Knitty�: little purls of wisdomKnitty�: little purls of wisdom
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Pink Needles
Simply Sock Yarns

Have you ever worked a color stripe into ribbing and been dismayed at the funny little color blips that appear in the ribs' purl columns? Turn over a striped sweater and you will notice that on the wrong side, the edges of the stripes are not smooth. Instead, the two colors swap places along the stripe's border, making for an uneven transition on the purl side.

Traditionally, colorwork designs have been placed on a plain stockinette background to avoid these types of issues, but a notable exception comes from the Bohus knitting collective of Sweden. In the late 1930s, spurred by a depression, the women of the Bohuslan quarries of Sweden asked Emma Jacobsson, the wife of the governor, to set them up with some sort of home-based business to help them support their families during this time of great hardship. While the initial designs were simple, this homegrown knitting movement eventually developed into a couture knitting collective where members would produce incredibly complex colorwork designs on impossibly tiny needles. One of the hallmarks of Bohus Stickning (or Bohus Knitting) is the use of purl stitches alongside knit stitches in the colorwork bands to add texture as well as color.

The original Bohus designs have enjoyed somewhat of a renaissance with advanced knitters who are able to tolerate knitting these complex designs at a very small gauge. Each sweater produced in this manner is truly a work of art. However, there is no reason why every knitter can't glean inspiration from these beautiful sweaters and use purl stitches to liven up their own colorwork no matter what the gauge.

I first learned of the Bohus style while taking a class from Joan Shrouder on Ethnic Color Patterns. We also studied Fair Isle and South American colorwork techniques, but I was entranced by the unique color patterns formed by the addition of purl stitches in the Bohus designs. I started playing around with very simple color charts, working with crayons and graph paper, and realized that it's possible to create extremely complex-looking color designs that are actually very easy, simply by adding a few purl stitches at the color transitions!

Here is an example of a simple two-color pattern worked in plain stockinette:

In the next example, I've used the same color placement but added purl stitches at the color transitions from white to blue only:

In the final example, I've added purl stitches at all color transitions for a highly textured piece that looks very different from the original:

Amazing what a few well-placed purl stitches will accomplish, isn't it? When a purl stitch is worked above a knit or purl stitch of a different color, the old color is "pulled up" into the new row, creating a blip of old color on new background. Add one of these transitional purl stitches anywhere that you want the previous row's color to jump up and make itself noticed!

There are a few things to keep in mind before tossing purl stitches into your color patterns. First, depending on how many purl stitches you add and how they are placed, your gauge can change significantly. Swatch 3 above has a stitch and row gauge that are approximately one stitch and one row less per inch than Swatch 1. Swatch 2 has approximately 1 row per inch less than Swatch 1 but the stitch gauge is nearly the same. You will need to swatch to see how the purls you're adding will affect your gauge in order to determine if you need to make any adjustments to your knitting.
You will also want to play around with the placement and number of purl stitches to determine what looks most pleasing to you. You can definitely have too much of a good thing with this technique, particularly if you are trying to add texture to a complex design such as a snowflake. A few things worth trying:

  • add purls at the transition between color A and color B only
  • add purls at all transitions (both between color A and color B, and between color B and color A)
  • add purls at transitions where you'd like a little extra highlight, such as at the points of a snowflake or the teeth of a skull
  • swatching is your friend! Don't be afraid to experiment until you get it right!

Here is another example of one of my swatch experiments. I took a simple diagonal color stripe and added purls in different spots in order to see which effects were most pleasing to the eye.

You may find that using your textured color pattern is too overwhelming in an allover design, particularly when using two or three colors that are in high contrast to each other. These designs look fabulous on the yoke of a sweater and the garter-like nature of the combined knits and purls make sturdy, non-rolling collars, bands and borders. You will also find that you can make a lovely pattern with a simple two-stitch repeat, meaning that there are no long floats on the back of your work. This is great for socks, gloves and baby garments (no floats to catch on fingers or toes) and gives the beginning stranded knitter an opportunity to practice without worrying about carrying their floats loosely enough to avoid puckering.

While traditional Bohus designs utilized very small needles and fine wool, the technique of adding well-placed purl stitches translates well to any weight of yarn for those of us who don't have months (or years!) to work on a single sweater, gorgeous though it may be. I prefer to work my color designs in wool or alpaca, but the smaller repeat patterns in particular would work well in a lightweight plant fiber for those who can't or prefer not to work with animal fibers. Again, swatching is your friend. Swatch with the yarn you'd like to use and see how the color pattern looks after you block it. Is it too heavy or thick? Does it drape nicely? Did the blocking help any imperfections disappear or did it make them more obvious? Most importantly, do you like the way it looks?

If you're interested in learning more about traditional Bohus-style knitting, there are a few resources available. Wendy Keele's wonderful book Poems of Color is the most complete contemporary English-language resource for traditional Bohus history and patterns. She includes instructions for several of the traditional Bohus designs in her book. You can order kits from Sweden for a number of Bohus designs which include the original patterns and traditional yarns and colors from Solveig Gustaffson (click on Bohus Knitting for an English-language page listing available kits, then click "Kontakta mig" to send an e-mail to Solveig to get ordering information). You will also want to visit Susanna Hansson's website for additional history of Bohus and a list of her Bohus Stickning workshops which she teaches to great acclaim across the US and Canada.

Don't let the beautiful color patterns intimidate you - use them as inspiration for your own Bohus-inspired designs and embellishments. Or, take your colors in an entirely different direction and texturize your Fair Isle patterns or contemporary color patterns. There's no limit once you let your creativity take over!

Chrissy Gardiner designs and teaches knitting in and around her home base of Portland, Oregon. You can see more of her work at her website.

She is working furiously to finish her first book, "The Little Book of Toe-Up Socks," for release in fall of 2009.


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