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Coming Back to Colourwork



It is interesting how we go through phases with our knitting. When I got back into the craft as an adult, I immediately gravitated toward stranded colourwork. But gradually my interest in it waned, replaced by a preference for cables and lace - until one day I realised it had been more than 5 years since I'd done any colourwork at all.


This became painfully obvious earlier this year when, on a whim, I knit up a pair of Tiptoe Through the Tulips socks by Stephanie Pearl-McPhee -  a pattern with lovely colourwork on the heels, which looked... well, let's just say not as tidy as I had hoped in my finished pair! I realised just how out of practice I was when it came to stranded knitting. This, combined with the fact that I did not find the process very enjoyable, did not inspire further attempts. 


Until, several months later, inspiration struck again. I had some leftover scraps of Donegal tweed yarn, which one evening I turned into an improv beret of my own design... combining clourwork with knit and purl stitches as well as double increases and decreases. It was kind of a mad concept, and not the easiest thing in the world to knit! But (due to pure luck, I think) the result came out rather nice. And while my floats on the inside looked terrible, crisscrossing every which way, at least the tension was even. I was very pleased with this hat, and decided that maybe colourwork wasn't so bad after all.

Fast forward to Autumn. I was tidying up the house one morning (always a dangerous, unadvisable pursuit, as this story will clearly demonstrate!) and found a bag of heathered rose Icelandic Lettlopi yarn, along with some scraps of green and white Lettlopi. I am not sure where the green and white came from; possibly someone gave them to me? But the heathered rose, I remembered suddenly, was because I'd intended to knit a second one of these. For reasons I won't go into here in the interest of time, that plan got scrapped. And I also did not like the rose colour as much in person as I thought I would, when seeing it online. So the yarn languished. But now beside these scraps of green and white, I saw possibilities. Emboldened by the earlier success of my colourwork hat, I took the lopi out of the bag then and there and began to knit top down... By mid-morning, the yoke was finished!

I will pause here and explain that the lopi discovery was rather timely. I had just started a job that required me to spend long hours in an unheated building. And so I wanted a sweater which I could wear over several base layers to keep out the chill and damp. The Icelandic wool excels at this very thing. And so I decided to knit a very basic oversized pullover, with cheerful yet subtle colourwork at the yoke and no other embellishments - since I might be getting the cuffs and hem dirty. Because originally the heathered rose lopi had been intended for a jacket with a long peplum hem, there was quite a large amount of it and it would take an oversized sweater to use it up. Perfect!


Less perfect, however, was my colourwork. I did not even notice it until after I proudly (silly me) posted a picture of the sweater-in-progress on instagram. But once the picture was up, it was unmistakable: The colourwork on the yoke was puckered, in that classic 'floats too tight' sort of way. A beginner's mistake, despite conscious attempts to keep my tension even and the floats loose. Did I mention I had not done colourwork in 5 years? It showed! 

Argh. Well. At this point, I had already knitted up not only the yoke, but also parts of both sleeves and the bodice. I really did not want to rip back. An alternative would be to cut out the yoke, redo it properly, then graft it back onto the rest of the sweater. I could certainly do that. And I should have done it. But the very thought of it just made me want to scrap the whole thing. This was meant to be a quick and easy project after all, and now it was turning into an ordeal. So I took the lazy way out, and decided to finish knitting the sweater, then aggressively block the yoke and hope for the best. If it still looked puckered - well, I did not have to wear it in public. It would work just fine as a functional chilly damp building sweater. And maybe later, when I had more time, I could eventually redo the yoke.

Okay. So I finished knitting the rest of the sweater, now dreading, more than anticipating, the result. But thankfully it went quickly (as lopi does), and the fit was working out spot-on, so at least that was encouraging me a bit. Finally, I finished the sweater and took it straight to the sink. 

Now, when I want to block something aggressively, I don't just wet it; I properly soak it. I plopped the sweater into a sinkfull of warm water, added some scented soap, and left the sweater in there for an hour. I then, squeezed out the water, did the whole towel-roll thing, and spread out the wet sweater on the floor in the corner of the bedroom (the floor here gets warm from the fireplace in the other room, so I find it a perfect blocking platform).

I then mustered up some patience, put on a podcast, and went to work on the yoke - kneading and stretching at the wet colourwork gently, again and again, until the tension began to even out (this took at least 20 minutes). I then covered the yoke with a pile of heavy books and left the sweater spread out on the warm floor overnight. 24 hours later I removed the books and left the sweater there unweighted until it was fully dry.


The result? Well, you can see it in the photos. An astute knitterly eye may still spot traces of evidence that the colourwork was done too tightly. But it isn't obvious if you don't look for it, and I am sufficiently satisfied with the yoke-rescue to wear the sweater out in public. In fact I really love it! The fit is exactly what I had in mind - a kind of early 90's oversized look that can be worn over both jeans and leggings. I deliberately did not do any neck, back, or bust shaping, because I wanted the sweater to be front-back reversible (to get dressed in the dark). And it is not only insanely warm, but very comfortable. 

Just to be clear, I am not advocating being sloppy with your stranded colourwork in hopes that blocking will fix it! But if you find yourself in my situation, it certainly won't hurt to try the approach I described.


I don't think I will turn this sweater into a pattern. From the design perspective, the colourwork is fundamentally flawed, I think, in that it's kind of complicated (you have to work with 3 colours at the same time in several sections, and there are rounds where the floats are more than 5 stitches long and need to be 'fixed') and not interesting enough to warrant that complicatedness, if that makes sense? But as a one-off improvisational project just for me, I love it. The drooping flowers are subtle, but lovely, and I enjoyseeing them out of the corner of my eye as I am working. Also? In the two weeks since I've finished this sweater, I've been wearing it constantly. So in that sense alone it is a success, and all is well that ends well. 


But wait, because this isn't quite the end. There is a punchline to this story! 

As I was putting away the leftover scraps of yarn and tidying the house again, I came across a bag... with 8 balls of blue-green lettlopi! What the heck?! No seriously, I have no idea where that yarn even came from or when I got it! But it certainly looks good with the bits of heathered rose, grass green, and white, left over from this sweater. Does the universe want me to practice colourwork again? I might just have to. 

String Too Short to Be Saved



Some time ago a friend was panicking because she'd left her cast-on tail so short, she did not know how to weave it in; so I showed her the method I use. Of course it never occurs to me to photo-document these things as they happen. But happily I got another opportunity the other night!

I had just bound off the last sleeve cuff of a lettlopi sweater I'd been working on. And as I pulled the yarn through the final bindoff loop, it broke, leaving a meager 5cm tail. Now, if you thread yarn that short into your needle and attempt to sew or weave with it, it won't work; the yarn will simply pop out of the needle's eye.

So what you have to do, is first weave with the needle empty. Insert the needle, without threading it, into the stitches where you want to hide your yarn. Get as many stitches as you can, but of course be sure to leave the eye of the needle poking out. Then thread the yarn into the needle, and pull it through.

There, your end is woven in! 

So how short of a tail will this method work with? Well, it does need to be long enough so there is something left to weave in. A couple of cm? If you are unlucky enough to break your yarn at the very base when binding off, I can't think of a way to fix it other than unpicking the bindoff (and maybe the last couple of rows!), and attaching fresh yarn. Of course if anyone has a better solution, feel free to share. 


In Defense of Our Friend the Alpaca



Lately it seems that I keep coming across discussions about the 'problematic nature' of working with Alpaca yarn - to the point that some knitters downright advise avoiding knitting garments out of 100% Alpaca. The idea is, that while Alpaca fibre is lovely and soft, it needs to be blended with some linen, cotton, or silk content to give it structure and stop it from overheating the wearer. 

While I get where this reasoning is coming from, I also feel it is based on some degree of misunderstanding of the material. And because I happen to love Alpaca, I wanted to chime in with my perspective. 

Alpaca yarn indeed has some very particular characteristics. It is not suitable for every type of garment. But it is exceptionally suitable for some types of garments, in a way that no other yarn is. I will try to go through some points here and explain why the two main ‘problems’ attributed to knitting with pure-alpaca yarn, are in fact features which can be used to your advantage.


Do Alpaca garments lose their shape?

The idea that Alpaca looses its shape is repeated as if it were fact. But the more useful and accurate way to look at it, I feel, is that Alpaca garments never have ’shape’ to begin with (and so we mustn’t expect them to!). 

Alpaca yarn is extremely drapey. A swathe of knitted Alpaca does not so much sit on the body as skims it caressingly. Accepting this as an inherent characteristic of the material, and choosing what we knit out of it accordingly, can result in some beautiful, flattering clothing.  

The types of garments Alpaca is most suited for, are flowing, body-skimming pieces that are knitted seamlessly and designed with a slouchy, drapey effect in mind. The types of garments Alpaca is not suited for, are structured pieces that are seamed, and designed for a crisp, tailored look.  

Because of its drapey nature, you also want to make sure your Alpaca yarn isn’t too heavy. When knitting a garment with pure Alpaca, it is best to work at a looser gauge, going up .25-.50mm in needle size from what you would normally use with wool yarn of the same weight. I once talked to a knitter who chose Alpaca for a sweater-coat pattern that called for bulky weight yarn. She took aran-weight Alpaca, then held it double to meet gauge! Unsurprisingly, the result proved unwearably saggy. With the exception of things like hats, mittens and blankets, Alpaca yarn is not meant to be held double. Because of this fibre’s amazing drape you want to make sure your yarn is buoyant.

In summary, if you want to knit a garment out of 100% Alpaca yarn, I suggest the following:
. choose a seamless design,
. go for a pullover, cardigan, tunic, or dress, with at least 3cm of ease, and
. work at a looser gauge than you would with wool. 
The result will drape your figure flatteringly, and will be a tactile delight. 


Is Alpaca unbearably warm? 

It is true that Alpaca fibre is warmer than wool fibre. Therefore, a garment knitted with Alpaca yarn will be warmer than a garment knitted with wool yarn of the same weight. Being aware of this, and selecting your yarn accordingly, will eliminate the possibility of overheating.  

As I see it, the main benefit of Alpaca here, is that it keeps you as warm as wool, with less bulk. This means that, for the colder season, you can knit an alpaca sweater out of sport-weight yarn, and get the same warmth as you would out of an aran-weight wool sweater. The advantage of choosing Alpaca in this scenario, is that the sport weight garment will be more versatile. The thinner yarn lends itself to dressier/ more elegant designs, suitable for work and parties and not just casual wear. You can fit the sport-weight Alpaca sweater under a tailored overcoat or blazer. You can pack it easier into a suitcase for travel. It will even take up less space in your closet. And finally, the meterage makes it more cost-effective to knit with. 

If you want a rough translation chart of what level of warmth to expect from Alpaca compared to wool, in my experience it is something like this:

fingering weight Alpaca => DK wool
sport weight Alpaca => aran weight wool
aran weight Alpaca => bulky wool
bulky Alpaca => super duper bulky wool!

With this in mind, make sure to choose the Alpaca yarn appropriate for your season and climate, and overheating should not be an issue.


Can some Alpaca yarns be itchy?

An additional thing I have heard recently - and this is a new one to me - is that 'cheap' Alpaca yarn can be itchy. Now, I cannot attest to all makes of yarn out there. But I have used Drops Alpaca in various weights, which I believe is as budget as it gets. I would not describe it as even remotely itchy, and I am pretty sensitive to that sort of thing. Then again, I always wear sweaters (even cashmere) over a base layer. So when I say 'not itchy' I mean, not itchy against my bare neck, face, or lower arms; I am the wrong person to ask about direct contact with the torso. 

Thinking on it, it is actually not impossible that there exist 'itchy' Alpaca yarns. The way this could happen, is if fibre from the animal's rougher outer coat (not normally used for yarn) gets mixed in with the soft undercoat fibre. Happily, I have not personally encountered this problem with any of the Alpaca yarns I have used, including handspun from locally sourced fleeces.  

No doubt it is because I've always lived in cold climates, that I appreciate Alpaca the way I do. I started out knitting hats out of it, having discovered that a hat made of Alpaca kept my ears warmer than a woolen hat. But it was knitting my first Alpaca pullover that made me truly fall in love with the material. Over the years that pullover has seen me, unflinchingly, through kilos of weight fluctuation. It has fitted effortlessly under every jacket and coat I’ve owned. It has been my low maintenance travel companion. And on days when I’ve felt yucky, it has comforted with its gentle silky caress. It has kept me warm without insisting upon itself. And lucky for me, now that I live in Ireland I can even wear it in summer!

As for blending Alpaca with other fibres, there is of course nothing wrong with that either. Just be aware that blending Alpaca with plant-based fibres will reduce its moisture-wicking and temperature-regulairng properties - which for me personally is not a good thing, since I spend a lot of time being active in the cold. If I’m going to go for a blend, I would go for Alpaca-wool or Alpaca-silk. But of course, to each their own. The main thing is to be informed; then we can make choices based on our individual use case scenarios.

In its pure form, Alpaca yarn is exceptionally soft, warm, drapey, and pleasant to knit with. I hope I have given you some food for thought, as to its potential for garments. 





On Gauge, Tension, Swatching, and Getting to Know Our Knitterly Handwriting



In today's knitting culture, there is a strong emphasis on swatching - a practice that makes great logical sense, as it helps the knitter determine what tension / size of needles to use in order to obtain the fabric density and garment size they are aiming for.

Unfortunately, swatching does not work in all circumstances, and it does not work for everyone. All too often, a knitter will impeccably knit, block, and measure a swatch and make careful calculations based on it - only to get substantially different results in their finished piece. 

There are many reasons why this might happen. But all of them can be summarised as follows: Swatching does not replicate all the factors at play in the making of your actual piece.

If you swatch flat, then knit your project in the round, this could make a difference. If you swatch on needles from Brand X, then knit your project on Brand Y, this could make a difference, even if those needles are identical in diameter. And those are just a couple of the more obvious ones. Everything, from the size of the piece you are knitting (smaller objects cause some people to tighten their tension unconsciously, as their brain reacts to the proportions), to the colour of your yarn, to the air temperature, to your mood, to whether you happened to use hand cream that day, can influence your tension. 


Like handwriting, knitting style is highly individual. And for some people these types of inconsistencies play up more than for others. In short there are knitters who find swatching useless.

If this describes you, there are other things you can do to ensure gauge. Namely, take the time to get to know your 'knitterly handwriting' for a wide variety of items.

Gather a pile of items you have recently created with yarns of different weights. Lay each item flat. Get out a gauge ruler and measure your stitch x row count, in stockinette, over a 10x10cm area (or 5x5cm in smaller items). Then jot down the following information about each piece:
. the stitch x row figures
. type of item it is (hat, sweater, socks, etc),
. was it knitted in the round or flat
. yarn weight (fingering, DK, etc)
. size and type of needles used, assuming you have this info

When you have a decent portion of a notebook filled with these entries and look over your 'data', you will start to see patterns, which will eventually enable you to get a sense for your individual gauge & tension tendencies. Doing this myself, I was eventually able to put together a rough guide to help me get a sense of what to expect / aim for, with the yarns I tend to work with.


Before I start knitting, I make my initial decision as to stitch count and needle size based on this chart and on how dense/open I want my fabric in this particular knit to be. Then, when I get far enough to have sufficient fabric, I steam block a section of my work and take a measurement. If it deviates from the gauge in my chart significantly I start over, with the necessary adjustments. If not, happy days and I keep going. 

There are more nuances to this approach, of course. For instance, working with cables, lace, slip stitches, chevrons, and various other stitch patterns can affect the gauge in various ways, and I account for that when making my calculations. But the chart is the starting point. And for the most part, this method actually works pretty well for me: I only start over maybe 10% of the time.

To swatch as you work may seem unorthodox to some. But there are knitters who function in this manner, and find it more useful than testing gauge on 10x10cm squares. 

This is by no means a post telling you not to swatch. But if swatching in the traditional manner isn't working for you, I thought it might be helpful to read about alternatives. 



Russian Knitting Podcasts!



I don't know how I stumbled upon them in the first place... or why I did not find them sooner! But apparently there are lots and lots of Russian knitting podcasts out there. And watching some has felt like getting transported into a parallel knitting universe that's simultaneously strange and familiar.

Since all of the podcasts I've come across are Russian-Language with no English subtitles, I thought perhaps some of you might be interested in a brief report on what's going on with knitters in that part of the world. Yes? 

Okay! So firstly, the Russian podcasters are amazingly prolific. They knit lots, and often. Garments seem to be more popular than accessories. Sweaters, cardigans, tunics, dresses, appear to casually fall off their needles and land into neat stacks on the dining room table in time for each new episode.

Perhaps it's to keep up with this level of output, that Russian knitters like to buy yarn in cones. That is not to say yarn is not sold in skeins. But cones seem to be a normal and readily available option in most yarn shops over there, which blows my mind! Look at the background in the screen-shot on the right. The podcaster Anna Paul is reporting from a St. Petersburg yarn shop called Wooly. Look at all those cones! This shop only sells coned yarns, she explains. But don't worry: If you need to buy a 'small amount' to complete a project, they are willing to wind up a 150g mini-skein. Wow.

Now, the yarn brands: Some of the yarns mentioned are the usual suspects we all know. But in addition, Russian knitters seem to have access to a variety of European brands not available here. The Swiss-made Lang Yarns and the Barcelona-based Katia are particularly popular, as well as a slew of Italian brands I have never heard of.

The fibre content knitters are drawn to differs as well. Cashmere, yak, and alpaca are quite popular with Russian knitting podcasters, as are mohair-silk blends. And remember I mentioned cashmere? I do not mean a blend with a small percentage of cashmere content. No, I am talking 100% cashmere. It seems to be normal to knit with it, and not in a decadent, once-in-a-lifetime project kind of way, but for everyday garments. In the photo on the left, Nastasia of Knit Petit is wearing an oversized, pure-cashmere cardigan she has just completed. In another episode, she gives a comparative review of cashmere yarns from a variety of manufacturers. Now, just for kicks, I have since tried to find 100% cashmere yarn for sale online from a British, Irish, or American vendor and have found nothing. But it appears that this is a standard product in Russian yarn shops. Not bad!

But again, when the podcasters discuss cashmere, they are not like 'Mmmmm, luxury.' They are more like 'This will keep you warm and is suitable for sensitive skin.' Practical. In general, the Russian knitters tend to talk about the purpose and functionality of their knits more than their English-speaking counterparts. There is concern with adequate warmth/coverage for various weather conditions, as well as breathability. A yarn gets a bad review if it 'makes you sweat,' as this can lead to catching cold or pneumonia. A finished item is considered a failure if it doesn't perform as expected. 

There is never, ever any mention of patterns in any of the Russian knitting podcasts I have watched. In fact, I don't even know what the correct term for 'knitting pattern' would be in Russian, since I've never come across these words used anywhere. Russian knitters don't learn from patterns; they learn techniques, stitch motifs, and how to make generic versions of specific types of items (cowl, beanie, cardigan, raglan pullover, etc). They then combine these elements to knit whatever they want. It is a different perspective, and one I can relate to considering my own knitting history.

All this aside, there is one thing that Russian knitting podcasters have in common with the majority of English-language ones I am familiar with: Most of them are (relatively) new knitters. Of course this makes sense: It is common to start blogs and podcasts when you are learning a new thing, because you want to share that newfound passion and excitement. The Russians also follow the usual podcasting format - with discussions of works in progress, finished works, tutorials and demonstrations, reviews, give-aways, etc., so that part is not so different at all.

And finally, another thing that's not so different: Donegal tweed seems to be wildly popular over there! Funny. They tend to knit with the fingering version of the yarn. And of course, they buy it in cones... 

I hope you enjoyed this little cultural excursion. If you ever watch non-English speaking knitting podcasts, I would love to hear all about it.