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.