5 Yarns, 5 Hats

I’m working on what I hope will be an eye-catching postcard to publicize whatifknits, like the postcards artists send out before a show. The front will have pictures of a hat I’ve designed, knit up in a variety of yarns. The back will have the pattern and information on this web site. Melissa and I spent part of yesterday morning photographing the hats in various urban settings, drawing inquiries and encouragement from passing drivers. (And, sinice it was Saturday, avoiding questions from security personnel who might mistake a couple of knitting loons for a terrorist threat.)

Knitting these hats in rapid succession has been a real test of my stamina as a knitter. The changes in yarn helped, but two weeks solid of the same pattern had me a bit desperate. I like asking my “what if?” questions as I knit, planning the next project while one is still on the needles, so it got rather disheartening when the “what if?” question was reduced to “what if I do the same damn thing over and over again?” (The answer to that questions is: I get crabby and despondent.)

But now the hats are done and the *FREE* pattern will be going to press in a week or so (I’ll also post it here) ready for me to pass out at Stitches West and other knitting venues. In the meantime, I thought I’d share my observations about the yarns I used.

5 different versions of the Point Lobos hat
Yarns (clockwise from top): Quatro by Cascade Yarns; Iris by Bertagna Filati; Fauve by Louisa Harding Yarns; Manos Cotton Stria by Manos del Uruguay;Merino Frappe by Crystal Palace Yarns.

Quatro by Cascade Yarns
Label Information: 100% Peruvian highland wool, 100 grams/3.5 oz, 220 yards, needle size 7-8 U.S., 4.5-5 stitches per 1″.
Approximate Price: $7 per skein.
Yummy, yummy wool marl. This yarn was a pleasure to work with: rich in color, bouncy enough to make the k2togs easy. I love marls—all the richness of a variegated yarn, without any worries about color pooling. Many of you have no doubt used this yarn already, but if you haven’t, its reasonable price and high quality make it well worth trying out.

Iris by Bertagna Filati
Label Information: 60% cotton, 40% nylon, 50 grams, 90 meters, needle size 5-6mm, 18 stitches and 24 rows per 10 cm.
Approximate price: $7 per ball.
This is a yarn I found in the “Four Buck Bucket” at my favorite local yarn shop, The Swift Stitch. I was seduced by the contrast between the matte cotton strand (reminding me of the days when we tied up packages to mail in cotton string) and the shiny variegated rayon. This yarn is substantial enough to use on a project that will get regular wear, but light enough that you’ll keep using the garment well into the spring, perhaps even on cooler summer days. Unlike some double-stranded yarns I’ve worked with, this one has very even tensioning, so you don’t find one of the two strands bunching up around the other. The yarn has a surprising amount of give to it, so repeated k2togs didn’t result in the hand cramps they sometimes produce. Besides working well for hats, this yarn would make beautiful cardigans or knit t-tops.

Fauve by Louisa Harding Yarns
Label Information: 100% nylon, 50 grams, 127 yards/116 meters, needle size US 6/7 UK, 5.5 stitches per 1″.
Approximate Price: $9.50 per ball.
I love this yarn, but I’m also frustrated by it. I bought it after trying it out at a yarn tasting at Article Pract because it felt so good in my hands: very bouncy and supple, almost suede-like. The labelling’s a bit confusing, however. The strands we got at the yarn tasting were from a ball that recommended size 10.5 US needles, but the balls on the shelves mostly had labels recommending size 6 US needles. The bit I knit up at the tasting (I used US 11 needles) came out quite nicely, flat, smooth, and sleek. When I knit the hat, I used US 7 needles (as I did for all the hats) and the yarn really scrunched up, resulting in a very thick, stretchy fabric that had a much tighter guage than the label suggested it would. My hat pattern requires about 100 yards of yarn in pretty much every yarn I’ve used for it, but I ran out of Fauve near the end of the project, even though the balls are 127 yards. (I did manage to finish the hat by unravelling my swatch from the yarn tasting and reusing it on the crown of the hat.) Final assessment: you’ll love the feel of this yarn as you work with it, but be very, very careful about gauge—and buy substantially more than logic tells you you’ll need to finish your project.

Manos Cotton Stria by Manos del Uruguay
Label Information:100% Peruvian cotton, 1.75 oz/50 grams, 116 yards/106 meters, needle size 4-6 US/3.5-4 mm, 18-20 stitches and 24 rows per 4″/10cm.
Approximate Price: $9 per skein.
I bought this yarn from Patternworks a few years ago because I couldn’t resist the color. Since I didn’t have any specific ideas about what I’d knit with it, I just ordered a single skein, and it’s been calling to me teasingly from my stash since then, while I wondered what to do with 116 yards of cotton. Since this is a slightly finer yarn that some of the ones I worked with on this project, I was worried that the hat would come out small and even considered moving up to US 8 needles, but I’m glad I stuck with the size 7 (still one size larger than the range recommended on the label). If I hadn’t the hat would probably have come out big enough to use as a toaster cover. Not surprisingly, the hat wound up a bit loosely knit, so it doesn’t have as much stretch as the other versions, but it fits comfortably. Of the five yarns I used, Stria had the least give. It wasn’t uncomfortable to use on the larger needles, but I think it would feel rather stiff on the recommended size US 4. The texture of the yarn (not exactly a boucle, but more of a ripple) is retained in the finished piece, making it interesting without distorting the pattern stitch too much. I’m not sure how well it will wear, so I’d work with it again on a small project, but don’t think I’d want to use it for anything substantial.

Merino Frappe by Crystal Palace Yarns
Label Information: 80% merino wool, 20% polyamide, 50 grams, 140 yards, needle size 7-9 US, 3.5-4 stitches per 1″.
Approximate Price: $8 per ball.
The first time I bought this yarn, I picked it for its color (a rich purple). I’d enjoyed working with it, so thought it would make a good hat yarn, but I was forced to buy a different color because there wasn’t purple on the shelf. The black binder didn’t show on the purple yarn. On the mustard-colored yarn it does show through, giving the yarn a certain haziness. Merino Frappe knits up very comfortably, and the 140 yard skeins seem to go a long way: I always have more yarn left than I expect after finishing a project. The only drawback to this yarn is that its texture makes it difficult to unravel, so it’s not a good candidate for experimental knitting or particularly complicated patterns. On the other hand, since it has a furry texture, even if you do unravel a lot the yarn won’t wind up looking particularly shopworn.

Would I work with these yarns again? Yes for all of them. The Quatro and the Merino Frappe would be my first choices, just for their vesatility and reliability (does it make sesne to call a yarn reliable?). I’m sure I’ll also pick up more of the Iris if I can find it, though I suspect it’s being discontinued, which would explain its being marked down. I don’t know that I’ll get more Stria, but it may turn out to be exactly the right thing for a warm-weather project someday. I have one more ball of Fauve at home, but doubt I’ll buy more. I love, love, love to touch it it, but I don’t trust it in terms of guage or total yardage called for.

Forbidden Love

I know it’s not the sort of thing we talk about in polite society, but I’ve fallen in love with an acrylic yarn—a cheap acrylic yarn ($3.99 for a 218-yard skein). Soft Delight Extremes by Yarn Bee, which is the house brand for Hobby Lobby. I picked it up when I was in the midwest last summer visiting my sister. It looked like any number of other yarns on the skein: kind of hairy, but definitely not an eyelash, some color variegation, but nothing that cried out “I will be your new obsession! You will succumb to my powers and become helpless like a child!” Still, the price was right, so I bought a skein.

This winter, when I was experimenting with tam patterns, I pulled it out, figuring it might make a rawther interesting tam. The tam itself came out rawther more interesting than I’d planned. I was following a pattern, which I rarely do (see my previous entry), but I failed to notice that at one point the decreases increased from every other row to every row. As a result of my lapse, I wound up with a hat that began something like a tam, but then collapsed a bit in the middle, and finally rose up to an odd little point. Sort of like the fancier kind of mathematical bracket { or an onion dome. I convinced myself the hat had “flair” and left it as it was, naming it “Czarina”—though it did not have enough flair for me to knit another like it.

But my point here is the yarn, not the hat suitable for smuggling large gourds and other oddly-shaped vegetables. I immediately phoned my (non-knitting) sister and begged her to get me another six skeins, which she did. (I have THE BEST sister in the world. Don’t even try telling me that many other sisters are just as wonderful. I will not believe you.)

Soft Delights yarn
The yarn was gorgeous: gorgeous to touch, gorgeous to look at. It’s actually two separate strands twisted together. The main one is a fuzzy, acrylic-as-mohair ranging from a sweet, sweet cream to an almost-black brown and back again, with longer sojourns at the darker end of the run. The second strand is thin and shiny, with very fine threads coming off it every quarter inch or so, and this is variegated in a spring green to pink to bright red-violet range. When it knits up, it’s positively Noro-esque—if it’s not blasphemy to say that about a $3.99 acrylic.

So Wednesday, when I was crabby as all get-out because I’d been knitting the same darn hat (subject of a future posting) repeatedly for the better part of two weeks, I dramatically swore off kniiting, at least briefly. “I can’t knit another stitch,” I told Melissa. “That hat has frozen my brain to the point that I’m incapable of thinking an original thought. I’ll just have to stop for twenty-four hours to clear my mind, then start a completely new project.”

That resolution, of course, lasted long enough for me to walk upstairs and see the winter issue of Interweave Knits on the bedroom floor. I’d been lusting after the Wine and Roses mitts since I’d seen them worked up in a lovely rose (what else) shade on All Tangled Up. I looked at the pattern and lusted some more, but knew I wasn’t ready to take on something quite that fiddley given my tenuous state.

So then I asked myself a what-if question. What if I knit up some simpler wrist warmers using some of that nice yarn from my sister?

I knit a quick swatch to figure out what my gauge was, measured my forearm and hand and cast on. The crabbiness fled, contentment set in. I was knitting. I was knitting something that was not a hat. In three hours I had wrist warmer #1. The next evening I knit wrist warmer #2. Joy! Right now I’m only taking them off to eat and bathe.

Basic wrist warmers and a cup of tea
See what I mean about Noro-esque? (And the identical color variation on each one—complete luck.)

If you like them, you’re welcome to knit your own pair:

Yarn: Yarn Bee Soft Delights Extreme or ~175 yards of any heavy worsted-weight yarn that gets ~4.5 stitches to the inch.
Needles: U.S. #8 double points.
[Note that I originally omitted two lines of the pattern. They have been added here in bold.]

Cast on 45 stitches, distributing them evenly among three double-points. Place a marker and close the circle.

Work 4 rounds of k2, p1 rib.
Knit 6 rounds.
(K1, K2tog, K12) 3 times. (=42 stitches)
Knit 6 rounds.

(K1, k2tog, k11) 3 times. (=39 stitches)
Knit 6 rounds.
(K1, k2tog, k10) 3 times. (=36 stitches)
Knit 12 rounds.
(K1, k2tog, k9) 3 times. (= 33 stitches)
Knit 15 rounds.
K 1, bind off 4, k28.
K1, cast on 4, k28.
Knit 8 rounds.
Work 4 rounds k2, p1 rib.
Cast off and weave in ends.

What If?

With my first few rows of garter stitch, I discovered that the question “what if?” lies at the heart of knitting. At first, I was pretty much limited to two questions: 1) What if I cast on more stitches? (Actually it was “What if I ask the friend who’s getting me started to cast on more stitches for me?”) and 2) What if I use a different yarn? After two scarves, I had a few more questions: What if I use a different needle size than the label on the ball calls for? What if I knit with three yarns at once? (By then I’d realized people sometimes knit with two yarns at once, but I didn’t know if there was some sort of rule against three yarns. Never underestimate the number of things a “good girl” can worry about.)

In retrospect, these aren’t really earth-shaking questions, but the fact that I was asking questions so early on surprised me. With embroidery and more traditional sewing, I’d been content to follow patterns. I’d find a picture of a sampler or a skirt I liked, I’d purchase the pattern, follow the directions, and after a while I’d have my own copy of the original. Knitting was much less structured.

Discovering stitch dictionaries increased my “what if?” questions exponentially. Never mind that I couldn’t tell the difference between a knit and a purl stitch on my own needles. I focused on scarves to minimize complications and plunged right in. My mother was wise enough to recommend a bit of garter stitch along the edges of my scarves, and I just started choosing pictures of stitches I liked, casting on the appropriate multiples (plus six for the garters), and going for it. Even though I couldn’t see which stitch was which, patterns did emerge as the scarf started to lengthen. If I realized I’d made a mistake, I sort of held my breath, slid my knitting off the needle, grabbed the yarn and unraveled until a) I was past the mistake and b) I thought I could guess what row of the pattern I was on (though I wasn’t always right). There was absolutely no finesse involved.

To this day, I’ve followed exactly two garment patterns—one for a basic tam from One-Skein Wonders and one for a cabled hat from Cables Untangled—and my choice of both patterns stemmed from questions I was already asking myself. I chose the tam pattern because I figured it would offer a quick way to learn the proportions/stitch ratios for similar projects. I followed the cabled hat pattern because I wanted to see how Melissa Leapman handled the decreases. (Decreases will no doubt come up repeatedly here. The biggest limit to my stitch choices is usually whether I can figure out ways to maintain the pattern while decreasing/increasing.)

Other than those projects, knitting has been pure improvisation—which is what makes it so delightful. I love asking “what if?” and then knitting until I have an answer. I love the way that each project creates new questions and leads to new projects. I’m never turning back.

Casting On!

I’m absolutely amazed to think that within the next week there will be a blog here. My Blog—in fact. As my amazement makes clear, while I am writing this blog, I am not the technical wizard behind it—that would be my partner Melissa: artist, graphic designer, webmaster, and person who is sensible enough to know that when your partner is a knitter you’ve just got to go with it. Not only is she willing to listen to me going on and on and on about stitches/designs/fibers. In fact, she’s actually willing to expose herself to extended doses of such topics so that I can go on and on and on to the world at large.

A few quick facts about me with more to follow. I came to knitting relatively late, but honestly. Late, in that I’ve just been knitting for a few years after many years of embroidery and quilt-making. Honestly, in that I come from a long line of hard-core knitters on my mother’s side, so this knitting thing was pretty much inevitable even though I went through any number of years of utter confusion during which I found yarn itchy and uappealing. I pay my bills by teaching writing to university students, which can be rather labor-intensive (200 or so pages of essays to read every weekend), but also immensely satisfying. In fact, my students are the ones who got me knitting. They’d pull out their own projects when they got to class early, and I found myself torn between longing because I wanted to be knitting too and indignity because I didn’t know how to do it.

When I’m not teaching or knitting (which actually does happen), I’m often reading (non-fiction—I’m sure some of my non-knitting-related posts will wander off into the topics of some of these books). Between the two of us, Melissa and I are mothers to six very spoiled cats, so you can expect all sorts of stories about their adventures—particularly their eagerness to help with my knitting projects.

Next time—I’ll explain the origin of “What If Knits.” I imagine most of you are already bonafide what-if knitters whether you know it or not. I’m planning to post updates on current projects, reviews of books and fibers, original patterns—and my observations about the ecstasies and agonies that are our shared obsession—knitting.

Please let me know what you do and don’t enjoy about this site. I’d like this to be a fun place for us to gather together.