Sunday, April 8, 2007

Knitting seamless tubes & circles-part 4: how to use DPN's (double pointed needles)

How to use dpn's:
Double pointed needles are one of those rites of passage like riding a bike or high school graduation. On one side of the divide, you know you still have something to prove, on the other side of the divide, you've arrived and can't remember what the fuss was about.

Dpn's are like that: before you learn, you can't imagine how it works, after you learn, you can't remember what you were worried about. Remembering the process from this side of the divide, figuring out dpn's seemed most like learning to carry a big, empty box. Hard to get a hold of, awkward to carry, but not really difficult once you've got a grip.

Of course, "getting a grip" will be easier (literally and figuratively) if you use the easiest materials, arrange the needles the easiest way, hold the needles nicely and use tricks to avoid problem points.

If you're still with me, let's start with...

MATERIALS--the how and the why

1. Four needles or five?
(or: "finally, a use for high school geometry")

Sometimes dpn's come in sets of 4, sometimes, in sets of 5. For the time being, let's ignore just how we are going to make 4 or 5 needles stay in the work at the same time--we'll circle back to that later. The fact is, to operate dpn's, you only knit with two needles at a time, just like any other kind of knitting. The others are "holder needles." Until the time comes to knit with each in its turn, these just hold the stitches "around the back" as the cables on a circular needle do.
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If your dpn's came in a set of 4, the expectation is that, at rest, your tube will be on a triangle of 3 needles; the fourth needle will be the working needle. As you work with the fourth needle, your triangle grows into an irregular square, and then back again into a triangle as you get to the end of the working needle. If your dpn's came in a set of 5, the expectation is that, at rest, your tube will be on a square of needles; the fifth needle will be the working needle. As you work with the fifth needle, your square will grow into an irregular pentagon, and then back into a square as you get to the end of your working needle.

This variation is confusing: sometimes 4 needles, sometimes 5. You may wonder which way is better. The answer is, "buy needles in sets of 5," and the "why" behind it lies in your past--in high school shop class, or maybe geometry.

In shop class, your teacher probably yammered on and on about how wonderful triangles are--how easy it is to make them stable. See, if you nail down any one point on a triangle, the whole thing is frozen, it can't "rack" or twist into another shape. Squares aren't as rigid--even with one point nailed down, you can easily "rack" the square into a diamond shape. That's why squares are "triangulated"--inside your walls, the square stud walls are often divided into triangles, and bridges often feature trusses made of squares braced into triangles: the triangulation prevents the otherwise wobbly squares from racking and collapsing. The geometry version of all this is that once you nail down any one angle of a triangle, the other two angles must rigidly follow.

The result of this trip down memory lane? A triangle is a rigid shape, but a square isn't.

Now, rigidity IS a wonderful thing for building bridges or putting up walls. But for knitting, it's NOT such a wonderful thing--knitting is nicer when it is flexible. If you have your tube on 4 needles, you can rack your square into a fairly flat shape, a sort of a diamond, before you start knitting around with your fifth needle. By contrast, if you have your tube on three needles, you're working with a rigid shape--you really can't tug a tube on three needles flat before you start knitting around with your fourth needle.
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Another way of saying the same thing is that with the flattened-out diamond shape your working needles come together in a shallower angle, whereas with a triangle, you have a steeper angle of work where the working needles come together. The shallower your angle of work, the easier the knitting will be (that's also why back-and-forth knitting is easier on a long circular needle than on a short circular needle). Being able to pull your work into a diamond shape means your angle of work is shallower, and shallower=easier to knit.

Of course, nothing is ever simple, and the downside of 5 needles rather than 4 is more needles to control. Perhaps worse--you also have more potential spots for ladders. Nevertheless, when you're first beginning, the upside of more needles far outweighs the downside. (Not to mention: the next post in this series is about avoiding ladders!) Bottom line: buy and use dpn's in sets of 5, not 4.
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Athena with 5 <span class=2. Yarn and needles
Superwash wool is durable and washable. Steel needles don't break. Lady Logic might dictate knitting socks out of durable yarn on unbreakable needles, but she never went scrambling around the floor after slippery steel needles, or tore her hair out trying to hook all 5 plies of slippery superwash wool. So, for your first pair of socks, ignore Lady Logic. She doesn't know what she's talking about.

Yes, superwash is much more durable, but plain old wool is much more "sticky." The plies stay together, the fuzz holds onto the needles and it's much easier to work with. Yes, bamboo needles are harder to push through the fabric than shiny steel or nickel plated needles, but in sock knitting you WANT needles that stick to the fabric. Yes, bamboos break, but by the time they do, you'll be a pro and can pick up a set of (5) steel needles that'll last a lifetime.

Bottom line: for a greater chance at success when first starting, use plain old wool, and bamboo needles.

1. Working with thin yarn
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Much seamless tube knitting on dpn's is done on very thin yarn--such as socks or lace. Many knitters come to dpn's never having knitted on yarn that thin before. But knitting thin yarn requires different skills than knitting thick yarn. First, and most obviously, thin yarn requires a lot more patience--it goes slower. But beyond that, a certain nimbleness is required to maintain the tension on thinner needles with thinner yarn. You might need to wrap twice around a finger where you only need to wrap once for thicker yarn. You might need to hold your needles differently.

It's not a great idea to try acquiring the skill of thin yarn at the same time as you're trying to acquire the skill of working around lots of dangling needles. Bottom line: Knit something flat out of thin yarn BEFORE you tackle dpn's.

2. Watch your fingers
I once overheard a salesman in Sears telling the prospective buyer of a radial arm saw "count all ten of your fingers, and know where each one is before you turn on the saw." Luckily, you can't cut your fingers off with dpn's like you can with a radial arm saw, but knowing where your fingers are at all times is still good advice. You have ten of them, and each one can contribute something to holding the needle, tensioning the yarn, doing the knitting. If you look at the last two illustrations of this post, you can see that nearly every finger is doing something, and many fingers are doing two or three things. The point is not to ape the finger placement illustrated, but to work on finger placement which suits you--remembering that each of your ten fingers moves independently.

3. The progression of the needles around the tube

The picture says it all.
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4. Over and under

You'll find it easier to knit with dpn's if you arrange the needles as in the illustration above. Specifically, the left needle should be arranged OVER the holding needle next to it, and the right needle should be started off UNDER the holding needle next to it. Obviously, it makes no actual difference which way the holding needles lay, but if you follow the "left-over, right-under" rule they'll come out per the illustration all by themselves.

5. Getting started
If someone could hand you a tube already started, or a center-started garment on the fourth or fifth round, you'd have a much easier time of knitting than if you have to start from the actual cast on stitches. In the case of a tube, you want the casting on to be loose, because that cast-on edge is also the garment edge of whatever you're making--sock, mitten, hat. Yet, small dpn's in loose cast on stitches are the formula for falling needles. In the case of a center-started garment, like a hat or shawl, you begin with very few stitches on your needles, and few stitches don't have the "oomph"to hold in dpn's which are so much longer, proportionally.

In my analysis, the best way around this problem is to sit at a table when you're starting a project. Put down a nice loopy towel, and consciously rest the holding needle tips on the rough and catching cloth until you've gotten enough rounds into your knitting for the stitches to hold the dpn's by themselves. IMHO, trying to start a project on dpn's over your lap is a great way to go nuts.

As to the actual method of casting on the stitches, follow this link.

6. Actually knitting
Now we come to the final bit: actually knitting
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The hard part of operating dpn's isn't doing the actual knitting, because the actual knitting is just like any other knitting--it is done with two needles, a left and a right. As in ordinary knitting, the left needle holds the stitches, and the right needle does the work of drawing new loops through old loops to make new stitches. The hard past of using dpn's is learning to work around the needles you're not using, the holding needles that are just dangling there, in your way. As you can see from the illustrations, you have to figure out where the holding needles can protrude from between your fingers. Yes, it's awkward but it gets less so with every round.
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Three final notes:
1)--are you puzzled as to why there are irregular numbers of stitches on each needle? Stay tuned for the next post--how to avoid ladders with dpn's.
2) Happy Easter and happy Passover!
3) Many thanks to J. and also to L. for being the hand models.

You have been reading TECHknitting on: how to use DPN's (double pointed needles) (part 4 of the series: "Knitting seamless tubes & circles.")