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