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Reinventing a Must Have Sweater

This knitting story begins with the yarn.

Worsted weight wool, to my thinking, is not unlike rice or pasta. While perhaps not the most exciting gauge or fiber, it nonetheless provides the makings of many a substantial, satisfying knitting project. I like to keep a certain amount of worsted weight yarn on hand in much the same way that rice and pasta are always stocked in the pantry; they are my staples. Two years ago now I ordered a sweater’s worth of an admirable staple yarn from the WEBS annual sale. I like the combination of softness, sturdiness and stitch definition of Berroco Vintage, and the warm, autumnal color Chana Dal. It’s a nice yarn for cables. I am sure that there was a clear plan for this yarn at some point, but I’ve thoroughly forgotten what that might have been by now. Almost two year later, though, I have landed upon a sweater pattern/yarn combination that feels like a good fit.

Well, I got at least one decent knitting picture in.

Well, there was at least one decent knitting picture.

It has been some time since I last made a sweater for myself, so I wasn’t in a rush to use any old pattern. But late this summer, I got the itch for cables for some reason – densely knitted, complicated, twisty cables. At some point in my Ravelry trawling for a good, cable-heavy sweater pattern, I came across fibrenabler’s “On the Bandwagon with the Must Have” sweater and fell in love. I adore a clever saddle-shoulder construction in a sweater; they always seem to fit better across the back and to hang nicely without shifting around. The saddle-shoulder means that the cable pattern on the sleeves can continue up the shoulders to the neckline and even along the back of the neck.

... and then this happened.

… and then this happened.

One advantage of using this particular sweater for inspiration is that I already have the referenced patterns on hand. This lovely sweater is an adaptation of the Paton’s Must Have Cardigan pattern which was released way back in 2002. I suppose it tells you something about how long I have been knitting that I picked up a copy of the Paton’s pattern booklet way back then. According to fibrenabler’s project notes, she also used Elizabeth Zimmerman’s “Seamless Hybrid with Shirt Yoke” sweater recipe. I say “recipe” because Elizabeth Zimmerman doesn’t really do knitting patterns in the way that most patterns are written – they are closer to recipes with notes on appropriate ratios and suggestions for variations depending on the preferences and available materials of the knitter. EZ (as she is sometime affectionately referred to by knitters) wrote several brilliant, practical, and helpful “knitting theory” books in the 1970s and 1980s that I was fortunate enough to stumble across relatively early in my knitting career. If you have any interesting in knitting at all, I cannot recommend them more highly.

My polite request that she move has given great offense.

My polite request that she move gave great offense.

But anyway, back to the sweater! Knitting takes much longer than your typical sewing project, so this is very much a Work-In-Progress. Working in the round and from the bottom up, I have knit the torso to where the armholes should begin… I think. It looks kind of short the longer I look at it? I need to measure the length against some sweaters that fit me well. I am currently working on the first sleeve and knitting it flat. Most of the particulars of adaptations and the mechanics of how this thing will fit together will need to wait for a later post (once I figure it all out!). But for now, I will be giddily watching each cable crossing slowly form.

And here we can see the cat has settled in with no intentions of moving ever again. This peasant understand she only knits by the generous forbearance of her Cat Tyrant.

And here we can see the cat has settled into her new nest with no intentions of moving ever again. This peasant understands that she only knits by the generous forbearance of her Cat Tyrant.

Christmas Knitting and How to Block a Beret

This delicate beauty is a modified version of the free pattern, Foliage Hat, by Irina Dmitrieva. The lace pattern itself is stunning and easy to memorize. Once you knit through one repeat of the leaf pattern, you can see how the stitches fit together and how the leaf pattern interlocks with itself. I always prefer lace patterns to be charted, and the chart in this pattern is a perfectly accurate one. My many misadventures while knitting this hat were in no way the fault of the pattern. I can only blame reckless knitting without a swatch. It’s a real problem with the youth these days.

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This hat began last October with some Malabrigo Silky Merino yarn in the colorway Wisteria and vague plans for knitting a Christmas present for my mother. After deciding on the Foliage Hat, I knit through one repeat of the lace pattern before noticing that the knitting was coming out very soft and open. While the knitted fabric was beautiful, I worried that it wouldn’t survive contact with water without losing its shape. My super-scientific method* of testing this theory was to dunk the knitting, needles and all, in a sink full of water. My fears were confirmed when the hat grew to a ludicrous size as soon as it hit water.

*Seriously kids, don’t do this at home, especially with bamboo needles. You will ruin the finish on the needles which can take ages to fix. 

My attempts to fix this problem were similarly well-considered and scientific: I messed around with the gauge until I thought it looked right. The pattern recommends that you knit the hat at 5 stitches per inch, but I ended up knitting it at 7 stitches per inch. The knitting still relaxed while I was blocking it, but it was much more controlled. The tighter gauge also meant that I needed to increase the length  which I did by knitting seven repeats of the lace pattern instead of the suggested four.

Once the hat was knit, it needed to be blocked to have the beret shape. This bring us too…

A Very Technical and Precise Beret Blocking Tutorial

What on earth do I mean by blocking? Blocking is the process of gently washing and shaping a knitted item. It is the last step of any knitting project, and depending on the project, can make a significant difference in the appearance of the knitted item in question. I tend to knit with wool and wool blend yarns because they respond so well to blocking (the shape they are given while wet remains after drying).

  • To block a Beret or Tam o’Shanter style hat, you first need a hat to block. I suspect that this blocking method would work with any basic stocking cap (or toque or beanie or whatever the heck you call these things. Why are there so many hat names for the same thing?) You want the hat to fit comfortably on your head. I think they block more easily when the band at the opening is a bit snug but that is not strictly necessary.

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  • Once you have a hat, you will want to complete the water-based portion of blocking. My favored approach is to fill a sink up with warm water and a bit of shampoo. You don’t want to use a harsh detergent with wool unless you want it to shrink and felt, and shampoo is for hair anyway, right? It works pretty well with sheep hair too! Dunk your hat in the water, swish it around once or twice and leave it to soak for a bit. Once the hat has hung out in the water for a while, gently squeeze the water out of the knitting and roll it up in a towel to speed up the drying process.hattowel
  • Take your partially dried hat and go explore your dishware. This is a time when having an unruly assortment of plate sets is a good thing – it increases your chances of finding the perfect plate. You are looking for a plate that can fit into the hat snugly. If the plate is too big, you won’t be able to fit the hat around it, and if it is too small, it won’t stretch the knitting enough to get the shape you want. Shift the hat around until the knitting is evenly distributed. I prefer the hat opening to be on the top of the plate, so the crown of the hat sits over the raised bottom edge. hat plate back
  • Let the hat dry completely. This will take at least 24 hours. Be patient. Flip the plate over a couple times as it is drying. If you are so inclined, feel free to coo over how pretty your knitting is.DSCN0865
  • Once the hat is completely dry, carefully take the hat off the plate. Now that it has dried, the wool keeps the shape it was stretched to while drying. I am always amazed by how different the final product looks from where it starts out pre-blocking.DSCN0868

You can now wear your hat on the adventures of your choosing, or give it to your mother for Christmas depending on your current hat-related needs. The same basic blocking methods apply for washing wool sweaters, mittens, etc. except with fewer plates involved. Knitted lace is its own beast, but lace actually comes out pretty well using this highly sophisticated plate method.

This knitting pattern is named “Maize.” Insert the pun of your choosing.

And for the month of November, we have a last minute, super short, I-forgot-I-have-a-blog-because-I-occasionally-have-a-life blog post.

Here, I made some fingerless gloves. They are pretty nifty.

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These fingerless mitts were made with the free pattern, Maize by Tin Can Knits. These were a quick, easy knit. I extended the wrist cuff by a few rows but otherwise followed the pattern exactly. I like the clean design, the overall reverse stockinette stitch and the way the small section of ribbing flows from cuff to cuff  for visual interest. The yarn used here is Malabrigo Rios in the colorway Archangel (a colorway I have had my eye on for… five years now?). There is still over half of the skein left. These came out just how I wanted, and I have already been wearing them everywhere.

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And here we have the obligatory cat picture with our resident diva and camera hog. She was being particularly dramatic and unhelpful here. Truly, her life is a misery.

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Miette Cardigan, un-Penelopied

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As my apartment only recently regained internet access after the first significant thunderstorms of what promises to be a beastly DC summer, a wool sweater has never seemed more seasonally irrelevant. When I began knitting my version of the Miette Cardigan, I suspected that it would be completed just as the weather got warm enough to make wool layers ill-advised. In fact, the cardigan was entirely knit in mid-May, just as the spring semester ended. A brief jaunt back to PA meant that there was time to block it and wear it once or twice before it got intolerably warm.

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Because the cardigan is made with worsted weight wool (rescued Cascade 220 in Vermeer Blue) it is warm, substantial, and cozy. Yet the loose gauge (16 stiches in 4 inches where worsted weight yarn is often knit to 20 stitches in 4 inches) makes the cardigan light, drapey and airy, and extends the usability of the sweater into somewhat warmer weather. I found the sweater perfectly comfortable for temperatures in the mid-60s, and I am fairly intolerant of anything that even suggests overheating.

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The actual knitting process for this sweater is entertaining and fun. It the closest a sweater pattern can get to instant gratification knitting – the gauge and shorter sleeves/body make it quick to knit, the top-down construction and lace pattern keep it an engaging project, while the stockinette sections are mindless and restful. After a knitting hiatus, I felt like I was being wooed back by all the fun parts of knitting with this project.

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Trying out a new sweater pattern is always a gamble, even more so than a new sewing pattern in terms of time invested (in terms of material reclaimability, knitting always wins). Until the sweater is entirely knit, it is impossible to tell how all the pieces will hang together. Will the neckline stretch weirdly under the weight of the sweater? Will the sleeves be too big? Too small? But because all of the shaping of the sweater happens as it is being knit, it is far too late to make modifications to the pattern once the sweater has been entirely knit. This makes for a wildly different construction experience than sewing where, aside from those absolute changes made with a pair of scissor, a garment can be endlessly taken in and let out until it fits just so. Despite all of the cross-applicability of drape and fit and construction knowledge between sewing an knitting, the two crafts require different kinds of planning. I’m still not sure how they are different, but they certainly are.

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The Miette Cardigan pattern is knit from the top-down, which allows you to try the cardigan on as it is being made (this works best if you actually take the sweater off the knitting needles… which I didn’t do). This only gives a vague idea of fit, but I suppose it would help fend off any major disasters. The only change I made to the pattern was to add an additional repeat of the lace pattern to the length of the sweater. The added length makes the cardigan a shorter standard length, rather than the “cropped” sweater of the pattern. I’m not sure why, but my sleeves ended up hitting longer than 3/4 length but before my wrists. I rather like them that way, but I hadn’t expected them to come out that long.

I sincerely adore the color, and those coordinating buttons came from my Mom’s button jar(s), a mish-mash of buttons heirloom and more recent that fills three jars and part of a drawer.

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On an informational note for my non-knitter readers, when I mention “blocking” I mean the process by which knit stitches are set and the finished knit project is shaped. This involves wetting the wool, arranging it into the desired end shape, and then allowing it to dry. Wool has a remarkable knack for taking on a new shape when wet and then remembering and retaining that shape once it dries. There are a number of methods for accomplishing this, but I prefer to take my knitting and dunk it in a sink full of warm water and a bit of shampoo. With the way I drag projects all over, the yarn usually deserves a good bath. The key thing at this point is to avoid felting the knitting, so it needs to be wrung out very gently. I usually roll the knitting up in a towel to get most of the water out before laying it flat and shaping it to dry.

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Here you can see the cardigan pre-blocking. Note the general rippling lumpy-bumpiness of the sweater. The stitches are uneven, the borders sit weirdly and it looks like it has been crammed in the bottom of a bag. (which it totally has)

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And after blocking, waiting for buttons, it looks like a sweater! Which is always pretty exciting when you think about starting with a few balls of yarn – or in this case, a half-forgotten sweater. I am not unraveling this thing again, but I like to think Penelope would be pleased anyway.

Pulling a Penelope (without the missing husband, creepy suitors, or battle in the dining room)

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In January of 2011, on the tail end of my season of frantic knitting, I made a sweater that was never worn. Literally. I mean I put it on to take some pictures for record-keeping purposes, but I never wore the thing for regular, sweaterly duties. There are many reasons the sweater was never worn – I moved to DC where there is less cause for warm woolen garments, it ended up fitting weirder than anticipated, but mostly, my ideas about what I am looking for in a sweater changed. I like buttons. If I’m going to wear a sweater, I want it to stay shut without me fussing with it. I like more tailored shapes. The flowy, unstructured sweater thing just annoys me. And I like set-in or similarly shaped sleeves. Gravity drags the bulk of a knit sweater out of shape even with a neat, structured shoulder. Drop-shoulder sweaters just feel sloppy and not office appropriate (which rather defeats the purpose).

The sweater in question is the Hampton Cardigan. To be fair, it has an unusual construction which I found very rewarding to knit, but my cardigan preferences ended up conflicting with the resulting sweater. Sometimes this just happens.

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I love pretty clothing. I love to make pretty clothing. However I am also brutally practical about said pretty clothing. If it is not useful, what is the point? When this poor sweater sat in my trunk unworn for two winters, I started to give it suspicious glances. It was clearly not pulling its weight. When I recently started getting the itch to wear a blue-green sweater layered with certain clothing, the suspicious glares turned speculative. In its current form, the sweater would not serve. But what if it was something else?

This is the beauty of knitting. You start with some string, you create and shape the fabric and form of the garment at the same time, with complete control over its outcome, and if it is not to your liking, you can rip it back to its component parts and begin anew. Talk about infinite possibility.

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However, the decision to frog a sweater is a serious one. There is a great deal of time that goes into knitting, even if most of mine happens while I am doing other things (computer-based hands-free reading = knitting time). But over Spring Break, I gathered my courage and frogged it. For those not up with the knitting lingo, “to frog” is the preferred verb for undoing large quantities of knitting and returning the yarn to its initial wound state. This supposedly originates from the similarity of “rip it” to “ribbit” – the act of ripping out stitches is said to mimic the sounds made by your average frog. In similarly charming parlance, “to tink” is to undo a row or two of knitting by undoing one stitch at a time, “to knit” backwards.

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I had hoped that I would be able to get away with not washing the frogged yarn, but it came out so crinkley that it was necessary. Someday I will do a nice, long post about wool and blocking and explain why. In short, I made the yarn uncrinkley by dunking it in water and waiting for it to dry.

So what will I be doing with all this pretty, newly free yarn? Which is, by the way, Cascade 220 in Vermeer Blue. I will be making the Miette Pattern by Andi Satterlund. It is fairly close to the sweater I have in my brain, and while I am perfectly capable of making up the sweater as I go, I have neither the time nor the mental energy to do that math. So for now, it is turn off brain and get busy fingers. Well I say turn off brain – I mean do your schoolwork.

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