First, a proviso: I am not an artist or an art teacher. This is in no way a sketching how-to. In fact that’s kind of the point. Just because you can knit and design well doesn’t mean you have an skill in drawing. I think there a number of knit designers and would-be knit designers out there who, like me, cringe at the point where they have to include a sketch in their design submission. If you’re in that camp then here are my top tips for producing something you’re happy with:
Give yourself enough space
If you’re quite uncertain about your technique in drawing, the tendency is to cramp your work up apologetically, like an introvert hunching into the corner of a sofa at a party. A big blank page is a lot more scary, but increasing the scale of your drawing means detail will be easier to put in and will show up much better when you scan it- so try to go large.
Get comfortable with drawing
I know this sounds like an obvious one, like saying ‘just get better’. What I mean is, try to spend more time doodling and drawing other stuff, when the pressure isn’t on to make a design sketch. I recently signed up to Alisa Burke’s ‘Draw With Me’ course. It doesn’t relate directly to drawing design sketches but it’s got me exploring different materials (I love my new Sakura Koi watercolour set– a slightly pricey investment but well worth it) and feeling a lot more bold about making marks. I’m also finding that now I tend to incorporate considered sketching into my initial thinking about a design, so that when it comes to making a sketch for a submission, it’s a lot less painful. There are loads of sketching and drawing courses, tutorials and books out there- or you could just treat yourself to a nice sketchbook and a few art materials and give yourself some play time.
Tracing isn’t cheating
At primary school, ‘Thou shalt not trace and pretend it’s your own’ was practically the 11th Commandment (maybe the 12th. 11th was ‘Thou shalt not wear nail varnish or tie your hair back with bands that aren’t navy, brown or black’. It was that sort of school.) We’re not at school now. A sketch is there to get your ideas across, not get you through GCSE Art. Croquis ( the word means ‘rough sketch’ , but in this case body outlines you place underneath the page so you can trace over them) are great for helping to show garments and larger pieces. They can be found in books such as this and this or as downloads (often free), which as a bonus include body outlines with real life proportions as well as the bizarre aliens you will come across for most ‘fashion figures’.
Accessories can be trickier as I’ve not come across much in the way of head, hand or feet croquis. However, if you find a photo of the kind of shape you’re after, e.g. fingerless mitt, slouchy hat or even a hand/head/foot in the right pose, you can trace the outline through a thin-ish piece of plain paper and add your own details and refinements. I do this straight on my laptop screen (make sure you press very lightly!) but you could print the photo out to trace instead.
Keep it simple
In some cases a sketch is mainly to show the placement or proportion of a stitch pattern or colourwork sections, rather than the way it is worn. This is often true of accessories such as a simple beanie hat, a pair of mitts or a scarf and could also apply with a simply shaped sweater, especially for children. In this case, I pare my outline down to the most basic shapes- a beanie hat is pretty much a rectangle with a semi circle on top. Scarves and mitts are rectangles. A tam, viewed from above, is a circle. These can be refined with basic detail like shaping at the wrist , but I stick to a flat, front-on view without a body part in it and concentrate on showing, for example, how many stripes there will be, or how far up that colour will reach. I use a ruler for my straight lines and draw round objects with the right shape to create the outlines I want. If I was very organised, I’d make some master copies of these basic shapes to use again and again. I’m not very organised. It’s on the to-do list.
Keep it clear
If a sketch is for a design proposal, scanning is usually an easier option than photographing to get it into electronic form. Sometimes scanning can make fine pencil lines and light colours, on what would otherwise be a good sketch, disappear. I get around this by first exaggerating the colour (my favourite media to use are water soluble coloured pencils or the aforementioned watercolours, which give you control but can be intensified) and then, when the colour is dry, going over all the pencil outlines with a black fineliner. The fineliner does give your drawing a particular look, but you could always just use it on the key details. On the subject of key details, you need to consider the level of detail that is worth including and necessary to include. Drawing every single stitch is impossible and your swatch should showcase the finer details of cables, lace, colourwork etc. so I try to pare it down to an impression of the colour or texture- hatching and dots can be useful in this way.
Once I’ve scanned, I really look at the scanned copy to check that it shows everything it needs to. You can do a certain amount with editing contrast and brightness once you’ve captured the image but really you want the original scan to pick up all the detail that you need and if necessary I go back, adjust the drawing and re-scan.
I got to see the submissions process from the other side for the first time recently, when I helped with shortlisting for a collection of patterns I’m curating. Believe me, there was a lot of variation in the way ideas were presented, but ultimately the choices we made came down to the quality of the ideas. I asked Kate Heppell, editor of Knit Now and someone who has supported and guided me a lot with getting ideas from my head into print, for her take on design sketches:
You might have noticed just a small fuss when Yorkshire yarn purveyors baa ram ewe launched their own yarn: Titus, a little while ago. A small fuss…more like a full-on frenzy. Knitters couldn’t get enough of the silky softness and those delightfully vintage-feeling colours.
Sooo….I would have uttered a pretty big SQUEEE when baa ram ewe asked me if I’d rework my Ziggy mitts (originally designed for Titus) in their new yarn, Dovestone DK. However, it had to be a quiet and private ‘squee!’ as at that point it was very much under wraps.
Keeping quiet about Dovestone got considerably harder when skeins of Coal and Filey arrived. You can read more about the composition of this yarn in the baa ram ewe Autumn/Winter lookbook, but in terms of what you feel when you get to squidge it in real life, it’s a wonderful combination of substance and softness in a generously proportioned DK yarn. The sort of proper, no-nonsense woolly yet soft yarn you only dream about. There is a very visible twist that gives nice definition when you knit with it- I see some cabling with this in my future! At the same time, there’s enough of a woolly halo to ensure that the colourwork of Ziggy melded together well, especially after a light steam blocking. I have to admit it, I think I like this even more than Titus.
The main change I made for Ziggy Reloaded was the addition of a proper, gusseted thumb. I think this, along with the more robust nature of Dovestone compared to Titus, makes the Reloaded version more of an outdoorsy, stomping around in the cold and mist sort of affair.
You can see a whole lot more Dovestone loveliness in the lookbook, which showcases designs by a range of very clever people- and me! The print version of Ziggy Reloaded is available from baaramewe.co.uk, along with the all-important yarn. Alternatively, the pdf version is on sale through Ravelry and Love Knitting.
I should love knitting socks. I’m a magpie for bright colours (helloooo, sock yarn). I love a good indie dyer. I’m an inveterate knitter-in-public so portable projects are good for me. My main designing beef is accessories. I’ll happily knit up more than one of a hat design or make a pair of gloves without losing stamina. I constantly have cold feet.
It’s not that I’ve never managed to complete a pair of socks. I have a couple of ill-fitting vanilla pairs I forced myself to complete, with literally years between first and second sock. I made these for the Ravellinics- completed in a sensible time scale (and oh, such touching optimism that I’d make more!) but again, they don’t really fit that well and I’m not sure the pattern and the yarn really do one another any favours (although I like both separately). Somehow, sock knitting has always been about unhappy knitting- guilt as chronic second sock syndrome sees beautiful yarn languishing, half-used in a project bag for months and disappointment when the finished article doesn’t really fit properly or look quite right.
So how is it that you find me now, wearing a lovely pair of well-fitting socks knitted by yours truly and with plans afoot (bwahahah, sorry, couldn’t resist) it for more?
1. I bought a book
Not just any book. I bought Rachel Coopey’s Coop Knits Socks Volume 2. I’ve known Rachel’s fantastic work through both of our designs being in Knit Now over the years- I even tried (and failed, but not through any fault with her pattern) to make her Lilybet socks from Issue 8. Anyway, for various non-sock related reasons, I’d bought a copy for reference but while I was admiring the excellent layout, photography, writing style etc. I was meant to be looking at, I found myself drawn in. The socks are so pretty. The style of writing is so friendly- just the right amount of advice and tips to make you feel you can do it, without becoming an essay on how hand-knit socks will change your life. There are socks called Wilbert and Dave (I love the idea of having socks called ‘Dave’. Rachel has since informed me I should be grateful she hadn’t discovered Ru Paul’s ‘Drag Race’ before she wrote this book). Go on then, one last try at this sock knitting malarkey.
2. I gave myself no choice.
One of my greatest life discoveries a few years ago was that I can knit when I’m a passenger in a car without throwing up. As someone who has suffered car sickness her whole life but who is also a fidget-bum who hates just DOING NOTHING IN THE CAR this has made my life (and that of my fellow travellers) infinitely better. As a result, every trip now involves not only the selection of the ‘while we’re away’ knitting but also the ‘car’ knitting. With a kind of ‘just jump into the cold water before you think better of it’ masochism, for a recent weekend in London (involving two 6-7 hour drives) I only took a sock knitting project. No choice, just a ball of sumptuous sock-weight, a couple of 2.5mm circs (more on needles in a minute), some stitch markers and the book. Guess what? I loved it. Even though I chose to make Phyllis, which involved a little more peering at charts than is strictly good for a bad traveller, it kept me interested, grew gratifyingly quickly, looked splendid and was so portable, tucked into a little Hiya Hiya zipped bag that also travelled with me on the Tubes when we went to the V&A and Tate Modern (Sonia Delaunay exhibition– swoon! So good! Go see!). I completed one sock by the time the weekend was over and immediately cast the other one on before being back with my stash and multiple unfinished projects could tempt my roving eye.
3. I used lovely yarn
Part of our holiday last summer was spent in Edinburgh where I managed to incorporate visits to both Kathy’s Knits and Be Inspired Fibres. At the latter I treated myself to two skeins of Madelinetosh Tosh Merino Light. One was a rich gold colour whose name I forget- I used it to make a Byatt shawl (shawls- now there’s a story for another time). The other was Baltic- a gorgeous rich blue that I sighed over and admired and had no clue what to do with. Turns out what I was meant to do was make socks. They won’t be hardwearing socks, but they are beautiful and soft and cosy and the semi-solid colour works perfectly with the single cable diamond patterns of Phyllis. It’s so easy to think that if you aren’t sure you’re really committed to a project, you shouldn’t bother using your best materials. I think that would have been a false economy. Using the good stuff made it infinitely more enjoyable and I think I made the effort to live up to the yarn I was using.
4. I’ve worked out the best tools for me
I’m not monogamous when it comes to needles. I started with straights but now I’m more likely to use circulars. Wood used to be my favourite, but I’ve dabbled with bamboo and now tend to like metal, although my current crush is carbon fibre (KnitPro Karbonz, swoon!). Double pointed needles have always been my nemesis, though. Whatever they are made from I will invariably lose all my stitches from a needle, lose the needle down the side of the chair, twist my work when joining, create ladders at every corner and stab myself in the chest with a needle (by mistake, not through frustration) at least once in every project. For the record, Joeli has filmed a great tutorial on setting up stitches on DPNs and joining for working in the round here. Watch it, but don’t think I’ll be joining you in your double pointed madness. For me, a couple of short (23cm cord) HiyaHiya 2.5mm circular needles work best. The small gauge of needle was a revelation for me from the Coop Knits book. It’s smaller than is usually suggested for sock yarn but, just as Rachel says, this produces a firmer fabric that seems to me to fit your foot a lot better. The cord on HiyaHiya Sharp needles is so flexible and smoothly joined that I tend to flit between a version of magic loop on one needle and splitting my stitches between the two- whichever is most comfortable at the time. This also seems to have eliminated the laddering problem. Actually, there are ways to eliminate all the problems I have with DPNs (for the stabby thing it’s probably going all ‘Game of Thrones’ and rocking a metal breastplate) but why bother? I think I can live with not making socks ‘properly’ by using DPNs, so long as the socks come out as they should.
5.I bought lovely new yarn immediately
It could all have been a summer romance, of course. ‘Phyllis’ the one-hit wonder. However, being in London reminded me that I’d admired other people’s projects using Trailing Clouds’ ‘Mind the Gap’ self-striping yarn. For the uninitiated, its sock yarn dyed in all the different colours of the London Underground lines. Even though during this visit to London I found that my assimilation into Northern ways is such that I found myself pining for the hills and wishing people would be more friendly (I know, such clichés!) I still have a lot of affection for the big city, so I ordered myself a skein sharpish- my needles would barely be empty before another project was on them. Reader, Phyllis will shortly be joined by Dave (with an afterthought heel) in my sock drawer. He is half complete already- I just have to make sure that the second half matches the first in terms of where the stripes fall or I won’t be able to look at him.
Me, knitting socks. Who’d have thought it?
It’s the school holidays. For me, that means knitting season has begun. I’m sketching ideas, knitting samples, writing up patterns, attending to social media, answering emails without a time delay, writing blogs. Occasionally I glance up to check that the children haven’t been crushed beneath a falling Lego monolith or eaten any non-food items. If I’m feeling generous I speak to my husband when he gets in from work and cook a meal for us all.
You see, for me, knitting design is the job I fit around my other job as a primary school teacher. Officially, I work part-time (just about- my hours are now 80% of full time) as a primary school teacher. Anyone who has tried working part-time as a teacher will know that what that actually means is that you work full-time and just get paid part-time. During term time, full time often means 10-12 hours of work, 6 days a week (Sunday is marking and planning day). You also get big long holidays at the same time as your kids and off-the-scale job satisfaction so I’m in no way complaining- I chose this career.
The effect teaching has on my knitting design job is that there are long periods of the year when my time is so squeezed that it’s really hard to do it properly. I’m lucky enough to know a number of very knowledgeable people when it comes to building your brand as a designer and through them I realise that there are a lot of things I should be doing, like a more structured and diligent approach to my online profile, a less haphazard approach to the work I do etc. The trouble is, the on-again, off-again nature of the time I can give to designing makes that really hard to achieve. During the last year, the challenges and responsibilities I have in my teaching job have meant designing has had to take so much of a back seat it’s basically trailing along behind, hanging on to the exhaust pipe.
All this leads to a few questions about what I do. First among them must be: Why do the knit designing instead of just knitting for fun?
That’s pretty easy to answer. I love it. I love the whole process from coming up with an idea and writing a proposal, to getting commissioned, sorting out yarn, making the sample, writing up the pattern (even though I grumble about that part), working with tech editors (even though that feels like getting your homework marked) and seeing how people react when it’s published. It stimulates and challenges me in ways that nothing else I’ve done ever has, has led to me getting to know some amazing and brilliant people, added a whole new dimension to the craft I love and it’s still a source of joy to me to find that this is something I can actually do.
When I say that I kind of fell into knit designing by chance I worry that this sounds insulting to people who have chosen it as a career and spent time gaining qualifications for it. I probably don’t explain myself well by saying ‘fell into’. What I mean is that I didn’t ever expect that I’d have the opportunity to be paid for my designs and that I’ve never gained the formal qualifications for a designer. However, I had spent years developing a range of knitting skills and making up designs as I went along without realising that this was actually the nascent stages of designing. I had a long standing interest in textiles and the visual arts. My previous career as a journalist meant I knew how to work to a brief and a deadline, following a house style and not being precious about having my work edited. When an open call on Ravelry led me to Kate Heppell and the early issues of Knit Now it was maybe less of a chance occurrence than it first seems.
The issue of Ravelry and the self-publishing dream leads to my second question: If I’m not committed to doing this full time am I not taking it seriously enough?
I find this a really tough one. I count a number of full-time knitting designers among my friends and I know from them that these are tough times. When I say full-time knitting designers, I mean people whose income is derived from knitting design, plus a number of other ways they deploy their skills to make it work, financially- tech editing, teaching workshops, pattern editing, blogging etc. One of the reasons they have to develop such diverse portfolios is that the market for patterns is somewhat saturated with self-published designs. There are a lot of people, from the weekend hobbyists to the big yarn companies, putting patterns out there. Some high quality, some awful. Some gobsmackingly expensive (in an ‘I could buy a book of patterns for that’ way), some for free (maybe as a loss-leader, maybe as a promotion, maybe just as an ego trip). The upshot is that it takes a lot of work and not a little luck to make your design stand out -and ultimately sell, if that’s your income source- amongst all this noise. A worry for me is that if I’m not doing this ‘seriously’, am I part of the noise that make it harder for those full-time designers I admire and respect and whose work I want to see continue?
Of course, one response would be to give up the teaching and pursue a career in knitting design full time. There probably aren’t many teachers who don’t nurture at least one secret escape plan, especially at the more stressful times of the year, so don’t think I haven’t considered it! What stops me is part lack of nerve and part grasp on reality. The lack of nerve probably stems from the fact that a few years back, just when the responsibilities of a young family and a mortgage meant regular income was more necessary than ever, our circumstances took a serious wobble due to circumstances far beyond our control. We got through it okay, but it’s the sort of experience that makes relinquishing regular pay cheques a scarier prospect.
The grasp on reality part is again down to the privilege of knowing a number of highly talented individuals who have gone down the ‘designing only’ route. Through being friends with them I have a little insight into the (crazy, even by teacher standards) hours they work, the balancing act of holding business/family/quality of life together and the diversity of often not directly creative skills they bring to bear on making a success of being a designer. This article from the Design Trust puts it really well. Articles in magazines accompanied by whimsical photos of twine and lavender sprigs about giving up the daily grind to make artisan soaps are quite obviously guff- either it’s a lot more hard graft for low rewards than is presented or there’s a very large income source somewhere out of shot. For more great insights into the realities of designing see Kat Goldin, specifically her ‘Making it Work as a Designer’ blog , but actually, just see the amount she does, in general, while raising her family. My grasp on reality is that while I might have the work ethic, I only have some of the skills I’d need to make this my full-time business and there would be a very real possibility of me putting it out there and nobody biting.
My answer to that question from way back is that actually, yes, I do take it seriously. I have learned when I can take on projects so that I’m not up against deadlines just when school reports need writing/new classes need settling in/grand Christmas extravaganzas need producing. I have scaled back the number of projects I take on so that I can focus on quality. I have accepted that my online profile will be less high than it could be because I simply don’t have time to maintain my blog, start a podcast or engage with social media as regularly as I could when things get busy at school. I’ve done all this because I’m determined that, even though I’m part time, I’m still professional, which means not just getting paid, but behaving professionally by doing a good quality job. It’s definitely not ‘just a hobby I get a bit of money for’. I hope that for these reasons I have the right to count myself among those I admire as designers (even if I’m hiding at the back somewhere).
With that, I’m off to check the children aren’t illicitly watching unsuitable television (screen time in exchange for Mummy writing time), wrestle with a rapidly expanding lace chart and probably do a little sock knitting (purely indulgent and/or for research purposes). You may well hear more from me on these pages over the next few weeks, but don’t get too used to it- term starts again soon!
About a year and a half ago I began to think I wanted a yarn bowl. I’ve always been fond of a good bit of ceramic and there were some beautiful handmade bowls to be found on Etsy. In addition, I was doing an increasing amount of colourwork and using centre-pull balls wound from skeins. A plain bamboo bowl worked as a stop-gap for a while, but without the depth and custom-made holes or channels for yarn, the ball could still leap out and the yarn get tangled.
Then one day I was reading/listening to the podcast on Never Not Knitting and there was one of those ‘leave a comment to win’ competitions for a lovely yarn bowl with a bird perched on it from Uncommon Goods. I commented, just like I have on any number of similar blog competitions in the past. Only this time, I won. Thus, technically, I’ve owned a yarn bowl for over a year now.
Except…somehow it wasn’t that simple. When I contacted Uncommon Goods about my prize they said sorry, but they couldn’t ship it to the UK. Hmmm. Some complicated email exchanges involving gift vouchers ensued until I eventually realised that the only way to get my bowl was to get it sent to somewhere in the US.
We tried our friend in Texas. Would he please use my voucher to get the yarn bowl sent to him, then get it sent on to me? He kindly agreed and hence ended up as probably the only non-knitting possessor of a yarn bowl in Texas. He looked into shipping. $170. Enough for several yarn bowls. He unpacked it (discovering what a yarn bowl actually looked like in the process) and repacked it in a smaller box. $150 said the shipping people. Unprepared to let me spend that much money on getting it sent, he sat it next to his TV until a better plan could be dreamed up.
So there my yarn bowl sat, through the Autumn and Winter, into Spring and for most of the Summer. Cut to September this year and the wedding in Sorrento of a mutual friend from Uni (where our friend in Texas and my husband met and became friends). As we prepared for what proved to be a punishing journey, an amazing, full-scale Italian wedding overlooking the Amalfi coast and overall a tiring but unforgettable and crazy dash to Italy and back in between working weeks, my little yarn bowl was transferred to a bag full of bubble wrap and stowed in our friend’s suitcase to cross the Atlantic at last.
On Sunday morning, all slightly delicate from the delights of the previous day (and night’s) feasting and drinking, we met up at the Circumvesuviana station in Sorrento and with some relief on his part and joy on mine, our friend handed over my yarn bowl.
From the glorious Mediterranean heat in Naples we return to England and the first nips of Autumn in the air. My little bird has completed its flight and at last I not only own but actually possess a yarn bowl, which is safely installed in my new workroom. Just in time for my favourite knitting season. Happy Knitting my friends and thanks again to the lovely Alana- do go check out her blog and more especially her gorgeous Playful Stripes cardigan patterns.
Like many, I walk a tightrope on which I wobble between my creative life and the demands of family and day-job work life. For the last few months I’ve wobbled towards (one could probably say overbalanced into) the family and work side. Hence the silence on this page. There has been some knitting work going on, including frantic and in some cases unsuccessful late night attempts to meet deadlines. Thank goodness for sympathetic editors- you will nevertheless see the results in print later this year. There has been checking of patterns before they went into print. There has been dreaming, sketching and much making of lists. What there hasn’t been time for is writing about it and I don’t think there’s much point in backtracking now.
As the whirlwind of the early summer months subsided I found myself suddenly with a glorious weekend of (nearly) nothing to do. ‘Nothing to do’ of course translates into ‘what can I knit?’ and I urgently wanted something simple and pleasing on my needles. After a little light stash diving and contemplation of other people’s patterns in order that I didn’t have to think about recording what I was doing or grading what I’d done I settled on a new cardigan for M.
The pattern is ‘Tiny Tealeaves’ by Melissa Barre. I’d enjoyed making one of these for M a couple of years ago and it got a lot of wear before she grew out of it. In worsted or aran weight yarn it grows nice and quickly and being a seamless, bottom-up design there is very little fiddling about to be done in finishing it. It has just two buttons to fasten it, which mean it is easy for her to put on herself and the slight A-line this gives means it works over layers including dresses or trousers. My favourite feature is the garter stitch and ruching detail on the yoke- pretty but not fussy and a great way to show off a lovely yarn. It’s this part that attracted me to the grown-up version originally, although I’ve yet to make good on the promise to knit one for myself.
The two skeins of Malabrigo Worsted I used to make this had been in my stash since the Rocking Kitchen retreat last year. I was excited to find this in my goody-bag as it was a yarn I’ve often seen used in Ravelry projects but not had a chance to see in the flesh, so to speak. The colourway is ‘Forest’ but in that lovely way that hand-dyed yarns have, the quality of the colour changes in different lights so that sometimes it is indeed the deep, slightly dull green of a pine forest but at other times there are flashes of blue-green that reminded me of the sea.
There are some large areas of stocking stitch involved in Tiny Tealeaves and in this case these were larger still since I added extra length to achieve the right fit on M. This gave a great opportunity to see the fabric created by the yarn- sturdy but soft and with a lovely sheen to it. The colour undulates rather than striping or pooling. The overall effect is one of quality and I can totally see how Malabrigo has got to be so popular. With the weather we’ve been having it’s not had a lot of wear or washing yet so I can’t report on how it ages. I would possibly expect a bit of pilling due to the soft feel of it but as it feels like a generous weight to be knitted on 4mm and 4.5mm needles so the density of the knit is likely to help it keep its shape well. I’ve Ravelled the project here.
I more or less ignored housework or any other form of work that weekend, sticking to knitting and relaxing with the family. The cardigan was finished by the end of it and came with us to Scotland for our holiday a week or so later. Here I photographed it, although that was about the only time it was worn there as we were blessed with the sort of sunny weather no-one ever associates with that country. When I uploaded the shots I was taken aback by how grown up my little girl looks, even before I compared them with the pictures of her wearing the first Tiny Tealeaves I made her. Time passes fast and at that moment, and many others during our holiday, I was reminded of this poem by William Henry Davies:
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this is if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
An over-quoted cliche? Perhaps, but it still holds a lot of truth for me.
Do you have a favourite brand of knitting needles? Or even a favourite pair? The other evening I didn’t even care about the brand, I just needed some 4mm needles to swatch for a project that I really needed to get going with. Straight or circular, it didn’t matter. Surely, as a rather regular knitter who usually works in the DK to Aran-weight range I should have been able to lay my hands on some, but it took hours of burrowing through boxes and bags, digging out UFOs in hope, before I finally located a pair of 4mm straights. Knowing that I would need circs for the project, I swiftly ordered some from Meadowyarn, then set about swatching and discovered I would actually need to use 3.5mm needles to get the gauge I wanted…
Grumbling about this on Twitter led to some interesting comments from knitting friends. Everyone seemed to have certain sizes of needles they couldn’t live without and others they just never used. For me, the former category would include 3.25mm and until recently 4mm as well, but actually since acquiring 3.5mm needles not so long ago they are getting a lot of use instead. Weirdly though, I seem to have a lot of 3.75mm that never see yarn, while for some they are apparently a must. There are a lot of variable factors involved I suppose- the yarn you tend to use, obviously, but also your own tension and the style of knitting you do (I prefer to use smaller needles than is usual for the yarn when doing colourwork, for example). According to this blog post by Alexis Winslow, even the material your needles are made from can affect the gauge and therefore the resulting fabric and presumably the sizes you’ll tend to use more.
When I first learned to knit there wasn’t a lot of choosing to be done, in all honesty. The yarn I was using was oddments of acrylic from which the ball bands had long since disappeared, so I had no idea of the weight or recommended size. Needles would have been picked out of a jumble of (often bent) metal and plastic needles- my mother is much more of a seamstress than a knitter, unlike her mother, who taught me to knit- mainly on the grounds that they were a matching pair. When I got back into knitting more seriously in my twenties the knitting landscape was oh so different and the wonders of the internet introduced me to the joys of pure wools, artisan dyed yarns and needles in gorgeous, smooth and light bamboo or wood.
The first pair of really nice needles I bought were 3.25mm Brittany Birch straights. Although I’ve acquired a good number of wooden needles since then, these remain my favourite straight needles. In this size, the balance and weight is just perfect as far as I’m concerned. They don’t snag but they aren’t too slippy and I get just the right gauge using 4ply yarn. It’s just a shame I rarely knit anything flat these days. Even when I do, I tend to use my circular needles anyway. While on the subject of straights, my prettiest ones are my Art Vivas. I have a 4mm and a 6mm pair with their signature dotty ends. I love how they look in my needle jar, but sadly I find them to be style over substance. I think I have only ever knitted one project using 6mm needles, as it’s just one of my unused sizes, and as for the 4mm, I’ve tried to use them but find they constantly snag the wool, even after several different attempts to smooth them down. Maybe I just got a duff pair but just as the right needles can feel so right and make your knitting fly, the wrong ones can drive you up the wall.
Wooden needles were my first conversion to the new generation knitting world. Next came circulars. Like many, I would guess, my early ventures in this regard were not great as I tried to get away with cheap plastic or metal circulars with lumpy joins and inflexible or permanently kinked cords. Although I conceded that they were preferable to fumbling away and stabbing myself in the chest with a set of DPNs, it took the purchase of my first decent bamboo circular needle, along with the enticement of seeing so many gorgeous seamless projects on Ravelry, to convince me. My Aunty has recently had a similar conversion, learning to knit in the round so that she could use some yarn I’d given her to make a snood and going on to make (at my suggestion) a Cookie Jar hat for each of my children in super quick time. Those children were the decider for me when it came to using circs. It is so much safer to dump a circular project in a hurry when a sudden baby emergency happens- stitches usually stay in place. Not to mention it feels a lot safer having circular needles lying around than long, pointy sticks- although my curious two learned at a very early age that they do not touch Mummy’s knitting.
A year or so after I started using circular needles I acquired a Knit-Pro set and thought that with these wooden interchangeables I was pretty much set for life. They have certainly had, and continue to have, a lot of use, with my only niggles being that a couple of 3.25mm tips broke off recently (one when I sat on it, admittedly, but the other for no good reason) and the tendency for the tips to unscrew during use so that the yarn snags at the join. Those aside, I love the texture of the needles and find the versatility of the interchangeable tips really useful. However, having knitting friends online can be a danger to the bank balance. Some of them started to wax lyrical over metal needles- specifically ChiaoGoos and HiyaHiyas. Metal needles? My mind returned to the heavy, cold bent things I dug out of my mother’s sewing box and those cheap numbers I bought when I first tried knitting in the round. I was swiftly assured that these were not the same in any way. I tried them. I swiftly gained a new obsession. The main appeal of ChiaoGoo needles for me is the texture of the needle. They appear to be slightly brushed and this gives the absolute ideal balance between slip and grip. The only way I can put it is that they whisper through your stitches. As for HiyaHiyas, the flexibility and smooth join of the cord is just fabulous. Magic loop is so easy, as is eliminating the laddering that can occur when knitting in the round. HiyaHiyas are also super smooth and pointy, just not quite the utter joy of ChiaoGoos, while the thicker, more robust red cord of ChiaoGoos is not quite as flexible and easy to work with as the HiyaHiyas, but again you don’t get any problems with kinks. Basically, if I could have a ChiaoGoo needle with a HiyaHiya cord I would really have found my perfect needle. For the time being, anyway.
Of course, there’s always something else to tempt me- I’ve never tried carbon tips for example. Or those prism shaped ones. I’m eminently suggestible when it comes to new needles. Just don’t ask me to lay my hands on the right size when I need it…
My hands have been anything but idle this week. I’ve got a dress I’m sewing from the ‘pile of fabric shapes’ stage to the ‘it’s starting to look like a garment stage’, reminding myself in the process that while I like the quick gratification of sewing, the clearing up afterwards drives me mad. I’ve also been knitting away on a commission using all the colours of Eden Cottage’s new mill-dyed wool/silk yarn, Milburn. I can report that it’s lovely to work with- not the necessarily the choice for a newbie to colourwork as it isn’t particularly ‘sticky’ but it looks wonderful and feels incredibly comfortable in your hands. I’m planning to investigate this yarn’s possibility with textured stitches in the coming months as plans are afoot!
Last night I just fancied a change from the full on knitting and sewing, so I decided to do a bit of hooking. I used my Stylecraft stash, but rather than working on my long-term chair cover project I decided to try making a mandala to send to Lucy at Attic 24. If you went to the inaugural Yarndale festival in Skipton you’ll have been unable to miss the gorgeous crochet bunting she organised- a triumph of communal crafting with contributions from around the world. This year, rather than more bunting, she is asking the many readers of her lovely and uplifting blog to contribute mandalas (bright coloured, circular crochet circles) to help decorate Yarndale 2014- you can find out more here.
I’m very much hoping I’ll make it to the event itself, but if that doesn’t happen, I’m determined that my handiwork will be there. Being part of a mass making project like this is another first for me, following my first knitalongs (Woolly Wormhead’s Mystery KAL last autumn and the Ravellinics earlier this year) in recent months.
Since granny squares are my main area of experience with crochet, I chose the Granny Mini Mandala pattern contributed to the cause by Zelna Olivier. It was quick and easy and really rather fun, although I’ll always prefer two sticks to one, of course! As per Lucy’s instructions, I lightly pressed my finished mandala and coated the back with PVA to stiffen it (this is to help with display). It will go in the post in the next day or so, then I’ll look out for it on the spectacularly colourful Pinterest board and, with luck, at the event itself on the 27th and 28th September.
It’s a tricky thing when you offer to make something for somebody. Especially when that someone is your sister (if you have sisters, you’ll understand). Especially when the something is for them to wear on their wedding day. Nonetheless, I was still over the moon when my older sister said that yes, she would like me to make her a shawl to wear when she gets married this summer. This was, it must be noted, what I suggested I should make for her. I loved the idea of making a shawl for her so much that I neatly forgot that I have very little experience making shawls. Very little being I made one once and it was rubbish. Hmm.
This wonderful, exciting challenge (with the pressure of a VIP customer and an immovable deadline) had to begin, of course, with a pattern. I put together a few ideas on a Pinterest board and sent big sister off in the direction of Ravelry. Personally, I was hoping she’d choose Shipwreck, but she decided she wanted something smaller and lighter and settled on After Hours by Wendy Gaal. With the benefit of 20:20 hindsight (and the wisdom of others more experienced than me who have since expressed their opinion) I may have tried a bit harder to avoid a lace pattern using sock weight yarn on 7.5mm needles. Especially as the needles I was using in that size were slippery metal ones. Still, I can’t fault the pattern writing. After a couple of false (and sweary) starts, I settled on using the charts, referring back to the written instructions when I needed to. It was an act of faith getting through that stage when it looks like a string vest and only having stitch counts to really tell me that I was on track but once the blocking had worked its magic the beautiful design was revealed. It’s reminiscent of peacock feathers, which will work beautifully with her dress- not a conventional white meringue, this being my sister.
Yarn choice was also key for this piece. The intended wearer has skin that is very sensitive to any form of itchiness in clothes. I had to work hard to convince her that not all wool was itchy and eventually she agreed we should order some Eden Cottage Tempo– a super smooth merino with silk- and see how it felt. The colourway is Silver Birch and when it arrived and looked at it in artificial light I wondered if it was too blue- we needed something silvery. However, the beauty of this hand-dyed colour is that it changes in different lights- in daylight and against the dress fabric it was perfect, a kind of antique silver with the blue tones just lifting it. Although this was a project involving a lot of cursing, eye-strain and worry there was never a moment when I didn’t enjoy the yarn.
The final hurdle of the project was beading- something that had intrigued me for a while but that I had no clue how to attempt. I remembered reading once that there was one method involving threading all the beads onto the yarn before you begin, but this pattern just called for the beads to be applied on the border using a tiny crochet hook. Reassurance and advice from online friends including Anniken Allis and Tracey Todhunter led to me sourcing my silver beads from Debbie Abrahams– size 6- which I used with a 0.75 hook. I actually really enjoyed the beading part- the technique was quite easy to master- and have since been playing with some beaded swatches so if nothing else, this is a new skill I may well use in future designs.
There is something else though. I’m very proud of myself for knitting way outside of my comfort zone and I’m really pleased with how it looks. I seriously hope my sister will like the finished result (Ravelled here) too and I’ll be incredibly proud and touched when she wears it on her special day. Will I be knitting another shawl any time soon? Probably not, but at least I know I can!
The new issue of Knit Now came out this week and I’m looking forward to reserving at least some of the Bank Holiday weekend for reading it. The editorial includes an article about the influence of the Arts and Crafts movement on knitters by the lovely and talented Karina Westermann (who also designed the Prosperine half circle shawl for this issue) and it’s this aesthetic style that was the influence for The Collection this time around. Lovers of painterly details and femininity (without twee-ness) will find a lot to like among these designs. My personal favourite is Claire Neicho’s beautiful, William Morris-inspired Chrysanthemum Vest:
Experience tells me that I would regret making this style of garment for myself as it really wouldn’t suit my figure, but I can absolutely see myself reproducing her gorgeous colourwork pattern in a jumper or cardigan I could carry off more successfully. It uses Jamieson and Smith Shetland Heritage for goodness sake!
Also in this issue is my Twine Hat. A rather more restrained affair than some of the beauties mentioned above, it was nevertheless a real pleasure to design and make. Having learned my lesson from overloading myself with too much in the way of commissions, when I set about writing the proposal for this design I went back to basics- the stuff that I really like (and can manage in a realistic timeframe!):
I decided on a hat because I like designing hats- they are big enough to get something interesting going on between casting on and off, but small enough to provide some fairly quick gratification. I asked to make it in a good, ‘sheepy’, wool yarn (Blacker Yarns Pure Organic Wool Corriedale/Hebridean) because I like using yarns with the sort of integrity and texture that result in a piece that feels like it’s been around forever even when it’s just come off the needles. Finally, I used single, travelling cables in a simple, rhythmic pattern on a background of reverse stocking stitch because it’s just a look that I like. It’s not one that is easy to reproduce in machine knitting, so this is the sort of hat that, while quite subtle, will be identifiably handmade to those in the know.
Twine is a fairly straightforward beanie for anyone who can follow a cable chart. Additional height could be added at the top for a more slouchy look and it would work well for men too. It’s the sort of design that could very much let the yarn be the star, with the cables being more prominent if you used a silk blend yarn or a solid colour with strong stitch definition, or being more of a textural touch if it was variegated yarn. I’d love to see some different versions made.