Friday, October 28, 2016

A Warm Wrap for Autumn Days

This luxurious wrap is perfect for cold autumn days and chilly classrooms and offices. The pattern, Endless Wrap by Sylvia Hager, was featured on the Fall 2016 WEBS catalog cover and was an instant hit; the recommended wool, Blue Sky Fibers' Woolstok, was almost immediately on backorder.

I made it in Woolstok's Dark Chocolate, and I absolutely love it. I've worn it to work and school three of the last six days. It's just the thing for my mile-long walk from my car to my classroom, and I can keep it on during class because it's not too heavy, and it looks nice.

The best part: it's an easy pattern, suitable for a beginner. It's long, so if you're a slow knitter, it might take a while to finish, but you can always adjust the length. I'm pretty quick, so I made it full-sized, and I'm absolutely thrilled with the result.

Happy fall. Stay warm.


Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Knitting Winter Lace

It's been a long, hot summer here in suburban New Jersey, and my ancient house isn't air-conditioned. So I spend a lot of time on my back porch, with a cold drink and a buzzing fan. What else would I do on an excruciatingly hot summer day but get ready for the winter?

Both my daughters attend colleges in western Massachusetts, not far from the WEBS yarn store. Whenever I am dropping someone off or picking her up, I make a point of detouring to shop for yarn. Sometimes I buy, and sometimes I look, but I always try to get there if I possibly can. At pickup time in June, I was in the shop, wandering around, with no particular goals in mind, and this book caught my eye:

Classic Elite Yarns "Winter Lace" pamphlet, #1412

Maybe the phrase "caught my eye" is an understatement. I saw that gray lace shawl on the cover - the pattern is called "Liza" - and I thought, "That's the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. I must make it."

And it got worse. I flipped through the book and also fell in love with a delicate lace wrap pattern called "Lila." A poor, unsuspecting sales associate approached me and asked if she could help me, and before I knew it, I had ordered the yarn for both. I can't wear gray, at least not near my face, so I chose crimson for Liza and green for Lila.

I made Lila first. I was so happy with the result that I wore it everywhere I thought there might be a breeze. Restaurants, movie theaters, anywhere. It's so unbelievably soft that I make everyone touch it.

There was no real breeze on the beach in Florida, but I wore the shawl anyway.

A closer view of the lace (unblocked).

Later in the summer, I tackled Liza. Liza is made with thicker yarn, so it went more quickly, but it wasn't without its challenges. It took me a few false starts to really get going with it. Once I got moving, though, nothing could stop me.

Liza in progress.

The shrug is knitted flat, and then the ribbed edges are sewn together to form cuffs. The result is a beautiful piece that can be worn with anything from cutoff shorts to an evening gown. Of course, I took a million pictures immediately, wearing my old standby knitting-on-the-porch t-shirt. Here are two of the more flattering pictures:

The Classic Elite yarn I used for both of these shawls is an absolute joy to knit with and then to wear. It's an alpaca/bamboo blend, gorgeously soft. My older daughter, trying on my Liza, said, "It feels like I'm wearing a hug."

Both my daughters want Liza shawls of their own. Becky wants it in a denim blue color. (Sarah is still thinking.) If I manage to make two more, I'll share them with you.

Tips for knitting these projects (and any lace):

Read the pattern carefully. Symbols are not always standardized, and haste is always penalized. When I started the Liza shrug for the first time, I didn't notice that some of the decreases are single decreases and some are double. I could not figure out why my stitch count was off every seventh row. Turns out I had not read the pattern carefully enough.

Use the designer's recommended yarn, or something as close as possible to it. The Classic Elite yarns I used for these projects weren't cheap, but they were worth it. The projects were designed for them. They come in a variety of colors. Knitting an elaborate lace pattern is a fair amount of work. Why leave the results to chance?

Swatch. Make a little test square of the lace pattern. This obviously helps you get the right gauge, but it also gives you a little practice with the pattern before you get started for real.

Make frequent lifelines. As you complete a pattern repeat, run a length of scrap yarn through the last row you are certain is correct. If you later have to rip back to correct a mistake, you will have that "anchor" row to start from, and you won't lose any more work than is absolutely necessary.

Using the right tools is the key to success with any project. I recommend the addi-click LACE Long Tips Interchangeable Knitting System. This set is an investment, but if you plan on knitting lace on a regular basis, you must own it. The secure joins (they click rather than screw in, so they don't come undone), sharp points, and smooth metal needles make knitting lace much, much easier than it is with regular needles. And the Addi needles make automatic lifelines as you knit. That alone makes them worth the purchase price.

Use stitch markers to separate lace pattern repeats. This makes it easier to count stitches and detect mistakes. You can use plain old metal rings like these Beadaholique 100-Piece Open Jump Rings, 8mm, Silver, or you can find all kinds of pretty, whimsical designs on Etsy. If you are using lifelines or knitting a pattern that shifts from row to row (like Liza), make sure you use removable stitch markers.  You can use inexpensive plastic ones you find at the craft store, lever-backed earrings, or treat yourself to something pretty from Etsy. I like these.

Cast off loosely. Trust me; I've learned this from experience. Nothing ruins a project like a tight, bunched-up cast-off row.

Block your work when you are finished. Experienced knitters know that this is essential to any finished project, but it's especially important with lace. Blocking straightens the work and opens up the lacework to make it more even and more visible. Pin the project to the desired dimensions, on a thick towel or a blocking mat, and then hold a steaming iron just over it, not touching. You'll be amazed at the difference blocking makes.

Thank you for reading! Happy knitting!

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Power of a Shawl

When someone is sick, or grieving, or otherwise going through something difficult, there is nothing in the world like the gift of a shawl. Having something to put around your shoulders at a difficult time is like getting a long-distance hug. On demand. Of course, holidays and birthdays are also perfect times to present a loved one with a handmade shawl. A shawl is a perfect gift to let someone know they are in your thoughts.

Knitters have known this for a long time, and a knitted shawl is almost always received with joy and treasured for years. The more spiritually-minded knitters often call their creations "prayer shawls," a reference either to the fact that a handknitted shawl reminds the recipient that he or she is being prayed for, or to the fact that shawls have been worn since time immemorial by people in the act of prayer.

I have made a number of shawls recently, and though I don't usually call them "prayer shawls," I do often write on the gift card that they are intended to be received as long-distance hugs. I thought I'd share with you a couple of pictures of some very simple-to-knit shawls that make quick, easy, and treasured gifts.

1. The Straightforward Triangular Shawl.

This one is easy enough for a total beginner to knit up in one or two evenings, and it made a spectacular last-minute Christmas gift for the family member whose name I drew in our annual Secret Santa. Cast on five stitches. On the right side, knit two, yarn over, knit to the last two stitches, yarn over, knit two. On the wrong side, purl across. The shawl will have a clear right and wrong side, and the yarn-overs at the edge make a pretty lace border. Cast off when the shawl reaches the desired dimensions. This example took two skeins of Brown Sheep Burly Spun, colorway Sable, on size US 11 (8mm) needles.

(The little metal "handmade" charm is made by Dritz and is available in yarn and craft stores. They come in all colors and sizes. Sewn at the inside neck, it provides a pretty and practical touch.)

2. Add A Cable

This is a triangular shawl similar to the one above, but made in garter stitch (all rows knitted, both sides). For interest, I added a simple six-stitch-wide cable in the middle of the back. I sent it to a friend who had been bereaved twice in a short amount of time, and the thank-you note I got in return might be the most touching and beautiful thank-you note I have ever gotten in my life. This shawl used four skeins of Misti Alpaca Chunky, colorway 643 Blue, on size US 10 (6mm) needles.

3. Crazy Soft

I designed this triangular shawl for a friend who was undergoing surgery. I thought it would be nice to have something soft, warm, and pretty to put over her hospital gown when people came to visit her, and later to wear at home if she caught a chill. It's fancy enough to wear out for an evening, too, when she's feeling better. I loved knitting with this yarn - it is unbelievably soft and light, and the color is gorgeous.

The pattern is exactly the same as the first simple triangular shawl above, except that I added an eyelet row two rows before casting off, to make a slightly dressier edge. The yarn is Berroco Kodiak, colorway Alpine, worked on US 11 (8mm) needles.

4. Getting Fancy

All of the above shawls are very easy to make, and suitable for beginners. For something a little fancier and only a little more challenging, an intermediate knitter might want to try this free Lion Brand "Splendid Shawl" lace pattern, available on the Lion Brand Yarns website. I made it up for a dear friend's birthday, in Knit Picks' Cadena yarn, colorway Blackberry, on US 9 (5.5mm) needles.

Whatever type of shawl you decide to make, from the simplest to the most sophisticated, the recipient is bound to be thrilled. There is no gift like a handmade shawl to comfort someone in need or just to let a friend know she is loved.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Pine Tree Lace Baby Blanket

Some time back, I purchased an e-booklet of patterns for lace baby blankets from a designer. I downloaded the PDF files to my computer and set about knitting the projects as gifts for friends who were expecting babies. The blankets ranged from simple to challenging, from impressive to spectacular. I became a fairly good lace knitter in the process, learning to follow charts, to make time-saving lifelines, to repair mistakes, and to do all the increases and decreases that are the hallmark of lace knitting. I made one blanket in particular - a white lace christening blanket - that took weeks of knitting and ripping to complete. The finished project was worth every minute of agita - it was gorgeous.

Because I had become a lace enthusiast, when Mother's Day rolled around, my husband purchased for me a copy of Barbara G. Walker's classic reference book, A Treasury of Knitting Patterns. I thumbed through the book with enthusiasm and nearly dropped it on the floor when I saw in the book the exact lace pattern that had been the basis of my white christening blanket.

The designer had simply taken the lace pattern, put a border around it, and repackaged it as her own design.

I didn't - and still don't - know much about the ethics of writing knitting patterns, but my reaction at the time was a combination of disappointment and anger. I had paid for a pattern that I could have created myself. It wouldn't be that hard to just take one of Walker's charts and transform it into a blanket of my own unique design. I can do that, I told myself.

And so I did. My dear friend Stephanie announced her pregnancy last spring, and I wanted to make a spectacular and one-of-a-kind gift for her. I flipped through my copy of A Treasury of Knitting Patterns, looking for a pretty lace pattern that would look nice as a baby blanket for Stephanie's newborn daughter.

I settled on a pattern called "Pine Tree Lace." I added a seed-stitch border around the lace, calculated my gauge, and cast on a crib-sized blanket (about 32 inches by 42 inches). I worked on it all summer. The baby is due in November, and she'll be sleeping under the very first blanket that I designed all by myself (with a little help from my pattern reference book).

Click here for the link to the Ravelry project page, which will give you needle and yarn information. Click on the links above to purchase Ms. Walker's wonderful dictionary of lace stitches.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Three Types of Handknitted Heels, and Their Advantages and Disadvantages

From my recent projects: A quick comparison of three types of handknitted sock heels, and the advantages and disadvantages of each.

(Left to right above: pink striped sock with short-row heel; blue and green sock with round heel; and thick white sock with afterthought heel.)

The round heel, pictured above center, is, as far as I can tell, the most commonly-knitted heel in the United States and Europe (though the short-row heel is giving it a run for its money lately). It is knitted in three parts: the heel flap, the heel turn, and a triangle-shaped gusset to accommodate the width of the human ankle.

  • Advantages: The round heel can be knitted from the toe up or from the top down. It is probably the best-fitting heel, as it most closely follows the contours of the human foot. The heel flap, which involves knitting back and forth across half the leg stitches to produce a rectangle, lends itself to all kinds of artistic expression; it can be knitted in patterns or with a pretty color design. Special stitch patterns used along the heel flap can guard against wear and tear.
  • Disadvantages: The heel turn, which is actually quite simple, intimidates a lot of novice knitters. Because of its three-step construction, a round heel is a bear to replace if it gets worn or develops holes. And the complex construction can take a fair amount of time.

The short-row heel, pictured above left, is common in Asian knitting and gaining popularity in the United States and Europe, primarily because of its ease and versatility. It is knitted in two steps: a decreasing set of short rows, to a small point, followed by increases back to the starting number of stitches. Increases and decreases can be accomplished in a variety of ways, but are most commonly made with the "wrap-and-turn" or the "yarn-over" method.

  • Advantages: The short-row is fast - by your second or third attempt at it, you'll be a speed demon. It can be done from the toe up or the top down, and it's constructed the same either way. It can even be used to make a toe. It's fairly simple to rip out and replace, if necessary.
  • Disadvantages: It can be tricky to master either of the short-row techniques, and knitters often become frustrated trying to avoid the holes that commonly develop along the edges of the heels. (The holes can be avoided, but it takes some practice.) Because of their shape, short-row heels do not always lend themselves to fancy patterns or pictures. And they don't always fit well; their two-part simplicity is balanced out by a one-size-fits-all sort of heel.

The afterthought (or peasant) heel, pictured above right, is inserted into an otherwise complete sock (hence its name). (See my last post for details on its construction.) It is knitted in one step: decreasing rounds to just a few stitches, which are then grafted or sewn together. It is constructed exactly the same way as a wedge toe, making it a great choice for beginners or those who are intimidated by wraps and/or turns.

  • Advantages: This is the heel to put into the sock that is going to get worn heavily. An afterthought heel can be ripped out and replaced very easily; just unravel it back to the starting point and knit it again. You can even move it up or down the foot, or use a different color from the body of the sock. Its simple construction is great for those who are having trouble learning short-row or heel-turning techniques. And the fit can be personalized by adjusting the frequency of the decreases.
  • Disadvantages: This is not a particularly attractive sock. The lines of decreases form something that looks and feels like a thick seam along the ankle, and besides being unsightly, the thick line can be irritating inside shoes. I use this heel only for motorcycle socks for my husband, or for socks for myself that I intend to wear around the house without shoes.
Here are the Ravelry project pages for each of the above-pictured socks.

Crazy Color socks (the pink ones with the short-row heel)

I don't know why these are rotated. Weird. But at least you can see the heel clearly.

Green and blue striped socks (with the round heel)

And Vanilla Baby Cable Socks (with the afterthought heel).

Also rotated. Whatever.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Vanilla Baby Cable Socks With Afterthought Heel

I usually knit socks the traditional way - the way I learned when I was a student - with four double-pointed needles, a round heel, and a wedge toe grafted, at the tip, with Kitchener stitch. The round heel is the one that novice knitters fear: it is constructed with a heel flap, the dreaded and legendary heel turn, and a gusset that involves picking up stitches and then decreasing them before knitting the foot. All in all, it's a fairly complicated operation, and though it produces a pretty result, the process of turning a heel scares a lot of knitters off.

A fairly traditional hand-knitted sock with a classic round (turned) heel and wedge toe.

But there are a million ways to make a heel, and several of them involve no turning at all. If you are a beginning knitter, or even an experienced one who is put off at the prospect of a complicated heel, consider my latest pair of socks, made with an "afterthought" heel:

The afterthought heel, which is sometimes referred to as a peasant heel, could not be simpler. It's an excellent way for beginner sock knitters to make a strong, well-fitted heel that can be easily replaced if it's worn out.

Here are the basics. Start your sock the usual way, knitting a tube from the top down. When you get to the place where you want the heel to begin, drop the working yarn and work across half the stitches with a strand of waste yarn. (In my photo, for clarity, the waste yarn is bright pink.) Then go back and pick up the working yarn, and knit those same stitches again.

The pink yarn is the waste yarn, knitted across half the stitches where the heel will go.

A helpful hint: run a lifeline before and after knitting the waste yarn. (To run a lifeline, thread a needle with a different color of waste yarn, and slip the needle through the stitches to "anchor" them.) This will make the stitches easier to pick up after you remove the knitted strand of waste yarn.

Continue to knit the sock in rounds. If the leg is knitted in a pattern, continue the pattern down the instep, but knit the stitches below your waste yarn. These will become the bottom of the foot later.

Knit a wedge toe: divide the stitches among three needles, with the round beginning at the center of the bottom of the foot. One quarter of your stitches will be on needle 1; half your stitches (the instep stitches) will be on needle 2, and the remaining one quarter will be on needle 3. Alternate rows 1 and 2 as follows until half your stitches remain:

Row 1: (needle 1) K to last 3 stitches, K2tog, K1; (needle 2) K1, SSK, K to last 3 stitches, K2tog, K1; (needle 3) K1, SSK, knit to end.

Row 2: Knit around.

When half the total stitches remain, repeat Row 1 only, until a total of 8 stitches remain. Divide those 8 stitches between 2 needles and graft them together with Kitchener stitch.

When the toe is complete, remove the waste yarn, opening up the back of the sock and exposing live stitches across the back half of the sock. If you have used lifelines, it will look something like this:

Pick up the live stitches and divide them among your three double-pointed needles, with the round beginning at the bottom center of the foot. (You will have one extra stitch on one of your foot needles; on the first round, knit it together with the stitch next to it to even out the numbers.)

Back on the needles and ready to knit the heel.

Then - and here's the fun and easy part - you just knit another wedge toe. It's that simple. When you get down to 8 stitches again, graft them together, and you have a heel that looks exactly like your toe. No flap, no turning, no wrapping, nothing. Your decreases will look like a thick seam running slantwise across the heel.

Close-up of the completed afterthought heel.

The great advantage of the afterthought heel, besides its simplicity, is its easy replaceability. If it wears a hole, you can unravel it back to its beginnings and just knit it again. You can even move the heel up or down on the sock. Some fearless knitters make afterthought heels without waste yarn, deciding at the last minute where to place the heel and (gasp!) snipping the sock open to insert the heel. (I don't do that and I don't recommend it unless you are a bigger risk-taker than I am!)

Some people don't like the thick decrease line the afterthought produces, but I don't mind it at all. It's a nice look for a cozy pair of winter socks, a practical touch for boot socks for my husband (he tends to wear out his heels first), and a sturdy, easy method of construction. Give it a try on your next pair.

Click here for the Ravelry link for my Vanilla Baby Cable Socks (this will bring you to a project page with yarn, needle, and gauge information for this particular project).

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Warm Winter Socks

Thank you for stopping by! For my first post, I thought I'd show you some socks I have knitted. There is nothing in the world like a hand-knitted sock. Hand-knitted socks are warm and thick and, when constructed correctly, cradle your foot with a perfect fit. They can't be compared to the machine-constructed socks you buy at the store. They can be made with any sort of yarn, from the most elegant cashmere to the silliest mismatched patterns. There is no limit to the possibilities.

I've been knitting socks for a long time. I first learned to make them when I was an exchange student in Germany nearly thirty years ago, but I didn't really start churning them out in earnest until about ten years ago, when I decided that I wanted to be a great knitter. I thought that knitting socks was the ultimate skill to master - if I could knit socks, then I would be, by definition, a great knitter.

There are many, many ways to construct socks. Most of the ones I have made have been fairly traditional, knitted from the top down on double-pointed needles, with a round heel and a wedge toe. I have also knitted a few from the toe up, some with round toes, and some with different sorts of heels. I've tried making them two-at-a-time on circular needles. I've made cables and stripes and plain black work socks. I've covered a lot of bases over the years.

I started by making socks for my children, who were small at the time. They loved their homemade socks and didn't much care whether they were perfect or not, or whether they matched, so they gave me tons of opportunities for practice. Now, everyone in my house wears adult-sized socks, but that hasn't cramped my style. Here are some pictures of my favorite creations:

Socks for my sister, made from self-patterning yarn.

Green staggered-rib socks for my cousin.

Fuzzy warm socks for myself.

Among my favorites: blue self-patterned socks for my sister's mother-in-law.

Awesome marigold-yellow socks.

Blue and green stripes.

Socks with a braided cable running up either side

Plain green ribbed socks in chunky wool
I am working, at the moment, on a pair of off-white cashmere socks. They will look something like the marigold yellow socks pictured above, but they will have an afterthought heel. (An afterthought heel is a heel attached to the sock after the rest of the sock has been completed. In my experience, it's one of the easiest heels to construct, and it has the advantage of being easily replaced if it gets worn out.) I'll show you the finished project as soon as it's done, and I'll take some step-by-step photos so you can see how I made them.