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Averting Disasters

Managing a knit shop, I've become quite intimate with human imperfections, especially as they are expressed in knitting. Patterns, flawed as they may be (see last issue's feature), are still only useful if we know and understand how to use them. I've observed several kinds of knit-behaviors that land knitters in frustrated tangles with unwearable knits.

Knit-behavior 1: Wishful Thinking About Sizing.
Some knitters possess the remarkable ability to deny reality. While this behavior most often is seen in knitters seeking the one-ball-of-yarn = one-scarf equation (no, not even size 19 needles will turn 35 yards of yarn into a 6-foot-long scarf), we do see it in pattern users as well.

Wishful thinking can come into play with size selection. Check out some of the patterns in your knitting stash. Compare the small, med, large, x-large sizes. What chest sizes are these garments designed for? Are any of the knit dimensions the same? When I hear a knitter say, "Oh, I'll just make the medium; that's the size I wear" I pull out the tape measure, sit the knitter down and explain the following things about knitting patterns:

  1. There are no standard sizes in knitting patterns. A small may be written to fit a 30" bust, a 36" bust, a 38" bust.
  2. The word 'bust' means, not your bra ribcage size, but the measurement around the chest at the widest point INCLUDING everything up front at the nipples.
  3. Knitter should look at the FINISHED KNIT MEASUREMENTS on the pattern to select the garment size to make.
  4. If the knitter is having a hard time selecting the size to make, measure a favored sweater of similar gauge to help the selection process.

Remember that the knit fabric has a lot of give. You may only need a few inches of ease to have a comfortable garment.  Maggie Righetti's books "Knitting in Plain English" and "Sweater Design in Plain English" cover the territories of ease, fit, and how the pictured garment may be flawed far better than I could in this space -- take a look at what she's written.

Knit-behavior 2: Substituting Yarn Only By Gauge

Knitter wants to knit the garment but...Yarn A has been discontinued more expensive than knitter's car. What to do.

Well, Yarn B gets the gauge (and is on sale!), so the knitter substitutes.

Two weeks later, knitter returns to shop in tears. The back of the garment is finished but is as substantial as tissue paper, and the cables just do not hold up in the cotton/silk blend chosen to replace the wool. I sigh as I help the knitter rip and select a pattern more appropriate for the fiber content of the yarn.

Here are a few rules of thumb for substituting yarn in a pattern.
  1. Try to find the original yarn -- even the color card -- to look at the fiber content and structure of the yarn.  If the yarn store does not carry the actual yarn called for in the pattern, but carries other yarns by that name, chances are that the yarn store has the color card for the yarn in your pattern. Ask them to see it, if only to help you in your substitution process.
  2. Do the best you can to match the fiber content and structure of the yarn in your substitution, along with gauge. For example, yarn L, a single ply, 4.5 st/in 85% wool 15% mohair yarn, would not be the best choice of substitution for yarn G, a 100% wool 4-ply yarn. Yarn C would be better (also plied, and 100% wool). The plied structure similarity and the fiber content (L's mohair gives it a halo that is not necessarily what you want for the pattern...) make C a better substitution.
  3. Consider the pattern. A cabled sweater needs a balanced, plied yarn with good memory. That's because the weight of the densely knit cable patterns pulls the sweater out of shape a bit, so wool (with more memory) is most appropriate. The plied/balanced structure of the yarn helps the cables stand out more crisply against the ground pattern. So again with the L vs G vs C, one would rather work with yarn C on a cabled sweater.  L's gonna pill and stretch out of shape more quickly because of its single-ply structure. That singles yarn thing won't help the cables 'snap' forward in contrast to the ground stitches either.
  4. Wool can substitute for cotton. Cotton, on the other hand, does not do as well when substituting for wool, especially in cabled patterns.  Cotton's weight per yard, denseness as a fiber, and relative lack of memory make it prone to drop when knit into heavier patterns. Hold a cotton yarn next to wool and twist a strand of each of them. Watch the wool squish down on itself, while the cotton just gets hard.
  5. Swatch your substitution yarn. Make a BIG swatch. Big means 5" x 5" at least. It takes time, but are you going to wear a garment that doesn't fit? Be a realist about your gauge. One of my customers substituted yarn and convinced herself that she was getting the pattern gauge of 6 sts = 1". However, the finished garment could comfortably swaddle a baby elephant, because she actually was knitting 4 sts = 1".

Read your pattern through, especially the sleeve caps and armhole shaping. How much row-by-row shaping is involved here? Some shaped sleeve caps have row-by-row instructions for the entire cap shaping.

Row gauge is more important than you think. If your swatch indicates a significant difference in row gauge, find a different pattern. Your armhole shaping and sleeve cap may not fit into each other, or, may not fit you! If you are working with a drop-sleeve pattern, or a pattern written 'knit to x inches' row gauge is not as important. Read the pattern through first. It will keep you out of a tangle.

Knit-Behavior 3: Not Reading Through Before You Buy
When I hear a knitter say, "I've been knitting since before you were born. I'll have no trouble with this pattern" when purchasing a pattern without reading it, I wince inwardly. Every time a customer has made this statement, s/he has been back to the shop with problems reading the pattern. Every single time.

These otherwise intelligent people have been stumped by poor pattern layouts, unclear abbreviations and instructions, and stitch counts that were simply wrong. They had made the simple mistake of not reading through the pattern in the shop before they dove into the project.  Buried in it were 'skp' or 'raised left purl increase' or some other technique that stopped them in their tracks. Reference books like Vogue Knitting: The Ultimate Knitter's Guide (my personal favorite) provide lots of solutions for new techniques that knitters stumble into.

The xerox machine provides great assistance in previewing and making patterns knitable. Knitting patterns are published in a fashion convenient to the publisher. They are not necessarily designed to be knit from. So when I plan to start a published project, I photocopy the pattern X number of times - X being the number of pieces in the pattern. Therefore, I make 5 copies of my cardigan pattern. I enlarge and clarify charts, sometimes the text as well (since some of my favorite patterns were printed in 6-point type to fit it onto one page. Yeah, right, a font size smaller than my gauge. Great.) I cut and paste each piece of the pattern onto separate sheets of paper, either in a notebook or on white 8.5 x 11 that I then keep in a sheet protector. I lay out the pattern as I cut and paste, including stitch patterns on every page, schematics, everything. I save the original pattern at home.

Cutting and pasting helps break down a larger project into smaller bites. Every time I get through another 'step' in a pattern, or reach a nice 'stopping point', I know I'm getting closer to finishing the garment. Plus I can put the project down for a month or two and know right where I am when I pick it up again.

Re-laying out the pattern prevents problems like the one a customer ran into last week. She's working on a skirt from a summer issue knit-mag and had accidentally skipped from one section of the pattern to another -- which was an entirely different piece of the garment. Easy thing to do, the way the pattern was laid out. By keeping each piece of the garment on separate sheets of paper, the knitter can better keep track of where s/he is in the pattern...and stay out of tangles.

Knit on...



Jessica Fenlon lives in Pittsburgh where she knits too much and makes a lot of art.
Visit her knitting blog or her online art documentation.