Monday, October 24, 2011

What the yarn wants to be

The last post was about a new pattern coming out by the end of this week, which represents something of a new direction for TECHknitting blog--a pattern offered for sale.  This is a small pattern for a ladies cap, called the "Elizabeth cap."  In the comments, a reader wrote:

 "...I'll be especially interested to read about your process."

Which got me thinking backwards and thus begat today's post.

* * *
The drive for every knitting project comes from a different place, I think.  Sometimes, the project is product-driven ("I need a red sweater for the Christmas party").  Sometimes, the project is process-driven ("I love knitting cables"). Often, a couple of drives collide ("I'll knit a red cable sweater!")  But this particular project, this cap, was mostly yarn-driven.

As stated in the last post, I was away from knitting for a long time.  Oh, I did keep knitting the occasional project, but mostly on yarn I had laying around.  When I sold my yarn shop, I held back a *bunch* of my favorite yarn--for years, yarn shopping was unnecessary.  When the long drought was over, yarn shops were full of all kinds of new yarn.  Gone were the old standards (sniff, Brunswick Germantown, RIP).  In their place were new! exciting! yarns!

Among these new yarns were "hand painted."  These looked excellent in the skein, but when knit up in stockinette, they seemed odd and splotchy. Yet, the colors were intriguing and inspired, so I kept trying.

Texture work was a flop--knitting cables and other textures in these yarns was a waste of energy.  The textures were nearly invisible against the surging colors.

Lace work was a flop--the repetitive patterns which make lace inserts so attractive were disrupted by the non-repetitive color placement.  The variations-on-a-theme which anchor the most beautiful lace projects were equally lost.

What the heck was that yarn trying to be?  Not stockinette, not cables, not lace inserts, not lace projects, so what? It bugged me for a long time.

Of course, by this time, I had a bunch of this kind of yarn laying around.  So, one day, just to use up the yarn, I made a pair of socks in stockinette, with garter stitch heels.

Well! The heel was everything the rest of the sock was not--the socks were splotchy, the heels were beautiful strips of color. The "heads" of the stitches alternating down the length of the garter ridges made dots of contrasting color all the way down the row, so the colors worked together in the fabric in the same way they worked in the skein.  Finally. Hallelujah.

Yet, although this solved the color-splotch problem,  garter stitch has issues of its own.  In garter stitch, the yarn is laid into the fabric at an angle, rather than laying in flat sheets, as it does is stockinette. All these angled stitches make the yarn thick rather than tall, so for a fabric of the same height, garter stitch takes considerately more yarn than does stockinette.  As a result:

  • the fabric is heavy.
  • containing as much reserve yarn as it does, garter-stitch fabric is stretchy and unstable lengthwise.  In other words, garter stitch wants to stretch and stretch and stretch when it is worn, as those angled stitches get dragged straighter and straighter through wear and gravity.  Harnessed in a good way, this is excellent.  For one example, garter stitch jackets made for children almost magically grow with their wearers, and this a really swell thing for little people. But for grownups, not so much.
  • because of the amount of yarn it takes, garter stitch is s-l-o-w to knit, which translates into b-o-r-i-n-g

The constraints were clear.  The project must be small; stretch must be wanted, but not so much that the garment became misshapen; and the yarn used be of a light weight, so that stretch and distortion could be combated by knitting more tightly.So, that was one train coming down the track--the need to find a project in which hand painted yarn of a light weight could be knit up in garter stitch.

Coming down the track in the other direction was the perennial train of necessity, here in the upper Midwest, to find a winter hat. The ideal hat would not create hat-hair and would not pin one's ears to one's head so that they ached after a short time.  Versatility would be a good thing, too: the choice to wear hair in, or hair out, and for the hat to be light enough to store in a pocket until needed.

Eventually, these two trains got switched onto the same track when I sat down to knit the nth winter hat of my career, using some light-weight hand-painted yarn knit in garter stitch.  This little cap emerged after several experiments in adding ease over the ears and over the cap back, but not over the front of the cap.  The final profile owes a lot to Elizabethan-era caps, which led to the name "Elizabeth cap." After all, Elizabethan women were required by custom to cover their hair at all times.  They must, I thought, have figured out a comfortable, attractive solution.

The yarn I chose, Pagewood Farms' Glacier Bay, has a lovely crunchy hand when firmly knit in garter stitch. Yet, the unfortunate reality is that Glacier Bay is not commonly available (although if you can find it, try it--it is a unique yarn, at a unique weight, and no, I am not related to the fine folks at Pagewood Farms in any way). So, I re-worked the cap in hand painted sock yarn, and that was satisfactory, also.

I've made four of these so far, and they seem popular.  This led me to write up the pattern (which will be available Thursday or Friday of this week).

That's a lot of backstory to freight down such a little cap.  But, it was fun to research and fun to write.  It's also been fun to wear, and to knit a bunch of them, and it's been a trip down memory lane to write the pattern.

In a nutshell, the process of designing this little project was letting the yarn be what wants to be.

--Best, TK


Anonymous said...

What a gorgeous photo!

SuzyLee said...

That was a very interesting process

Angeluna said...

Enjoyed reading through your process. Now I want to see photos of all of them.

{beige cannelle} said...

Cet article est vraiment très intéressant. Merci d'avoir pris le temps de nous raconter !

TECHknitter said...

de rien, TK

Angela said...

Love the backstory, love the cap! I know how much thought can go into every aspect of writing a good pattern, from yarn choice to stitch choice to how it will be worn, but you really made the process interesting. Don't have much time for personal knitting, but I may have to give this cap a try.

Anonymous said...

What a great use of handpainted yarn! It is always beautiful in the skein, but not always beautiful when knitted up.

Marissa said...

You have the unique ability to talk us through your process without making it boring or inconsequential. I mean, I read this post end to end, riveted by your explanation. And it's about a garter stitch hat! Thank you so much for sharing your very unique talent. (I am your polar opposite. I have NO ability to explain anything to even the most astute listener!) I am looking forward to this pattern release (and many more) with great anticipation. Your tips, tricks, and explanations are worth gold!

ThatCleverClementine said...

I read everything you write, but I am really grateful for this particular blog posting - thank you muchly for allowing us this peek into your process.

Marjorie said...

That is a lovely hat. I've had the same issue with variegated yarn, and I've gravitated to semi-solids, which I think give a nice balance between hand-dyed and yarns with an interesting range of colors. Those do seem to work with some textured stitches--but I always swatch to be sure. I also like the way the variegated yarn looks with modular knitting.

I also like to consider what the yarn "says to me," and I'll be eager to see how you solve this problem too.

wenat said...

You've seen planned pooling projects, right? Check out the pooled knits group on ravelry ( if you haven't. It's the most fun you can have with crazy clown-barf hand-dyed yarn.

Maria said...

Great post. Forgive me for going OT but I can't seem to e-mail you. I once found but can't find anymore a tutorial on hiding or avoiding the gap left when traditionally joining in the round on DPN. Please help! Much thanks,

TECHknitter said...

Hi Maria--the e-mail link is hiding on the "profile" page.

As to joining in the round, is the below the link you are looking for?

(You have to cut and paste this address into your web browser)
Best, TK

Jenny said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one who is disappointed by some of the handpainted yarns. Gorgeous in a hank, busy and not even close to resembling the same thing when wound or knit up. I'm now a pretty die-hard lover of Madelinetosh yarns and colourways, and love the slight variegation of shade in a single colour. The other type of colourways I adore are the Raven series by Blue Moon. Black with hints of other colours subtly throughout. I too have been working on a hat pattern out of sheer necessity, it must be functional first but has some cables and I think looks pretty damn good too. It's my first pattern and it's taken me a lot longer to create it than I anticipated but I will be so proud when it's done.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for using your talents to write this blog. I've knitted for a couple of years, but don't know the science behind why things behave the way they do -- you explain it in an understandable and interesting way. This explanation of garter helps to shed light on some of my experience with a recent hat! Also, having never felted, your felting explanation was very helpful. Thank you!

Maria said...

Thank you so much! That is the exact post I was looking for!

Siong Cai Yun said...

Hello. I'm a beginner for stitching and I'm planning to make a 8inches width scarf out of acrylic medium thick yarn (from daiso) with a size 6 needle (3.9-4mm) using garter stitch. However I'm confused of how many stitches do I need to make. I've casted 6inches (9stitches/inch) so far and I'm not sure if I have to cast more? Will garter stitch stretch width-wards? How many more stitches do I need to cast for a 8inches width scarf?

My email:

TECHknitter said...

Hi Siong: To answer the question about stretching: garter stitch is not known for stretching very much width-wise, if anything, it tends to stretch lengthwise. This means that as you wear the scarf, it might get longer and narrower, but it certainly won't get shorter and wider.Just HOW much it will stretch length-wise depends partly on what the fiber is--acrylic generally stretches more than wool, for example, while alpaca, cotton, hemp, rayon (from any source) and silk are notorious for stretching lengthwise. You state you are using acrylic, but there are many different ways to process acrylic, so it's not clear to me whether you yarn will stretch a lot or not so much--probably if it looks like wool (rather hairy) it won't stretch too much.

You state that your gauge is 9 st/inch. You also state that your needle is a 3.9 or 4.0 mm. I have to say I am surprised--usually, a gauge of 9 stitches per inch is achieved in very fine yarn, on a very small needle. I'm not quite sure now this gauge can be achieved on the needles you are using.

At any rate, the formula for how many stitches to cast on is as follows:

Find your number of stitches per inch, multiply that by the number of inches wanted, and that is the number of stitches to cast on.

For example,if I wanted an 8 inch wide scarf, and I was getting 5 stitches per inch, I would cast on 8 x 5, which is 40 stitches. Again, for a very slippery yarn, I would cast on more stitches, and knit the scarf shorter than I really wanted, to allow for the length-wise stretching. Just how many more stitches and how much shorter is a matter of judgment and experience: The first scarf will be something of an experiment, the second scarf will be perfect!

Please write again if this does not answer your question, OK?

Best regards, TK