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Knitting with Coned Yarns: Frequently Asked Questions

LBHandknits

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Those who know me in person are aware that I often knit with coned yarns. And it’s a topic on which I get lots of questions - especially as recently, more shops and online marketplaces are making coned yarns available for retail purchase. My last 3 garment projects were all knitted from cones, which has sparked some interesting discussions with fellow knitters. I have summed up some of the things discussed with the following FAQs, which are hope are useful -

1. What is coned yarn and why does it come that way?
Coned yarn is a fairly large quantity of yarn (typically 1kg) wound onto a single cone rather than broken up into individual hanks or skeins. Typically, yarn in this form is sold directly by the spinning mill or factory, to wholesale customers. Often (but not always) coned yarn is intended for knitting machines rather than hand-knitting, and for that reason it is permeated with a greasy substance (not to be confused with lanolin-rich yarn; this is machine spinning oil!) which will need to be thoroughly rinsed off.

2. Why buy coned yarn? Is it ‘worth’ it?
There are various reasons a knitter might find it worthwhile to buy coned yarn. The most obvious one, is that they require large quantities of a specific yarn. This could be for professional reasons - for instance, if they are a designer, knitter of bespoke garments, or knitting instructor. Or it could simply be because they do a lot of knitting and have a fixed preference for specific yarns. In both of these scenarios, purchasing yarn on cones is more economical, going by cost per meter.

There are also knitters who like to hunt for rare and intriguing yarn blends at bargain prices. Mills and fashion houses will sometimes sell off random quantities of seconds, limited run, or overstock yarns, available through various auction and discount sites. As these yarns come straight from the factory, they are usually only available on cones.

Finally, if you are knitting a large sweater, a blanket, or other voluminous item and like to work with an unbroken quantity of yarn sufficient to cover the entire project, buying a cone will make that possible.

As for whether it’s worth it? I get that question a lot and don’t really know how to answer it, as we all have such different knitting backgrounds. Financially, it makes sense if you actually use up the entire cone. Otherwise, you are better off buying individual skeins on an as-needed basis.

3. How do you knit with coned yarn?
One common complaint I hear from knitters who’ve tried working with coned yarn and did not like it, is that the yarn does not ‘flow’ easily from the cone. Granted, a cone of yarn is not the same as a ball or cake. It is large, heavy and immobile, and therefore needs to be positioned thoughtfully in relation to the knitter. For best results, a cone should stand on the floor, directly underneath the knitter’s chair, so that the yarn is coming straight from below. This is the only configuration in which the yarn is able unravel from the cone smoothly. If you place it beside you on the sofa, table, or bed, you will be pulling at the yarn from the side; it will be hard-going and the cone will have a tendency to topple over.

4. What about the spinning grease? Does it make the yarn unpleasant to knit with? And how do you wash it off?
Although some knitters get used to working with yarn which still has spinning oils in it, and actually grow to like it, I would say objectively speaking it is not as pleasurable to knit with as a soft fluffy yarn from which the spinning oils have been removed. So if you are a ‘process knitter’ and the tactile experience of working with the yarn is important, give this some serious consideration before committing to cones. With the grease left in, the yarn will feel ‘ropey’ and somewhat harsh, and may leave an unpleasant residue on your hands.

Furthermore, it is worth being aware that different mills use different types of grease/spinning oils. Some of them are more or less harmless, others may be downright toxic to handle for prolonged periods of time with bare hands. (You can generally tell which one it is by the smell!) In the event of the latter, you will definitely want to wash the yarn before knitting with it. This can be done by winding the yarn into hanks (or one enormous hank, if you wish to keep it unbroken - see Yarn Baby!), securing the hank(s) with ties, and washing in hot water, with liquid soap or dishwashing fluid.

Note that when it comes to blocking items knitted out of the greased yarn, you will likewise need to wash them in hot water and using some sort of soapy agent. I know this contradicts the ‘block gently in lukewarm water’ instructions we are all accustomed to, but the spinning oils will not come out using the ordinary, gentle method. Don’t worry about the hot water making your yarn felt. Unless you willfully agitate the yarn as you are washing it, hot water alone will not felt it. You are perfectly safe filling a basin with hot-hot-hot water, adding liquid soap, then dumping your yarn/finished item in there and letting it soak for a good hour. Then rinse, and repeat a second time. Only that will get rid of the grease.


So… in the end of all this, have I made working with coned yarn sound unappealing? It was not my intent! But in summary, there is definitely a reason why yarn producers take the time and resources to thoroughly wash and prepare their yarns before skeining them up and selling them to the hand-knitter! With coned yarns, this process is usually bypassed, and the knitter must weigh that against the benefits of wholesale pricing. Does it make sense for you? Examine your knitting process, the stability of your yarn preferences, and your volume of output - then decide for yourself!

Thoughts on Non-Superwash, Nylon-Free Sock Yarns

LBHandknits

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Some of my first memories from childhood, are of my grandmother knitting socks. She used steel double-pointed needles, which seemed to move in her hands at the speed of light, while her ball of yarn likewise swiftly diminished. The yarn she used was usually whatever was left over from larger projects, such as sweaters. It was roughly sportweight equivalent in weight, and always 100% wool. Just your garden variety wool. No superwash treatment. No nylon. The socks lasted for years.

It is perhaps for this reason, that the concept of sock yarn has always amused me, as have the occasional startled reactions to my ‘inappropriate’ sock-knitting yarn choices. It has been the dominant narrative in the knitting industry for some time, that sock yarn should contain nylon and be superwash-treated. The reasons being, that both of these features make the socks more hard-wearing, and that, in addition, the nylon content facilitates stretch. The argument, however, never rang quite true to me. By all accounts, socks were plenty hard-wearing before the widespread use of nylon and the invention of superwash (one older friend describes socks lasting so long in her family, they were passed down from one sibling to the next!). Also, as a fibre that is inherently elastic in its own right, wool should not really need synthetic help in that regard.

Still, around two years ago I decided to keep an open mind and give ‘sock yarn’ an honest try. Which I did, making pair after pair out of the usual suspects - including commercial yarns from Reggia, Cascade, and Drops, and hand-dyed yarns using various merino/nylon and BFL-nylon blends. At the same time, I continued to knit socks out of various ‘non sock’ yarns.

And?

According to my experience with the socks I wear myself, and to feedback from others who wear the socks I make, my impression is that it makes no difference. The main factor determining how hard-wearing a sock will be, seems to be the tension it is knitted at. Knit a sock densely, and it will wear wonderfully - superwash or not, nylon or not. Loosen up on the tension, and it will not.

I can show you socks that are superwash treated and 25% nylon, which felted grotesquely at the heels after their 2nd or 3rd outing. And I can show you socks that are 100% non-superwash wool, which look nearly new after a year of regular wear. A difference of even 1 stitch per 10cm in tension seems to play a larger role in a sock’s durability, than the presence or absence of nylon content and superwash treatment. The superwash, nylon-blend socks are not worse. But neither are they better.

Of course, the above is just my experience. And if it contradicts yours, by no means do I want to dismiss that. But considering that my experience has been as described, I have decided at this stage to go back to using yarns that are 100% natural fibres, and minimally processed (no superwash). Even for socks.

My current go-to yarns are the new fingering-weight blends from Studio Donegal - Olla (which I have already written about here) and Darnie. These yarns are not yet available on the Studio Donegal website, but are sold by This Is Knit.

As for hand-dyed yarns, I absolutely love the wool-ramie and wool-ramie-silk bases used by Apple Oak Fibre Works. I believe she currently calls these bases Doolin and Turin, and I have written about the former here, under the dyer’s old name.

I am also quite excited about the Natural Sock project from Woolly Mammoth Fibre Co. With a similar yarn preference to mine, Emma took matters into her own hands and approached a UK mill about producing a suitable blend of wool for a non-superwash, nylon-free sock yarn. The result is a high-twist, fingering weight BFL-Cheviot blend, which I am looking forward to trying.

If I were to commission my own sock blend… It would probably be something like 90% high-twist non-superwash BFL and 10% silk. But really, I enjoy variety and will happily make socks out of a wide range of natural fibres, with a few notable exceptions. Namely: I would avoid fibres that are prone to pilling. I would avoid fibres which are ‘hairy,’ or have a strong halo (the excess fluff would quickly grow matted in wear). And I would avoid fibres without elasticity. So basically, no merino, no cashmere, no mohair, and no cotton. But honestly, I find that most ‘ordinary’ wools make perfectly suitable sock yarns, as long as I knit them at a tight gauge and of course wash the socks by hand.

At any rate, I am pleased that more small-scale yarn producers and dyers are experimenting with natural sock yarns, and am interested in seeing where this leads.

Do you knit socks strictly out of ‘sock yarn?’ As always, feedback about your own experiences is welcome!

What Can You Knit Out of Wensleydale?

LBHandknits

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With the recent rise of interest in place- and breed-specific yarns, Wensleydale long wool is enjoying some much-deserved attention. But I notice that while knitters are buying Wensleydale, once they have it in hand many don’t quite know what to do with it. And so I thought it might be useful to share my experience.

One of my cold weather staples is a gray Wensleydale sweater, which I knitted a year ago, then wore all through last winter and have just pulled out again now that the weather’s turned cold. This sweater never fails to fascinate fellow knitters, because it looks and feels so unusual no one can work out what yarn it is made of. Guesses from looking tend to include mohair, angora, cashmere, and alpaca. Guesses after touching will usually lean in the direction of “some kind of mohair blend?’

The revelation that the sweater is in fact 100% Wensleydale is unfailingly met with surprise. ‘But isn’t Wensleydale a longwool, kind of like BFL? This looks and feels nothing like BFL!’

Indeed not. And so, if you buy Wensleydale thinking you know what to expect since you have already worked with Blue Faced Leicester, you will be in for a big surprise.

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A thoroughly British wool, Wensleydale is spun from the long and curly fleeces of Wensleydale sheep, which originated in Yorkshire. My experience with this yarn so far extends to three different sources: The West Yorkshire Spinners, the Wensleydale Longwool Company, and Laxtons (which mainly supplies undyed blanks to indie dyers). With that in mind, here are my impressions:

. Wensleydale is a very shiny yarn. And while longwool breeds are generally known for their lustre, to my eye the lustre of Wensleydale far exceeds that of, say, BFL, and Border Leicester yarns. In the finished garment it almost looks as if the fabric has a high silk content.

. Wensleydale has a distinct halo, to the extent that some might consider it ‘hairy.’ The combination of the halo and the lustre, is probably why so many tend to mistake my sweater for a mohair-silk blend.

. Perhaps as a result of the halo, Wensleydale does pill. Not nearly as badly as cashmere or merino, but maybe on par with mohair and certainly far more so than BFL. The pills, however, are easy to remove and the fabric does not seem to suffer afterward.

. For most people, I daresay Wensleydale would not be a next-to-skin yarn. To the touch, it can feel simultaneously soft and prickly. If you can imagine blending Icelandic Lopi with cashmere, the effect is not dissimilar.

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. Wensleydale has exceptional drape - more in line, I would say, with what you might expect from Alpaca than sheep’s wool. And so when deciding what sorts of things to knit out of it, keep that in mind. Wensleydale fabric is rather amorphous, and does not keep its shape in the same way as the much-crisper BFL. This makes it an excellent choice for flowy oversized sweaters, but not so much for structured fitted ones.

. As a result of its drape and halo, meeting gauge with Wensleydale can be tricky. When worked at the gauge appropriate for its meterage, the fabric can seem a bit gauzy (and it does not bloom/ fill in after blocking). However, tightening up the gauge will result in a very heavy fabric, which will neither look nor feel right. After experimenting with this for a bit, my feeling is that you do need to go with the gauge appropriate for the yarn weight, and accept the slightly open look to the fabric as part of its inherent characteristics.

. Finally, Wensleydale is an exceptionally warm yarn. Warmer than other longwools I have tried, and more on par once again, with the likes of mohair and alpaca. If you life in a cold or damp climate, this is quite handy for winter as it means you can knit a garment that is fine enough to fit under tailored overcoats and light enough to pack away easily, yet still plenty warm.

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In summary… My impression of Wensleydale wool, is that it is best suited for ethereal, floaty winter garments, to be worn over baselayers.

The combination of its warmth and its lustre makes this yarn particularly wonderful for achieving that elusive balance of cozy and elegant that one might appreciate in a winter garment.

For a rare breed wool spun in England, it is also quite a reasonably priced yarn, with commercially-dyed options (from the manufacturers linked to earlier) priced at under €10 per 100g.

If you are interested in Wensleydale yarn but uncertain whether you will like it, I suggest purchasing a small quantity, keeping an open mind (rather than expecting it to be a BFL substitute), and swatching/experimenting until you get a handle on its unique properties.

The sweater shown here was made out of the West Yorkshire Spinners ‘Gems’ Wensleydale DK, in the Moonstone colourway, purchased at Row by Roe in Co. Derry, Northern Ireland. The design is my own improvised seamless drop shoulder concoction, with lace edgings.

Have you knitted with Wensleydale yet? Please do share your experience!

The 'Garden Pot' Cardi, and Thoughts on Mosaic Colourwork

LBHandknits

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A lot of people have asked me about this cardigan, and I kept neglecting to write about it. But when I took it off this afternoon I noticed the light in the garden was good. So perhaps it was time for a photoshoot and a proper introduction.

This garment, which I call the Garden Pot Cardi for reasons that will soon become apparent, was one of those experiments which gets worn quite a bit but was never meant to become a pattern. The main reason, is that the yoke motif is straight out of a stitch dictionary (and I prefer to be more original with my designs). You can find it in Mosaic Knitting, by Barbara Walker, and it’s ‘Mosaic 48: Garden Pot.’

A year or so ago I was asked to teach a workshop on mosaic colourwork, and this was one of the things I made in preparation for it. Or rather, I started making it, then got bored half way through and abandoned it, then came across it languishing in a bag months later and managed to finish it when I accidentally took said bag on a long bus trip instead of the project I actually meant to take. As one would!

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But anyhow: Mosaic colourwork, also known as slip stitch colourwork. It is undergoing a bit of a resurgence in popularity these days, but is still fairly unusual compared to ordinary (stranded) colourwork. The basic premise is: You work with one colour at a time on any given row, using slip stitches to display the colour from the previous row, thereby creating a colourwork effect.

If you are completely new to the technique, this article by Interweave offers and excellent introduction. And if you care to delve deeper, the aforementioned Mosaic Knitting by Barbara Walker is the tome you need.

Often presented as an ’easier’ alternative to stranded colourwork, mosaic knitting does eliminate the need to manage multiple strands of yarn simultaneously. It also produces a stretchier fabric, since there aren’t floats on the underside to constrain it. For these reasons, some see it as a clever substitute for stranded knitting.

However, to my eye slip stitch colourwork is so visually distinct from stranded colourwork, that the two are anything but interchangeable. It is also worth noting that slip stitch colourwork is governed by a rather restrictive set of spatial rules, which severely limits the range of forms this technique can be used to produce. These two things are in fact connected, and if you study the motifs produced with the slip stitch technique, you will notice a certain look of squarishness/ pixelation that is common to all the imagery. Whereas with stranded knitting it is possible to produce smooth, rounded, organic-looking shapes, with mosaic knitting any attempt at such a shape will ultimately result in a - well, distinctly mosaic - look. Even the flowers in my Garden Pot yoke look like tiled representations of flowers, which the eye keeps trying to break down into a rhythmic collection of squares and rectangles, rather than actual flowers.

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I don’t mean to make it sound as if I dislike the technique. I just feel that trying it because you think it will achieve the same result as stranded colourwork, but will be easier, is the wrong reason to try it. Mosaic knitting produces a rather specific look and texture, and if you like it then that’s a great reason to try it.

Me? Well, I like my Garden Pot cardigan (knitted out of some random skeins of DK Shetland, which Jenni of Apple Oak Fibre Works was clearing out of her shop a year ago). And I am happy to show interested folks how to work the technique. But for some reason, I do not feel inspired to design my own slip stitch colourwork motifs, whereas stranded colourwork designs come to me readily and constantly.

And if you want to knit your own Garden Pot cardi: Find a cardigan pattern with a circular yoke construction, which allows for a horizontal panel of 31 rows, with 16 stitch repeats, plus a few stitches left over on each side. Then fill that panel with repeats of the Mosaic 48 chart from Barbara Walker’s Mosaic Knitting. I believe this chart is top-down reversible, so you can use either a top-down or a bottom-up construction method, whichever you prefer. If anyone ends up giving it a try, I would love to see.

Meanwhile, the Garden Pot cardi is one of those ‘just for me’ garments which I enjoy wearing all the more, because it was made using a technique (and yarn) I do not often gravitate toward. Now, perhaps after 6 months of wear, it’s time to add those missing buttons…

Has anyone else tried mosaic - aka slip stitch - colourwork? If you are also a stranded colourwork knitter, I would love to know what you think of one vs the other.

Phoenix! My First Test Knit

LBHandknits

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As mentioned on previous occasions, I do not come from a background of knitting from patterns. I was taught to knit in an improvisational manner, making calculations from scratch, and adjustments on the fly, for any piece I wanted to make. What we think of as 'designing' in ravelry-era knitting culture was for me just an inherent, and fluid, part of the knitting process. For most of my knitting life, I assumed that everyone did it this way, and, until fairly recently, I did not know there even was such as thing as ready-made knitting patterns. Fast forward to today, and I now design patterns for a living …despite which, I still find it strange and unnatural to knit from a pattern myself!  

If you are thinking, this does not exactly paint a picture of an ideal test knitter, you would be absolutely correct. And yet, the Phoenix beckoned. 

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The Phoenix pullover is the upcoming inaugural design by Melissa Littlefield, of Knitting the Stash. Melissa - who is now doing her Nth test knit for me, poor soul! - was especially helpful with my Sunny Every Day pattern, the process behind which I described here. And so I told Melissa that, should she ever take the plunge into knitwear design herself, I would be delighted to reciprocate. Happily, she took me up on it.

And I say happily, because honestly I feel as if test knitting for Melissa ended up being at least as beneficial for me as it (hopefully) was for her. I am not going to delve into the details of the test knit here, as they are already documented here for anyone interested. But in a more general sense, I will say that in dealing with somebody else's pattern I felt a heightened sense of responsibility and ended up approaching it in a more diligent manner than I would my own work -  taking copious notes, keeping to a self-imposed schedule almost religiously, and generally being far more organised than I normally would be. In the process, I realised how much better it is to do things this way, than via my normal, somewhat more chaotic process. 

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Design-wise, the Phoenix pullover started out as Melissa’s remake-along project. The design is based on that of a store-bought sweater, which Melissa reverse-engineered and modified to suit her preferences. Worked in DK weight yarn, in the round, from the bottom up, with raglan-sleeve construction and short row neckline shaping, Phoenix features a cabled front, and reverse-stockinette back and sleeves. It is a look that is both classic and casual.

With permission, I modified mine by working the cables on both front and back. But otherwise I (mostly!) followed the pattern as written.

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Overall, I found test knitting the Phoenix enjoyable and reasonably easy, especially since the construction method (bottom up) is not one I normally gravitate toward. I did read the pattern from start to end in order to get a detailed sense of what I would be doing at every step, and why, before I started knitting. Following a pattern blindly is just not something I am capable of doing! But once I got the whole picture, I felt pretty content to follow the step by step instructions without second-guessing the design at every turn, which was rather nice!

The only glitch I experienced with the process pertained to the sizing. Before I started knitting, I found it difficult to decide on the size. I normally prefer to wear sweaters with about 2” of ease around the bust. However, the designer wore her original Phoenix sample with zero ease, and I really liked the way it looked on her in the photos. As a result, I decided to do the same - which, unfortunately led me to re-affirm my preference for 2” of ease! The sweater technically fits me, in the sense that I am able to put it on and move in it. I even like the way it fits around certain areas - tight around the bust, roomier around the waist, form fitting but not ‘sausagey’ in the sleeves. The problem is the yoke. In the size I opted to knit, it is too shallow for me, pulling at the underarms and giving the whole garment an ill-fitting vibe. Consequently, I have asked Emily (who is smaller than me) to model the Phoenix here, as I feel this does the design more justice.

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As soon as I have some free time, I plan to re-work the yoke, adding at least an extra inch of length to the base before I start the raglan decreases. And since the sweater is worked bottom-up, yes that will mean unraveling almost the entire yoke! But hey, it was a good reminder of an important rule to follow when knitting from patterns, which on this occasion I neglected: When selecting which size to knit, it is crucial to pay attention to all the relevant measurements, and not just the obvious ones such as bust and waist circumference.

Having gone through the Phoenix test knit process, I can see myself doing other test knits on occasion, time permitting, for designers with whom I have some personal connection. Once I modify the Phoenix, it will be a great pleasure to wear it, knowing it was Melissa’s first pattern and that I played a role in testing it. I look forward to making the yoke adjustment and wearing my Phoenix before the winter sets in.

I knit the Phoenix pullover using Kraemer Yarns Naturally Nazareth Worsted, in the Tadpole colourway.

You can see my project page for the test knit here.

And if you are interested in the Phoenix Pullover pattern, be sure to follow Melissa, check in with the Knitting the Stash ravelry group, and watch her fine videos for news of the pattern release.