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By Brenda Janish

I recently had a PKE [Profound Knitting Experience] and I wanted to share it because I know I would have benefited from someone sharing these hard-earned lessons with me.

Just to warn you, this is a long story...

It all started in 1987 [I told you it was a long story]. I was studying abroad in Galway, Ireland, during my junior year in college. I was inspired by my beautiful Irish surroundings and by the incredible sweaters ["jumpers"] in the windows of the shops in town. I wanted an Aran sweater, but didn't want to spend $100 for it. "Why not knit it myself?" I thought. Not an unusual thought for a knitter, right? Well, at the time, I had completed exactly two [2] knitting projects in my life. A tank top and...a tank top.

So I bought a bagful of authentic off-white Aran wool, decided to make a man-sized sweater [I was in college — baggy was in] and found a suitable pattern. I was surprised to learn that cabling and following a chart really weren't that hard. After a few inches of knitting, I became addicted to seeing that beautiful, deceivingly complex pattern emerge. I was actually making an Aran sweater!

I knitted the sweater over the course of a semester. Besides the Guinness and the students, one of my vivid memories of that time is hanging out in my room, listening to Irish radio and working on my sweater. The knitting bug must have spread to my roommate Zena, too. She went out and got a bagful of yarn and, for her first project, chose to make a black mohair sweater with a big pink intarsia flower knitted on the front [obviously Zena was already familiar with Lesson #1].

Fast forward 15 years. My Aran sweater followed me from college to my first apartment, from there to my marriage, from there to my two apartments after my divorce...unworn. Never seen in public in 15 years. I had finished the sweater, but was sadly disappointed when I put it on – it was bunchy, it was skinny, it was tight around the bottom. It didn't look like the sweater the smiling Euro-hunk in the picture was wearing. I could never bring myself to wear it in public; it just wasn't right.

I blamed its problems on the fact that I had followed a pattern for a man's sweater. Of course it was a little skinny and long and tight around the bottom. Men have smaller hips, right? I would pull it out and look at it every year or so, marvel at my ability to make something that complicated before I was 20, and then sigh in exasperation because it just looked WRONG. So every year, after trying it on and becoming depressed, I'd put it back in the closet and hope that by the next time I tried it on it would somehow magically be transformed into The Perfect Sweater.

Back in my college days I was uninitiated in the ways of the experienced knitter. I'm embarrassed to admit that, after looking at the wrong side of the sweater, it had never occurred to me to join new balls of yarn at the edge of the sweater. I started wherever I ran out of yarn [which apparently was usually in the middle of the row. Ugh.]. I was also unaware of the concept of weaving in ends. Let's just say it's a good thing I knew how to tie really strong square knots.

There was another technique I was unfamiliar with back then, and honestly, didn't become familiar with until a few years ago. It's a step that's crucial to Aran sweaters because of the patterns and cabling which bunches up the fabric. And especially crucial when you're working with a 100% natural fiber like wool. You guessed it: blocking.

A friend of mine recently wore her decades-old Aran sweater to work. I was jealous. It was so WEARABLE! I had made a sweater just like it. Why didn't mine look like that? Hers was authentically Irish, but mine was pretty darn authentic too. It was made with real Irish wool. With an Irish pattern. IN IRELAND, for chrissake. Why didn't it look like hers?

I went home and brought my sweater out for its annual foray into daylight. I took one look at it and realized that I had never blocked it! Ding ding ding! Of course that's what it needed! All I had to do was steam it into shape, make the pattern relax a bit, maybe block out the too-tight ribbing at the bottom, and it might actually become a wearable sweater!

Unfortunately, in all the years of storing the sweater and not wearing it, it had somehow acquired a rust stain. Not a big one — about the size of a quarter — it was right smack in the front of the sweater. Damn. Rust is one of those things they always mention in the disclaimer on the back of stain removal products – "...might be impossible to remove." Okay, stay positive. First things first.

I turned on my iron, filled it up with water, took a deep breath and carefully blocked my sweater. The transformation was incredible! That’s what was missing all along! It may have taken me 15 years to figure it out, but I finally did figure it out. My faith in my ability to make wearable sweaters was restored. My faith in knitting was restored.

Feeling exhilarated [and maybe a little cocky], I picked up my newly blocked sweater and began to tackle the rust stain.

The first thing I tried [Shout gel] worked fairly well. About 30% of the color went away with the first application. But most of the stain was still there. I checked the web and found a recommendation for using dry cream of tartar to get rust stains out of vintage clothing. Harmless and worth a try, I thought, so I put some on. It actually did start working right away. Cool! Who needs Helöise when you've got the web?! I rubbed the cream of tartar in a little, hoping to get the rust stain out of all the nooks and crannies. Then I soaked it in water, per the online instructions, making sure the water wasn’t hot enough to shrink the wool. "This is great," I thought. "When this dries, the sweater will be perfect!"

As the sweater dried, I realized the fuzziness of that spot was not going away. In fact, it was getting worse. And somehow it looked brighter than the rest of the sweater. As time passed, the pattern was getting flatter. Damn. I had inadvertently felted a 3" square in the front of the sweater. Damn. Okay, don't panic. Maybe it's just a trick of the light. Maybe if you turn on another lamp it won't be there. Maybe you're the only one who'll notice it.

Who was I kidding? I felted the stupid sweater by accident.

I sat down on the couch, took a deep breath and called upon the Muses of Knitting to enlighten me with a solution. Okay, it's flat, it's fuzzy and it's too light. What will make it look normal again? Fortunately, my personal knitting muse was nearby and I realized that I could bring this spot back to life — or at least decrease the distracting aura of it — by overstitching the pattern. It was a diamond trellis, a fairly simple pattern made with single stitch lines that crisscrossed each other and to create little diamond shapes. It would be pretty simple to just stitch over the original stitches and, as a result, recreate the original pattern and texture. And since that area had already shrunk a little, the overstitching wouldn't make it too thick.

I tried. Oh, I tried. I found something pretty close, but after overstitching with it I realized that it was just enough off color to create an even bigger distraction to the eye. It wasn't 100% wool [alpaca blend] and believe it or not, in 10 stitches you could tell. *sigh*

Again, a pleading, desperate call to my knitting muse. I was SO CLOSE to making this sweater gorgeous and FINALLY being able to wear it! I didn't want it to be ruined by one little spot. Well, it was a slightly bigger spot now. But I'm not one to throw out the baby with the bathwater, and while on the train making my way to the third yarn store that day, I had an inspiration.

Knowing that during my nomadic past I hadn't carried around leftover yarn for this sweater, and being desperate to match the color, I decided to do something only a truly desperate knitter would do: I cannibalized the side seams for yarn.

It actually wasn't as painful as it sounds. The seams weren't that hard to undo, and since the sweater was damp from washing the wool wasn't kinky at all. I pulled it out and fluffed it a bit with my fingers and it was fine.

I took my few feet of precious well-preserved yarn and began to carefully strategize the best spots to overstitch. Didn't want to waste an inch, you know. I slowly did the stitching, and lo and behold, it actually worked! You could hardly tell there was ever a problem there. In fact, I think the felting might have helped a bit by clamping in on some of the nooks that were still stained. The overstitching brought the original pattern and texture back and completed the line that your eye naturally follows when looking at a pattern of diagonal lines. I couldn't believe it had actually worked, and wasn't going to completely admit to myself that it did work until the damp sweater had dried, so I crossed my fingers and waited.

After letting the sweater dry flat overnight, sewing up the side seams with that almost-identical alpaca yarn, and re-blocking the sides, I now have a brand spanking new 15-year-old handmade Aran sweater! I can hardly believe it's the same sweater. The pattern looks even and professional. The spot really is just a trick of the light now. And it actually fits!

Well, mostly fits. When I said I knew how to follow a pattern, I meant it literally: the sleeves are Euro-hunk length.

Not to worry. One turnback of the cuff and it is, once again, The Perfect Sweater.

©2002 Brenda Janish


Brenda Janish has been a knitter for over 20 years, and hopes she never stops learning how to be a better one.

To make sure of that, she founded Stitch 'n' Bitch Chicago, a group of young women in the city who get together every week to knit andÉ well, you know.

While she's constantly inspired by her talented SnB cohorts to try new things like intarsia or sock knitting, Aran knitting will always be her first love.

editor's note: yes, that's the aran.

author's note: I found out recently that the formula for getting rust out of wool is lemon juice and salt. You wet the area with the lemon juice then sprinkle salt on top. When the juice dries, you gently brush off the salt. I'd try it on my sweater, but now I'm afraid to touch it! Maybe I'll get up the courage this winter.