intense it broke down the fibers at a molecular level.

This baby - his first baby - would have been the next one to wear the gown. It was bad enough that his father would not witness the birth, or hold the baby in his arms. But I could not do anything about that.

I could, however, oversee the creation of a new gown.

I spent the next months making silk bobbin lace edging for the hem of the gown and slip, and finer edging for the sleeves and neck. I estimated I'd need about four yards of the hem lace, and it took an hour to make an inch, so... let's not think about that too much, shall we?

Then I sent the remnants of the original gown and my new lace, and silk organza to my tailor to create a new gown. It isn't identical to the old, but it is as delicate as a cloud.

At the time, I didn't worry about the booties. I was busy traveling on business, and had other projects on my needles. Plus, I couldn't find a pattern that seemed appropriate for this gown.

I finally spotted the T-Strap Booties in the July 2006 issue of Creative Knitting. Since the christening had come and gone, I only needed to get a set completed before the next christening, and there were none on the horizon.

Now I'd never made booties before, and the size in the instructions reads "Infant 12 months". What does that mean? Absolutely nothing. My first set, done according to the instructions, came out to 2 1/2 inches, which, according to a chart I found in the internet, is for a low-weight newborn. Since I don't have an actual baby to make these to size, I opted to make four sets in a range of sizes up to 4".

I'd been glowering at these for weeks, wondering if I'd ever get them completed. Then yesterday I woke at an ultra-early hour (2:30 a.m.), knitted a few rows on my other projects, glowered at my booties, then decided to go for it. I had a marathon knitting session. By 7 a.m., the last largest sole was done. By 1, the first of the last set was done.

A day later, the last sole was off my size 2s. Now it's instep and icord time. I might even be done this weekend.

So there it is. To finish a project that seems never ending: Knit, knit, knit.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Ignorance is Bliss

"Would you make me a hat?" asked Michael as I worked feverishly on the Caftan Pullover. The gansey for him, and four sets of baby booties surrounded my chair.
"Sure," I replied, "but we'll need to go to Yarn Barn."
So that was our Saturday. The 30-mile drive to Lawrence was beautiful. Clouds skated across the sky, and the air held just the hint of winter chill.
He had picked out Ryan's Hat from the Interweave web site. YB carries Cascade, but not the Pastaza called for in the instructions. He picked out a close equivelant in a rusty brown, green and blue. With my yarn fix in hand and a size 9 16" circular needle, we turnpiked it home. "Maybe you'll have it when you get back from Chile," I said. Late October.
It's possible. Really.
As we cleared the toll booths in Topeka, I recalled an incident about five years ago.
We had spent a few days in western Kansas volunteering at an archaeological dig. We had been instructed to bring $2 bills so the impact on the economy would be tangible. The temps were in the high 90s, and the sun and wind unrelenting. I hadn't had that much dirt in my ears since I was an extra in "The Day After."
Coming back, we stopped at the Topeka toll booth. I tried to pay with a leftover $2 bill, but the toll taker turned green when she saw it. She actually refused to take the money, stating that it was cursed to her. A fortune teller had told her so.
In the end, I supposed it *was* cursed to her. I'm pretty sure she lost her job over it. After all, isn't a willingness to handle money a requirement of any tolltaker's job?
It's ironic. If the fortune teller had never told her it was cursed, she would have taken my $2 gladly, she wouldn't have lost her job, and the $2 bill *wouldn't* have been cursed to her.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

4 a.m.

I'm knitting on the front panel of the Caftan Pullover from the Winter 2005 issue of Interweave Knits, when the phone rings.
"huhlo?" I mumble and slur, because I was sound asleep after all.

It was my MIL (R), calling from the emergency room.

My FIL (J) had been home recovering from surgery to remove malignant tumors from his bladder, and overnight he had been experiencing increasing levels of discomfort that ended in a trip to the emergency room when a clot blocked his urethra. A neighbor had taken them to the emergency room at 1, and now R needed a ride home to get some sleep while her husband waited to be admitted.

While Mike ventured into the cold and windy early morning, I got up to really, truly knit on the Caftan.

Christmas came early for J. It is one of the joys of being a knitter that we are able to provide comfort to those that need it most.

In May, R had offered to give me her stash of knitting tools. I'd been spending the equivalent of the GNP of a small African country on needles, so I looked forward to adding to my kit without cost, forgetting that nothing is ever free. As she handed over her old patterns and needles, she pointed out a 50's-era shawl pattern that "would be perfect to keep my shoulders warm at church." I don't usually pick up on hints, but in this case, it was pretty obvious that without tools she would never be able to make it, so HINT HINT, she'd like me to make it for her.

I did, out of a heathery acrylic so it would be carefree. The pattern originally called for a yarn that is no longer manufacturered, and I did my best to guess the correct weight. My choice turned out to be thicker than it called for, and the shawl tended to curl at the tip. But it worked, and she was happy with her Mother's Day gift.

J made fun of it initially. Didn't see how it could be warm with all those holes (yarnovers), but he tried it out for his daily nap and fell in love with it. The next time we visited, J asked for a "man shawl."

I've never seen a pattern for a "man shawl," so my interpretation was the "Campus Bound Afghan" from the July 2006 issue of Creative Knitting Magazine, using Lion Brand Wool-Ease in Wheat and Mushroom. The pattern is a four row repeat, with one row of yarnovers and k2tog's. Color A was three repeats, followed by one repeat of B, two repeats of A, one repeat of B, and back to three repeats of A. It took FOREVER. I knitted on it usually 1-3 hours a day from late June to early August when an work assignment consumed every waking moment and I had to put it down. I still tried to do a repeat every other day, but working on circular needles meant the afghan was doubled on my lap, growing in length down to my feet. We had weeks of temps in the 100s and humidity bringing the heat index to the 110s. I knit in a recliner, and as it grew in length, it would get caught in the workings whenever I tried to stand. And I couldn't leave it out because the cats would eat the unsewn yarn ends, and my plastic eating cat would chew in the stitch markers. I cursed this afghan. It wasn't that I wanted to stop knitting it. It was that I wanted it to be done, giftwrapped, and waiting patiently for Christmas.

So I took this afghan to Denver when I attended a conference in early September, and spent my mornings and evenings knitting up a storm. My last night there I bound off, and spent the car ride home (I wasn't driving) sewing in the ends. When we stopped for gas in western Kansas, Mike and I stood out in the parking lot with this thing pulled taught between us, so I could find the remaining ends. As soon as I stepped inside the house I put the afghan in the washing machine.

The next day we heard that J was going to have surgery, so we decided to give him the "man shawl" a few months early. Whenever I have visited, both before and after sugery, he has been wrapped up in it so it covers his head. And R confirms that it never comes off, and that he has found a way to wear it so it covers his ears. And I have gotten not one but two thank you notes from him.

Knitted gifts are not always welcome, but when they hit the mark, they really really hit the mark.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

My Knit-iversary
It started last fall. A press trip to Grand Rapids, Michigan included a sidetrip to Grand Haven for some “free time to shop” (PR firms love to add this to itineraries. I suspect it’s so the PR staff can have some “free time away from journalists”) before taking a sunset sail on Lake Michigan. I killed time by wandering in and out of shops. Then I went into THE ONE. It was a yarn shop. The Fiber House, I think. Before I tell you what happened in that shop, you should know my knitting history.

My mother attempted to teach me to knit when I was around six. I don’t recall much, except that the needles were huge, my fingers were tiny, and the yarn was yellow. My aunt had taught my mother to knit, and she had learned in Germany, so I learned the Continental method.
I think. Because one yellow pot holder was all I knit and I couldn’t imagine spending the time knitting a sweater, nor did I want a sweater out of any of the yarn I’d seen at local stores.

Fast forward to the early '80s when I was living in a dorm at the University of Kansas. One of my dorm-mates knit, (a guy) and I was fascinated. So a few years later I signed up for lessons at the local yarn shop. By then I lived 30 miles away, was restoring a Queen Anne home, and had next to no money. I cleaned out the local Duckwall’s of green yarn when they went out of business, found a 50s-era pattern booklet for 10¢ at a garage sale. I was in business. The yarn was green, yes, but a hideous green. Then I wrecked my car commuting home from a knitting lesson when a 10-point buck darted out in front of my car on the highway. And that ended that.

Over the next twenty years, I did other typs of handwork. I did. Honestly. I make bobbin lace. But bobbin lace doesn’t travel well, and travel is part of my job description. So when I walked in that yarn shop, I was like an addict about to get a fix. Would I get the chenille? Would I get the eyelash? Yes, and yes. With those, two sets of needles, and a basic book, I was in business. By the time my tires hit the driveway, I had one chenille scarf done, and had started and ripped out the eyelash yarn scarf about a dozen times.

In the past year I have made:
  • Two scarves
  • One felted bulletin board
  • Three silk eye masks
  • One washcloth
  • One silk cap
  • Two sweaters
  • One felted Mobius cat bed
  • Two shrugs
  • Two vests
  • One baby hat
  • One shawl
  • Two sets of three Day of the Dead dolls
  • One afghan