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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. 



Blocking a Beanie Hat



Beanie hats make for wonderfully quick and easy knitting projects. But as many knitters discover, they are not so straightforward to block. 

This is because you cannot block a beanie hat flat. If you do, the 'ridges' made by the crown shaping will become accentuated and take on the appearance of hard-edged creases, rather than siting flush with the crown of your head. I should have blocked a hat flat and photographed myself wearing it just to illustrate this. But I think you know what I mean?

At any rate, to ensure that a beanie hat has a nice 'head shaped' crown, it needs to be blocked over a spherical object. 

Many knitters prefer to use a balloon for this purpose - although, personally, the thought terrifies me! What if it bursts while I am pulling the wet hat over it? Or, in the night, while the hat is drying? No balloons for me, thanks very much.

The obvious alternative that surprisingly few knitters seem to go for, is the mannequin head - the kind used for wigs and hat displays. They are available in different sizes and in a variety of materials, from styrofoam, to plastic, to wood. The prices are reasonable, with plastic ones going for around €10, wooden ones for around €40, and styrofoam ones for as little as €2. For those prices, one could afford to get several in different sizes, and this is the option I would personally recommend over the balloon method. 


But in case you are stuck without a mannequin head, or balloon, or ball, or spherical object of any kind, here is an alternative: You can block the hat over an upside-down bowl.

The bowl need not be the size of the wearer's head. It just needs to have a rounded underside as shown in the picture above, to smooth out the crown shaping creases.

Once you find a bowl, stretch the wet hat over it. Then mount the bowl onto a stable pole-like object - such as a paper towel roll (or in my case, an empty can of ironing starch). Let the lower part of the hat dangle loose and leave the mushroom-like contraption to stand in a warm place until the hat dries. 

The beanie will block in the correct shape. 

Enjoy! And if you are wondering about the hat in the photos  - it is the Harvest Season Hat. Pattern is available here and on ravelry (both 50% off through the end of this weekend; discount applied at checkout). 

Last Days of the Disco



From the project description for the Flax Fest Fashion Show 2017...

Irish linen is celebrated around the world for its unique qualities. But today it is at a crisis. Few operational weaving mills remain in Ireland. But more importantly, the spinning of linen yarn at an industrial level is now virtually non-existent here. As remaining stock of locally produced yarn dwindles, we rapidly approach the end of an era.

The Last Days of the Disco dress is a conceptual project which aims to highlight this threadbare state of the Irish linen industry. The seamless garment was knitted by hand out of fine weaving yarn, creating a gauzy, semi-transparent fabric with the naked body visible beneath. From start to finish, the dress took 40 hours to create. Hand-knitting with weaving yarn is a technically challenging and labour-intensive process - which I saw as an opportunity to forge an intimate, visceral relationship with this endangered material.

As I've mentioned earlier, I was invited to make a garment for the fashion show at this year's Flax Fest, hosted by the Derrylane Flax Mill in Dungiven Northern Ireland

Several months earlier, I had a rather sad conversation with the mill's owner, master weaver Marion Bauer. Having stopped in for some fabric, I was admiring her stack of cones containing beautiful linen weaving yarns. She replied that this was actually the last remaining stock of Irish-spun linen yarn - procured from Ireland's only remaining spinning mill, which had just closed their doors the year prior. Once this stock is gone, there would be no more (commercial scale) locally spun linen. 

For days afterward, I kept thinking back to this conversation. And it inspired me with an idea for a conceptual project. When I described the idea to Marion and Hermann, they invited me to actually knit the piece for the Fashion Show. The result is the Last Days of the Disco Dress.


The design is a fairly basic sheath, with short sleeves, a deep V neckline, dropped waist, and subtle peplum flaring at the hips. I knitted it seamlessly from the top down in stockinette, with raglan sleeve construction. The edges are finished with a row of single crochet, then pressed and starched to avoid curling. 


At the fashion show, the dress was modeled by German singer-actress Isabel Neuenfeldt (shown in the first photo), and it fit her beautifully. As luck would have it, we had truly 'epic' weather during the event 3 days running, and I hadn't the heart to make her stand in a wet field outdoors in freezing temperatures for a photoshoot. So unfortunately, there are very few photos of the dress being worn as intended, and I'll have to think of a local person I can ask to model it for me. In the meanwhile I include a few clumsy shots of myself as model.


I hand-knitted the dress in linen weaving yarn, which differs quite a bit from linen knitting yarn. To give you an idea of how thin this stuff is, it began to approximate lace weight when held triple! I used one strand of deep green, and two strands of a thinner pale lilac, referencing the colours of the Irish landscape. The overall effect of the resulting fabric was a chameleon-like silvery quality that almost seems to shimmer in low light.  


Knitting with the weaving yarn, held triple, was certainly an Experience. I actually began working on the project early (for me at least!), with 3 months to go before the show. But I found knitting with the stiff, thin, 3-thread linen so technically challenging (and painful to my hands!) that with barely half the yoke done I put it aside. Finally, with 2 weeks to go before the show, I panicked and began to experiment with various techniques, needles, etc. After switching to wooden needles and changing the way I held my hands and fingers (this is hard to explain verbally, but I sort of altered the angle), the work began to flow. 


Knitted on 2.5mm needles, the dress is semi-transparent and drapey, with the stiff/crinkly quality of linen - which actually makes it surprisingly flattering.


It was never intended as a wearable piece, but it actually looks pretty great styled over a slip, and even more so layered over a longer skirt and a long sleeve T-shirt. Very casual-bohemian, every day wear sort of piece. I know, I need photos of all this!


To accessorise the dress for the fashion show, I quickly made a wreath out of the Derrylane Mill's home grown flax, which was delightfully easy to work with for wreath making purposes. The model wore no other embellishments with the dress. Also no shoes or undergarments. Just the linen. 


The project was well received at the fashion show. Thankfully, the glimpses of nudity did not shock the international audience of artists, craftspersons, and fibre loving guests. And I was touched by the kind and positive feedback I received. It's a pity not having good photos from the event, but otherwise this was an extremely satisfying project.

I have been asked about custom orders, and whether a pattern is available, so here are the details:

. The sample is available for sale, price on request. The relaxed fit is suitable for sizes 12-14UK/IRL (38-44EU, 4-6US).

. Bespoke orders (made to size, and with stylistic variations if desired - longer sleeves, etc.) are possible. I should have enough yarn for 2-3 more dresses depending on sizes ordered. 

. I was not planning to offer this as a pattern. But seeing how it came out more 'wearable' than expected, I probably will - most likely for Spring/Summer 2018. 

Thank you to all who followed along with this project, for all who attended the fashion show, and of course to Marion and Hermann Bauer for the opportunity to make and exhibit this dress. 


For Love of i-Cord


I've been playing around with some designs where the edges are treated with i cord bind-off. It's a technique I like very much for a couple of reasons. On garments that don't suit ribbed hems and cuffs, it's an effective way to prevent the fabric from curling. And I much prefer the look of it over garter stitch. Aside from that, I find i cord bind-off a lot of fun. Any excuse to use it really!  

So it surprised me to learn that some (many?) knitters regard it with a shudder and a slow backing away from the person suggesting the method. Dear god, why?

Okay, after some probing questions I think I understand the gist of the antipathy: i cord bind-off takes a long time. Like, at least twice as long as a standard bind-off, possibly longer - depending on the number of i cord stitches cast on. 

Well goodness. Surely you know why that is, dear reader? Because the i cord bind-off is not just a bind-off. You are essentially continuing to knit while you are binding off. 

Let's break it down: Say you are finishing the hem of your sweater with a 3 stitch i cord bind-off. What you are really doing, is knitting 3 more rounds at the same time as you are binding off. 

Now think of the time it would have taken you to knit 3 rounds the normal way, then execute a standard bind-off. It would have certainly taken longer. Ergo: the i cord bind-off is fast, not slow. The i cord bind-off saves time!

Now, don't you look forward to using it on your next project? 

PS: If you are reading this and have no idea what an i-cord bindoff is, here is a helpful tutorial from Craftsy