New Release: Hidden Leaves Cowl

I am very happy to announce that I released my newest pattern today! Here it is in all its glory: the Hidden Leaves Cowl.

Let me take you inside the design process for this pattern. It all started last Christmas when I saw a beautiful skein of yarn called Diadem on the Knit Picks website. It was a new yarn: all shiny and purple. I knew that I had to have some, so I bought it for myself, wrapped it up, and put it under the tree. What? Doesn’t everyone do that?

I had no idea what I was going to do with it, so it sat around patiently waiting for inspiration to strike. I was busy with other things, namely finishing up my binder for the TKGA Level 2 submission, but ideas were slowly percolating. By the time I finished my binder and sent it off to the review committee, I had decided that I would like to make a cowl with my beautiful yarn because I knew that it would be soft and drapey, and there was just the right amount of yardage in the skein. There were a couple of other things I wanted to accomplish with the design. I wanted a stitch pattern that was attractive, but different on both sides so that the cowl could be reversible. I wanted the top to gently fold over into a sort of cuff so that you could see both sides of the stitch pattern at the same time, and I wanted the top circumference to be smaller than the bottom so that there wouldn’t be an overwhelming amount of fabric bunched up at my throat. Sort of like this:

Concept sketch of HIdden Leaves Cowl
Concept sketch

The usual method of making a knitted piece change size is by increasing or decreasing the stitch count. That’s easy enough if you are working in plain stockinette, but a whole different animal when you are working in a complicated stitch pattern. Very clever designers figure this sort of thing out all the time, but I confess to being a bit lazy about this. So I decided to use the other method of changing size, which is to change the size of the needle.

When I had gotten this far, I just so happened to acquire The Knit Stitch by Melissa Leapman. It’s an excellent new stitch dictionary, which I highly recommend. One of the best features of this book is that it tells you when a stitch pattern is reversible, so it was really easy to search for one. I quickly found one that I liked and started swatching.

Now, the tricky bit about swatching is that I knew I was going to knit this in the round because I wanted it to be seamless. Normally when you make a swatch, you knit back and forth, but the trouble with that is, because most people’s knits and purls are not really identical, you actually get a different gauge when you knit a row, then purl a row than you do when you knit every row, as you do when you are knitting in the round. So what can you do? Well, one thing you can do is to knit in the round on a much smaller scale–say something on double-point needles that would fit around your wrist. I didn’t want to do that with this project because I also wanted to see how changing the needle size would affect the drape and size of the fabric, so I decided to knit up a great big swatch using the stranding method. In this method, using a circular needle, you knit to the end of the row, and, instead of turning your work as usual, you slide the work back along to the other tip of the needle. Because the working yarn is now at the wrong end of the work, you have to carry a rather long strand of yarn across the back of the work to begin the next row. It’s a bit tedious, but it works fine. When the swatch is finished, you cut all of the strands so that the swatch will lay flat when you block it. You end up with something that looks like this:

Photo of right side of circular swatch
Right side of circular swatch
Photo of wrong side of circular swatch
Wrong side of circular swatch
Photo of top edge of swatch folding over
With the top edge gently folding over–this is just how I imagined it would look.

The fabric was indeed soft, drapey and interesting on both sides, the top edge looked great folded over and the changing the needle size with each repeat changed the size, yet still looked good. I was so happy with this proof of concept, but now I had to actually write the pattern.

TKGA Report: Level 3, Swatch 13

Swatch 13 is all about double knitting, a technique that mysteriously produces a fabric with two sides at the same time. If you do it right, you end up with something that is mostly hollow with two right sides in stockinette. If you use two colors, the color patterns will be inverted on either side. I had tried double knitting a couple of years ago when I took Alasdair Post-Quinn’s Craftsy class, which showed the amazing things that can be done with this technique when it is expanded to include multiple colors and stitch patterns other than stockinette. I found the technique intriguing, but didn’t get much further than knitting the first little sample project. The little knitted square was not entirely satisfactory, and I always meant to go back and take another shot at it. But then life intervened, and time passed.

Flash forward to a couple of months ago when I started working on Swatch 13, which is a simple piece of double knitting. Armed as I was with the vastly superior knowledge of knitting that I have acquired from Levels 1 and 2,  I thought it would be fairly easy. Not so. It’s not so much that it’s hard to do as it is that it’s hard to do well. It’s really just knitting and purling, similar to a 1×1 rib. When I started the swatch, I knew it wasn’t going too well, but I decided to finish it for practice, hoping it would improve as the swatch progressed. It didn’t. Here are photos of each side.

Photo of the first attempt at Swatch 13
My first try at Swatch 13. I have pointed out the obvious faults, in addition to an overall horribleness. I wasn’t paying attention when I took this photo, so the swatch is actually upside down!

 

Photo of the other side of Swatch 13
Here is the other side of Swatch 13. Notice how the pattern is the inverse of the first side.

Believe it or not, this swatch was actually blocked! On top of all of its other faults, the row gauge was off tremendously. It’s supposed to be pretty close to a square, but this was definitely a rectangle. And there’s a misplaced bar of color on one side caused by not moving the yarns together between stitches. The Kitchener stitch grafting is ugly, loose, and the worst I have ever done. In disgust I threw the wretched swatch into the reject pile and decided to move on for now.

So here we are, a couple of months later. I decided the time had come to take another crack at it. In looking at the first attempt and re-reading and re-watching my research materials, I decided that the trouble was mostly due to not being careful to pull the slack out each stitch after it is made. The extra yarn just sits there, waiting to cause overall tension problems. Also, I had held both yarns in my right hand. I decided to treat this like a Fair Isle project and hold one yarn in each hand. Unfortunately this meant that I had to purl continental style, which I only recently learned how to do for Level 2, so it’s not my strong suit. And I decided that I had to pay close attention to the chart and the swatch to avoid misplaced colors (no watching TV while knitting!). Finally, I would take my time with the Kitchener stitch and get it just right.

I still had some problems, but I was able to spot them and fix them before they got too far away from me. One of the biggest problems with double knitting is that because of the way the stitches sit on the needle, you can’t easily see your work until you’ve knit a row or two past any given point. So sometimes you can’t see the mistake right away, when it is easiest to fix. Fixing usually involves dropping the stitch in question, fixing it, then laddering back up with a crochet hook. One of the biggest problems I had was the stitches seemed to like to twist when I put them back on the needle, which makes for a twisted stitch if you don’t notice and knit it anyway. I had to be eternally vigilant and prepared to redo, sometimes several times, in order to get it right.

So here is the second try (I switched the order of the colors, so the purple is now the Color A face):

Photo of other side of Swatch 13
Here is the second try. The stitches aren’t completely perfect, so we’ll see if it passes.
Photo of second try at Swatch 13
This is the other side. Notice that it is pretty square. The row gauge is accurate this time.

 

This is much, much better. It’s not completely perfect, but I know that I have done everything in my power to fix it at this point. If it doesn’t pass, the committee will make suggestions for improving it, which are always useful and much appreciated by me

TKGA Report: Level 3, Swatch 19

Now that I have publicly stated that I am going to finish Level 3 of the Master Hand Knitting Program from TKGA by next March, I have decided to keep myself honest by posting about my progress. For those of you unfamiliar with this program, I will give a brief overview. If you already know about it, feel free to skip down to *

This is a self-study program without minimum or maximum deadlines, which means that it is completely up to the knitter to decide how much time he or she wants to put in, and there are no instructors. It’s just you, your yarn, needles and research materials (and the good friends you make in the TKGA Ravelry group, who cheer you on and help when you get stuck). Level 3 is the final level, after which the proud knitter receives the designation “Master Knitter,” as well as a nifty pin to inform all and sundry of the magnificent achievement. Each level requires many swatches and much writing in the form of short answers, patterns for some of the swatches, several short (1-2 pages) and long (2-4 pages) reports on various aspects of knitting, and one, two or three larger finished projects.

*I ordered Level 3 as soon as I learned that I had passed Level 2. As soon as I received the instructions, I read them through, ordered the yarn that I knew I would need, and got a new binder to hold it all. I then turned my attention to the final swatch, Swatch 19. This swatch is unusual for two reasons–it actually makes a complete item, in this case a lace doily, rather than just a rectangular swatch, and we are allowed to select the yarn weight and needle size that we want. Really the only restriction is the usual one that it must be in a light-colored yarn. I just happened to have a beautiful lace weight undyed yarn waiting to be plucked from the stash. So I picked up some dpns and starting swatching. After a mistart on too small needles, I worked my way through the complicated pattern, then blocked it. For some reason, I wasn’t really happy with the result. By this time, the worsted weight yarn had arrived, so I put the doily aside, with the intention of knitting it again later, and started working on the other swatches. I ran into some difficulties, which I will relate in another post, and then had a lot of design work to deal with, so the whole program went on a temporary time out.

Earlier this week, I decided I had better get this off the back burner and had another go at Swatch 19. Once again, I worked my way through it without too much trouble, although the circular start was as fiddly as ever. I bound it off, soaked it, rolled it up in a towel, and stomped on it. Only then, as I was unrolling it from the towel to begin pinning it out, did I decide that maybe I should have a look at the first one to see what the dimensions should be. I dug it out of the swatch box and was astonished to find that I could not, for the life of me, find anything wrong with it! I do remember that there was a small gap in the center stitches and some other mistake near the edge in one of the sections. I think maybe it just needed to rest and relax a bit, because there is absolutely nothing wrong with the center now, and I can’t find the other “mistake.”

Well, of course, I went ahead and pinned out the second doily. I mean, why not? It was already wet and everything. When it was dry, I unpinned it and noticed that it was quite a bit larger than the first one. Now, a couple of days later, it is only a tiny bit larger, so it has shrunk down as the yarn has relaxed from the blocking. It will probably be exactly the same size as the first one by the time it is done.

Here they are. Can you tell the difference?

 

Photo of a version of Swatch 19
Which one is this?
Photo of  Swatch 19
Is this the first or second try?

 

Ironically, I didn’t do as nice a job on the bind-off on the second one; there is one loop that is noticeably larger than its mates. I’m going to go with the first version. So what have I learned from this? Some evaluations should not be rushed. If I had waited a week (or even two) before deciding this was not up to standard, I could have saved myself from unnecessarily making a second one. Oh well. It was good practice, right?

 

P.S. The first version is in the lower photo. Tried to fake you out by switching the order of presentation. Ha!

 

My Designing Journey (Part 2)

So there I was, having designed a few patterns for doll clothes and selling them on my Ravelry shop. Then I branched out a bit and wrote patterns for a scarf and a shawl. It was fun to see people posting photos of projects they had made from my patterns. I began to think that I really enjoyed this, and that someday when life slowed down a bit, I might like to start designing full time.

But in the meantime, I was very busy homeschooling my daughter and working at my business designing data collection forms for the pharmaceutical industry. When I started that business 23 years ago, the forms were printed onto 3-part NCR paper and filled out by hand. Over the last 15 years, the industry has been moving towards electronic forms that are completed online. So I knew that it was only a matter of time before my services would become obsolete. With that in mind, I kept writing patterns and began to prepare for a career change.

Last year I started working on the Master Hand Knitting Program© from The Knitting Guild Association (TKGA) to become certified as a Master Knitter. I am currently working on the third (and final) level. My goal is to finish in March 2015, which would make it exactly 2 years since I started. I will be posting my progress through this final level on this blog, so now that this has been publicly stated, I had better get it done!

Last fall things changed for all of us in our household when my daughter started to attend high school, and for the first time I am not her teacher. It has been an adjustment for all of us, but she has transitioned very well. And throughout this past year, I have seen quite a drop in business, so it seems that “someday” has arrived a bit earlier than I had hoped it would, and now is the time to really get serious about starting a new design business.

Whenever I have been faced with making a life-altering decision (such as starting my first business, getting married, buying a house, having a child, etc.) I have always felt like I was preparing myself to jump off of a cliff. I do everything I can to gather information, make decisions and set things up for success beforehand, but it always comes down to that last moment when I know I’ve done everything I can to make myself ready, and the only thing that’s left to do is to gather my courage, take a deep breath, and jump off that cliff. It is a leap of faith that I will glide my way to a soft landing. I’ve done it successfully several times now, and it does seem to get a bit easier each time. But it’s never easy. Or fearless.

So here we are–it’s mid-2014 and, with the enthusiastic support of my family providing additional lift, I’m jumping off the cliff again. Wish me well on a soft landing.

On the Importance of Blocking

Wait! Don’t run away! Yes, I’m going to talk about blocking, but I promise it will be painless.

If you know what blocking is but have never actually tried it, please stay with me.

If you have no idea what blocking is, this is for you: Blocking is the application of some form of water (with or without heat) to a knitted fabric in order to get it to behave properly.

Here, let me show you. I am working up some ideas for a bottom-up shawl pattern, and have made a couple of swatches using leftover yarns of different weights from my stash. Here’s how they look straight off the needles:

 

Unblocked swatches straight off the needles
Unblocked swatches straight off the needles. Blech!

If this were your first experience with knitting, you would probably look at this mess, think you had done something wrong, throw it away, and vow never to try this horrible pattern again! And this is heartbreaking because you have done nothing wrong! This is how it is supposed to look. Really, it is. The problem is not that you have done it wrong; the problem is that you are simply not finished yet.

Through the application of a little water, some pins, and time, you will end up with this:

Lovely blocked swatches
Lovely blocked swatches. See how flat they lay?

Isn’t that worth a little time and effort? And, if you’re using a natural fiber with memory, such as wool, these results are semi-permanent, at least until you wash it again. It’s kind of like setting your hair with a blow dryer or curling iron.

There are three types of blocking: wet, steam and spray/spritz. The method you use depends on the fiber(s), the item you are blocking, and your personal preference. These swatches were wet blocked, which is my preferred method. Generally, the item should be blocked in the same way that it will be cleaned. Be sure to consult the ball band for your yarn to see the manufacturer cleaning instructions. Natural fibers respond very well, although it should be noted that some become more fragile when wet, so they must always be supported and not allowed to dangle to avoid permanent stretching or breakage (I’m looking at you, silk). Be especially careful not to apply steam or high heat to acrylics (they melt!); know that some novelty yarns don’t take kindly to water.

There are many excellent blocking tutorials on the web that will tell you exactly what to do. Here are two from an ancient blog by Eunny Jang that I think are especially helpful:

See here for an overview of blocking.

See here for a post about blocking lace.

 

What is your favorite blocking method?

 

My Designing Journey (Part 1)

For many years, I knit strictly from patterns. Most of the time I used exactly the yarn the pattern called for, too. I had neither the interest in designing my own, nor the first idea how to start, even if I had. This all worked out well enough until my friend, Patrice, cajoled me into learning how to spin.

Patrice had learned how to spin many years before, but had moved on to other hobbies by the time I met her. One day, to Patrice’s delight, a friend gave her a spinning wheel that she no longer had a use for. I watched with some curiosity as Patrice struggled a bit to re-acquire the muscle memory needed to spin. It all came back to her, and pretty soon she had joined a spinning guild (yes, despite the medieval sound of the name, such things still do exist) and was happily making yarn. I continued to watch warily—it looked hard to do.

The next time my birthday came around, she gave me a beautiful Bosworth hand spindle and a big bag of roving. I thanked her for it, but wondered what in the heck I was going to do with this thing. I would be lying if I said that all went well. It took several tries before I was able to make a pleasing yarn, but by then I was hooked on yet another fibery obsession. Several months later, I bought a spinning wheel and started making lots of yarn of my own.

And therein lay the problem.

I was making all of this beautiful yarn that I wanted to knit with. However, none of the patterns I could find seemed to be just right. Since this yarn was so precious to me, I did not want to knit just anything with it. So I started modifying the not-quite-right patterns, and from there it was a short leap to designing my own simple patterns from scratch. At first, I wrote them just for myself. They consisted of a few scribbled notes on the back of an envelope, or whatever scratch paper was handy. I was lucky if I could decipher it well enough to make a second hat, scarf, or doll just like the first. It takes a lot longer to make yarn than it does to knit with it, so pretty soon I had run through my stash of handspun and was back to using commercial yarns.

By this time, I had discovered Ravelry and noticed that many people were trying their hand at writing knitting patterns. I realized that I already had most of the skills and all of the equipment needed to produce professional patterns from my real job as a consultant designing data collection forms for the pharmaceutical industry. So I started small and opened my Ravelry shop with a couple of patterns for doll clothes. They met with modest success, and I have been slowly adding to them ever since.

Next post: Things get serious…

Why do I knit?

Or sew? Or spin? After centuries of having to obtain their clothing the hard way, people figured out how to get machines to do the tedious work for them so that now, in 2014, they can live perfectly well without ever having to pick up so much as a piece of thread. Growing fiber, processing it into yarn, and then knitting or weaving it into fabric used to take up a lot of almost everyone’s time and attention, so when they didn’t have to do it anymore, most people were happy to stop. But a few of us knit on, to the amazement of those who do not. They wonder why we waste all that time and money on knitting when you can just go down to one of those ubiquitous big stores and buy a sweater made in a factory and imported from Somewhere Else for $19.99 (or $16.42 with a coupon)?

I was lucky to have a mother who enjoyed knitting. She grew up in a little town on the Canadian prairie during the Depression, when knitting and sewing were still considered essential skills to have. After she grew up, she moved to Los Angeles to get away from the endless Canadian winters. Though many aspects of my childhood in sunny California were very different than hers had been, she taught me to knit when I was about eight years old. Oh, how I remember that meandering swatch of chocolate brown yarn on those shiny red metal needles! Every row had a different number of stitches, and sometimes they would get so tight, I couldn’t budge them with my sticky little hands. I would give the whole mess to my mother, who would sigh and then patiently sort it out for me so that I could keep going. Somehow I persevered long enough to learn the basics, but I didn’t get bitten by the knitting bug until high school.

Unfortunately, this was the late 70s, when polyester and acrylic were king. It’s hard to believe now how difficult it was to find a natural fiber anywhere. But we knit on through the 80s and 90s. We would often go to our local yarn shop, pick out a pattern that we both liked, then each pick a different color of the same yarn to make it. We spent many a happy evening knitting together.

I stopped knitting for several years while I was launching my career designing data collection forms for the pharmaceutical industry and while my daughter was very young, but I returned to it when she was a toddler and haven’t stopped knitting since. When she was about eight years old, I taught her to knit. I’m proud to say that she, too, has been infected by the fiber bug. My mom is no longer with us, but as my daughter and I shop for yarn and knit together, we still feel her presence in the magic circle of yarn that binds us together.

So why do you knit?