Friday, October 30, 2009

Tales from the frog pond: misadventures in gift knitting

It's that time of year again. My sister and both of my parents have birthdays in October and November, which means that fall is gift knitting time. Once the birthday gifts are done, it's time to start in on holiday presents. I don't know what has happened this year but I'm finding myself frogging far more often than I like to think I do. Thank goodness my sister's knitted gift will get to her with "some assembly required," if you know what I mean.

I blocked my mother's gift last week and sent it off just in the nick of time (well, maybe a day or two late, but who's counting?). This was a labor of love, let me tell you.

Pattern: Fiddlehead Scarf by Anne Hanson (Ravelry link)
Yarn: Handmaiden Lace Silk - somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 of a skein
Needles: size 2 Crystal Palace bamboo straight needles

The lace pattern is lovely and I think I would really enjoy knitting it again in a bouncy merino. But silk, oh my did I hate knitting with the silk. I think it was the purls on the right side of the pattern. Something about having to alternate knits and purls in the same row with a yarn that has absolutely no elasticity in it was a pain in the neck. As with any lace project, the WIP can look rather sad, to say the least. Therefore it shouldn't have come as a surprise to see just how lovely the scarf was once I pulled out the blocking wires and pins. The yarn had such an amazing sheen and drape that it made the whole project worthwhile.

But why stick with silk, you are probably asking. Why not just frog and re-knit in that nice bouncy merino you were dreaming about for all 40 or so pattern repeats? Because my mother has a slight wool allergy - not enough to keep her from knitting, but she can't wear pure wool right next to the skin. So silk it was. If you know any nice superwash laceweight yarns, I'd love to hear about it.

Here's a self-modeled shot:

As you can see, I won't be giving up my day job for self-portrait photography. I cropped my head out for a reason.

Unlike this scarf, which narrowly escaped a trip to the frog pond, two projects for the DH dove right in. First up is a little set of Dashing mitts that I had planned to whip up two Christmases ago. This is what they still look like today:

Again, lovely pattern, really lovely yarn (it's Road to China from The Fibre Company in color Sapphire). The problem? I was knitting it on double pointed needles. Ever since I learned magic loop several years ago, I haven't touched double pointed needles with a 10-foot pole (unless I had a really good reason like I-cord or didn't have a long enough circular needle in the appropriate size). A quick check of my needle collection today confirmed that I don't have a size 6 needle, which is what I was using on Dashing, long enough to work magic loop and finish the darn thing.

Instead, I whipped up this lovely little garter stitch mitt:

This took two hours and used one skein of Road to China. That's right, two hours. I think I know what I'm doing for assorted family gifts this Christmas. It's also a great way to use up single skeins sitting in the stash. You'll need less than 200 yards of worsted weight yarn to make the pair.

The mitt is loosely based on the garter mitts in Robin Melanson's mitten book. A friend of mine was making several pairs of these out of a Manos silk/wool yarn and I decided to jump on the bandwagon. The concept is very simple: a garter stitch rectangle with short rows creating a gusset for the thumb.

The other project for the DH that has been giving me trouble is another secret Xmas gift - this one a sweater. At first, I wanted to make Urbanite from this fall's issue of TwistCollective. The DH and I drove out to The Fold, where I wanted to pick up some silvery brown BFL or corriedale to spin up for the sweater. I found just the color that I wanted, but the store didn't have enough fiber to make a man's sweater. When we got back to the city, the DH was very nice and took me to Loopy to look around a bit for a substitute. We came home with some lovely Berocco Ultra Alpaca in color Mahogany Mix.

I promptly cast on for urbanite and knit through the ribbing and into the cabled pattern. One of the things that annoys me in many cabled patterns is when designers ignore the transition between ribbing and the cables. When done right, the result is beautiful and the pattern looks like a cohesive whole (go take a look at the Anne Hanson's new sock pattern for one example). When the transition is ignored, the result is jarring and enough to make me rip and discard with no second thoughts.

Urbanite has a panel of 2x2 ribbing that goes up the sides of the body. Compare the where this panel meets the ribbed hem on one side

with the join at the other.

The second ribbed panel did not flow at all. If I had been happier with the marriage of yarn and pattern, I might have reworked the numbers on the ribbing in order to avoid this result. This pattern needed a yarn with a little more cushiness (for lack of a better term), so I decided to rip and move on to a new pattern. I think my handspun idea is still a good one and I'll probably come back to it another day.

It did not take me long to figure out what pattern I wanted to work with. This cardigan made by Jared Flood, of Brooklyntweed fame, had caught me eye a while back and I happily jumped right in. I looked up how to make the sheepfold cable in EZ's book The Opinionated Knitter, knit a gauge swatch, figured out the cables I wanted and thus the number of stitches to cast on, and started knitting. I got this far before I realized that there was nothing to do but frog and start again:

First problem: do you see that lovely pepulm-like garter stitch hem? That's right, I forgot to cast on for only 90% of the stitches that I would need for the body and as a result, the border was much too big. It would have made a nice skirt, it was flaring so much. If this were the only problem, I would have kept knitting since the border could have been unravelled and re-knit.

Second problem: loose purl stitches. It's tough to see in the pic above, but the traveling knit stitches on the edges of the sheepfold cables were really loose where they lay next to purl stitches. The reason? A purl stitch knit in English (or Western) style uses slightly more yarn than a knit stitch. When a knit stitch is immediately followed by a purl stitch, the extra yarn from the purl stitch causes the knit stitch to relax and look sloppy. (See p.49 of Priscilla Gibson-Robert's fantastic book Knitting in the Old Way for more on this) I knew this. I've actually known this for a long time. I also knew that the trick was to work the offending purl stitches in continental style, wrapping the yarn up from below, rather than over from above, in order to avoid the problem. Why didn't I do this? No idea. So I ripped again and started over, working my purl stitches continental style every time they were preceded by a knit stitch.

Much better, don't you think?