Friday, December 26, 2008


After Practical Crocheter's somewhat philosophical post, a little introspection seemed appropriate for this time of year. With all of the economic turmoil so many of us face this year, many are having to cut back on what we do, prioritize, choose. In my case, I'm also expecting a new addition to the family in short order, and the things I physically can do are limited. How could all this possibly apply to needlework, you ask?

Of course, it's easy to go into a yarn store and drop a small fortune on luxury and novelty fibers, and that's not necessarily possible anymore. But it's a little deeper than that. "Why" is part of the learning process. It's hard to learn something that has no purpose, as most high school math students complain at one point or another. Needlework is the same way.

I taught a friend to knit recently. She needed something to keep her hands busy and to distract her mind as she struggles through a difficult divorce. In my experience working at yarn stores, I explained that I'd only work with her on stuff she was actually going to use in her projects. I wasn't going to be a stickler for technique or insist that she learn things she didn't plan on using. From what I've seen, putting pressure on someone about the thing they're using for stress relief isn't helpful, and they won't learn very well. My friend has done a lot of knitting in the last couple months, and the things I didn't correct her about early on have ironed themselves out as her projects have demanded increasing levels of proficiency.

As we approach new projects, it is important for us to think about why we are doing that project at that time. Is it for stress relief, to stay occupied, because we need the finished project? If I need stress relief, I'm not going to choose a complicated project, because I want a break from thinking; but if I need to be occupied, I might choose something a little more demanding so that my mind is amused as much as my hands. Currently, I'm making things that I actually need for the baby. Why should I buy ready made things, when I've already paid for all the materials? And I've generally chosen simple designs, because I'm working on a deadline.

In the coming year, it may make needlework more satisfying to be more thoughtful about it. As you begin a project, ask yourself why you want to make it and if the thing itself is in line with your needs at the time. As we all cut back and prioritize, let's make the things we choose more deeply enjoyable.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas

This is about the time of year I start planning next year’s Christmas gifts -- because I sure didn’t have time to finish the ones for this year.

This is a time of contrasts: Some things, I can do; other things, I can’t. Peace is in knowing the difference -- I keep having to learn that lesson. Some years I look at how much money I spend and how much effort I make, see how little joy it brings, and wonder what the point is. There is a balance between the effort I make and what I see in response. When the season feels like a competition, there’s something not quite right.

The last time I went to a Christmas Eve service, it seemed like only a handful of folks in a full church were singing out loud. I felt embarrassed to be one of them -- but what is the point of mumbling through “Joy to the World”? It is going to be a while before I have the energy to try that again.

And then, I am lucky to have a friend who still bakes and gives cookies for the season -- even through the economic hardships going on in her life.

I listened to some music yesterday: a CD made by the music group at my old school. It brought tears to my eyes as my heart felt back home for a minute. Then I remember that it’s not about what I do, it’s about why I do it. If I spend all my energy paying attention to all the stuff going on around me, I cannot possibly know why I am doing anything. So this is a time to cut back: Don’t do what I cannot afford to do. Don’t do things I don’t understand why I am doing it. Appreciate what I have. And share.

That sharing is in the socks for my sweetie. He will get them just a little late, but that’s ok.

Monday, December 1, 2008


Sometimes reading a pattern can be frustrating. All of the acronyms and abbreviated ways of saying things make it seem like a whole different language.

That frustration has been put in delightful terms over at Little House in the Suburbs

Have a click over, and enjoy.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Fringe as you stitch? Corded Fringe

Here's a neat trick I first saw briefly in a pattern book for baby blankets, Leisure Arts #288, Fisherman Crochet for Babies, by Anne Rabunough, 1983, which is discontinued.

Useful on ends of scarves as well as on afghans. You make it in one row of single crochet. Get out a bit of yarn -- just some worsted weight is fine -- and a hook so you can try it yourself. Make an edge of 10 stitches or so that the fringe will go on. The piece will be easier to handle if your swatch has a few rows in it already.

In the next row, ch1 and turn. Sc1 in the next stitch. *Now, pull the loop on your hook out until it is twice as long as you want the fringe to be. About 12 inches is a nice length. Pull gently, pinching the single crochet so it doesn’t get all tightened up. Keeping the hook at the far end of the loop away from the row, and holding the loop taut, twist the loop many times -- about 20 or 30. As you carefully fold the twisted loop in half, back on itself, it makes a short cord. Insert hook back into the last single crochet, as if to work the last yarnover and pull through to finish the stitch (as shown in the picture). Yarn over and pull through to refinish the stitch. ** Sc1 in the next stitch, and repeat from * as desired.

This is great for fringe using smooth yarns. Of course, you can experiment with how it will work up with novelty or other yarns like mohair -- traditionalists may think such yarns are completely unsuitable for this technique. You don’t have to make the fringe with only one stitch between them; you can put them wherever you want. You can even make several in one stitch, repeating from * to **. Shorter corded fringe could be appropriate for a baby’s blanket because it is so sturdy.

Sunday, November 16, 2008


For many of us the passing of Halloween, followed by the election marks the iminent arrival of the holidays. And most of us who enjoy handcrafts also enjoy producing gifts with our own two hands. All too often, however, that means making mind-numbingly boring projects over and over again, or embarking on a series of projects that are entirely too amibitious for the time available in which to make them.

Chances are some of your handmade gifts will be scarves, but how to escape the boring without making something too complicated or garish? Invest in a stitch dictionary. A scarf is nothing more than a long rectangle. So find a stitch you like that goes well with the yarn you have in mind, and make a REALLY long swatch of it with a garter or seed stitch border around the edges.

In selecting a stitch, decide whether you want it to be reversible. If the instructions say purl every other row, chances are it is not reversible. I'd also suggest not using a cable pattern: they're bulky for a scarf and look odd on the back because of how the cables twist the fabric. Lace patterns can be a good idea, especially the more open ones, because the holes distract the eye from the differences between sides.

When the scarf is done, it might need a little something more. One of my favorite ideas, especially for women's scarves, is to fringe the scarf in contrasting yarn. For a really chic look, use a chenille, ribbon, or other smooth novelty yarn in the same color as the scarf for the fringe. For a less formal look, choose a plain yarn in a contrasting color for the fringe. Black works pretty well for most colors. In either case, the fringe continues the fluid look of the scarf while the contrast of texture or color frames and sets of the pattern stitch or texture of the rest of the scarf.

Friday, November 7, 2008

kitchen fabric

Practical Crocheter wrote last time about a good pattern stitch for making dish cloths, so I thought I'd write a little about dish cloths in general.

Dish cloths and potholders are great small projects. They're portable, versatile, and really useful. And once you've worn one out in the kitchen, it can still be used as a rag for yuckier messes than you would normally use a dish cloth for. I save my old ones for washing the car, for example--which is a lot more discreet than using your worn out underwear.

Anyway, in either knitting or crochet, kitchen fabric is an excellent way to test out new pattern stitches. And this way, those squares get some use rather than collecting in your yarn closet. As long as the stitch is at least somewhat solid, it can be used for a dish cloth. Potholders need to be thicker, so they are best made out of solid stitches, thick yarns, or both.

Practical crocheter made the point that dish cloths are best made out of cotton for its absorbancy, but you can also use corn fiber (if you have some lying around), which seems to soak things up pretty well too. Unfortunately, when cotton gets wet initially it swells up a little, so it is not very good for scrubbing things. For that, I prefer linen (the rough kind), hemp, or really cheap acrylic, the last of which doesn't absorb water at all.

On that note, acrylic is a form of plastic. All synthetic fibers ultimately are. So you can also make a good scrub pad out of strips of plastic grocery bag. And I've heard of people using the tape from cassettes or VHS tapes, but those will degrade faster than other forms of plastic.

Potholders, on the other hand, don't need to be absorbant. They just need to insulate. They are best made out of wool, cotton, and other natural fibers, because plastic can melt. This is especially an issue if you use a gas range and are going to use these things near the oven or stovetop. It's a lot more pleasant to put out a burning potholder than to scrub plastic goo off your stovetop.

That said, I prefer wool for potholders, specifically the kind that can't go in the washing machine. That's because when I want a potholder, I usually opt to crochet it in order to get a thicker fabric. Unfortunately, though, crochet has bigger holes between stitches than knitting does. So I make potholders out of wool and then felt them in the washing machine. It closes up the holes, thickens the fabric, and increases the fabric's ability to insulate. And any animal fiber other than silk will do .

I also think that kitchen fabric is a great way to use up those little scraps of yarn that accumulate from finished projects. I try to keep mine sorted according to fiber, and then use several to make what I need. As long as the fibers are of a similar thickness and behave similarly in the wash, there's no problem with mixing them.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Kitchen kloth in heavy single crochet

The handiest thing I like in a kitchen is a small bit of fabric that can pass for a dishcloth, light potholder, or sponge. Not too big -- about 8 inches across means it is small enough to squeeze out with one hand but also big enough and solid enough to use for just about anything, even a light hot mat or coaster for under my teapot. It needs to be made out of cotton, to be absorbent.

But the real trick is the pattern stitch.

Single crochet by itself will stretch out of shape and become all lacy over time. Any bigger stitch will have bigger spaces between the stitches. I want a solid fabric. But I don’t want it to be too thick and solid -- I’m not trying to make wall board.

This is where heavy single crochet can come into play: This is like a fabric of single crochet with chain stitches thrown in. The chain stitch keeps the single crochet from stretching out of shape -- chain stitch is often used to lock in a stitch (like in Cluster stitch).

This can work over any number of stitches, but for the sake of these instructions, start with an even number. Here is the base row: Ch1 to turn, *sc1 in next two stitches, ch1. Repeat from * across, ending with 2 sc.

As usual in crochet, this stitch has you inserting the hook under the top two loops of the stitches in the previous row.

In the next row, ch1 to turn. *Sc1, ch1 but do NOT skip 1, sc1 in the very next sc, skip the ch of the pr r. Repeat from * across, ending with ch1, sc1.

Notice that you are making a ch in between the 2sc of the previous row and skipping the ch1‘s.

In the next row, ch1 to turn. *Sc1, skip the ch of the pr r, sc1, ch1 but do not skip 1. Repeat from * across, ending with sc1, sk the ch, sc1.

Notice that the chain stitches are squished between the single crochets, adding bulk, and it’s all basically a single crochet fabric. And yet, if you stretch it, the single crochet stitches hold their shape very nicely.

Repeat the last two rows for the pattern stitch. The number of stitches should stay the same in every row. This makes a satisfying fabric for a dishcloth. For the sample pictured here, I used a worsted weight cotton (like Sugar and Cream) and a size I/5.5 mm hook. My gauge came out to about 3 stitches per inch -- so starting with Ch24 works well.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Re-orienting a bit

Time flies when stuff happens. Job, moving, more moving, and barely time to knit or crochet at all, let alone write about it. And suddenly it's been a month and a half since the last entry.

It is really a comfort to settle into a place where I can see how much yarn I really have -- this may be frightening to those around me, but they get used to it ... eventually.

With the turmoil in the economy, let alone the environment, I feel extra incentive to focus on my stitching. Low tech has so many advantages:
  • as a way to make useful things without using fossil fuels (aside from having driven to the store some years ago to buy the yarn),
  • as a way of slowing down long enough to relax a bit and think about stuff,
  • as a way of keeping my hands busy long enough so my mouth can think about what it's saying,
  • as a way of focusing my brain on a single, solvable puzzle to de-fuzz my thinking.

So much of what I see around me is crisis-oriented. True, we may be living in a time of crisis (between regional conflicts, the economy, and the environment), but I wonder how much of the crisis mentality has to be promoted by the media in order to get market share. So I turn the tv off and stitch in another room.

As I head into the holiday season (already!?) I feel resolved to step away from the whirlwind so I can get a few things done and have something real to offer.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Absolutely Fabulous

A friend was concerned about her AbFab kit. She had bought it at half price, and the colors ran pretty much the full range of primaries and secondaries, with just a touch of neutrals. She had changed the pattern stitch a bit (a variation of Feather and Fan), and she was having doubts, about a foot or two into the project. She spread the work out on the table and wanted to know what to do.

So we talked about it: This particular color way has a rich range of colors and intensities -- there isn‘t any unifying intensity or color to comfort you in the process with a sense of stability. By definition, there is a rich range of textures (it’s a Colinette AbFab kit). If you want it to look like the picture, you have to follow every single step of the instructions. If you change even one detail, it will look different from the picture. Because of the richness of all the parts, you won’t be able to predict how your changes will affect the outcome. By the same token, and for the same reason, the finished product will look precisely like itself -- and whether you like it or not is kind of up to you. Because of the richness of the pattern stitch, you won’t actually see the effect until you block the finished piece. If you take apart what you have already done, you will never know how it would have ended up. In the process, you will also weaken some of the yarns (like mohair and chenille) that don’t like to be fussed with too much. So you have to trust the kit, make your choices, and enjoy the process.

Kind of like life, she smiled. Yup.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Books and Big Gauges, Part 2

While bulky yarns are great for learning how to see your stitches, that is a double edged sword in and of itself. If you could see your mistakes in these yarns when you first learned to knit, so can everyone else now. Moreover, if every stitch or two makes up a whole inch, it quickly becomes very important that you make no mistakes in your shaping. On a size 19 (15mm) needle, being off by one stitch on one shoulder will be noticeable in the finished product.

Ultimately, variety is a good thing. Knitting involves very repetitive movements in the hands, wrists, and arms. In the post-industrial work environment, most of us have enough of that just from work, so its really important for knitters to keep their habits healthy to avoid injury. More so than smaller needles, big needles require a lot of movement to manipulate successfully, just because of their size. If you don’t believe me, write something with a standard Bic pen and then switch to a jumbo sized permanent marker. It takes a lot more effort to achieve a similar degree of control.

In all fairness, it’s good for knitters who prefer smaller gauges to work on large ones from time to time. I know that when I spend a lot of time on smaller needles, I tend to concentrate all of my movement into my hands and away from my wrists and arms. Using a large needle reminds me and retrains me to make knitting closer to a whole body experience.

If you learned to knit on large needles and always felt a little intimidated by needles smaller than an 11 or 13 (7 and 9 mm respectively), it’s great if you are learning new techniques and have found a way to do so on familiar territory. But let me encourage you, if you want longer lasting more forgiving garments, to experiment with a slightly smaller gauge from time to time. You may very well impress yourself.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

In the Thick -- and Thin -- of it

Harper and I seem to be on a track about thick and thin yarns -- she working from the thick yarn angle, and I, from the thin yarn side. Like she says, there’s been a lot of interest in really thick yarn and working up projects quickly. It can be a good thing if you’re a beginner and want to see quick results. It is tempting to be satisfied with that.

But that isn’t always the best way to go. Big yarn makes big, clunky stitches and big, clunky fabrics that may not drape well. Thick yarns are more expensive than thin yarns, per ounce or gram. It also gets used up much faster, so it doesn’t give you as much play time for the buck. After a while, you may get bored with big yarns because, in the long run, it may not be that satisfying. If you try exploring different pattern stitches in thicker yarns, you may be dissatisfied with how the fabric turns out because the focus is on the yarn, not on the stitches.

Thin yarns keep you busy a lot longer for much less cost. Thin yarns are much more portable, so you’re not carrying around a big project. Pattern stitches usually come out much more classy-looking and exciting in a thin yarn or thread than in a thick one because you see the pattern that it makes rather than just the yarn.

You may need a path to get from using big stuff to little stuff. Number 10 cotton is a good thread to play with to explore thin stuff. There’s a lot of thinner stuff out there, but #10 is a great place to start. It comes in a lot of colors. It also comes in different qualities, with some very nice stuff and some that is really inexpensive. You can knit with it (just plain knit on 4mm needles makes a nice lacy fabric) or crochet with it (a much more common idea). You can start with a big needle/hook and make a really open fabric (think about big rectangles to make lacy window curtains or table coverings). And then you can work your way down to smaller needles/hooks and really appreciate the elegant, crisp fabric that comes from a firm gauge. Doilies and other table coverings can be a lot of fun to make, and their patterns can be anything from really simple to really complicated.

Looking at a simple rectangle in double crochet using a size G hook isn't so exciting (see right side of picture). But a small net stitch can look much better. One example I call Single Crochet Lite is a chain-1 net stitch: over a base of an even number of stitches, chain 2 to turn. (Skip 1 st, sc1 in next st) across, ending with sc1 in the last stitch. Repeating this row, you end up making sc1 in each ch-space, and chain over each sc. For a more open look, do ch-2 instead of chain 1. The neat thing about the chain stitches is that they keep the single crochets from stretching out of shape.

You can knit the same idea using a #6 or larger needle and just knit back and forth. In the sample above, half is just garter stitch, the other half is seed stitch. They look so much alike, I'm not sure it's worth the effort to do anything more than just straight knit.
The trick to using yarn that is much thinner than the hook/needle is that you need to let the tool define the shape of the stitch -- don’t tighten it because it feels too loose. It IS too loose -- that is the point of the exercise -- and it can come out very nicely. Notice that the stitches aren’t all uniform. Some are bigger, some are smaller. That’s just fine.
I think I will use the garter stitch on 6's to make some sheer curtains for my apartment.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Books and Big Gauges, part 1

Enter your local Barnes and Noble (at least in my area), and you will find, displayed prominently for a knitting book one or two books of the Twinkle Knits line (designed by Wenlan Chia). A cursory review of the pictures reveals trendy shapes made in super chunky yarns on waif-like models, reminiscent of the Italian runways. In fact, the author’s designs have been featured there.

Chia's designs feature far more shaping and textural interest than are usually to be found in such large gauges, and detailed descriptions of how to think about gauge when working with large yarns, altering a pattern from flat pieces to working in the round, and the use of “English shoulder shaping” (in which the shoulder seams are actually located on the upper back, to produce a more tailored, streamlined effect). Considering how hefty seams are in these large yarns, such attention to detail really can pay off.

However, there are some things good tailoring and design just can’t counter. The generation of knitters that learned to knit in the last five to ten years generally started with big yarn and large needles in pursuit of instant and eclectic results. When I worked in yarn retail, the only yarns we possibly sold more of than highly textured novelty yarns were super chunky wools, acrylics, and such. It was impossible to keep 16” circular, size 15 needles in stock (for anyone outside the US, that’s 10 mm, 40 cm). That’s exactly the market to which Twinkle Knits caters. Between the two books I have seen thus far, I have yet to find a pattern that calls for a needle smaller than 13 (9mm).

In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with this. It is certainly true that bigger gauges work up faster over fewer stitches, and that bigger stitches are easier to see and understand.
The problem is not with the designs. It is with the yarn. Gauges that loose grow. I have heard many “old school” knitters complain of this problem with projects calling for such modest needles as 8 and 9 (5 and 5.5 mm respectively). This growth is much more noticeable on larger needles, and has a much more significant impact on fit than on smaller ones. Every knit stitch traces a shape with the yarn. Between stitches are gaps in the fabric. As the garment is worn and subjected to gravity, those shapes and spaces adjust themselves, just like houses settle into the ground and stop being perfectly level as they age. On the gauges in question in the Twinkle series, that growing can mean extra inches on your garment. That fitted, waist length jacket will turn into a hip length “boyfriend sweater” with cuffs you will need to roll up. And your lacy tunic will eventually become your summer bathrobe.

These patterns also will not wear well. If super chunky yarns were spun as tightly as their lighter weight counterparts, they would feel like rope. Looser spinning means weaker yarn. Weaker yarn means shedding and pills. The beautiful cabled jacket that you made to cover up your little black dress will eventually become the expensive sweater you only wear on laundry day.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Continuous Granny, part 2

The beginning of the continuous granny looked like a weird mutation in the last blog, but that was just a beginning. As you can see from the picture on the right, it still looks a bit weird after a few rounds.

An asymmetric version of something that is normally symmetrical always takes a bit of getting used to.

Now, the point of this exercise is to make a whole afghan from one granny square, so I would normally be going around and around for a really long time -- about an afghan's worth. So stopping after just a few rounds to show what it looks like rather defeats the purpose. But I wanted to address how to end the thing. What I do is finish off after turning a corner and making a few slip stitches to blend the end into the current row line.

Then, to finish the edge, work a round of some edging -- like a shell stitch, as shown above.

Now, I've known some people who really liked this idea, but at the same time, it may seem really strange to other people. It seemed worth sharing.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

In praise of coils and afghans

There are lots of very clever and fancy afghan and throw patterns out there, but sometimes I want a throw (or a blanket for my bed) that is simple, brainless to make, and focusing more on the yarn than on fancy stitchwork. One easy solution is to cast on or chain as many stitches as appropriate, choose a stitch, and just work back and forth until the piece is either big enough or I run out of yarn, whichever comes first.

This can be a problem if I have a set amount of yarn and don't want to end up with something too short for how wide it is. In this case, it feels better to start small and make a big square. I could work in rounds, where each layer of stitches has a beginning and an end, but there may be two minor disadvantages: (1) there is a visual line where the row ends line up, and (2) I have to remember when I get to the end of the round. Case in point is the granny square in crochet. The nice thing about the traditional granny square is that you are always working into spaces, never into an actual stitch. That means you don’t have to watch things so carefully.

Rather than fussing with lots of little squares and having to join them all together, why not just make one big granny square for the whole afghan? It can work out very nicely. If, however, your brain is watching a fun movie while your hands are zipping along on the square, you may find at some point that you are going in a coil -- the end of the round has disappeared. Not necessarily a bad thing.

In fact, you could start out in a coil as if you did it on purpose. Here’s one way: Chain 5, slip stitch in the last chain from the hook to make a ring. Chain 4. Double crochet 3 in the chain-5 ring. (Chain 3, double crochet 3 in the same ring) 3 more times to make the 4 sides. Then start the coil: Chain 1. Make a corner (double crochet 3, chain 3, double crochet 3) -- all in the chain 4 space. *Chain 1. Make another corner in the next chain 3 space. Repeat from * around until you hit a chain-1 space. From here on, there are only 3 things to do: make 3 double crochets into a chain-1 space, chain 1 as you skip over a 3 double crochet group, or make a corner.

As you can see from the picture above, it looks like a mutation at first. But after a few rounds, it smooths out and is just like a granny square -- only without that place where the round ends.

Rules: Always make a corner into the chain-3 space of a previous corner. Always make 3 double crochets into a chain-1 space. Always chain 1 as you skip over a 3 double crochet group. And if it turns out that you skipped a chain 1, pretend that you didn’t. And if it turns out that you chained 1 when you should have chained 3, pretend that the 3 chains are there and work accordingly.
Once you get the hang of the thing, it is really remarkably satisfying -- unless you were really looking for a pattern that involved lots of counting and colors and thinking..

Friday, June 6, 2008

More Notes on Gauge

Gauge can be a difficult subject for the beginning needle worker.  First of all, it is counter intuitive:  the smaller the gauge the more stitches per inch, and the larger the gauge the fewer stitches per inch.  For many, this sounds backwards, because more is usually, well, more.  But if you look at a swatch with a ruler, it quickly makes more sense--if the stitches are smaller, more of them will fit into an inch (or centimeter, if you go by the metric system).  The same applies to rows per inch.

The other thing that can be difficult about gauge is how to make the swatch.  Until you have a real feel for how your knitting or crocheting is, it's important to make a nice, big gauge swatch.  Often people work more loosely or tightly at the very beginning of a project than they do further in, sort of like how hand writing becomes a little sloppy after the first page or so.  If your gauge swatch is of your starting gauge, it may not give any good information about how your project is going to work.

If your project is going to be worked in the round, make your gauge swatch in the round; and if it is going to be made of flat pieces, make the gauge swatch in flat pieces.  In knitting, most people purl at a different gauge than they knit, and working in the round or flat will usually determine how frequently you do each.    Some people have such different gauges in knitting than in purling that they use different needle sizes to make their knitting look even.  In crochet, all the stitches lean in one direction, so working in rows corrects for that slant.  Working in rounds, however, makes all the stitches face the same direction, not only does this give the stitch a different look, but it reinforces the slant of the stitches.  While this may not seem relevant to gauge, it does change the drape of the fabric, which is the point of finding a good gauge.

Finally, new needle workers are often very careful about following patterns to the letter, not realizing that every person handles the yarn and needles a little differently.  The gauge and needle size recommended in any given pattern are suggestions.  If the gauge cannot be achieved by using the suggested needle size, do not choose the recommended needle size over the prescribed gauge.  Play around with needle size until you get the right gauge.  It might not be exactly what the pattern says, but it will make the pattern work.

In the end, the purpose of measuring gauge and making a gauge swatch is to make the best possible fabric in your project and to make sure that project fits whatever dimensions it needs to.  And how you knit or crochet is just as unique as your fingerprint.  Happy knitting!

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Vagaries of gauge

The first most important thing about a project is that it come out right in the end. In order for this to happen, gauge can be really important or completely irrelevant.

Harper’s situation shows how funny gauge can be. Even though almost all of her project makes a nice fabric on one needle, the little bit that is the important design detail insisted on a larger needle. This is not a democracy. In order for that part to work out, the whole thing should be done on the larger needle, and the rest of the fabric would come out just fine.

In another situation where gauge made a difference, a large woman wanted to knit a simple sweater on large needles. She had a pattern she liked, but it was too small for her and worked at a smaller gauge (about 3 or 3½ stitches per inch). She wanted to work on 15’s at about 2 stitches per inch. So she picked out some yarn (a double strand of worsted weight), and we figured out that the pattern should work for her if she followed the instructions for the petite size and kept an eye on how long she wanted the pieces to be. By golly, it worked. So gauge information can be useful for something.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Quick Tip

I love cables. Cables are one of the reasons I started knitting in the first place. However, they pose certain challenges. Specifically, they can cause gauge problems.

When you make a cable it twists the fabric, making the gauge of the cable tighter than the rest of the fabric. They also shorten your row gauge, because the stitches in the cable are pulled diagonally.

Where am I going with all of this?

I started a sweater. Most of it is in 2x2 ribbing, with a cable panel in the center front, and maybe along the sleeves when I get that far. I did a gauge swatch with multiple needle sizes and of all of the stitches I planned to use. All seemed well, until I actually started the sweater. The problem was that I chose the needle size that worked best with the ribbing. It's going to make up the bulk of the sweater, right?

After working through the first eight inches of sweater, I discovered that the perfect ribbing gauge was way too tight for the cable pattern, which was coming out very stiff--it could stand up by itself. There was only one thing for it: I tore it all out and started over on a larger needle size.

Bottom line: If you are make a project with a cable pattern, use the gauge that is best for the cable, not the ground pattern.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Stripes and Crochet

Finally, that colorwork post I promised...

My favorite way to use color is with stripes in crochet. Of course I love fairisle knitting, but I don't always want to cart a chart around and worry about whether I put the Post-it/row marker in the right spot the last time I set it down. I also like working on things I don't have to think about, and stripes are a great way to make a larger object out of the 50 gazillion single skeins I bought "just to pet" that all happen to go together because I really like blue.

Why crochet, you ask? Because, unlike knitting, each stitch is its own unit and dips down a little into the previous row (kind of like what happens when you make stripes in garter stitch, if you're a knitter). Also, a lot of crochet pattern stitches can be done one row at a time, rather than taking several rows per repeat. This means that it's a lot easier to get different looks with different rows. If you mix pattern stitches and stripe, you can end up with something that actually looks kind of like fairisle from a distance and still looks really good close up.

How to put the colors together? I like to have at least three colors going at once (one row a piece). This way, you never have two consecutive rows of the same thing. Keeping the stripe pattern to one row each keeps the final look from being too stripy.

I start by making a pile of all the little bits and pieces that I think might go together. Then I line them up so that I think they shade nicely from one to the next. It's also good to make sure that each consecutive grouping of yarns looks ok together (as many yarns in a group as you plan to use in a repeat).

For this example, my theme was blue, and when I lined them all up, they shaded from blue and brown earthtones through sky blues. Most likely you will end up with one or two yarns that you have more of than you do of the others, and that's a good thing, it will help with unity. Try to make sure all the yarns have roughly the same thickness--if your working primarily with worsteds, a dk or two is ok but avoid fingering, that kind of thing.

What do different combinations do? Like I said, try to keep the weights somewhat uniform. Don't worry too much about fiber content or texture unless their are allergies or washing instructions to consider. Really, though, this is something to do with all those onesies and scraps in your stash. That said, having all the yarns be about the same shade or of similar colors gives a really subtle, but rich look, as demonstrated in the first photo. Having similar colors with one bright or contrasting color really reinforces the fairisle concept, like so:

Of course, several contrasting yarns will look like stripes:

In the case of the sample that these photos came from, I was working in the round with groups of four colors. If I had worked in rows, a pattern would have emerged with the stripes, where some yarns would have repeated closer together than others, which can be a very nice effect. When working in rows, I like to combine that effect with different groupings of single crochet-oriented rows and double crochet-oriented rows. When working in the round, the side that is normally the wrong side can change the interplay of the colors in interesting ways, giving you something else to play with.

What all of this means is that it's really good to swatch before starting the project to figure out what combinations of stitches, number of colors, and which side of the work looks best.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

In praise of the Feather & Fan -- and Stitch Markers

This traditional knitting pattern is probably my favorite afghan pattern. It looks good in thin or thick yarn, makes a good scarf, stole, or throw. It's the simplest complicated-looking pattern ever. For all its wavy, lacy effects, every row has the same number of stitches. The pattern is only a 4-row repeat, and 3 of those rows are simply knitting or purling across! Doing the pattern in a single yarn focuses on the contrast between lacy and solid sections. If you change colors after each repeat, the focus is on the wavy texture (good for an ocean/water theme).

Even the one thinking row isn't hard at all, just increasing and decreasing across. It is good to have a row where you have to think: this is the row where you can tell quickly if there are any problems. If things aren’t lining up properly, you will see it on the pattern row.

This is also the introduction to the miracle of stitch markers for many new knitters. If you haven’t used markers in your knitting, you may think they are just one more silly gadget the yarn shop folks are trying to foist on you to get your money. Considering that markers cost only a buck or two (or a whopping 5 dollars for more sturdy ones), that is hardly an effective tool for yarn shops to get more of your money, but I know it may feel that way.

If you feel you don’t need markers and just start working a feather and fan blanket, you will spend more time counting (up to 150 or however many stitches) than enjoying your knitting. And it's really easy for the pattern not to work. The pattern won't look like the picture... and how come the circular needle isn't long enough -- and how did you get 500 stitches on there? It happens.

Out of exasperation, you may break down and buy some markers. Then, once you start placing a marker after each repeat of the pattern, you will know the joy of having to count only to 18 (or 17 if you are using some variations of the pattern) -- a much, much smaller number. More experienced knitters may count to 3 (for the first set of decreases), to 6 (for the increases), and then look ahead to make sure there are 6 stitches to the next marker for the last set of decreases. Life becomes so much simpler and pleasant that you laugh out loud! And you will appreciate the order and joy that these little rings bring to your life when they aren’t busy disappearing into the sofa cushions.

And on the rows where you just knit or purl across, simply slip each marker to the other needle when you come to it. That way, they're waiting for you when it matters.

Just a satisfying pattern.

Friday, April 18, 2008

And Finally...

So, about those foundation stitches, I thought I'd provide some photos. For trying out foundation double crochet, I would recommend opening the link to the instructions (below) in a new window, and then adjusting both that window and this so that they may be viewed side by side. That way, you can use this page as a reference as you work.

If you want to start a project with foundation double crochet, start with 3 chain stitches, and begin with step two on this page, except that you insert your hook in the third chain from the hook:

Following these instructions, your work should look like this at the end of step four:

The loop right above the head of the hook (that the double crochet seems to be coming out of) is the chain stitch made in step three. It is where you will insert your hook to make the next stitch. It's hard to keep an eye on if you aren't used to it, so stretch it out a little and hold on to it while you finish the double crochet.

After step six, your work will look like this:

Again, the top of the hook is touching the loop where you insert the hook for the next stitch. Once you have these first couple stitches done, it gets much easier to see what you are doing. After several stitches, your work will look like this:

As you can see, it looks exactly like a row of double crochet, and that's how you treat it. And you treat the initial three chains like a turning chain.
I hope that helps. Next up for harper (that's me): color work.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Getting Stranded can be a good thing

Just noticed that all the color stuff I wrote before was about using only one strand of yarn at a time. Holding multiple strands can also be a powerful way to use color, especially since thin yarns are often much more cost-effective than thick ones.

If you hold two strands together, the relative colors of the strands matters. If the two colors are similar, you end up with a fabric of a third color that is not quite one color or the other color -- so holding a pink and an orange of similar intensity will give you a peach colored fabric. If the two colors contrast a lot, you end up with a tweed fabric, like holding an off-white with brown or navy. Either way, the fabric is more interesting than just using a single color by itself.

If one of the strands is multi-colored, even better.

Then there are also thin strands of texture: thin mohairs, boucle yarns, and furry things. These kinds of yarns may not show up in normal yarn shops (because they don't sell very well), but they do sometimes show up in thrift stores, as well as in stores for weaving supplies.

If you have a number of yarns that almost go together, but not quite, holding a single strand of a coordinating textured yarn (like mohair) can really help pull it all together. A single strand of mohair is also really useful because it lets you stitch with a much bigger needle/hook. The fuzziness of the mohair likes a looser gauge to make a fabric with a softer drape. The yarn you hold with the mohair gives it more body, another good thing.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Color Blind

Speaking of jumping in with both feet, my biggest challenge with stitching has always been COLOR. Gorgeous projects calling for a million colors would blithely start out by telling me simply to take all my leftover yarns to end up with what they had pictured. Right. Clearly, they had never seen my collection of leftover yarns.

Then, eventually, I did just jump in. I started making what I call my ugly afghans. Afghans made from such a scattered range of colors that you could never have a worse hair day than these creations looked. No matter how bad your day, you could curl up in one of these afghans and take comfort that your day was better than they looked. Spilling cocoa (by accident, of course) on one couldn't make it look worse. You get the picture.

And a funny thing happened: I had my first epiphany. As long as the pattern was simple and consistent, each afghan turned out looking like it was meant to look like that -- a lot like the new generation of stuffed toys coming out these days. For example, the traditional granny square afghan is made up of all kinds of leftover scraps, but the last round of each square is the same color. That unifying rule adds stability. Having additional rules, like how you arrange the squares, also adds stability.

I also learned two other rules that made life so much easier: Kaffe Fassett (and others, I'm sure, but he's one who got the most attention) pointed out that when you gather up your stray bits of yarn, organize them in color order (lining them up in a row) before winding them up in two big balls. Two balls because you start winding the bits from one end of the line to the middle of the line, and the second ball from the middle of the line to the other end. That way, when you use two colors in a row of stitching, there will be the most contrast. Duh -- why didn't I think of that? Just that amount of organizing creates wonderful stability in how the colors end up.

The last rule is a basic mantra from the fashion world: Light, Bright, and Dark. If you don't want all the energy of ten million colors, remember that 3 is really plenty. And for any three that you choose, choose a trio where one is clearly Light, another one is clearly Bright, and the third is clearly Dark -- all compared to each other. You could even use this idea in sorting your odd bits of yarn (see above).

These three rules have made my crocheting and knitting make much more enjoyable, and they make me look remarkably clever with very little effort, which is always a good thing.

Sunday, March 16, 2008


Maybe I lack in brain cells, but the whole clockwise vs. counter-clockwise thing baffled me for the longest time.  Then I realized it only works if you watch the yarn over by pointing the hook or needles towards your face.  That simple, if awkward, act changed my understanding of needlework.

If you are new to knitting or crochet, perhaps the most difficult thing to remember is not to think.  I kid you not--if you try to focus your brain on what you are trying to accomplish, you will start having a hard time learning.  You just have to jump in with both feet.  

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Building on the good news

It may seem difficult to learn the basics of knit and crochet because you have to coordinate your thinking with your seeing and with what your hands are doing. Funny thing is, both crafts are just combinations of the same elements.

The basics of both crafts grow out of some combination of Insert, Yarnover, and Pull though. That's all there is to it. Really. And for each, there is a normal way to do it, and doing it differently makes a difference in the fabric.

A slip knot, to start at a starting point, is 2 yarnovers, 1 pull through, another yarnover, and a pull through.

Now, in crochet (for right-handed folk) the yarnovers are always clockwise around the hook. For lefties, the yarnovers are always counter clockwise. Either way, the hook is grabbing the yarn from underneath.

Some people grab the yarn from on top for the first yarnover after they insert the hook into the stitch, but that twists the stitch just a bit, and makes a visual effect.

In knitting, the normal yarnovers are always counterclockwise. This seems confusing sometimes because you also have to swing the yarn forward or backward to switch between knits and purls -- but that is not wrapping the yarn around the needle. If you wrap clockwise, you make a twisted stitch -- which you may want, or not. Normally, you insert your right needle into the leading edge (the side closer to the point) of the stitch on the left needle. Knitting into the back -- or non-leading edge -- of the stitch also twists the stitch.

In crochet, a stitch is everything that happens from the time there is one loop on your hook until the next time there is one loop on your hook. A lot can happen there, so there are lots of possibilities in crochet stitches.

In knitting, a stitch is everything that happens between the time a stitch is on the left needle and when it gets moved over to the right needle. Usually, all that happens is that you put a new loop through the old loop, but fancier stitches involve putting more loops in, adding yarnovers, or moving the old loop to a temporary needle to make cables.

Thinking of sttiches in terms of these elements makes it easier to communicate. Lots of stitchers run into problems when they are just shown how to do something and don't know what anything is called. Building that literacy is really empowering.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

There's good news, and there's bad news...

The bad news:

The beginning of any project in knitting or crochet is usually the hardest part.  So is learning almost any technique, or even learning to knit or crochet in the first place.  In knitting, casting on is the most awkward part, and one usually needs to learn how several times before it sticks.  The first row is also usually difficult to work into.  Joining in the round, especially when double pointed needles are involved, is also a pain to learn, especially if the yarn is slippery.  In crochet, the basic movements that make up the entire craft are involved in the foundation chain, making it perhaps the most important thing to learn.  And it often takes a lot of practice to learn how to do that loosely and evenly enough for the first row to work nicely.

Whenever one works in the round or learns a new pattern stitch, it takes several rows before the work looks like anything recognizable in either craft.  The line between project and tangle is thin, indeed.  

As has been discussed in the recent interest in foundation stitches in crochet, they too are difficult to learn, and for the same reason.  It is difficult, in the beginning, to see whether the work looks like a mess because it is right or because it is wrong.  I will make a post on that in a few days.

The good news:

In this culture, we often start learning new things with easy stuff.  Once the easy stuff is mastered, we learn things that are progressively more difficult.  Needle arts are not like that.  Once the basic concepts are mastered, the apparently hard stuff turns out to be variations on the original theme.  In other words, if you can figure out the hard stuff in the beginning, you can do almost anything.

So, if you knit, and you want to learn how to make lace or cables, don't let the appearance of the finished product intimidate you.  Yes, they are more awkward than just knitting or just purling.  And, yes, it is difficult to keep track of your rows.  But they are just variations on knitting and purling.  The former makes increases and decreases in a specific pattern, so if you've made a hat with decreases at the top and something else that involves increases, lace won't be that hard.  The latter, despite the extra needle, is exactly the same as knitting, it just knits the stitches out of order.

If you crochet, the major hurdle is learning how to look at your work and see where one stitch begins and ends.  Once you are comfortable with identifying a double crochet versus a single crochet and each stitch as its own thing, you can do anything.  In the case of foundation double crochet, to use the recent topic of interest, if you are really comfortable with chain stitch and what that looks like, and really comfortable with double crochet and what that looks like, then it's not so hard to combine the two in a useful way.

You've pedaled all the way up the hill, now you can coast.

Monday, February 18, 2008

More about Foundation Stitches

I'm seeing more interest in the idea of foundation stitches, which is very cool. A description, including pictures for foundation double crochet, is at

This was put up by my friend Mary Cahill, who also thought up the name Slam Dunk Slippers for the slipper pattern a few posts ago. Some of the information there, including the pictures, are scanned from the Learn How Book, put out by Coats and Clark -- my copy is dated 1959, and the pictures are on page 11. Not every edition of the Learn How Book (and there are lots of editions) have this technical tidbit. Earlier crochet books refer to any stitch used to begin a project other than chain stitch as a Foundation Stitch.

Some people are so excited when they learn about foundation stitches that they ask, "Why don't they teach you this stuff at the very beginning?" I hesitate to teach this concept until the crocheter is advanced enough to see the structure of the stitches. If a stitcher doesn't know what s/he's looking at, being specific about where and how to insert the hook can just be really confusing.

More visual aids for this technique, including how to do it with stitches other than double crochet, are on the DVD Crocheters' Guide, put out by Victorian Video.

The article in Interweave Crochet a few issues ago was interesting because it compared foundation double crochet with extended double crochet, also known as the Elmore Stitch. The only difference between the two is where you insert your hook. With extended double crochet, you are stitching into a row that is already there. With foundation stitches, you are making new stitches. While this may not seem like much, it makes all the difference in the world. Kind of like the difference between a winch and a wench, even though there's only one letter different.

Most important, with foundation stitches, you want to keep an eye on that chain stitch you're adding at the base of the stitch. You want to mush the stitch around a little so that chain is at the base of the stitch you end up with.

The posting on the South Bay Crochet site has been useful for a number of people -- it helps if you have some yarn and a hook in hand to try it yourself as you read. That way you can see what you are doing and compare it with the description and the pictures.

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Purse

Here are pictures of two versions of the Spot Purse:

The one on the right is a prototype after felting -- that is the one with the flower on the flap. It used two skeins of yarn and has only one flap that goes from the top of one side over the purse opening. The one on the left hasn't been felted yet. You have seen this one in process all along.

I will be felting this one this weekend to see how it turns out. They both look big in the pictures, but the felted one is about 10 inches wide, and the unfelted one is about 13 inches wide and about 9-1/2 inches deep -- it will be smaller after washing. By having a flap on both sides, I used a good part of a 3rd skein of yarn.

This is a good sized purse for me, and I really enjoyed the process and how it turned out.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Wrapping up the Spot Purse

The last post about this purse described the gusset and handles. Here is a picture of how that turns out. The other end looks just the same.

Just before the handle starts, the edge has a corner (near where the yarn is wandering away). There are 4 of these corners.

The next step is to fold the whole thing in half so the handles are next to each other, and stitch the side seams from those corners down to the bottom edge.

The handles right now are flat. Slip stitch the long edges together to make a tube for each handle, and it felts nicely into a rounded handle.

I'll have pictures of the finished item in the next post, with any luck.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Felting, part 2

It takes me a while to transfer photos onto my computer. Better late than never, right?

So, felting.

When you want to felt something, it can be difficult to estimate what the size of the finished product will be based on the item before it is washed. What I like to do is figure out from the number of stitches and the finished measurements (either those I plan to use if I am making it up, or those given in the pattern otherwise) what my finished guage will be. This is the part where you do lots of swatching. Remember that how something felts depends not only on the fiber, but on the brand, color, and your washing machine as well.

The two green swatches are actually identical-one is felted, the other not. Your swatch does not have to be big, as felting is far from exact. In this case, the standard sized business card on the right shows the scale.

With this particular project, I used sport weight wool. I like using lighter weight yarns for felting, because it keeps the finished product from being to bulky or stiff. A good guage for sport weight yarn, in general, is about six stitches per inch, and I would have gotten that guage with this yarn on a size 5 needle (US). Because it was a felting project, I wanted the finished product to measure about that guage, so I used a size 8 needle (US) to get about 4.5 stitches per inch, and felted it until it measured 5.5 stitches per inch (close enough).

While I did not try to get any specific row guage, it is also important to note that I kept track of both my before and after measurements for the row guage as well.

Using my stitch guage and row guage information, I was able to figure out how many stitches I needed to cast on, how many inches I needed to work, and how many times I needed to wash the item to get the finished product. In this particular case, I was making a hat:

The math told me to make the hat about twelve inches long before decreasing for the crown, so it looked really long before I felted it. The finished product looked like this when I put my husband under it:

A perfect fit!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


How silly of me! I just realized that the name of the yarn store in Fort Smith is Stringtown, not Stringtime. I've gone through and corrected my posts, but I also wanted to apologize for any inconvenience or confusion my error may have caused.

Happy knitting!

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Calling all comments!

Do any of you, dear readers, have any products or stores you really like?

We'd love to hear about them.

If you have a product that you would like to see reviewed, we'd also love to hear from you!

Monday, January 14, 2008

Product Review

When I went to Stringtown in Fort Smith, AR, I had to buy needles for my project, specifically, one 16-inch circular, US size seven (4.5mm)needle, and matching dpns. The brand Stringtown carries is Chiao Goo, which makes surprisingly inexpensive bamboo needles. The double points are pretty standard glove needles (short dpns). The were very easy to work with: no snags, easy to handle, dull points (but that's to be expected in bamboo).

However, I was less impressed with the circulars. They are constructed in a similar fashion to Crystal Palace bamboo circulars: narrow nylon cable, smooth bamboo needle, with a metal casing connecting the two. Like the larger sizes of Crystal Palace circulars, the needles would squeak a little as the metal and bamboo rubbed against each other, but my real complaint was that the join between the cable and the needle was less than smooth. I am a fairly loose knitter (partially because I knit continental-that is with the yarn in my left hand), so I was surprised that I had to force the stitches over the join in every round of the hat I was making. It was like every row was the cast-on row.

Now, that hat that I bought the needles for was out of a cashmerino blend. By the time I finished the hat, I had some cotton bought from Angelhair in Nashville that also required size seven needles. Despite the fact that the cast-on row in the cotton was also horrible (largely because the cotton tried to untwist itself in the knitted cast-on), the rest of the project was fine. The Chiao Goo circulars worked just fine with the cotton, and I plan to use them again.

So, my review: If you have the option of buying Chiao Goo bamboo needles, don't think twice about buying their double points. They're a great frugal purchase. I plan to buy more of these as I need them.

The circulars on the other hand, require a little more consideration. I do not recomend them for animal fibers or novelty yarns (ribbon, eyelash, and the like). They would probably work fine for mohair, though. If you are going to use a plant fiber, especially one that does not split easily, they will work just fine.

But whether you plan to use plant or animal fibers, only by the circulars if you don't mind a little squeaking now and then. If you are using plant fibers, and you don't mind a little squeaking, then these circulars will likewise be a good buy.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

No longer from the road

After a long, two-week drive cross-country, I covered 7400 miles, 18 state and DC, and a lot of knitting (and a little crocheting too). As I posted previously, I visited a wonderful shop in Fort Smith, AR. While there, I bought some lovely yarn in the clearance section (to play with) and some red cashmerino (for a hat for my brother-in-law). Of course, I also bought needles for the hat, as I wanted to finish the hat before we made it back to Fort Smith, so I could give it to hime directly rather than have to mail it. Leave it to me to forget yarn needles for tucking in the loose ends!

Of course, that doesn't matter much while the hat is still on the needles, but by the time we had worked our way to Columbus, OH, the loose ends were all that stood in the way of being done. When we spent the following night in Nashville, TN, I looked up yarn stores in the Yellowpages. There were three, so we went to the one closest to our hotel: Angelhair Yarn Co.

It was a really nice place. They had a wide variety of yarn, patterns, and supplies; good service; great lighting; and were well organized. In addition to the yarn needles I needed, I bought some cotton and a skein of Aloo, by Himalaya Yarns. Aloo is a fiber made from a kind of palm frond from a tree also called aloo. The skein I have is coarse, kind of like a cross between hemp and linen.

Speaking of linen, they also carry a brand of linen that is both soft and machine washable. I had never seen that before, and it was really nice. Unfortunately, it was a little outside my budget as well.

Anyway, more later.