Thursday, December 29, 2011

Six secrets of a non-swatcher

  I am about to reveal a shocking knitting secret. I don't always swatch. In another post, Favorite Fair Isle tips, I wrote about the importance of swatching. Yes, we all know that "To save time, swatch." Well, I just don't think swatching is that much fun. More power to you if you like knitting swatches and I have one friend who actually claims she does. I prefer the feeling of creating something useful and in some ways I'm both impatient and lazy.
  Basically, swatching is done to find your gauge or to test color combinations. However, both kinds of swatching can be minimized and sometimes eliminated. For example, if you knit socks, knit them from the toe up and add stitches until the foot fits. You don't need to swatch at all.
Non-swatching hint number 1: Knit socks from the toe up. If necessary, you can pick a stitch pattern after you know how many stitches you will use.
   I have knit some very successful garments without swatching. My Nether Garment has at this point been viewed by over 30,000 people on Ravelry. The greatest honor I have received as a knitter is that my version of the Nether Garment was included in the commemorative re-issue of Elizabeth Zimmermann's The Knitters Almanac. The beauty of the project for me was that it called for no swatching because the garment itself was a rather large swatch. Indeed, when I am designing new Fair Isle projects I often get it out in search of a pattern or color combination to inspire me. I needed to guess how many stitches per inch I would get and I did that by measuring a previous project, such as a hat. Then I cast on for the ankle. After a couple of inches, I tried it on to make sure it fit. It did. As I knit the garment I occasionally tried on a leg to make sure it was staying on track for size. I spread out my hoard of Shetland yarn and grabbed colors as the mood struck me and selected patterns as I went along. It was the most fun I've ever had knitting.
Non-swatching hint number 2: If you hate swatching, find a favorite yarn. I have a couple kinds of yarn that I use over and over. Measuring an old project is usually as accurate as making a new swatch and often more so. Just be sure to record the size needle you knit projects with.
Non-swatching hint number 3: Pretend you aren't actually knitting a swatch. Guess the needle size based on the ball band and knit a hat. It will fit someone. Measure its gauge. It's not a swatch, it's a useful hat. Or knit other  small objects such as mittens or a small bag. Purses are easy, but should be lined with fabric to prevent sagging.
   A very good reason to swatch is to check color combinations. However, the more colors you use, the less important this is. A garment I made without swatching my colors was my Blues and Oranges vest.  Before I went to Costa Rica for the season, I made a pile of beautiful cool colors (blues and purples) and a pile of beautiful warm colors (reds, oranges, and pinks). I didn't even decide to use the triangle and slanting lozenge patterns until I got to Costa Rica, I just knew I would use some small repeating pattern. I used pairs of warm and cool colors and tried to not repeat any color combinations, although each color appeared in many different bands. In between, I used the same two row pattern of rectangles in the same two colors. The only part I swatched was to choose the ribbing colors.
Non-swatching hint number 4: If you use enough different colors and patterns, it's going to look good. While I tend to use bright colors, you can do it with muted colors too. If you use lots of colors, your garment with go with lots of things.
   I repeated the same strategy with greens and purples for my Motmot in the Forest vest although the vertical pattern repeat is longer. It has bands of vertical lines, checks, and diagonal lines.
Non-swatching hint number 5: Use a limited number of patterns and a dominant color or two to unify a garment.
By the way, in the dumbest ever of my knitting mistakes, I didn't notice that I knit the vest on a needle smaller than I usually use until I was ready to cut the steek. I ended up cutting up the sides and adding panels to make it large enough to fit me. Proof if ever there was one that swatching for gauge isn't always necessary if you are willing to go to great extremes to fix a problem. (Non-swatchers are more creative, sometimes out of necessity.) I don't recommend this method as it can add a lot of stress to your life when you discover a garment is radically the wrong size.
Non-swatching hint number 6: If you really screw up with your gauge, it might be possible to fix it with bands. Sometimes I have made wider bands in the front to compensate for a vest that came out a little smaller than expected.
   So if you love colors, I encourage you to make up a game plan for a garment, get a whole bunch of colors you love and just dive in. It's unbelievable fun. And by the way, if you have any other non-swatching tips, please let me know.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Lighting the long night

  Here in the north, the wonderful long days of summer are balanced by lots of darkness in the winter. The winter solstice is the day the sun stops its apparent journey to the north and starts heading south again to bring us longer days. It's no wonder that northern people are so happy get past the longest night of the year. This week we went to the solstice celebration in our local park. There were hundreds of people there by the lake, gathered around a huge bonfire, listening to some lively drumming. It was so dark, I never even saw the drummers.
 There were candles in ice that had been frozen in large buckets and many lanterns carried about on poles. I think most of the lanterns had LEDs in them: pagan ritual meets modern technology.
There was a tree walking around. It's over 9 feet/3 meters tall and two little boys ran up to it and requested permission to hug it. The tree agreed and hugged them back. This is a picture of the tree at a daytime parade on another occasion. (Night-time solstice festivals are difficult to photograph.)
    Having a cheerful green tree inside with lights also reminds us that life goes on, even if most of the trees outside look completely dead.
   Here in the north, we are happy to know that from now on, each day will get a little longer. Meanwhile, we gather around a fireplace and eat high calorie foods to get us through the cold and dark. Happy holidays to you all.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Holiday spheres

  As we are finally moving into cold weather and the holiday season, it affects my color choices and projects. I'm especially drawn to icy blues as on this 16 division chrysanthemum stitch.
 The ball shown below has the same base color in sewing threads as some of the number 5 perle cotton thread, causing new shapes to seem to appear by magic.
Blues can be kept warm with yellow.
  I made this cute Santa temari from a pattern from Barb Suess that I bought from her Etsy store.
The pattern is easy to follow and it aimed at newbies. One doesn't even need to divide the ball to make this. Even so, it had some useful techniques new to me such as the bullion stitch for the beard. The other side of the ball has snowflakes stitched on it. I had some fuzzy white thread that was perfect for that. You can see one to the right of Santa's head.
  Meanwhile, Mr. Rududu has gotten into the spherical mode with a module origami designed by Toshikazu Kawasaki. It was featured in the last issue of The Paper, the magazine of Origami USA.
Apparently it is quite challenging to get 30 modules together into a sphere without them falling apart at some point. I even heard brief mutterings about glue but I kept him under careful surveillance and know he made them the morally correct origami way: no scissors, no glue. There were a lot of tiny clothespins involved at one point. Once they are assembled, they are quite strong although picking them up from the top is discouraged. (I think I almost gave Mr. Rududu heart failure when I did that. The ball survived, fortunately.) I think they look really festive perched on some old wine glasses, some of whom belonged to my grandmother.
  The nitty-gritty: The first three temari in this post are from patterns in Japanese Temari; A Colorful Spin on an Ancient Craft by Barbara B. Suess.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Tam tips

   Knitting a tam is a great way to test out Fair Isle color combinations and also results in something nice to keep your head warm. I've knit several tams of my own design and am always pleasantly surprised with how the crown patterns work out. The crowns have become my favorite part, especially since they go faster and faster as you decrease towards the middle.
   Basically a tam starts with a band that fits snugly around your head. I like to knit it in corrugated ribbing. This is done by using two colors: alternating two knit stitches in one color and two purl stitches of another. It's especially fun to change colors on the purled stitches to create wonderful shaded effects. Here's a close up of corrugated ribbing on a vest and on a tam.
Warning: this kind of ribbing is not stretchy so you need to get the number of stitches pretty accurately. If you don't want to bother, a one color ribbed band is fine too. After the band, one increases rapidly, knits straight for a while, and then decreases in wedge shapes to come to the center. The higher mathematics of planning a tam can be found in Knitted Tams by Mary Rowe. (This book is now out of print, but check your local library.) Or you can take any basic tam pattern and plug in your own colors or pattern. The thing I like about planning my own tam is that I don't have to match someone else's gauge. I'm lazy that way.
    The completed tam will look like an amorphous blob until you block it. Then it will magically transform into a wonderful circular mandala for your head. I blocked older tams on an 11"/28 cm diameter dinner plate. I wanted my most recent tam to be slightly larger and chose 12"/30.5 cm as my diameter. Not having a plate of that size and not wanting to get into a difficult woodworking project, I cut a circle out of 3/8" thick Foam Core. (That's about 1 cm.) This very rigid yet light board used by artists, is foam bonded between two sheets of thick paper. (You could use thicker board, but thinner board might bend as the tam is stretched over it.) I traced the circle around a frying pan and cut it out freehand with a utility knife. It doesn't have to be perfect since tams, like all knitted items, are forgiving. I slipped the circular form into a garbage bag so that it wouldn't absorb water. Next I washed my tam and blotted it dry with a towel and then stretched it over the form.  A tam knit of Shetland 2 ply jumper yarn is quite thin and dries quickly.  In the near dessert conditions of a Midwestern house in winter, mine was dry in about 5 hours. To speed drying, I placed the form and tam on a glass so air could circulate around it.
   Trying on my tam, I found it looked too large and floppy. One can get a tam to be slightly smaller by reblocking it, so I cut a smaller blocking circle. This time I traced an 11" dinner plate and made a series of marks 1/4" out to result in an 11.5"/29 cm form. Then I connected those marks and cut along that line. I rewashed my hat and reblocked it. This time it came out just the way I wanted it.

Friday, December 9, 2011

From the knitting archives: an old friend

  My very first stranded sweater is still one of my favorites.
In the early 80s (!!) I decided to knit myself a Norwegian sweater. There was a local yarn store called the Yarn Stua that specialized in Norwegian yarn. I had always loved my father's dark blue and white sweater from Norway. From what I understood, women's sweaters were traditionally mostly white or a light color and a dark navy sweater was for men, but I don't live in Norway and I loved the color so that's what I bought. I got a big bag of yarn and an informative and now out-of-print Dover book from 1974 called How to Knit Your Own Norwegian Sweaters. Even at the time, some of the photos looked dated. It was the hair. It's always the hair, isn't it? However, the sweaters have a classic look that has stood the test of time well—especially compared to many sweaters of the 80s.
   I cast on and knit diligently. I was used to worsted weight yarn and it seemed to go very slowly on those 2.5mm/#1 needles but I found the developing pattern kept me interested in a way that knitting in monochrome didn't. It was the beginning of a lot of stranded knitting.  I had never knit a sweater in the round before and this was my first sweater with a steek. A knitting friend had to come over and help keep me calm when I cut the steek. I survived to cut many another steek.
  What I love best about this sweater now is the wonderful sheen it has developed by being worn and worn. I had to replace the cuffs once but otherwise it soldiers on; the elbows don't even look dangerously thin. I don't wear it as much these days because I have so many sweaters, but it holds a special place in my heart for setting me on the road to many adventures with stranded knitting.

The Knitty-gritty: Knit in Peer Gynt by Sandnes Garn, a DK weight yarn from Norway. It has now become easier in my area to find Dalegarn Heilo, an equivalent weight yarn. 

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Favorite Fair Isle tips

  Fair Isle and stranded knitting are among my favorite ways of playing with colors.  Sadly, one can spend hours and hours knitting with colors that look glorious next to each other in the ball just to end up with disappointing results in knit form. I don't like knitting ugly things or garments that don't fit, and agree that swatching is a good idea before launching into a major project. However, while some people really love swatching, I prefer getting onto the real knitting as soon as possible. There are a couple of quick tricks I use to eliminate colors that won't work  before I pick up my needles. One way of checking colors is to wrap two colors together on a ruler or card.
You can wrap in stripes that are one to three yarns wide. This lets you learn about how the colors work when seen in close proximity. Entire semester courses (or a lifetime) can be spent learning how colors look different depending on what other color they are next to. Without learning a lot of color theory, wrapping little test cards like this can save you a lot of time. Get wild with it; the time required is so small that you can discover unexpectedly wonderful color combinations in just a few minutes.
  Another thing you can check with wrapping yarn like this is value contrast. Other than using colors you love, the most important thing in picking colors for knitting is value—the colors' lightness or darkness. If you don't have sufficient value contrast, hours or even months of knitting can result is something that is so subtle that the pattern can only be seen in a very bright light and at very close range. Subtlety is fine but I prefer to knit patterns so they can be seen. If you can't clearly see the colors in your wrapping test in a rather dim room you might be aiming at a result that is too subtle. How much contrast you need depends partly on your pattern. If you are knitting a pattern with lines consisting of a single stitch, it's necessary to have more contrast than if there are bigger blocks of each color. (A benefit of having enough contrast is that knitting is a lot easier because you aren't straining your eyes to see what color the next stitch on the needle is.)
   My other way of testing color combinations if with my handy point-and-shoot camera. Like most such inexpensive cameras, it has a monochrome setting. I lay out the balls of yarn that I'm considering and take black and white photos of them. If a pair looks the same in the photo, it probably won't work. It has no contrast. For example, look at these beautiful balls of purple and green, one of my favorite color combinations.
It looks yummy, but there's a problem. These two colors are almost identical in value as you can see in this monochrome picture.
Try to see that single purple yarn draped over the green. Unless they are knit in very large areas of colors, the pattern will not be easy to see.
  To avoid an unintended stripy look in Fair Isle knitting, it's best to maintain very similar contrast between the foreground colors and the background colors through out the pattern. As your background gets darker, your foreground color can get darker. If your background color suddenly gets darker relative to its foreground color, it will read like a stripe. When I knit this example swatch, I didn't have the light yellow I wanted and resorted to a mustard. Stripe.
The mustard and blue are lovely together and would certainly work well in some design but I don't care for the stripey effect; I want the entire flower to read as a unit. The monochrome photo of the yarn shows there is a huge jump of contrast between the yellow and mustard. (By the way, it's easier to judge value by eye for shades of the same color. )
For this pattern, a combination of background colors with a lighter yellow instead of the mustard will work better.
I find using these techniques makes my swatching time much more productive. And fun.