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.

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