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).