Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Palindromic scarf

Our friend Mary has  an important birthday today.  She lives in the Highlands of Scotland, several miles from the nearest town (or settlement of any size).  The winters are cold  and long, and so we thought that she would like a warm, soft scarf. I chose alpaca yarn - King Cole Baby Alpaca from my local yarn shop, in double knitting weight.  There is a range of natural colours - brown-ish and grey-ish - and I chose the camel colour.  

I have knitted several scarves over the past year, but they have all been lacy patterns with a definite right side and wrong side (and inclined to curl inwards at the sides, because based on stocking stitch).  I had already decided that the next scarf should be reversible - although maybe palindromic is a better (and fancier) word, because I wanted it to be exactly the same on both sides, rather than just equally presentable on both sides.  Plain rib is the same on both sides of course, but (a) it would be boring to knit and (b) the fabric would be too thick - I wanted it to drape nicely. 
I chose the Asherton scarf by SmarieK, available as a free pattern.  It uses diamonds of stocking stitch, reverse stocking stitch and  moss stitch.    

(Moss stitch is the term that the designer uses, and is the American term for it, apparently, whereas what I call moss stitch is what Americans call seed stitch. I don't think I have a name for this stitch. How confusing.)  

The pattern is absolutely the same on both sides. And every row  is the same in reverse, if the knit stitches are swapped with the purl stitches. And it's symmetric lengthways too. So the design is cleverly worked out, although the basic elements are simple.  The diamonds of stocking stitch and reverse stocking stitch give the overall pattern a lot of texture and depth, too.   

The finished scarf does drape nicely as required, and is very warm and soft.  In fact, we thought that it would be much too warm to wear until the autumn.  But Scotland is getting a lot more snow this week, according to the weather reports. So it will be useful straightaway, if only the post van can get through the snow to deliver it.      

Happy Birthday, Mary.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010


Last weekend,  John and I went to Glasgow for a wedding.  We stopped on the way at Sedbergh, a little town on the western edge of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, although nowadays it is in Cumbria.  It is in beautiful countryside and surrounded by hills and has been designated England's Book Town, which was the point of the visit.  (Who chooses England's Book Town?  I've no idea.)

There are several secondhand bookshops in the centre of the old part of the town, which consists of two streets, Main Street and Back Lane, and not much else.  We had been to Sedbergh once before, and I spent most of that visit in the Sleepy Elephant bookshop on Main Street, which has a good selection of knitting books, as well as clothes and other crafts.  Last time, I bought a copy of Kaffe Fassett's Glorious Knitting and a very nice handbag.  They also sell a range of soaps and other toiletries, and there is a strong (pleasant) smell of lemon from that around the knitting bookshelf.

Vogue Knitting 1993
This time, I found several copies of Vogue Knitting magazine, from various dates between 1987 and 2001, priced at £1.50 or £2.50.  Many of the patterns in the earlier issues are BIG jumpers with REALLY BIG dropped shoulders, which would not be wearable without adaptation now.  But even when there are not many enticing designs, there are interesting articles.  For instance, in the Autumn 1993 issue, there is a piece by Elizabeth Zimmermann on the history of i-cord, which I had never heard of before I started knitting again, but seems to appear quite often in knitwear designs these days.  Idiot cord is what we English call French knitting (don't know what the French call it), which we used to make when we were children on a wooden cotton reel with four nails in the top.  Elizabeth Zimmermann  figured out how to knit it on double pointed needles and then developed various ways to use it.  She says that she renamed it i-cord because she thought that the name "idiot cord" was rather rude.

So that was a very successful bookshop visit.  We also went to Westwood Books at the far end of Main Street, which also has a section of knitting books.  More useful still, since it's a very large shop and John spent a long time there, it has coffee and very comfortable sofas.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Huggy Jumper

I have just finished a jumper in chunky yarn that I started two weeks ago.  I saw the pattern on Mooncalf's blog - she had knitted it in a weekend.  Apart from looking good, the attraction was that it is knitted on a circular needle from the top down.  There are lots of evident advantages to knitting that way, but I have not much enjoyed previous experiences of knitting in the round.  This seemed a good opportunity to try again  - it wouldn't take very long and I could see if the advantages make it worthwhile.    

The pattern is the Oatmeal Pullover by Jane Richmond
also viewable on the Etsy website,  where the pattern is for sale.  (Although my finished jumper is recognisably the same pattern, she is obviously a lot slimmer than I am.)

The description there is: "This fitted pullover is knit from the top down and requires very little yarn. The body is generous in length featuring deep ribbing and raglan sleeve shaping. The 3/4 length sleeves require no shaping and are fitted to flatter. The entire garment is knit in the round and requires absolutely no seaming. Perfect for trying on as you go for that perfect fit."  

The pattern says that the pullover is designed with negative ease, for a very close fit, i.e. it is designed to be smaller than you are.  I decided that actually I would rather it was bigger than me.   

 I knit it in Sirdar Hug yarn (from Kemps Wool Shop, only 99p for a 50g ball). The recommended gauge for the yarn (on the ball band) is 13 stitches and 17 rows to 4 inches on 8 mm needles, and that is what I was getting in my test swatch.  The pattern is for a chunky yarn, but the gauge is looser, even though on smaller (6.5 mm) needles.  I was glad that Mooncalf had been there before me, because she said that "even on 8mm needles my gauge was a little tighter than that specified on the pattern", so I felt safer about using 8mm needles myself.

I calculated how many stitches I would need to make the finished jumper the same bust size as me ( to avoid the negative ease thing) and decided that I needed to knit the size 48 - this is at least 10 inches bigger than I would normally choose.   (The 48 in. size is designed to have a finished body circumference of 43 inches - the extra shrinkage down to my proper size is due to my tension being tighter than recommended.)

I also took Mooncalf's advice to add three extra rows to the yoke.  She found that the shallowness of the yoke pulled the neckline out sideways, whereas it is intended to be slightly square, and the 3 extra rows have made that work.  

I was a bit doubtful that it would turn out alright, being on the wrong size needles and in theory 3 sizes too big.  So it was especially useful to be able to try on while knitting.  And it is fine - a close fit, but not too small.

What's the verdict?  I definitely like the jumper - it's warm and soft  (although slightly draughty round the back of the neck - because the back and front are the same, the neckline is quite low at the back).  And there are some things about knitting top-down and in the round that I really like.
  • I hate sewing up, so it's wonderful to avoid that.   
  • I loved being able to try the jumper on as I was knitting.  (Of course, that's because it was knitted top down, as well as in the round.)   It did make a difference to the finished jumper - I was originally planning for the sleeves to be shorter, but didn't like the result. 
  • It's kind of geometrically satisfying to knit the whole garment at once, rather than  separate pieces.  
 On the other hand, I still find knitting on a circular needle unnatural.  My right hand has to hold the right needle as well as moving the yarn - on straight needles, the right needle is held under my arm.  So I feel all the time that there is an extra thing to do.  The fact that it was such a large diameter needle created problems too - the stitches on the wire tended to shrink so that they wouldn't slide easily back onto the needle.  I found that I had to stop frequently to shove the next batch of stitches back onto the needle from the wire.  Does anyone else have that problem, or is it just me?  It seems unavoidable, given the disparity between the diameter of the needle (8 mm) and the diameter of the wire (2mm?).  All the pushing and shoving slowed down the knitting.  It didn't help in keeping the stitches even, either.  On straight needles I can get into a rhythm (at least if it's a plain stitch like stocking stitch or rib) - that never happened.  I suspect that I would knit more evenly on straight needles, as well.

I'm still not sold on knitting in the round, so the experiment wasn't altogether a success.  But at least I have a nice jumper out of it.

Steel City

This has nothing whatever to do with knitting.....

On Saturday John and I had a shopping trip to Sheffield, my home town.  We had lunch in a cafe on Division Street, across from the old fire station, where thousands of years ago I had several training sessions for my Girl Guide Emergency Helper badge.   It was a beautiful day, and the sun was picking out the arms of the city of Sheffield high on the facade of the fire station.  I had never noticed them before - back when I was a Guide, the stone was probably black with grime.

Sheffield is known for steel making, and especially for its cutlery, which has been famous for centuries  - one of the characters in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales had a Sheffield knife.  Sheffield people are very proud of its steel and cutlery industries, and when I was a child, the city arms were seen everywhere - not least on every bus and tram.  We all knew that the sheaf of arrows and the three sheaves of corn on the shield are a reminder of the River Sheaf, that runs though Sheffield.  (The river itself is not in fact an important feature in the centre of Sheffield  - it's a very small river and much of it runs underground  these days.)  And the supporters are Thor and Vulcan, the gods of metal working. 

Thor and Vulcan are often shown in the Sheffield arms resting an elbow on the top of the shield, though they aren't usually quite as casual as here. They look to me like a pair of old men in the pub, standing at the bar -   they've just taken a break from smiting things, and are discussing the finer points of iron working and how no-one appreciates proper craftsmanship these days. It made me proud to be from Sheffield.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Spinning a Yarn

This part of West Yorkshire used to be well known for its woollen industry, and there are some companies still in business.  There are still many old mills everywhere - some of the surviving mill buildings have been converted into apartments in recent years.  Last weekend, John and I were in a little town near here and looking around the outside of a small mill that was built (according to the date stone over the door) in the mid-19th century.  John was admiring some old carding drums that had been left outside (he knows about these things). A man drove up while John  was taking photos and came over to talk to us.  It turned out that he was the owner of the building, and his family has operated a spinning business there for the past 50 years. He was very friendly and when he saw that we were interested, he asked if we would like to look around, and so we got a private tour of the mill.

He explained all the processes and started up the machines to demonstrate. The company works with natural fibres - mostly wool, some cashmere - and makes yarn mostly to be woven into cloth.  They do make some yarn for hand knitting as well - Shetland yarn, which is slightly bizarre considering how far West Yorkshire is from the Shetlands. In the rest of this post, I attempt to describe what the mill does -  I am sure that I have got some things wrong, so I apologise in advance.      

The raw material that they work with is wool that has been cleaned and already dyed.  When we were there, the machines were set up to produce yarn of a beige colour, so the wool that was going in  looked like a random mixture of natural fleece colours, but in fact the colours had been mixed in precise proportions to a colour recipe, to get the exact final colour that was wanted.

The different colours are mixed very thoroughly before going through the next stage of carding, where the wool is passed between rollers covered in  wired spikes, to comb the wool.

The wool goes through several carding machine, that gradually convert the clumps of raw wool into a smooth even web. The final machine in this stage cuts this web into strips and rolls each one to produce slubbings, which look like a single ply yarn, but have no strength at all.  The slubbings are wound onto huge bobbins, and then taken to the spinning machines.

Finally, the slubbings are spun into yarn: they are drawn out and twisted, to give them strength, and then wound onto a bobbin.  Although the mill has other spinning machines, we saw one of their spinning mules in action.  This is old technology, but still effective:  the spinning mule was invented in the 18th century and these dated from the early 20th century, though they have since been modified. And of course, they are now operated by an electric motor, though 100 years ago I imagine they would have been steam-powered, and the first spinning mules were water-powered. 

The spindles are mounted on the front half of the machine, that moves on rails.  It first moves away from the back on the machine, and a length of yarn is drawn and twisted, and then returns as the twisted length of yarn is wound onto the spindles.  Hard to explain, but I have found video clips of very similar machines operating in a mill in Maine here. I think that the spindles of yarn are the finished product as far as this mill is concerned, and the yarn is then sent elsewhere for weaving or to be sold as knitting yarn.  

Our tour of the mill was fascinating - it was really nice of the owner to spend so much time with us.  The thing that struck me most, from the knitting point of view, was that the yarn is dyed before spinning and not afterwards. (John points out that it is "dyed in the wool" - hence the phrase.) That allows the finished yarn to be composed of fibres of several different colours.

I looked at a skein of Shetland wool left over from a Fair Isle jumper I knitted many years ago, and the rusty red colour is composed of bright red (or orange), yellow and purple - maybe more.  I hadn't properly appreciated the subtlety of Shetland and tweed yarns before - I should do more knitting with that kind of yarn.  And of course, when I knit with Shetland yarn in the future I shall know how it was made, and think that it may have been spun in Yorkshire.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Not Socks

As I said in my last post, I ordered enough Regia Design Line sock yarn  to knit a pair of socks, well before Christmas.  But it didn't arrive and it didn't arrive.  And then it didn't arrive some more.  I got a series of emails from the supplier, saying that the manufacturer was promising deliveries and then not delivering. I could have cancelled the order, but it was the Regia yarn that had originally caught my attention and I wanted to try it.  It finally did arrive a couple of weeks ago, when I actually was about to cancel. By then I had lost my enthusiasm for knitting socks.

So I had enough yarn for a pair of socks, and no desire to knit any.  What to do?    I went to the Ravelry web site (such a brilliant resource) and looked for projects that had used Regia Design Line yarn and weren't socks.  Several people had used this yarn to make lacy scarves, and one that appealed was Veronik Avery's Lacy Ribbon Scarf, available as a free pattern (via Ravelry).    The 100g of yarn that I have should be enough to make a longish scarf.

The yarn is one of the Exotic range designed by Kaffe Fassett, colourway 'Pool' (though it doesn't remind me of any pool I have ever seen).  It is a mixture of eight colours, and gives a stripy effect. The colour sequence repeats after about 6 inches of the scarf.   

It is an easy pattern to memorise, and designed to be portable. I have been knitting it on occasional short train journeys, etc. - it's a project for odd times when my main knitting project is getting complicated and needs thinking about.