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cascade columns

I did a series of columns to introduce the consumer e-newsletters from Cascade Yarns, and thank them for encouraging me to reprint them here. To navigate the columns, please click on the appropriate title below.

These columns are also available for download in Adobe pdf form; simply click here and save the file to your desktop.

March 2007: What do you need to know to knit anything you want?
April 2007:"The best yarn you can afford."
May 2007:   About patterns, and how to select one.
June 2007:  Beautiful and useful v neither of the above.
July 2007:  A meditation on color, with thanks to Bea.
August 2007: Beyond socks:  Now that you’ve mastered knitting in the round, what’s next?
September 2006:  What the ball band tells you, and what it doesn’t.
***One pattern fits all?  I don’t think so!

***This column was not run by Cascade in the original series, but is offered here as bonus column exclusively for HCK readers.

March 2007: What do you need to know to knit anything you want?

Magazines make much of the gradations of skill needed to work a given pattern.  I’m not sure these gradations aren’t misplaced.  

Knitting is, at the bottom of it, a binary system. It has two basic stitches:  knit and purl.  Everything else is a variation of those two, in sequence or in color.  When I’ve told my students that, I’ve seen all the anxiety and confusion fade in a split second.   “Oh, is that all there is to it?” is by far the most frequent comment I hear from students, almost invariably followed by a big smile and an, “I can do that!”

To knit anything you want—and my second knitting project, years ago, after the obligatory scarf, was a Setesdal sweater, because I didn’t know it was supposed to be difficult, which it was not—if you have mastered the following skills:

Understanding the importance of gauge to a successful project, and the continuing importance of frequent measuring.

Casting on:  (I use the so-called cable cast on, knitting and purling in pattern)



One good set of matching decreases (I use slip, slip, knit 2 together on the right, and knit 2 together on the left)

One good set of single increases (I use K1 below stitch on needle, K 1 into stitch on needle on the right, K 1 in the stitch on the needle, K1 into the stitch below the needle on the left)

Binding off

Picking up dropped stitches with a crochet hook

Picking up for edgings

Within your first few projects, you will learn to “read” knitting—to know whether the stitch you’re looking at is a knit or a purl, whether it’s twisted and needs to be straightened (especially important when you have ripped out and picked your stitches back up), whether you’ve made a mistake that needs to be corrected.  You will also pick up enough speed to make reasonable progress, and to keep yourself encouraged to continue on whatever project you choose.

For cabling, the sequence of the stitches changes, and you need to learn to use a cable needle before you try working without one.  You need to learn to understand and follow a cable chart; I dislike stitch by stitch instructions, because I find charts much clearer, if well done.

For jacquard, the sequence of the colors changes.  You need to learn to hold one yarn in tyour right hand and one in the left, and to follow a chart, and to smooth out the color just knit as you begin the second one.

For intarsia, you need to learn—and remember—to twist color changes by picking up the new color under the one being dropped, to make sure that the yarns are twisted around one another, which prevents holes.

For some sock heels and proper fitting of garments, short-row technique, wrap technique, and picking up wrapped stitches to make them as invisible as possible in the finished piece.

For hats, mittens, and socks, you need to knit in the round, as you do for jacquard.  This is a snap, and no problem for most people, even with double-points; use wood or bamboo if metal is too slippery, and buy them in sets of five.

The importance of careful steaming, assembly, and final blocking, which converts the look of a finished garment from “home-made” to “hand-made.

As time goes by, you will learn how to choose a pattern that is clear and well-written, with charts instead of stitch by stitch instructions; with an understandable sequence of work and materials; in a becoming style.  You will learn to alter a commercial pattern for a custom fit.  You will also learn, I’m sorry to say, when you absolutely must rip back to an error and work back up; everyone has to, once in a while.

That’s pretty much it.  You can consult good instructionals for every technique, but two stitches and variations are all there is.  With clear instructions, you should be able to make anything.  If you heart’s desire is lace, or a magnificent jacquard sweater, or a great Aran, you can, with these skills, a little speed, and some patience, do it.

Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.  Anyone who tells you “…but you’re not ready for that,” is underestimating you, and overestimating the skills you can master if you’re determined to do so.

Note:  I know many knitters who have knitting styles, and schedules, that are causing stress and pain in their hands, wrists, forearms, elbows, and necks.  Whatever any teacher says, find a style of knitting that suits you, that is comfortable and easy, and that doesn’t put your body under stress.  Because I have old fractures in my left hand, it lacks strength and dexterity, so I always—whether I’m knitting around or knitting back and forth-use circulars to keep the weight of the work balanced, and I minimize finger motion by  I throw using my right hand as shuttle. Do not force your knitting style to conform to any  “right” way. Work in a way that suits you, and work in a way that spares you.

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April 2007: "The best yarn you can afford…"

Is there anything more tempting than a yarn store, or a knitting website?  All those colors, textures, luxury fibers, and nifty gadgets!  It’s no wonder that some of us buy too much yarn, spend too much on it, and end up with boxes, closets, even rooms full of yarn that for which we have no planned projects, and about which we feel guilty.

How, in fact, should one buy yarn?  We’ve always been told that we should buy the best we can afford, and that it is folly to put in time and work on a less than “best” yarn.  True enough.  The question is how to define “best”? 

It does not mean, “…the most expensive yarn that we can talk you into, and as much of it as possible.”

It does mean “a yarn suitable to the project at hand that will work easily and prove durable in the context of the garment’s use.”  It means a yarn that will suit what you want to make, what you want to make it for, and where you live—climate and weather make a huge difference--within your range of affordability. 

It does not mean that you must mindlessly follow the designer’s yarn specification for the pattern you’ve selected, or not make that design—surely the impression left in many patterns in a profusion of magazines and books.

If you like the pattern, but the yarn specified is unsuitable—you just don’t like it, or it’s wool and you live in Florida, or cotton and you live in Toronto,  or you’re sensitive to the specified yarn content, or it’s just too expensive for your budget—you’ll need to change yarns.  A ludicrous number of published patterns call for luxury yarns; nearly nothing actually requires them.

Theoretically, any yarn with a like fiber content and gauge can be substituted for the specified yarn, and often something should be.  If you are changing yarns, and especially fibers, you need to match the gauge, but you’ll also have to pay attention to the way it works up.  Try a ball or two before you purchase enough for a garment.  See whether it has the same suppleness or firmness, and the same drape as the pattern calls for. 

Sometimes the yarn specified is just wrong.  I have seen a thick-and-thin variegated yarn worked into a cabled sweater, making the cable work difficult, uneven, and--to top that off--invisible.  The basic pattern was good; it showed with an evenly spun plied yarn that worked to the same gauge.  

About luxury yarns:  A yarn should suit the use and probable laundering needs of whoever is wearing it, and the weather in which it will be worn.  It should take into account allergies (which are actually rare) and sensitivities (which are not).  A cotton/wool combination, a cotton/tencel, and an acrylic or acrylic/wool blend are often best for baby clothes, children’s wear, and sweaters for men; cashmere children’s wear is, kindly put, crazy. 

Things that will get hard wear—mittens, utility sweaters, and the like—should be from a firm, plied yarn, perhaps with some synthetic content. I’m partial to wool, and a fool for alpaca, but about 10% nylon content certainly improves wear for utility and sports sweaters, mittens, and hats.  If wool sensitivity is not an issue, superwash wools, in an ever enlarging range of colors, are excellent.

I have found that, for some people who are sensitive to wool content, a thorough washing before the garment is worn will eliminate sensitivities.  Some sensitivities may trace back to mordants, dyes, lanolin, or vegetable traces that washing diminishes, and others may be aggravated by the dry cleaning of garments.  All you can do to test this out is to experiment.

Silk, soy silk, corn fiber, cotton, hemp, and linen, as well as cashmere, and often alpaca or camel, can work for people with intractable sensitivities.  But so can acrylic and acrylic blends, which are despised by yarn snobs, but have a place and, if of good quality, are perfectly acceptable, pleasant to knit, and washable.  I did half my Christmas knitting from a tweedy blend of acrylic and alpaca.

A good quality yarn that is not seeking a special effect, such folky thick-and-thin, is well spun, easy on the hands, contains little vegetable matter, is even for its entire length, and has few knots in the ball itself.  It doesn’t split or break easily—especially important if you are doing cabling or lace that stress the yarn--and it flows smoothly over your hands and needles. The more firmly spun and plied it is, the better it will wear--especially true for felted items, such as slippers, for which two strands of a lesser weight held together seem to work better than using one strand of full weight.

Consider what the garment is for. 

A sweater for everyday use needs a well plied yarn that will adapt to either cabling, plain color stockingette, or multiple color jacquard work in a traditional style.  An oh-by-gosh heavy winter sweater may call for lightly spun or pencil roving types of yarn—thick, lofty, and a little prone to breakage until they’re worked into fabric, the prototype being the great, yoked Icelandics knit entirely in the round.

A sweater that is dressier or more formal, and doesn’t get knocked around a lot, is the ideal for much softer yarns—cashmere, silk, angora mixes, mohair blends, fine alpaca, perhaps with novelty yarn as an accent.  Look at boucles; look at chenille of better quality (she said, being completely captivated by alpaca chenille); consider running fine mohair with DK, if a worsted weight is called and the pattern is a dressy one. 

Consider your skills:

The better your knitting skills, the plainer the yarn you can use.  With strong skills, you just don’t need elaborate yarns or camouflage.

Consider your bank balance:

I am a little haunted by a blogger who said she was shorting herself on food to buy yarn.  Yarn purchasing can be obsessive, a way to establish status with one peers; all I can tell you here is to find a different set of peers, if you are bothered by the ones you’ve got.  Buy for projects that you’ve actually got in some stage of planning, and buy what you can afford.  Status, in knitting, has to do with skills, not expense.

What should a reasonable price point be?  According to the Craft Yarn Council, 89% of knitters generally spend less than $10 for a four-ounce ball.  Although this takes in many knitters whose yarn sources are big-box stores and hobby shops, and are knitting mainly with mass-market synthetics, that’s a surprising statistic, given that the advertising-dependent media emphasize high-end yarns:  organics, handspuns, hand-dyes, luxury fibers, and the like.  They all suggest that if you’re a real knitter, a connoisseur of knitting, of course you’ll be a high-end yarn buyer as well.  Nonsense!

If you’re going to buy a varigated, hand-painted, luxury, or novelty yarn,  try two balls before you commit to a large project.  Hand-paints and hand-dyed yarns often look better on the hank than worked up; many of them take alternate-ball and/or in-the-round techniques with steeking to avoid blotching or serious mismatches.  Few of them suit cable work, in which the stitchery should star, or jacquard, in which even stitching and the demarcation between color changes should stand out. 

With novelty yarns, an accent is usually better than a whole garment.  Shaggy novelties are much easier to work if paired with a strand of a plain yarn.  Unless you’re an experienced knitter, the same is true of mohair, which I love. 

What makes you  a knitter?  Not being able to afford expensive yarn,  but making useful and beautiful things for people you care about.  What gets you there is mastering the basics, which anyone can do, and then challenging yourself, exploring techniques, learning to alter a pattern for the wearer, gaining skills in substituting one yarn for another, learning to alter and design on your own, and mastering an ancient craft a little at a time.   Who among us does not cherish those small triumphs, those moments that make someone else say, “Ohhhhhh!  Where did you get that?” and we get to say, “I made it.” 

Knitting is a sisterhood, not a club; it’s a craft, not a contest.  It isn’t about buying; it’s about doing.  It is also about sharing your skills, not being stuck up about them.  That holds true whatever the media message is, and whatever price range you can afford.  

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May 2007: About Patterns, and How to Select One

I design knitting patterns, so I should probably take this opportunity to pitch you to buy mine.  But I won’t. 

 There are lots and lots of other patterns,  and they may appeal to you a great deal more than mine do.  You may use a software suite such as Sweater Wizard.  You may be devoted to one designer or another. 

And knitters come with varied focuses:  practical knitting for their families, adorable clothes for adored grandchildren, charity knitting, fashion knitting for themselves and their friends, knitting from traditional patterns.   You have favorite books, magazines, yarn company books, leaflet pattern sources, and free patterns to chose from.  You may be timid, worried about what you can or can’t do; you may be bold, and always trying new techniques.

As you know, there are all kinds of patterns, too:  some good, some mediocre, some downright bad.  There is another specific category, though, that I think of as a stunt:  a pure demonstration of knitting skills, with little else to recommend it aesthetically, practically, or any other way.    Designers who love these are, alas, too often a little short of color sense, too.

You know what I’m talking about: 

  1. The gynormous intarsia checkerboard sweater with three colors in each individual check, all in muddy colors, with all those ends to weave in;
  2. The mixed-technique sweater, with complicated cabling and passages of jacquard, that you look at and say, “Hmmm, I can see doing one or the other, but not both.”
  3. Anything knit in the round with intarsia elements.   That’s almost impossible.
  4. The I-Think-I’m-Young-and-Hip garment with many complications and unusual, costly yarns.    I can think of one featured skirt of  squares of different yarns and sizes, in related colors and assorted patterns, with an up-and-down hem. It looked as if it had been picked out of a ragbag and gone to Woodstock, but I calculated yarn cost alone at about $350.
  5. That assymmetrical sweater with the left sleeve matching the right front, and the right sleeve matching.  In cashmere.  For men, though not any I know!

In general:

            Don’t choose a pattern that you find, on first reading, really hard to understand.

            Don’t choose a pattern that isn’t fully illustrated.  You usually need a schematic, and always a photograph to see how the designer meant it to fit, and charts—not stitch by stitch instructions—for stitch patterns, color work, or cables.  Beware the photograph with the odd pose; it may mean there is something in the design that needs concealing.

            Don’t choose a pattern if the yarn shop is selling a course to teach you how to knit it.  Technique classes are fine and teach you how to use and apply a technique.   Pattern classes are for  incomprehensible patterns.

Don’t choose a pattern that combines techniques that should be used alone:  the sweater with cabling and jacquard or jacquard and intarsia is an example, and so is the sweater with the mix-and-match fronts and sleeves.

            Be wary of “fashion” patterns, especially for garments or accessories in costly yarns.  It is a lot of time, work, and expense for something that, a year from now, will turn out to be “so last year.”  Avoid “retro” as you would a case of the chicken pox; it went out for a reason, you know.  A classic made the same year would be wearable today, or ten years from now, but flat-out retro isn’t.  Mostly, it just looks frumpy.

            It sounds elementary, but know what looks good on the person for whom any garment or accessory is intended, and whether the person would wear it.  A man who would wear a classic sweater in burgundy or forest green wouldn’t touch it bright red or turquoise; no matter what the color, he may not go near anything that looks as if it came off a fashion runway in Milan.  If you’re thinking of something for yourself, try on a commercial garment with the same lines to see if it works for you. 

            If you buy pattern books, purchase those with a really good ratio of things you’d want to make to things you wouldn’t have in your house.  Technique books are different, and full of adventures in color and texture, and things you may not think you can do but can.  Once you’ve learned them, you can apply them to modifying existing patterns.

            I prefer to choose outstanding single patterns, if I’m not working on my own designs.  Many come as leaflets in yarn stores, and as leaflets and downloads and free patterns from internet sources.  Many independent designers sell their designs on the internet, either as paper patterns or as downloads.  Two sources are the Imprint webring http://ringsurf.com/netring?action=info&ring=imprint
And the Independent Designers webring http://www.ringsurf.com/netring?ring=KnitDesign;action=list

            Are purchased patterns better than free patterns?  Not necessarily, but you are more apt to get good errata sheets if they’re needed, or a helping hand, from a paid source who wants you to be satisfied and make another purchase.  But there are some very good free patterns, including those from yarn companies, and some truly bad ones available for purchase.  There’s a bell curve in everything:  some work is outstanding, some is truly terrible, and the rest falls somewhere in between, as you can readily see from a copy of any of the knitting magazines.

            A note on sizing:  Before you select a size, decide whether what you’re making will be a first layer—to be worn over bare skin or nothing heavier than a silk tee; a second layer over other layers. or actual outerwear.  Compare the as-knit measurements, and your own measurements, and the measurements of an existing garment whose fit pleases you.  Then alter your pattern accordingly.  If perfect finishing makes the difference between home-made and hand-made, perfect fit is the difference between off-the-rack and custom-made.

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June 2007: Beautiful and useful v. neither of the above

There is something very odd about the approach that the knitting media, and many retailers, take to new yarns, new patterns, new anything.  All reviews are positive; all innovations are seen as terrific; all recyclings are “retro” and none are as ugly and inappropriate as we all know they are; new designers are hailed as geniuses by people who wouldn’t wear their designs; new books are “must-haves.” 

This is well past polite, or even charitable;  it’s mindless and indiscriminate, as though taste, critical intelligence, and a sense of the practical had been checked at the door.  You can see it working in any yarn store:  the whole gushy “isn’t that darling!” thing for lame ideas, badly executed.  The sole antidote to all this has been You Knit What and its successor, You Knit What 2, which regularly skewers the bizarre, the useless, and the downright weird, wherever they may come from.

Let’s just deal with the fact that some stuff is good, and some isn’t, and acknowledge the difference.  There is a bell curve for all products.  A few are truly terrible; a few are outstanding; the rest ranges from mediocre to good.  The knitting community isn’t being served by the pretense that it’s otherwise; that indiscriminate view too much rewards the mediocre or just plain bad, and rewards too little what is truly outstanding.

This same bell curve applies to pattern books and magazines. I have bought a book for a single pattern—though, like everyone else, not recently—when there wasn’t another thing in it that I cared to make.  I am now more apt to purchase a book on techniques, either new and well-reviewed, or a classic in reprint.  If I buy a pattern, these days, I tend to buy a leaflet or a download from a designer whose work I find impossible to resist.  I do not use patterns from one well-known company that’s noted for pattern errors, until enough time has passed for the errata sheets to be available. 

If there’s a Next New Thing in patterns, you can be almost certain that the earliest patterns will be the best, and that the later ones will recycle previous ideas endlessly, or be the ones that were culled out of earlier collections.  It happened with felted bags; it happens with everything.  Imitation is usually a pallid take on real innovation.

Similarly, if there’s a Next New Thing in yarns, it will be overdone with clones in every price range, down to the cheesiest hobby-shop level that kills a whole category. 

I’m bored with:

-- variegated yarns and handpaints that look great on the hank but don’t knit up to look anywhere near as good. 

--most novelty yarns; few that will endure through the current nosedive in that category.

--the space-dyed sock yarns meant to produce a pattern without the trouble of using jacquard techniques, which I enjoy and respect. 

--super-bulkies, beloved of many of the one-ball books, but difficult to work with, and lagging from their original popularity.

--patterns that use combinations of techniques and/or materials that fight with one another:  The sweater featuring both cabling and jacquard; the cabled sweater in a variegated yarn that makes the cabling invisible; the sweater in 13 colors of yarn with both jacquard and intarsia elements; the beautifully worked lace shawl in a variegated yarn that makes the precision of the stitching impossible to see clearly.

--little shrugs. Yes, I live in Colorado, where they make no sense: not needed in warm weather, useless in cold weather.

--huge sleeves, which are turning up all over the place, but put me in mind of angora in the guacamole, and cashmere in the chutney.  They seem insanely impractical. --the excesses of the felting craze, though I’ve designed a small number of felted projects. --ponchos and swanchos, which I didn’t like in the 60s and 70s, on the theory that a tent is a tent is a tent.

I’m not tired at all of the long, hooded cardigans—fitted or easy—that are back in style, and work so well, or of any classic sweaters, or of great socks and hats and scarves.  I like unfancy, masculine sweaters for men, and often for women, too, with their cheerful suggestion of having been filched from a man. 

I love patterns and yarns based on historic models from the long and various history of knitting:  Aran sweaters, ganseys, Norwegian ski sweaters, Icelandics, Fair Isle, Turkish socks, lace shawls, argyle sweaters and socks, heavy crew socks, cabled kilt socks for hikers and cross-country skiers, vests, fisherman knits, great ribbed turtlenecks, Faroese shawls.   I like to try new techniques, but I tend to stick with the tried and true for yarns, and with classic shapes.  I try to use a fresh twist—alternative collars instead of a crew collar, a lettuce-leaf finish on a turtleneck, hems other than ribbing, a lining for a winter hat, jacquard—on classic shapes.

Knitting takes too much time and work for something that will look dated in a year or so; the classics are not necessarily boring, and they are forever. 

And, if you’re looking for a pattern:  Avoid all patterns that have line by line instructions but not charts where needed; books with the wrong ratio of I’d-make-that-in-a-heartbeat to I-wouldn’t-consider-it; dated “fashion,”; anything that requires a class to work; or any pattern that you know to have errors or just don’t understand

Incomprehensible is incomprehensible; dated is dated; bad is bad; mistaken is mistaken.  Luckily, great is great, too, and there’s enough of it to go around, if only you can sort out your pattern area and samples to make it easy to find.  You’re paying for the space the mediocrities is taking up.  Make it work for you like any smart retailer: on a dollars-per-square-foot basis.

There, I said it.  It needed saying.

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July 2007: A  meditation on color, with thanks to Bea


I’d was working a big autumn coat sweater in a bulky tweed in shades of red.   I’d swatched and measured, but--unsure of how far the ten four-ounce balls would go—was working it upside down.  I’d done the patterned bodice, sewn the fronts and the back together, worked a tall and very warm collar, and picked up from the armholes and knit the sleeves downward.  Then picked up from the bottom of the bodice for the body of what I figured would be a longish three-season sweater—how long I had no idea.  I was at the stage of the work in which I felt like I was wrestling  with an octopus, its arms and collar tangling me as I ended rows and turned it.

And now, the friend with whom I was knitting said, “You ought to meet Bea.  Bea always knits from a pattern, she always knits from the recommended yarn, and she almost always knits it in the exact color.” 

I dropped my octopus.  I couldn’t believe it.

“How does she get it all to fit?” I said. 

“Well, she doesn’t,” she replied.

“What if the color is something she doesn’t like?  Or that just doesn’t become her?”

“She wears it that way a couple of times, and then she usually gives it away.”

Have you ever heard anything so totally crazy in your life?

“How long has she been doing this?” I asked.

“More than 35 years.”

I haven’t met Bea.  I don’t want to meet Bea.  I wouldn’t know what to say to her or how to begin to say it.   I didn’t want to think about Bea and the colors that were too old for the youthful Bea and too youthful for the older one, or just plain unbecoming.  I wondered if, like so many of us, she had stuck to her youthful hair color and style, and to colors that became her years ago but don’t now.

But most of all, I don’t want my customers to be Bea, and I don’t want you to be Bea.
You have no obligation to a designer except to avoid impairing her copyright.  Beyond that, knit what you want to fit you, and to become you, and to make you smile when you put it on, because you know it looks great.

Color and Age:

Apple blossoms

Which brings me to color, which, in garments, has a logic of its own.

It may be true that there are no bad colors, only bad combinations.  But there is no question that, with a garment, among the things that need to work well with the color or color of a garment are the wearer’s age, complexion, and hair color.   And skin and hair tones change with age, so that a woman in middle age invariably looks her best in tones softened to blend with the changes in her own coloring. 

Did you look great in powder pink as a teenager?  If so, a soft, deeper rose color might work now.  If you once looked great in pure citrus colors,  the cantaloupe/peach/ apricot/soft pumpkin related colors might look better than orange; the bluer greens or greyer ones  might be more becoming than the limes; and most yellows, except as an accent, won’t work well if you’re past 40.  The wrong color can make anyone look, in the English expression, “…like mutton, trying to pass itself off as lamb.”  Ouch!

Seasonal color:

Summer porchOf course, colors change with the seasons.   Nothing says spring more than an apple tree in bloom, or wildflowers on a hillside.

Spring invites the use of  flower colors, including the greens, often with fresh whites or creams or ecrus, along with black and white, which is especially good in urban areas. 

Summer favorites are the blues and greens, often with whites, which improve at least the illusion of coolness.  On this porch, there accents of yellow, and purple.  All the textures are smooth, and look cool and soothing.

Fall calls for the shift to whole range of wonderful neutrals, reds, and autumn leaf colors.  As the weather cools down, they also give the pleasing illusion of warmth, and for this season, I’m especially fond of tweedy or fuzzy textures, if I don’t need a smooth, plied yarn suitable for color-change work.

Christmas has its own festive reds and greens, and holiday garments can take an luxury yarns and novelty accents, especially a bit of glitter or shine.  Winter especially loves warm colors of every kind, including not just reds and golds, but in warm greys and black, and all shades along the beige-to-brown spectrum, foresty greens, and warm blues, such as periwinkle.  Winter is also time for the big project—the Norwegian sweater, the big blanket or afghan—to while away long, cold evenings.

Thinking about color, the easy way:

To think of color, don’t bother with one of those yarn-shop color wheels.  They are sparse on intensity and brightness, and don’t cover the neutrals well at all. 

The better choice is to go to a paint store and purchase a deck of color cards to study, because they’ll give you full ranges of lights and darks, pure tones and softened ones, neutrals of every description, and shades you might never have considered.  Fastened at one corner, they allow you to pull forward or bush back a selection of colors, mixing and matching as you go, for various kinds of color schemes until you have one that works for you.  Match what you select with the online color cards that many manufacturers are now putting up, as Cascade is, either on their own websites or on Yarndex.com.

Surely, even if you can knit from a pattern, stitch for stitch, and want to use the recommended yarn instead of an alternative, you need never feel bound by the designer’s choice of color.  She isn’t you.  She isn’t your age, hasn’t got your complexion, hasn’t got your hair color. 

Don’t be afraid of color, ever.  And don’t be afraid to try colors you haven’t tried before, textures you hadn’t considered, and something new.  A fresh color or texture, a new pattern, a little stretching of our skills keeps all of us interested.

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August 2007: Beyond Socks. Now that you’ve mastered knitting in the round, what’s next?

I’m glad that socks are back. 

I was sorry when Richard Rutt, the pioneer historian of knitting, wrote in his fascinating A History of Hand Knitting, in 1987, that socks had disappeared from the knitter’s repertoire and declared the making of hand-knitted stockings at an end. 

He was right at the time.  Few patterns were available.  Few yarns were made in the weights needed, and even the needles fine enough to make stockings were in short supply.  Indeed, not that long afterwards, the Interweave Knits set its staff to trying to knit socks, and embarrassingly few succeeded—something you can’t imagine happening today!  The flood of cheap imported machine-made stockings had killed the market, and skills dwindled, in the years of the great slump in knitting.

And then, two or three years ago, socks and stockings came roaring back, as new knitters and some experienced ones got bored with a excess of scarves in what I think of as “camouflage yarns,” stretched their skills, and mastered this old-but-new again form.  They tried space-died yarns; they tried variegated yarns; they tried historic sock patterns from the late 19th and early 20th centuries; they did them toe up, cuff down, on double-points, on two circulars, every possible way, including a few we could have skipped.

The revival has been positive, and a great deal of fun.  And it has led to a rediscovery of socks, perfectly fitted and perfectly comfortable, and a corresponding boom in sock yarns. 

Right now, socks are about where scarves were several years ago:  the thing of the moment, on the way to becoming part of the repertoire of most knitters.   The supply of yarns, books, needles, and the rest seems endless.  This has been positive, in almost all ways, especially because so many more people have mastered the most basic garment in knitting, and nearly the only one that has been invariably knit in the round—a method that went out of style in Victorian times, and has only lately wobbled to its stocking-clad feet.

But, since the sock revival has been going strong for a couple of years, the problem with continuing to knit socks is…too many socks and not enough people to wear more, unless you’re knitting for Dulaan or Afghans for Afghans, or for people with more than two feet.

And it has escalated into another exercise in you-are-what-you-buy, with costly yarns, costlier “sock clubs” that are a great merchandising opportunity but hardly make one a member of an exclusive club, and even costlier “sock camps.”  Not to mention lots of sock books, Summer of Socks, some silliness about knitting up stashes (in which new sock yarns don’t qualify as purchases!), and much follow-the-leader behavior.

How many socks can you make in a Summer of Socks? 

Does anyone care?  As long as you have enough, but not too many, for you and your chosen family, friends, and charities.

I make socks for myself and for friends, to suit the cold, snowy winters where I live.  I consider them, as knitters have for generations, as utility garments, so I make a few replacement pairs every year.  My favorite is a cuff-down fitted knee sock with a Dutch slip-stitch heel and a round toe, and an elegant cable up the back as a false seam, followed closely by jacquard stockings in diagonal or vertical patterns,  three of which I append here.

I’m not picky about yarn, and usually use a wool DK or worsted.  I make them to a formula based on calf and ankle measurement, and length of foot.  My preference for cuff-down is a practical one. I’d rather unravel and replace from the toe, if repairs are needed.   It pleases me that my own socks have passed the test of comfort and durability on hikes in the Rockies,  and that customer socks have done the same in many more places.
Yes, socks are great commuter knitting, but so is any small object that is readily portable:  hats, baby sweaters, mittens, and anything done in squares.

So if you’re running out of sock candidates, how about mittens or gloves, hats or caps, or even sweaters? 

After all, once you’ve mastered knitting anything in the round—and, in previous generations, socks were where one started knitting--you are halfway to beginning with jacquard —Norwegian and Icelandic sweaters, Latvian mittens, and true Scottish Fair Isle garments in fine wools with glorious color schemes.  The color-change work doesn’t have to cover the whole garment; it can be hem and sleeve bands, or sleeve and yoke bands.

The best volumes I know on the knitting in the round techniques are Patricia Gibson-Roberts’s and Deborah Ransom’s Knitting in the Old Way, which, paired with Mary Beth Brown Reinsel’s Knitting Ganseys, gives you a complete picture and comprehensible directions—not to mention an excess of inspiration—for working fine sweaters, and/or mittens and caps. 

You can Google in “Norwegian, Latvian, Estonian mittens” and come up with a wealth of motifs.  You can tackle the work of established authors, or you can sit down with a pad of graph paper and a pencil, and work out your own. 

You can buy, or find, free patterns.  You can find great kits, or work out originals, with the help of a good dictionary of motifs. 

But you may want to start, with jacquard, on at least one more pair of socks, for it was on socks that most of the motifs were originally worked out. Socks were reasonably quick to make; they gave one a good idea of the potential pattern or series of motifs; and they’re still a great sample to work from.  Below are charts for three color change patterns that work wonderfully for socks:  a shepherd’s check, a simple highland plaid, and a houndstooth check, all just two colors throughout, and easy to start with.

And, unlike our foremothers, you have a wonderful selection of needles to work with—fine wooden double-points, wonderfully flexible circulars.  So much easier than 5 to 8 sknny steel knitting pins, and a sheath or belt!  And knitting is moving back from word-by-word stitch-by-stitch instructions to the ease of charts, which I love, and which were part and parcel of knitting in the old way before it became a gentrified pastime for literate women of the middle and upper classes, instead of a way to keep fishermen and farmers warm at their work, children protected from the weather, and a few shillings or kroner coming in to buy what was necessary to keep a family going.  I like fashion knitting, but I love the classics, which, with a new twist, always keep their style, and never look dated.

In each chart, the red outline marks a single repeat.


Shepherd’s check:

Shepherd's check

Houndstooth check:


Highlander plaid, best worked in fine wool:


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September 2007: What the ball band tells you , and what it doesn’t:

We’re all grown up.  That means we don’t have to make a given pattern in the same yarn, in the same color, as the pattern shows.  It doesn’t have to have arms of the same length as detailed; it doesn’t always require the same hem, cuffs, or collar.  We know how to alter patterns to fit us.  But we have to consider the ball band information for the specified yarn, and do some practical thinking to come up with just what we want.

Color and Dye Lot:

Okay, you have a pattern, you’re looking at the specified yarn, and you’re considering it.  Focus on the ball band or tag.  It tells you some things.  It doesn’t tell you others, but it may give you clues.  First of all, check each ball available to make sure to make sure that they are all the same color and the same dye lot.  No?  Don’t buy what’s there, and place a special order for the extra yarn, hoping it will match.  Consider other yarns, buy from a trusted internet merchant, or place a special order if your local yarn shop permits that.

Fiber content, gauge, needles, weight, yardage:

First of all, the ball band does tell you, with reasonable accuracy, what the fiber content is, although there has been a recent controversy about the absence of cashmere in a yarn that was supposed to have 12% cashmere content.   It will not tell you what fiber content may mean in practical terms. 

It is supposed to tell you gauge, although I’ve seen errors.  That gauge is for stockingette only, and for an average sweater.  Ribbing takes needles two to three sizes smaller.  Pattern stitches vary widely.  Always swatch first for stockingette, and then for whatever stitch you intend to use.

The band tells you the weight of the ball or hank, and the approximate yardage.  Two balls of the same fiber content that weigh the same, and have the same yardage, can readily be interchanged.   Cotton is heavier than wool, and so is silk; a ball of the same weight will be shorter in cotton or silk than for weight of wool.

A pattern designed for a specific fiber may be fully workable only in a like fiber.

If it does not have at least 20% wool, you can’t treat other yarns as if they were wool.  Wool is resilient; it will bounce back when stretched.  Other fibers may not; cotton, viscose, linen, hemp, and silk (regular, corn, or soy) will not, although acrylic spinning technologies have improved so that quality acrylics, especially blends, work more and more like wool.  Still, you may have to knit most other fibers on smaller needles than specified if you are not to have a garment that stretches and stays stretched. 

I have knit a stitch-patterned cotton worsted sweater on #2s, when the band called for #7s, to get 18 stitches/4 inches/10 cm with minimal stretching.  It took forever, in a shortened stitch, but turned out perfectly.

The Craft Yarn Council weight standards and symbols do not mean much; if you’re substituting in a given pattern, though, find a yarn that knits to the same gauge per 4 in/10 cm, in a like fiber, or be prepared to experiment with a ball or two if you’re switching fibers.

The ball band doesn’t tell you how you knit.  We all think of ourselves as more or less average.  We’re not at all.  I knit loosely.  With worsted I need a #7 or even a #6 to get gauge in stockingette, not the usually specified #8; my friend Shannon knits more snugly, and usually gets gauge with a #8.

The answer to all this is to swatch in your intended stitch or stitches, and then to treat the swatches just as you intend to treat the finished garment.  Steam or wash; pin out; dry.  See what happens.  Adjust accordingly to smaller needles if you have too few stitches or larger ones if you have too many.  If you think ahead, you can make pockets as swatches, which is one way to persuade yourself to swatch.  Pockets are a luxury and a convenience seldom available in commercial knits.

Be aware that some handspuns, and a very few machine-spun yarns, are overspun, the telltale sign of which is that they are tightly spun and a little kinky coming off the hank or ball; they will relax and give you fewer stitches/4 inches/10 cm than the gauge at which they were knit.  That means that the garment, blocked, will be bigger than it was as knit.

The nervous-making save for this is slightly fulling (not felting) with a warm-water wash for the finished work.  You’re better off swatching first and washing the swatch.

What kind of fabric do you need?  Don’t ask the ball band!

The ball band will not tell you what kind of fabric you need for a given project.  Knitting is fabric. It has to work for its purpose.  The manufacturer doesn’t know that you’re knitting a sweater, which is what he’s thinking of with the ball band specifications. 

Hats or mittens are usually knit more tightly.  Something you intend to felt is much more open to allow for shrinkage.  A tailored jacket, to approximate the handle, drape, and fit of a woven fabric, is knit more snugly.   A gansey (traditional ones had as many as 48 stitches/4 inches, tight enough to make them waterproof) is knit very tightly, unless it’s an adaptation for casual wear.  Socks are often knit more snugly; mine, fitted knee socks suitable to three-season wear where I live, are worsted, knit on #6s, with #4s for the cuffs.  Shawls and scarves are a little looser, to drape more softly.

You may, if you’re knitting jacquard, if you have trouble knitting loosely enough, want to try want needles a size larger than  for plain stockingette.  We all tend to lose a little width as we change colors. 

These are among the reasons that you can’t just knit a pattern designed for wool in cotton or some other fiber.  You can’t rely completely on band specifications for anything.

Cleaning or washing?

I have seen an entire book of beautiful intarsia patterns that contained a disclaimer that the yarns specified, from a maker in the UK, are not always color fast, and that garments made with them should always be dry-cleaned.  What?  I circled the disclaimer before I gave the book away to a friend.

If you aren’t sure about color fastness, test first, by washing a swatch, rinsing until the water runs clear, and pressing it between paper towels.  The biggest offenders are the reds, which may discolor pale colors adjacent to them.

Most yarns will give up some color in washing, but will not bleed color into adjacent areas.  If  you’re dubious, turn your precious yarn into hanks, if it isn’t already there, tie it loosely, wash it, rinse it until the water runs clear (if that is never, don’t use it in jacquard or intarsia), weight it, and hang it up to dry.  Rewind into balls and start knitting.

Ball bands also tell you how to clean a garment made of a given fiber.  Some of this is accurate, and some of it is nonsense. 

The only way to figure this out is to swatch and try washing it.  I never buy yarns that say, “Dry clean only.”  I don’t like chemicals, much less pre-used and presumably dirty chemicals, in my clothes.  Before blocking, I wash everything (mostly with cool water, in a lingerie bag, by itself, with the washing machine set on “delicate” for a large load) using baby shampoo/conditioner, to remove whatever residue might remain of dyes, mordants, vegetable matter, and machine oils from the spinning equipment. 

It works for me, and even  for most friends and family who have sensitivities to wool—but could be to lanolin or contaminants--and for whom I’ve chosen merino.

Steaming and ironing…

Many bands indicate “Don’t Iron.”  That’s an understatement.   Never rest an iron on knitting.  There is no ironing in knitting, any more than there are knots in knitting (or crying in baseball, as I tell my students).

You don’t want flatten what should have some loft, including those beautiful stitch patterns.  You can steam through a damp pressing cloth on the wrong side.  I seldom even do that.

Don’t go near the synthetics with an iron; spray or steam them instead, keeping the steaming device at a distance and smoothing the fabric with your hands.  Irons melt synthetics, as you learn the minute you make your first mistake.  And wrecks your iron.

You can also use a spray bottle and distilled water, and smooth and pin out.  Or you can order blocking wires, which are magical, but mostly unavailable from local yarn stores, which, in my experience, have seldom heard of them. 

No matter what the ball band says, don’t put anything but cotton knits in the dryer; dry everything else flat and smoothed out, to the proper measurements, with the ribbings flipped up and over at the hems and cuffs over to assume their natural shape without stretching.  If a yarn is going to pill, using the dryer will accelerate pilling.

All garments of wool or other animal fiber should be washed at least twice a year, especially if you store them for the summer.  Before you put them away,  check and do whatever repairs are needed—replacing lost or loose buttons, darning where needed.  Wrap them in plain paper such as kraft or tissue paper for storage, not plastic.  If you feel you use moth balls, wash again when you take them out of storage, and air them out. 

Quality and value: 

No ball band tells you anything about the quality of the yarn, nor whether it is competitively priced with yarns of like quality.  A fashion brand is almost always priced higher than comparable yarns, because these manufacturers and distributors are covering the cost of extensive advertising and promotional campaigns, and of glossy yarn-support publications.   There’s nothing wrong with that business plan, but you should be aware of it, and adjust your own purchases accordingly.  If your local shop doesn’t show prices on ball bands, or on the shelves, don’t feel awkward about asking what the price of a given yarn might be before you get it up to the counter.  

Common sense:

If you are substituting yarns, use a smooth, plied yarn in a single color if you’re contemplating cables or pattern stitches.  You don’t want to go to all that trouble if they won’t show.  Always buy an extra ball or two if you need to alter a pattern, or you’re contemplating changing collar, cuffs, or hem.

Above all, don’t regard patterns, illustrations, and ball bands as scripture.  Measure, alter to fit, do the color you want in the yarn you want and can afford, plan out the changing of details that don’t please you. 

Be not just a knitter, but a thinking knitter.

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*Bonus Column: One pattern fits  all?  I don’t think so!

As North Americans gain weight—and many of us do, in higher percentages than in past decades—the knitting magazines have, one by one, taken up the cause of being “inclusive” of heavier people, less by publishing patterns that are designed specifically to become the larger woman, than by making patterns designed for slighter figures available in wider size ranges, often from XS (30-32 inch bust) to roughly 2X (roughly a 50-52 inch bust).

The stated intent may be inclusiveness, sometimes stridently advocated, but who are we kidding? 

And the patronizing air around some of the terminology is disturbing.  Calling larger women “big girls” is only one of the locutions I find simultaneously offensive and defensive; there’s something about it that seems to infantilize, and thus to desexualize, larger women.  Small or large, we aren’t “girls.”   And we are all “real women” whether we are a 32 or a 52; to suggest otherwise is insulting.  We’re all women here, in different shapes and sizes, and we all want to look our best.   No surprise there.  Why pretend otherwise?

Packed in.Hard fact:  Very few patterns will suit or become everyone from an extra small size to a 2X.  If we were really ready to accept larger women, there would be a lot more patterns designed specifically to become them.  But only a trickle of such patterns have been published.

The patterns being made available over an excessive size range indicate an absence of design sense, very little common sense, no sense of proportion, and perhaps editorial desperation or the indulgence of a somewhat cynical marketing ploy.  

Larger women will find many of these styles unbecoming, especially the fitted ones and the ones in thick yarns.  I’m not sure I’d like the sweater shown at left—it’s from my favorite of the knitting magazines, Interweave Knits--in these colors, for anyone, but to cram a larger model into this bad fit?  The magazine says the sweater has a 30 inch circumference bust circumference, much too small for this model.  Even if it fit her, it’s heavy with details of silhouette, color, fit, and emphasis that just don’t suit her.  No straight-sided sweater, which this is, should be tight in bust, waist, and hips.  How did that happen?  And what are those pink  shell things that seem to be clawing at her backside?  Awful, and on a pretty woman, too!

Here, from the same issue, on the same model, are the front view of this sweater, and a front view of a far more flattering one in a 40 inch size.  The vertical cabling, the slightly fitted waist (one could omit this for an apple-shaped wearer), and the attractive V-neck and collar all put the emphasis where they belong, and are far more flattering.

front swing

A larger woman needs a pattern that doesn’t emphasize every possible pound, and that puts emphasis where it belongs:  on a longish and minimally shaped vertical silhouette, minimal fitting in the body, and unfussy but emphatic detail at the shoulders and neckline to emphasize  a pretty face and neck, shapely shoulders, a vaa-vaa-voom décolletage, and a really great haircut that shows off all those things.    A well-fitting sweater never looks tight anywhere.

For the larger woman, a suitable pattern banishes horizontal emphasis.  It doesn’t have stripes or the Fair Isle equivalent.  Its hem does not end at the widest part of the hips, but falls below it.  It won’t be  a shapeless, T-shaped tent, with the top of the sleeve midway between elbow and shoulder, and immensely wide sleeves.  It can be, and often is, an A-line sweater with a focal neckline treatment; an A-line is perfect if your hips are (as they are for most of us) larger than your bust.  And that hem will not be ribbed, but a simple or split hem, with nothing to bind or ride up.

The standard T-shaped sweater will often fit neither the bust nor the hip measurement on anyone; it’s fundamentally a box, the  straight sides of which will make it too roomy on top, very large at the waist, and too tight around the hips.  The average difference between hip measurement and bust measurement, according the Craft Yarn Council, is 2 inches or more in the sizes from XS to XL, and greater than that in women’s sizes 1X and up.  That difference can be crucial to fit.  You may need to cast on more stitches than called for at the bottom, and decrease slightly as you work toward the bust, then short-row to suit your cup size.  A smaller armhole and a narrowed sleeve may give you an elongated, more slender line.

To publish unsuitable patterns as though they would work for everyone seems to me to be  irresponsible, not to mention mean-spirited , especially if they are published, as is usual, without instructions for short-row shaping of the bust, lengthening a too-short hemline or altering one that will bind, adjusting sleeve lengths and widths,  and giving alternates for necklines and collars and for sleeve lengths.  A V-shaped neckline, a tuxedo or shawl collar, a well proportioned placket closing with or without a face-framing collar, a wide and perhaps a low square or scooped neckline all become the larger woman.  Contrast trim can be exceedingly attractive, and can break up the volume of a large one-color sweater.  Pockets, instead of being square, can slant.

Pale colors magnify, and darker ones diminish, but “dark” need not be dull, or lacking in richness of texture and color.

Especially unsuitable are patterns that try to delude the reader to into believing that  larger women look better in larger yarns, heavy cable work, or self-striping yarns that emphasize width, not length.

Measure carefully, alter a pattern that is going to be basically flattering, understand how to deal with your own proportions, take plenty of notes on the face of your pattern, and swatch.  You may be very pleased with what you can work out for yourself from one of the software programs such as Sweater Wizard, which can be adjusted to suit your own measurements.  For such patterns, find a good selection of unfussy stitch patterns with vertical lines from any good stitch dictionary.

When it comes to trim and embellishments, avoid both the tiny/fussy/cute ones, and the overlarge and overblown, such as the currently fashionable multiple flowers surrounding an entire neckline.  You’ll tire of them early in the sweater’s life.  Buttons are different; for one thing they’re easy to change.  For another, high-quality bold buttons are a good focal point and proportion beautifully on a larger frame.

The point of knitting is to get what you want and need, and what will work for you, after all. That means custom fit, and something as close as possible to custom design for your figure.  The object is not to look like someone else, but to make something become to you.

Current books:  Wherever you make your book purchases, it is worthwhile to check the consumer reviews on Amazon.com before you buy.

Big Girl Knits : 25 Big, Bold Projects Shaped for Real Women with Real Curves (Hardcover)
by Jillian Moreno and Amy R Singer
You may or may not care for the patterns, but the instructions for helping you to alter a pattern to your size are peerless, as is the guidance on flattering your figure type—hourglass, apple, or pear.  Currently the leading book in this segment of the market. 

Classic Knits for Real Women: Versatile Knitwear Designs For Plus Sizes (Paperback)
by Martin Storey and Sharon Brant, Peter Williams (Photographer)

Family Circle Easy Plus-Size Knits: 50 Knit and Crochet Styles (Family Circle) (Paperback)
by Trisha Malcolm (Editor)

Style at Large: Knitting Designs for Real Women (Paperback)
by Carol R. Noble

Note: http://www.knitty.com , edited by Amy Singer, is sometimes less than selective when it runs extensive size ranges, but features excellent articles and instructions applicable to alterations for larger sizes, and at least a handful of purposefully designed patterns for larger women.

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