Thursday, November 1, 2007

Opera & soap opera: how to knit better bands and cuffs, part 1

The house lights dim, the curtains rise. The crowd rustles, the orchestra strikes up. The figure in the spotlight opens his mouth. Out comes a stunning tone, washing over a thousand opera fans. The singer launches into the signature song of the handsome, lovesick young shepherd.

But...wait here just a minute! What's with THIS? That guy in the spotlight is no handsome lover! All the tricks of the make-up artist cannot disguise him. That "lovesick youth" is a barrel-chested, balding, middle aged tenor. Those audience members who are not true believers work hard to suppress a snort. But the opera lovers use their imaginations. In their minds, that ideal and fabulous voice convincingly transports the stubby middle aged guy into the young lover of the lead role.

This same thing sort of thing--the snort of those not true believers--may very well happen when a knitter shows up in a handmade creation.

Shown a handmade sweater, the knitters in the audience will zero in on the intricate cables, the luxurious fibers, the glowing colors. The marvelous fabric transports the garment into the realm of the ideal. But just as those who are not true believers in the opera audience want to snort at the idea of a middle aged youth, so those who are not true believers in hand knitting may focus what most knitters choose to overlook. Perhaps the beautiful fabric is framed by a sad saggy bottom band with a tendency to flip up. Perhaps the cuffs flare, perhaps the button band gapes, flips outward and sags. And perhaps the neck band flares out too.

Opera lovers have no choice about having good imaginations. Opera singers are years in the training and the massive lung power needed to thrill a thousand person hall is not typically housed in a frame which makes young maidens swoon. Opera buffs can see that the tenor is no Adonis, but choose not to. Opera appreciation requires a necessary self-delusion.

Knitting is not like opera. Or at least, it ought not to be. Unlike opera buffs, we are not required to wear blinders in order to experience full enjoyment of our chosen entertainment. To the contrary, we can and should take a clear eyed look at our garments--not just the lush fabric, but also the saggy bands. If we take the first step of seeing the deficiency, we can improve our sweaters in the real world to match the ideal sweater in our mind's eye.

And yet--a willingness to face reality--to actually SEE those sagging bands--is "necessary, but not sufficient" as logicians say. It is necessary to see the mess before you can fix it, but just seeing the problem is not a cure in and of itself. To find a cure, an understanding of the underlying structure is required. And, in fact, there are actual structural reasons why bands and cuffs are all-too-often saggy and gapping. In other words, there is a real reason why bands want to flip over and cuffs want to flare, and it's not because you are deficient as a knitter. No. The story of why bands sag is addressed in the next part of today's post, wherein we go from actual opera to soap opera.

The sad tale of NORM (who has the support of his family)
and WANDA and LON (who do not)

We pass now from actual opera to soap opera, and the sad tale of three apocryphal stitches named "Norm,"(normal) "Wanda,"(wander) and "Lon" (long).

Let's start with Norm. Norm is a nice normal stitch, a stockinette stitch, found in the middle of the fabric. Norm has two direct siblings (blue) with whom he can share yarn: the stitches to the east and the west. These sibs help stabilize WIDTH--they share yarn along the row. To the north and south are "first cousin" stitches (green); these are the stitches above and below which stretch Norm out the long way. These first cousins help stabilize LENGTH--they pin out Norm's head and tail strands. These four stitches help keep Norm in balance--stretched out smooth to left and right, above and below.
Norm also has four second cousins: those to the northeast, southeast, southwest, northwest. Norm can't share yarn directly with these cousins, but Norm's siblings and first cousins can. The result is that Norm is surrounded by 8 close relatives. Further, each of Norm's 8 adjacent relatives have 8 relatives of their own, and so on.

When a poking elbow stretches Norm all out of shape, his surrounding relatives come to his rescue--his sibling stitches on either side share yarn with him, and his cousins above and below help him stay balanced--they keep him stretched out vertically regardless of the stress. Each of Norm's relations in turn can transfer any strain to their connected stitches, and so on. When the poking elbow withdraws, Norm will return to his original shape. In short, Norm is well-adjusted, and will always be well-adjusted, because his family surrounds him, supports him, and relieves him on any undue stress.

Norm lives in the middle of an interconnected community. This interconnected web of stitches shifts and re-adjusts constantly, sharing stress all around and making for a smooth lovely fabric ... until ... (cue scary music) ... the strain reaches the border of the fabric. Out there on the lonely frontier are stitches which AREN'T connected all the way around. Out there on the frontier are the ... EDGE STITCHES ... (horns and drums blare, then fall silent.)

Unlike Norm, nestled in the midst of a supportive community, Wanda is a stitch out on the edge. Like many edge stitches, she happens to be a stitch in ribbing. But the ribbing pattern is no consolation or help to her when stress comes along. Wanda and her edgy, wandering relatives start off well-adjusted enough, but soon wander from their original shape and position. When a poking elbow or a stretching hand comes near Wanda, she has fewer resources than Norm, so she tends to stray into the forbidden lands of puckering, flaring, sagging and gaping.

Now the problem is not that Wanda is completely on her own. Wanda does have directly connected stitches, but she has only 3, not 4. For her, the southern first cousin is missing. Wanda is also missing 2 second cousins: southeast, southwest. Deprived of family support along the entire southern border, Wanda is literally a stitch on the edge. When stress and strain comes in her direction, she has a far more limited family of stitches to come to her rescue. Further, the 2 sibling stitches on either side are under the same strain as Wanda. Wanda's whole community, the entire row of edge stitches, may succumb to the strain and ... (lonely trumpet rings out) ... the entire edge row stretches, widthwise. In technical terms, Wanda's tail strands (the two stands on either side of the body of the stitch) will react to stress by stretching horizontally because there is no force preventing them from doing so--there is no stitch to the south to pin the trail strands vertically. Wanda lack of stability in LENGTH (due to the absence of her southern cousins) means she will spread out in WIDTH.

Wanda is a bottom band stitch, or perhaps a cuff band stitch--she has been knitted in the same direction as the body of the garment. Wanda's particular form of stress comes from being located at the end of a column. Again, like many stitches at column's edge of a cuff or bottom band, Wanda is a ribbing stitch. However as the illustration shows, the mere fact of being part of a ribbed community of stitches does not alter the level of support--Unlike Norm with his 8 relatives surrounding him, Wanda has only 5 stitches surrounding, and this is true whether she is a ribbed stitch or not. The fact of being part of ribbed community only means the stitches around her aren't curling up--it doesn't mean she, as an edge stitch, isn't being stretched out along her unsupported bottom edge.

Wanda's fraternal twin, Lon, is a stitch at the edge of a long piece of knitting, like a front band. In our saga, Lon has been knitted lengthwise--his side edge appears at the edge of the front band. Like many of his front-band ilk, Lon happens to be a garter stitch. Lon's sad story is that, like Wanda, he tends to stretch, but instead of stretching widthwise like Wanda, Lon stretches out in LENGTH.

Like Wanda, Lon has only 5 relatives surrounding and supporting him, rather than 8, like Norm. Although he has two first cousins to help him stay stretched out in LENGTH, he lacks a sibling to the side, to help him stay stretched out in WIDTH. In this illustration, Lon is not supported to the east.

While Wanda is a stitch at the end of a column, Lon is a stitch at the end of a row. But both Lon and Wanda share the problem of reduced support--in Wanda's case the lack of support is from below, in Lon's case, the lack of support is from the east. (Of course, the same problem happens if Lon is on the edge of a front band facing the other way: a band facing west.)

Again, like many stitches at the edge of a front band, Lon is a garter stitch. However as the illustration shows, the mere fact of being part of a garter stitch community of stitches does not alter the level of support Lon receives. Unlike Norm who has 8 stitches supporting him, Lon has only 5 stitches, and this is true whether Lon is a garter stitch or not. The fact of being part of garter stitch community only means the stitches around Lon aren't curling up--it doesn't mean he isn't being stretched out.

Unlike the actual opera which opened today's post, the sad tale of Wanda and Lon resembles a soap opera. These two edge stitches, so lovely when created, have gone astray. They have succumbed to stress. While Norm can weather any stress due to his secure family connections, Wanda and Lon's lack of family support have made these two formerly good edge stitches go bad. They have stretched out and wonky, saggy bands are the sad result. Our next episode (see note below) will focus on how Wanda and Lon can find the support they need to look and act more like Norm, and how their new-found support will eliminate wonky bands forever.

* * *
This post is the part 1 of a series on better cuffs and bands. The series continues:
*How to knit better bands and cuffs, part 2: Why cuffs and bands are wonky, and what to do about it (November 14, 2007)
*How to knit better bands and cuffs, part 3: Hems and facings:(November 22, 2007)
*How to knit better bands and cuffs, part 4: Knitting shut hems and facings (December 9, 2007)
*How to knit better bands and cuffs, part 5: Sewing shut hems and facings (December 23, 2007)
*How to knit better bands and cuffs, part 6: Your steam iron: a mighty weapon in the fight against curling and flipping (December 25, 2007)
*How to knit better bands and cuffs, part 7: Zig-zag bands (December 29, 2007)
*How to knit better bands and cuffs, part 8: Provisional tail method of 1x1 tubular cast on (January 11, 2008)
*How to knit better bands and cuffs, part 9: Tubular cast off for 1x1 ribbing (it's pretty) (January 15, 2008)
*How to knit better bands and cuffs: the wrap-up (January 23, 2008)

(You have been reading TECHknitting on "knitting better bands, part 1: opera and soap opera")