Sweet Seams

Spot the seam: Back detail from my Four Score sweater pattern.

Spot the seam: Back detail from my Four Score sweater pattern.

I have to confess something, a terrible secret. I only learned how to properly seam my knits about six months ago.

Since I've been knitting for about 20 (!!!) years, you may ask how I've been finishing my knits up until now, and this is where is gets even more terrible. Reader, I've been machine sewing my sweaters.

I'll give you a minute to recover.

Actually, before I started in with the sewing machine, I used to use an overcast stitch on the wrong side, which might be even more horrifying. When I think of the gorgeous items I've knit that were finished so poorly, I could weep. No wonder many of them came apart over the years.

My seaming was so terrible that I only submitted in-the-round designs to magazines because I feared having the sample set on fire and returned to me as a pile of ash. It was all mittens and stranded sweaters for me.

Veronika knit in Brooklyn Tweed Shelter, colourway Thistle. Image courtesy Espace Tricot.

Veronika knit in Brooklyn Tweed Shelter, colourway Thistle. Image courtesy Espace Tricot.

What finally convinced me to learn how to seam properly was being asked to knit a sample for Espace Tricot. I knit the Veronika cocoon cardigan by Shannon Cook, and the finishing called for two tiny little seams. I knew I could never turn it into the store with my usual workmanship, so I got my Google on and prepared for the worst. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that invisible mattress stitch is the easiest thing in the world. This is where the weeping came in, wondering why on earth I waited so long.

Probably because I learned a lot of my knitting from my copy of Vogue Knitting: The Ultimate Knitting Book which offers no fewer than eight different seaming techniques, each described by whether they are vertical or horizontal and by what stitch they are joining (garter, stockinette, etc). I didn't read long enough to realize they were all essentially the same thing. (This is otherwise an excellent book, and still a staple of my library.)

I'm telling you how recent my conversion to seaming is to demonstrate just how easy it really is. I'm a total newbie at this, and I've already incorporated it into my two most recent designs.

There are lots of good reasons to have seams in your knitting, and better knitters than I have explained them. They add stability, durability and can be an essential design element. For me, the best part about seaming is avoiding two tasks I dislike:

1. Carrying an entire sweater around when I'm just knitting the sleeves
2. Small circumference circular knitting

When 1 & 2 are combined, you do the sweater heave - you know this move, when you turn an entire garment 1/4 of the way around every time you switch from one DPN to the next. Now, if I'm working a top down circular sweater, I'm inclined to knit the sleeves flat, adding a stitch at each end for seaming up later.

My favourite mattress stitch tutorial is from Purl Soho - both video and photos provided.

My favourite mattress stitch tutorial is from Purl Soho - both video and photos provided.

I know a lot of knitters prefer circular methods - I can almost hear my colleague Mona right now saying "The last thing I want to do when I'm finished knitting a sweater is sew it up!" And there's no question working in the round has its benefits. But the next time you read a pattern that asks you for four different pairs of needles because you have to change the length of your circular, think about how much easier it would be to knit it flat.

The other day I brought my latest design to the store to get some advice on the neck shaping, and my colleague Amalia offered me some ideas. As she pinned the neck for me, she suggested I rip back a few rows and change my rate of decrease.

"I'll have to unpick the seams first," I said.
"What seams?" she asked.

I felt like a knitting - nay, a seaming - superhero!

 

Four Score Ribbed Sweater Pattern

Size 36", modeled with 2" of positive ease.

Size 36", modeled with 2" of positive ease.

Get it on Ravelry

Neck detail

Neck detail

This design is in response to requests I get working at an LYS for a simple pattern that doesn’t require multiple needles (this uses just one pair of 4.5mm/US 7s). As a bonus, there’s no picked up stitches or neckline cast off to deal with. The sleeves narrow out to a saddle and then are decreased away, creating a funnel neck. The back and front are exactly the same too, so just four pieces to knit, and only two different pieces.

This pattern is written with beginners in mind and includes links to YouTube tutorials for every technique (except casting on - I used the long tail method.)

This sweater is seamed up after knitting, which I know can be intimidating (or just a turn-off for lovers of circular methods) but it really doesn't take long to sew this up, and it's such a great skill to have. To make seaming easier, note how many rows you knit to complete your front body section and "knit even" section on the sleeves and then duplicate it when you knit its opposite piece. (A row counter is a great tool for this, but handwritten notes work just fine, too.) Another idea is to knit your front and back sections at the same time, and same for the sleeves.

I knit my first draft using Sublime Natural Aran and the sample shown here is knit in DROPS Air (a wonderfully soft , lightweight and affordable yarn) but any classic worsted weight will do. I'm a loose knitter and used 4.5mm needles, but if you tend towards a tighter gauge, try a 5mm instead.

Generous torso and sleeve length

Generous torso and sleeve length

ABOUT THIS PATTERN:

  • Number of pages: 5
  • Written instructions, no charts
  • Six women’s sizes: 33”, 36”, 39”, 45.5”, 49”, 52”
  • Measurements given in inches

SKILLS & TECHNIQUES:

  • Invisible seaming with mattress stitch
  • Cast on, knit, purl, ssk, knit 2 together, bind off in rib

MATERIALS:

  • 858/920/1020/1150/1360/1485 yards worsted or aran weight yarn
  • US 7/4.5 mm needles, straight or circulars used as straights
  • Darning needle

GAUGE:

  • 16 sts/25 rows over 4”/10cm square in rib pattern

$6.50 CAD

The Three Faces of Gauge

For the uninitiated, gauge is a term used by knitters to describe the type of fabric they are creating – the size of the stitches, mainly. Frankly, if you don't knit, this post will bore and confuse you.

So, when I started knitting – and really, up until very recently – I thought of gauge as a pattern-specific thing. I'd open up a new issue of Vogue Knitting, or download something from Ravelry and see that the designer wanted me to get 17 stitches per inch and think "OK, that's what THAT DESIGN is knit at, and if I want it to fit properly I have to get that same gauge." (This is, of course, true.) This left me with three options if I wanted to knit that pattern:

1. Use the exact same yarn the pattern calls for
2. Somehow magically stumble onto a yarn that knit up at the same gauge
3. Adjust the pattern to work with a different gauge

Number 2 really did feel like only magic would help, because I didn't really understand yarn weights, which I'll get to in a second.

Personal Gauge

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Every knitter has a personal gauge, inherent to the way they knit. You may be a tight knitter, who has to work hard to get your tips into the stitch, or you might be a loose knitter who has to worry about stitches falling off your needles. Your gauge may change when you work in the round versus flat, and it might change depending on the fiber you are knitting with - more loosely when working with superwash, acrylic or other slippery yarns, for example. You might be like me, pretty much in the middle on stitch gauge (number of stitches per inch) but very loose when it comes to row gauge (number of rows per inch.)

If you are a new knitter, your gauge may change over the course of your knitting. That scarf you started might be very tight at one end, and loose at the other. It will probably stabilize as you get more adept and knitting becomes as second-nature as holding a pencil.

When you see the gauge listed on a knitting pattern, one element of what you are reading is that designer's personal gauge. To replicate the pattern, you'll have to find a way to match it. If you know your own tendencies, you can go in armed with that information. Maybe you already know you'll need to go down a needle size, or use sharp-tipped metal needles. When you shop for needles, the clerk at the shop may ask you about your personal gauge. The general wisdom is that tight knitters should use slick needles (metal or coated plastic) and loose knitters should use sticky ones (bamboo or other woods.)

Yarn Gauge

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Yarns are classified into different weights. At the fine end are lace and fingering, DK and worsted are in the middle, with Aran, Chunky and Bulky at the thicker end. (This is a simplification, but man, there are a lot of classes of yarn.) It wasn't until I started consulting at Espace Tricot that I saw that what these classifications are, really, are gauges. These categories tell you what gauge this yarn is suited for. Most yarns carry this information on the label. It shows you a little square - 10cm x 10cm - and tells you how many stitches you can expect this yarn to make in that space, when matched with the appropriate needle.

Obviously, you can knit any yarn with any needle you like (although really thick yarn with really small needles may prove physically impossible). You can knit your fingering weight yarn (which lists 32 sts on 2 mm needles) on 5mm needles and get an open, airy fabric. Some patterns may ask you to do exactly this. But most of the time, the gauge listed in a pattern and the gauge listed on a yarn ball band are going to square up. Any minor inconsistencies are probably down to personal gauge - the designer's and yours - and can be accounted for by adjusting needle size.

Writing this down, it seems so obvious, but I honestly didn't really get it until I started helping other knitters find substitute yarns while working at Espace Tricot. My experience before then had been so personal, so much just doing my own thing, that I didn't see the bigger picture. Gauge is not the only factor in finding a substitute yarn – fiber content and texture are important too – but it sure does help. If you can go into your LYS and say "I need a DK weight yarn that knits up to 22 stitches per inch on 3.5mm needles in stockinette, with a smooth texture, and I tend to knit loosely" you will not only delight the clerk working there, you are much more likely to find suitable yarns.

Pattern Gauge

Sometimes I see a knitting pattern in my Ravelry feed or in a book and think "Ah, I love that! But instead of buying new yarn to make it, I'm going to use something from my stash." But a visit to the stash later, I realize I don't have enough Worsted on hand, but I do have plenty of this lovely hand-dyed DK. And then madness of recalculating the pattern begins. For some patterns, it's easy to change yarn weights - a delicate shawl can be a thick wrap. A simple raglan sweater might take some number crunching, but hey, I've designed patterns from scratch, I can handle it!

The Bayerische Sock by Eunny Jang makes maximum of use of its tiny gauge to load up on twisted stitch motifs.

The Bayerische Sock by Eunny Jang makes maximum of use of its tiny gauge to load up on twisted stitch motifs.

But why was the pattern designed using that yarn? If it's in a big magazine, possibly because the brand advertises there. But it's also a conscious and important choice a designer makes, and it affects proportion, fit and feel. When you change it, you risk losing some element of the design that made it so appealing to you in the first place. You may not think that having a cable twist 12 times on its way up a sweater is much different from 15 times, but you might be surprised. You might think that adding a single repeat of a colourwork motif to the yoke of sweater is harmless, but it might take away some indefinable element of symmetry.

Granted, it might be fine, but you won't know until you've put an awful lot of work into it.

I'm not saying you shouldn't adjust patterns - I do it often, though less often than I used to. Part of that is laziness. If I want to do a whole bunch of math, I'll cook up something of my own. But part of that is caution born of experience. I sympathize with knitters who don't wear standard sizes and often have to make these kinds of adjustments just to make something that fits.

In conclusion, I guess what I'm trying to say is that gauge really is one of the most important things in knitting, so when a pattern exhorts you to knit a gauge swatch, there's a reason. And when you think about altering a design, think about how gauge contributes to the pattern and whether changing it will leave the parts you like so much about it intact.

 

Reading Cat's Eye in Therapy

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I landed in Dr. Pollock’s office in my second year of university.

When I first started to lose my mind, I modeled my breakdown on the books I’d read about breakdowns. Prozac Nation, reading incredulously as yet another chapter was dedicated to Bruce Springsteen, waiting for Elizabeth Wurtzel to get back to chasing her roommate around Cambridge with a knife. I looked over at my roommates speculatively. Three stoners, musicians all, fellow students at Berklee College of Music. They would never go for a hysterical chase scene outside in the New England snow.

Then I found Girl, Interrupted and a quieter, funnier way to be nuts. That was Susanna Kaysen’s word for it. Nuts. I liked that. A blunt word, short. It sounded permanent. But also zany, like a Nora Ephron heroine.

Therapy was slow going. I was so jacked up by the time I sought help that I’d spend the whole hour-long appointment relating every feeling I’d experienced on the bus ride over to Dr. Pollock’s office, which also took an hour. She pointed out the hopelessness of this, how we’d never get anywhere if I required a 1-to-1 ratio of therapy to life. Glumly, I agreed with her, but I didn’t see what I could do about it.

Eventually, I got better. Better as in less bad than before, not better as in cured. That’s when we started getting into it. My family, my rape. She had me do a little ceremony. I burned the clothes I was wearing when it happened. Plaid jodhpurs with laces at the ankle and a black T shirt. The shirt burned okay but the pants had acrylic in them, so they melted on the old fireplace grate and it smelled terrible. At my next appointment, I told her about my very witchy little bonfire and left out the part about the stink. She gave me a present. It was a toy, a white stuffed bunny. This is what a seventeen year old girl is, or it is what I was. Sleeping with strangers one night, curling up with the stuffed animal my therapist gave me the next.

On the wall opposite my chair in Dr. Pollock’s office was a bookshelf. I often scanned the titles when I was trying to think of an answer to one of her gentle questions, or when I ran out of ways to describe how much I hated being in my own body. I assumed they were her books, her personal collection, so I was surprised when she offered to loan me one. Had she seen me looking at them and thought I was covetous? But she explained it was more like a lending library for patients, and you didn’t get to pick your own books, she picked them for you.

She gave me Reviving Ophelia by Mary Pipher and Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood. I read Reviving Ophelia first, and it helped, I guess. The conclusion that books draws, that girls who have a tough time in adolescence often grow up to be resilient, authentic adults seemed a lot like the platitudes I heard from my mother. It wasn’t much comfort to me in the thick of things.

I put off the Atwood because I knew about her. As a Canadian, I’d read some of her stories in high school English. Lots of woods and water and impenetrable adult protagonists. But Cat’s Eye, it turned out, was about girls.

Over on Goodreads, the consensus is that Cat’s Eye is about bullies and being bullied, a literary pre-cursor to Mean Girls. I didn’t read it that way back then. It’s like how I missed that the movie Heathers was satire. It seemed like a perfectly legitimate piece of speculative fiction to me, to use the phrase Atwood herself likes so much. Same with Cat’s Eye. Cordelia and Elaine torturing each other across the decades was almost romantic, the way Tolstoy is romantic. This was a love story I had lived.

But as I followed Elaine and Cordelia, one incident after another mirroring my own experience, I had the original second-wave feminist thought: what if I’m perfectly sane? What if all my pain and anger is actually a perfectly normal reaction to living in this body, in this world? I didn’t know then that other women had already drawn this conclusion, I didn’t even understand that Atwood had drawn this conclusion.

You’ve probably heard that depression is anger turned inward. I’d heard it about a thousand times by then, but I didn’t feel it until my anger made a one-eighty. I was mad at everybody! I’d come in to my appointments and explode. That guy’s an asshole! This other guy’s an asshole! My school is an asshole! The state of Massachusetts is an asshole! And so on. Dr. Pollock encouraged this. She noticed the circle was getting bigger before I did. “So, you’re mad at the whole world?” she asked finally.

“The whole fucking thing!”

It was a lot better than just being mad at myself. I knew I was improving when I started asking Dr. Pollock how she was after thirty minutes of talking about myself, suddenly mortified by my rudeness.

The main thing you notice about Cat’s Eye is that Elaine and Cordelia, friends and antagonists, are mirrors. They switch places, each wielding power and each losing it. Elaine paints a picture of Cordelia with half a face. Elaine’s face is the other half, duh. I shouldn’t say ‘duh.’ It’s great. It’s fucking amazing. This is a book where it takes two fully-realized, infinitely complex and enigmatic female characters to hold up all the mirrors Atwood is providing for you to see yourself in.

But what I think about now when I think of that book is that Elaine’s father was an entomologist. He studied bugs. So was Atwood’s, a rare moment of undeniable biography from her. She spent the earliest part of childhood in the bush, looking at insects.

Girls. We’re down here at ground level, small and quick. There are some interesting things going on. We make alliances. We break them. We build strange and mysterious structures, inscrutable to outsiders. We eat each other. We survive.

Resolution Knit-Flat Hat

This is a great starter hat pattern for new knitters. It’s knit flat, so no circulars or double-pointed needles required! Once you master the basic ribbed version, try adding cables to your technique arsenal.

This is a great starter hat pattern for new knitters. It’s knit flat, so no circulars or double-pointed needles required! Once you master the basic ribbed version, try adding cables to your technique arsenal.

Since I started consulting in a yarn shop a few days a week, I often have to suggest patterns for very new knitters - as in, first project ever. I know a lot of people favour scarves for teaching beginners, but scarves just go on and on, and even as an experienced knitter I have sometimes lost heart at the third foot of a six foot project.

Get it on Ravelry

Make your own pom pom, add a store-bought one.

Make your own pom pom, add a store-bought one.

Personally, I like a hat as a first project. It's quick, even a very simple design looks stylish and you can splurge on a nicer yarn since often one ball or skein is enough. But then hats are usually knit in the round and that means introducing your new knitter - already skittish - to the concept of circulars or DPNs. The upside of a knit flat hat is just that - it's knit flat back and forth on straight needles. The downside is it has to be sewn up after, and many knitters find seaming as intimidating (or more so) than circular knitting.

Personally, I think seaming is a bit of magic, especially in small hat-sized doses, so I offer this ribbed hat pattern in three sizes (child, small adult, large adult) with a cable variation. The pattern is three pages, with written instructions aimed at novice knitters, and links to tutorials for seaming and making your own pom poms.

The price is $5.00 CAD but until January 15, 2018, get 50% off with the promotion code NEWYEAR - try it here.

 



 

Record Low

This song was recorded around the holidays in 2006, I think – actually that’s the date the file was last modified. Could be earlier than that.

 

Anyhow, it’s very much inspired by Matt Barber’s ‘The Beautiful Things That We Waste' stealing the image of the the red and green lights on Princess Street in Kingston. It was recorded by me and my friend Niall Fynes on a digital eight track on loan to us from Steve Pitkin, and features such instrumentation as the microwave bell (one of those old ones with a turning dial for the timer) and a bunch of tiny jingle bells strung on a grotty piece of wire. Sophisticated!

I think those are my chubby fingers playing bass, and any decent guitar work is Niall’s, the rest is mine.

Happy holidays!