On the Joys of Blocking

While my latest project dries on the blocking board, I think I’ll repeat here an essay I wrote for the December 2011 Windsor Button Newsletter:

As I am writing this, my dining room smells like wet sheep. I’ve been pleasantly puttering on this bright, brisk day, and turned my attention to my neglected pile of knitted things. Some were sweaters and socks in need of a wash. Others were recently completed projects — Christmas gifts, mostly — that I have been turning out one after the other without stopping to block them. The treatment for each was the same — a lazy soak in a basin of tepid water with a gentle wool wash; a rinse; a squeeze; and then to be laid out on beach towels, rolled up jelly-roll fashion and gently walked on to remove excess water.

I’m sure there are many among you who wrinkled up their noses when I mentioned the smell of wet sheep (and some who do so at the mention of blocking one’s knitting). But I have learned the magic transforming effect of blocking. It evens out stitches and sets them, so that a project falls and drapes as it should and holds the correct size and shape. It makes a lumpy web of knitted lace grow and bloom to its full beauty. I urge you not to skimp on this step, not only because it’s good for your knitting, but because — if the way I’m feeling now is any indication — it might also be good for your soul.

Much has been written recently about the many ways that knitting can enhance well-being. As I took my damp mounds and methodically smoothed them out on my blocking board, stretching and pinning or patting and straightening as needed, I realized that even the blocking step of the knitting process can have this same beneficial meditative quality. Inhaling the familiar wet sheep aroma as I worked, I realized that I felt contented. I’ve never thought about it before, but I suppose I have come to associate that scent with a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. It makes sense. The blocking process is yet another opportunity to experience the colors and textures of fiber, to slow down and reflect, and also to show a healthy respect and appreciation for myself by fussing over the things that I put so much of myself into making.

I am always drawn to return again and again to my drying projects, smoothing and adjusting until total dryness allows no further refinement. I have often told the family members who watch me with amusement that petting is an important part of the knitting process.

Or maybe I just can’t resist the smell of wet sheep!

Leaving Vancouver (But Not for Long)

BFL 003

I mean Vancouver, the linen stitch wrap pattern by Samantha Roshak in this case. My first of two, wisely or foolishly started at about the same time, is on the blocking board. The other is about a quarter done. (Another 3 months to go, in other words!)

It’s a lovely knit, in process and in product – as long as you are not too goal oriented. The Blue Moon Fiber Arts Blue Faced Leicester (BFL) Sport yarn is soft and ever so slightly fuzzy, light and warm at the same time. Except in my choice of colors (to suit the recipients), I actually deviated little from the pattern.

The pattern is worked in rows the long way, starting with a tubular cast on founded on Judy’s Magic Cast On. Brilliant! Nothing to change there. But I did decide to start at the edge opposite the recommended starting place, for absolutely no reason other than that it would get me to the “interesting” part, the contrasting stripe, toward the beginning of my project rather than at the end. It just seemed more fun that way, and it would let me fully evaluate my color choices earlier in the process, in case I didn’t like them.

The other change I made was to work a truly matching tubular bind off at the other edge, whereas the pattern instructs you to work in 1×1 rib for a few rows before grafting off the stitches. I assume this was simply for ease of working, but since either way I would need to work the stitches onto two separate needles, and either way I would need to Kitchener a bazillion and a half stitches, it seemed hardly any additional work to divide the stitches onto two needles after only one row of ribbing and work a couple of stockinette rounds before grafting off.

I think the most important thing I DIDN’T change was the recommended needle size. This is one project where swatching and blocking the swatch (or in my case at least imagining I did) will pay off, because it changes dramatically. My project just off the needles measured 24″ x 58″. Blocked it came in at 20″ x 84″, the length of my blocking board and pretty much what it was supposed to end up at. To accomplish this, once I made sure that my stitch gauge would stretch the correct amount on blocking, I judged my progress by the number of rows worked rather than measuring. 17 rows (yes, 17 rows!) = 1 inch of blocked width.

I may turn my attention to other things for awhile before I return to the second Vancouver, but I will return, no fear!

BFL 005

Heels and Shoulders Above the Rest

I recently made the observation – not particularly earth-shaking – that the shape of the human shoulder is somewhat similar to the shape of the heel.  A bit round yet knobby, a bit protruding, both serving the function of joining parts of the body at roughly a right angle.  Human experience being what it is, I doubt I am the first to notice this, but I am not aware of much discussion in the knitting literature which gives the shoulder the same sort of attention to precise fit and shaping as is given to sock heels (other than, perhaps, the Faroese shawl, which incorporates distinctive shaping in the shoulder area).

Sleeves, yes.  Sleeves get a lot of attention.  Sleeve caps.  Sleeve style and shaping.  Sewn-in sleeves vs. knitted in sleeves. Top down vs. bottom up.  The discussion always gets around to problems with fit in the various styles of sleeve shaping.  Occasionally I will see an offhand mention of the possibility of using increases, decreases or short rows to refine the shape in the shoulder, without specifics.  (If anyone reading this knows of resources that do discuss this, please point them out to me.)

It is not an accident that a classic set-in sleeve has the best fit.  It is the only one that takes into account the curve of the shoulder.  When the sleeve cap is eased into the armscye, it creates a shoulder-shaped bulge where needed.  Other sleeve styles – raglan, dolman, dropped shoulder, etc. – let an essentially flat piece of fabric droop as needed over the shoulder, leaving excess folds to pile up below.

I am what sweater knitters seem to like to call “curvy”, the excess poundage being a legacy of years spent taking care of everyone but myself.  (No comments about that please. I’ll deal with my issues in my own time.)  With ample upper arms hanging alongside a generous bust, the last thing I need is extra folds of fabric in the vicinity of my armpit adding even more heaviness to my appearance.  But I would like to be free to incorporate the style lines and ease of knitting of the raglan or dropped shoulder sleeve without reproach.  I don’t have an answer yet but a vision is forming, and it seems to pivot around the recognition of the similarities of the shoulder to the heel.  What if, regardless of the sleeve type, a three-dimensional approximation of the shoulder itself were made part of the design as well?


Windsor Button and the Yarn That Changed My Life

I stopped in at Windsor Button today, the third day of their clearance sale. The store was bustling with folks coming in not only to stock their stash for the fiber-lean times ahead, but to express their appreciation for how much a part of their lives the store has been. I was glad to see Stan and Susan getting such a show of support. I felt bad for the whole exhausted staff doing their very best to help everyone and remain cheerful, knowing that those who are losing their jobs are really the ones hit hardest by the closing.

I also noticed that the landscape of the store was already distinctly different for me.  Many of the yarns I had come to know as friends who kept me company whenever I shopped or taught were missing, and I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t need more yarn. I am not lamenting the fact that someone else got skeins I wish I had snarfed up. I am, in fact, relieved. But I will greatly miss the opportunity to be inspired by their drapey, cushy, lustrous, haloed, heathered, tweedy, space-dyed, hand-painted or self-striping fiber loveliness.  So I am prompted to pay tribute to Windsor Button by relating the story about how the right yarn at the right time changed my life.

I have already written about getting a job in Downtown Crossing shortly after my husband passed away, and how I would sometimes escape to Windsor Button when things got stressful.  I had already come to depend on knitting to help me cope with the changes in my life, but up to that time I had never bought any yarn I didn’t already have a specific pattern for and a reason to make it. Yarn for me fell into two kinds: Wool and Something Else.  And two price points: Discount and Are You Freaking Kidding? But as I browsed at Windsor Button without any preconceived agenda, a transformation was taking place.

In one particular instance, a new stock of Handmaiden Sea Silk yarn had been strategically placed near the registers. One colorway really caught my eye, who knows exactly why, and I was compelled to touch it. It seemed to snuggle into my hand. Then I saw the price tag and put it back on its hanger. But every time I visited the store, it called to me, until on one really stressful day I decided I deserved a treat and took it home with me.  But what to do with it? It needed a special project. Something worthy. I had no experience matching a project to a yarn, and I wanted this match to be perfect. The hunt was on!

(I also later concluded that to make something that I really thought was worthy, I would need to take the plunge and buy a second skein. But that’s it! No more! And I’d better not waste any of it.)

This is how it came to be that I found Eunny Jang’s tutorials on the structure of lace. This is how it came to be that I unearthed Lucy Neatby’s Faroese Flower Shawl pattern from my pattern stock, and scrutinized it for the details of shawl construction. This is how I learned that there is such a thing as stitch dictionaries, and checked out Barbara Walker’s Treasuries from the library so many times I finally had to buy myself a set. When a vision started to unfold in my mind, it was why I sat down at my computer to figure out how to use Excel to chart up the idea that was forming.

Feathers of the Phoenix - Close Up

And when I had miraculously completed my Feathers of the Phoenix shawl and it was everything I had hoped it would be, with only a couple of yards of yarn to spare, and I pulled the glorious creature off of the blocking board late one evening …. well, that is when I fully felt the emptiness of my house with no one to share my excitement with. So that is how I came to post a picture of my project on the yarn producer’s website. And how they came to ask me for the pattern. Which is never in a million years something I thought of myself as doing but I did it.  Then of course I needed to learn about on-line sales and PayPal and come up with a “business” name: A la Kisala Designs (fully aware that I might turn out to be a one trick pony).

And believe it or not, orders came in. How the heck did they find me? But some of them did, enough for me, anyway.  Which is how a lovely woman named Dixie came to knit my shawl and kindly point out the handful of errors in my chart, unwittingly serving as test knitter and tech editor before I ever knew there were test knitters and tech editors.  When she contacted me, she told me about Ravelry.com, so I checked it out (after first waiting patiently for my invitation to join).  That really opened up a whole new world for me!

After that, life was never the same. I read and studied everything I could about knitting and discovered I had a pretty darn good head for it.  I became a technique junkie. I became crazy for unique and quality yarn to the point that my stash is now the size of a small yarn store itself. (Even if I never knit them all, I am happy to live in their company.)

I  discovered I have a passion and some skill for helping others learn to knit and take it to whatever level they choose. Which is eventually how I came to teach at Windsor Button, and then came to write for the newsletter, and with their closing, to write this blog and whatever else happens from this point on in my life.

So yes, a skein of yarn changed my life. It might have been any yarn, really. But it was the right yarn in the right place at the right time.

Thanks, Windsor Button! You will be missed!

Pinstripe Mittens

I am working on my third pair of Pinstripe Mittens.

mittens 008

Those who know me know it’s rare for me to do the same thing twice, so I must like these! That’s a combination of the pattern, which is a neat design, and the yarn.  I got these three kits at Stitches East in October. The yarn is called Bertha from Dirty Water Dyeworks and it is rich and luxurious. Strangers on the bus have come over to ask if they could look closer.

knitting 272

Those who know me also know it’s rare for me to approach any pattern without deciding to change something somewhere. I’m a technique junkie!  I collect different ways of doing things with yarn and needles the way some people collect Hummel figurines or postage stamps. It’s no good to collect them if I don’t get to display them, so I am always on the lookout for opportunities.

My tweaks to the Pinstripe Mittens are relatively minor, and one of them uses a technique developed by Lucy Neatby herself so it seems very appropriate to apply it to her mitten design.

  1. Instead of casting on 144 (the number of total front and back stitches), I cast on 72 using the Old Norwegian Sock Cast on, which is pretty and elastic and I love using it on sock and mitten edges. (Your own favorite cast on would also work.) Then I worked one row around as K1 YO, bringing me to the total needed.  On the next round, in double knitting following the pattern, the knit stitches became the stitches to be knit for the front, and the yarn overs were the stitches to be purled for the back.  Smooth!
  2. On the casing, I used Lucy’s Threading technique for Double Knitting for the first and last rounds, instead of using rounds of knitting and purling in the main color as the way of closing off the top and the bottom of the casing. Note that this results in a contrasting stripe that is wider than the original pattern on one side, because all the rows of the casing are worked in contrast, whereas the pattern had the first and last rows in the main color on the right side. I also worked one more row in contrast than the pattern specified to create a casing of the right width before threading the top closed. I love this technique, and the quilted look it gives to the casing.
  3. Cording. Nope. Not a fan. I put a loop of 1/4″ elastic through the casings, slipping it through the shank of a big attractive button before sewing the loop closed. (Oh, Windsor Button, what are we going to do without you!) The button can be pushed through from one side to another if the wearer wants to put the reverse side out from time to time.

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