My handmade wardrobe role models

My handmade wardrobe role models

Ever since my Woolful interview first hit the airwaves, I’ve heard from a lot of people who say they were inspired by my views on the concept of a handmade wardrobe, which is really wonderful to hear. But I also owe a lot of my thinking to a lot of other people. On the podcast, beyond the sheer joy and satisfaction of making one’s own clothes, I talked mostly (as I recall) about wanting to exercise more control over my wardrobe — to not be at the mercy of what’s in stores — and about having some lovely handmade clothes in my closet that made me think less of mass-market stuff. Of course, there’s so much more to it. Way more than I could address in that conversation — or in this post, for that matter. But I want to at least scrape the surface—

There’s my general dislike of mass-produced goods and preference for things with character, patina and “presence of hand.” (I’ve always preferred second-hand or handmade furniture, for instance, but the same did not always go for my clothes.) There’s my distress at our culture of endless, needless manufacturing and (again, other than in my closet) desire to tread lightly on the earth — from turning off the light when I leave a room to driving the same car for as long as it agrees to run. There’s the issue of overseas factory working conditions, which I’ve read a lot more about in the past couple of years. (One of the most thought-provoking comments I read somewhere was that a conscientious company working with a foreign factory might make them sign an agreement saying they will use only non-slave, legal-age, local-minimum-wage compensated workers — as if having to stipulate this is not alarming enough — and that they will not subcontract the work. But it’s not uncommon for these factories to subcontract behind that company’s back, and there’s no way of knowing what the conditions might be like in those secret second-tier sites. In other words, we really have no idea where our mass-market clothes might have been made, or what we may have contributed to.) There’s the aesthetic and economical fact that store-bought clothes are generally not well-made, increasingly synthetic, and either overpriced as compared to the quality and material, or unsustainably cheap. Like I’ve said before, I don’t want to eat a hamburger anyone can afford to sell me for $1, and the same goes for shockingly cheap clothes. Where is the meat/fabric coming from, and who’s processing/making it under what conditions? There’s that epiphany I had last spring about wanting to be more connected to — and more responsible for — my clothes. That really is just scraping the surface. But more than anything else, what influenced me was a lot of other makers, in a variety of ways. These are just a few of the people who got me thinking:

TOP LEFT: Kristine Vejar. When I took up knitting, it also reignited my interest in sewing. My local yarn and fabric shop at that time was A Verb for Keeping Warm, owned by Kristine. The following year, Kristine launched Seam Allowance, a community of customers/followers who would each pledge to make at least 25% of their wardrobe — roughly one out of four things one might be wearing on any given day. I never took the pledge, and only made it to one meeting before moving away, but the idea has definitely stuck with me. (ICYMI: Kristine in Our Tools, Ourselves)
(pictured in a Fancy Tiger Sailor Top sewn from linen she dyed with cutch)

TOP RIGHT: Sonya Philip. It was at the Seam Allowance launch party that I first met (very briefly) Sonya Philip, who was then in the first year of her 100 Acts of Sewing project. Read this statement, if you haven’t before, but it’s also her very personal style and zest for what she’s up to that draw me in.
(pictured in layered garments sewn from her own patterns; the shawl pattern is Earth & Sky)

MIDDLE LEFT: Felicia Semple. I no longer remember how Craft Sessions founder Felicia and I first became online friends (she lives Down Under), only know that we’ve had a little mutual admiration society going on for a couple of years, and so I loved being paired with her on the Woolful episode. If by some chance you stopped listening at the end of my segment, go back and listen to hers tout de suite. Her enthusiasm, attitude and outlook on crafting amaze me. (And of course, I love her blog.) My favorite part of her Woolful interview was when she talked about being mindful not only that we make, but of not making in a way that’s as gluttonous and unsustainable as other forms of consumerism.  That’s my paraphrase, mind — go listen.
(pictured in her smartly modified Vitamin D cardigan; more pics/details on her blog)

MIDDLE RIGHT: Alyssa Minadeo. Alyssa is a good friend and invaluable collaborator of mine, and an amazingly talented sewer. (If you have one of the first-edition Fringe Supply Project Bags, Alyssa sewed it … after having worked with me on getting that bag out of my head and into three dimensions. More news on that soon, I hope.) She’s another person who is nearly always wearing something handmade — even her coat! — which seemed astonishing to me when I first met her. Her skill and output both made me want to sew more for myself, but in the meantime she made me some of the best clothes in my closet.
(pictured in a Kelly Skirt sewn from a Nani Iro fabric)

BOTTOM LEFT: Z. When I wrote about her on the blog in May 2013, she asked that I identify her only as “Z,” but she’s the one person whose handmade wardrobe I would take over any store shopping spree. She makes the most beautiful, wearable basics, and her pattern and fabric choices are right up my alley. Nobody would take a look at her closet full of impeccable clothes and think they were homemade. It’s the epitome of a handmade wardrobe, in my opinion.
(pictured in her Ondawa sweater; details/pics on her blog)

BOTTOM RIGHT: Me Made May/Fancy Ladies. A blogger named Zoe launched a campaign a couple of years ago called Me Made May, which I only really know of through Instagram. As with Seam Allowance, I believe it’s up to each participant how they define their participation, but the past two months-of-May I’ve followed the hashtag and been stunned and amazed at all of the people who have sufficient amounts of handmade clothes in their closets to be able to take a meaningful number of selfies in those clothes over the course of the month. None more so, though, than Fancy Jaime and Fancy Amber, the owners of Fancy Tiger Crafts (now friends of mine), whose handmade wardrobes are jaw-dropping in their skill and depth, as they’ve been building them over the course of many years.
(pictured in their Perkins Cove variations; details/pics on their former blog)

One other is a more indirect influence. I can already hear many of you asking where it is that I read what I’ve read in recent years about the socio-political costs of mass-market fashion, and honestly a lot of it has just been links from Sarai Mitnick’s Weekend Reading posts on her Coletterie blog (another Blog Crush of mine). I promise to make it a point to pass more of them along! (Just as soon as I figure out why her blog stopped showing up in my feed reader some time ago …)

Them’s my thoughts — in a nutshell. I’d love to hear yours—

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CORRECTION: The original version of this post featured a photo of the Fancy Tiger ladies wearing Gudrun Johnston’s Northdale sample sweaters — my mistake! The photo was updated to one of the many of them wearing their own work.

Q for You: What thrills you?

Q for You: What's your favorite little knitting thrill?

The three pieces of my Spiral-Spun Waistcoat mod are on the blocking board as I type, drying in the freakishly summer-like breeze blowing through the windows. There’s a lot of finishing yet to do, but it’s been a joy of a project — from the dreamy yarn to the challenges I inadvertently set for myself with my modifications, to the chance to knit my first inset pockets. You know I love to do something new with every project, if at all possible, and I don’t know how I made it this long without knitting an inset pocket, but it’s now officially my favorite thing to do. Just like cables: so simple and yet so magical!

Knitting affords a world of cheap thrills — for some people it’s the magic of mattress stitch, for others turning a heel, for me right now it is knitting an inset pocket. So that’s my Q for You today: What’s your favorite little knitting thrill?

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Q for You: How do you close out a project?

Q for You: How do you close out a project?

This might be a bizarre question, and it’s something I never really thought about until I started knitting sweaters more routinely/seriously. You knit (or crochet, or sew) a thing, and then you’re left with a certain number of parts. The pattern, your notes, the remnant yarn or fabric. I keep every knitting project in its own project bag, and it always comes down to this little puddle of stuff in the bottom of the bag (needles, waste yarn, ball bands …). I always sort of dread putting it all back wherever it goes. I’ve had it ingrained in me that you should always buy more yarn than you need for a sweater because you never know when you might want or need to replace a button band or a cuff, or to patch an elbow, or who knows what. That’s been especially on my mind lately as I unpack the detritus of completed sweaters that I love enough to really imagine having for a long time. I’ve found myself making these little packets for each finished sweater: the last wound skein, my swatch, the tag or ball band with the sweater name written on it and, in the case of my Bellows (the first time I’ve been quite this thorough) a spare button. I’ve been packing them away in ziploc bags — for lack of a similarly protective, less aesthetically offensive solution — and they’re like little souvenirs, or time capsules. Each time I’ve wondered if this is odd or perfectly normal, so that’s my Q for You: How do you close out a project?

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PREVIOUSLY in Q for You: What’s the knit you couldn’t live without?

Our Tools, Ourselves: Christine Chitnis

In Our Tools, Ourselves, we get to know fiber artisans of all walks, ages, styles and skill levels, by way of their tools. For more on the series, read the introduction.

Our Tools, Ourselves: Christine Chitnis

I first met Christine Chitnis while at Squam Art Workshops last summer. She teaches a class at Squam and online about how to get your work published (whether it’s writing or patterns or photos), called Pitch Perfect, which I didn’t get to take. But we somehow met at the beginning of the weekend and hung out a bit, and I’m not sure how I would have pulled off my table at the Squam Art Fair without her hauling me and the goods around the campgrounds and generally being a delightful and helpful person. In addition to being a talented writer and blogger, Christine is a great photographer, so I was curious to see what her creative space looks like and hear about her relationship to her tools, and I’m so happy she obliged — it’s not often I run into someone so tidy they make me feel like a slob, so I enjoy the experience!

In addition to her blog and class, you can find Christine on Ravelry as lavenderlime.

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Do you knit, crochet, weave, spin, dye, sew … ?

My two great loves are knitting and sewing, though I do occasionally crochet. I learned to sew from my mom and for that reason sewing will always hold a special place in my heart. She was such a patient teacher and I have so many wonky little doll quilts to show from my early years. My mom has never been a knitter, so when I expressed interest in learning she took me to the sweetest little knitting shop in our town and there I learned. I was twelve years old. Because, you know, that’s what most twelve-year-old kids are dying to do! Let’s just be honest here — I was not a part of the cool crowd, but I’d like to think I’m super cool now to make up for it ;)

Tell us about your tool preferences and peccadilloes.

It’s funny: I’m really picky about the yarn and fabric I use, but I am not very particular when it comes to tools. I’ve always used whatever I have on hand. For example, I bought my sewing machine off Craigslist for $35. It is a decades-old Singer and has no bells or whistles, but it gets the job done and I love it. It’s similar to my mom’s sewing machine, which she inherited from my grandma. Newer machines, with all their fancy parts, tend to scare me! As for knitting supplies, when I started I would just buy the needles I needed for the project I was making so I have a hodgepodge of different needles. One day I’ll invest in a really nice set … maybe once I get my two toddlers through college and they stop using my needles to sword fight!

I love collecting vintage sewing notions — old spools of thread, interesting scissors, and scraps of old quilts. One of my favorite places to find bins of this stuff is at Brimfield, the huge annual antique show in Massachusetts. These tools and notions serve more as inspiration, though I do use them in my crafting.

Our Tools, Ourselves: Christine Chitnis

How do you store or organize your tools? Or do you?

I am a bit ridiculous in my organization. I don’t like clutter, so I keep my supplies and studio space very clean and well organized. I have a tiny stash. (I pretty much buy for projects, which means I only ever have little odds and ends of yarn and fabric left over.) I keep all of my supplies on a large, open Ikea shelf that lives in my studio, and for all of the unsightly supplies, I keep them in white storage boxes that fit perfectly on the shelves. I like my supplies to be visible, but in an organized fashion. I keep my yarn in a small basket, and my fabric stacked by color. I keep my thread organized by color on a thread holder, and I keep my needles arranged by size in a fabric roll. Typing that out I realize how anal retentive that must seem, but the truth is, I just like how it looks when everything is in its place. It gives me clear head space to focus on my projects. I am definitely someone who needs a clean desk/studio before I can get down to making.

It’s also worth noting that I share my home with three boys: my husband, a 4-year-old, and a 2-1/2 year-old. My studio is my happy place — everything is clean, white and free of little fingerprints! The rest of the house … not so much. The boys are welcome to join me in the studio — the only rule is we wash hands first!

How do you store or organize your works-in-progress?

I don’t like having a lot of unfinished projects lying around. There’s such joy in seeing a project through from start to finish, so once I begin a project, I usually finish it before starting another. That being said, I always have at least 3-5 projects in rotation at any given moment. I keep my sewing projects laid flat, with all the necessary trims and buttons, in an Ikea 6-drawer rolling unit. I love this system because when I want to pick up a project I don’t have to hunt around for the thread I was using, or the bias tape that I need. It’s all right there. My knitting projects live in separate bags and fabric buckets that I keep all together in a large woven tote. It’s pretty enough to act as decor in my studio, and I like to have it out so I can grab a project whenever the urge strikes. The knitting project that I am actively working on lives in a small, silk-lined fabric drawstring bag. It comes along with me everywhere, except once a sweater grows too large!

Our Tools, Ourselves: Christine Chitnis

Are there any particularly prized possessions amongst your tools?

A small zippered pouch, which I use to store my knitting tools, and my little fabric-covered notebooks are some of my most favorite tools. I bought them in India — I love the colors and patterns, and every single time I pull them out, I am reminded of my trip (which was the trip of a lifetime).

Do you lend your tools?

I LOVE teaching people how to knit, and so I am always loaning out my supplies and giving away skeins of yarn. I think that is another reason I have almost no stash — if I don’t have a specific project in mind for a skein of yarn, it’s most likely going to a friend so they can learn to knit. I think one of the greatest joys of crafting, whether it be knitting or sewing, is teaching others.

What is your favorite place to knit/crochet/whatever?

With two young kids demanding my constant attention, I’ll knit anywhere I can. Often I hunker down on the couch and knit in the playroom while the boys play. I knit while waiting for water to boil while making dinner. I knit once the kids are in bed — by then I’m usually in bed too, watching Netflix.

Sewing is a bit different. If I’m hand sewing a small project, I’ll take it along with me, but most of my sewing happens in my studio or in the studio of my dear friend and sewing guru Sarah. Her studio is the real deal as she designs and produces her own children’s clothing line. She has a serger and a couple of nice sewing machines, and she is just a wealth of knowledge. Plus it gets me out of the house, which is always nice. Her studio is basically my promised land! I’ve become so much better at sewing garments under her tutelage.

Our Tools, Ourselves: Christine Chitnis

What effect do the seasons have on you?

I love all four seasons. (Well, I’m pretty over winter this year but aren’t we all?) I definitely ramp up my knitting in the fall and winter. We live in a 100+ year-old home with no air conditioning, so sometimes knitting in the summer months is unbearable. I feel like I turn my attention more to sewing garments in the summer. I am obsessed with the Scout Tee and Wiksten Tank, which are my summer standbys. I can’t wait to make a few Purl Bee City Gym Shorts this summer. I’d also love to draft the perfect tunic pattern this summer. I’ve sewn so many tunics, and they are never quite right. This summer is the summer of the tunic — you heard it here first!

Do you have a dark secret, guilty pleasure or odd quirk, where your fiber pursuits are concerned?

My dark secret, which is almost too shameful to admit, is that I don’t swatch, or gauge, or whatever you call it. Ahhh! How can that be? Now, I am a smart girl. In fact, I majored in science, which involved a ton of math. But for the life of me I cannot understand how to gauge. It boggles my mind. So for all of my knitting, I literally just take a stab in the dark and go for it (usually using the suggested needle size and a close match to the suggested yarn)! Isn’t that insane? It’s nothing short of a miracle that my sweaters all fit. My goal for the coming Squam session in June is to find a willing teacher/glutton-for-punishment who will finally break down gauging for me once and for all. Any volunteers?! [Editor’s note: Ahem.]

What are you working on right now?

I’m currently testing a children’s sweater pattern for Nadia. It is the most adorable knit, very vintage-inspired. After that, I promised Elizabeth I would knit her a sweater. We’re both pretty keen on Westbourne or perhaps Antler, which is my favorite.

On the sewing front, I’m busy finishing up a quilt for my nephew and I have plans for a few more Scout Tees, and a tunic or two before summer hits. But honestly, my closet it pretty maxed out and I’m super happy making for others right now. My ultimate crafting goal is to get my boys to wear something I knit for them. A girl can dream!

Our Tools, Ourselves: Christine Chitnis

PREVIOUSLY in Our Tools, Ourselves: Tif Fussell (dottie angel)

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Photos by Christine Chitnis and Forrest Elliott

Hot Tip: Mark your armhole depth

Hot Tip: Mark your armhole depth

If you’re ever knitting a sweater from the bottom up, there comes a point where you work the armhole shaping and then are told to continue knitting until the armhole measures X inches deep — and I think it’s a measurement a lot of people have trouble with. In the event you’re working the body in one piece and then dividing into front(s) and back at the armholes, you’ll be told to put some part of it (most likely the fronts) on waste yarn while you work the other bits. When you put those held stitches back onto the needles, if you leave the waste yarn in place, you have a clear point from which to measure. But without that, it can be tricky to tell exactly where you’re measuring to, as you attempt to measure straight downward from the top of your knitting to the exact row where the armhole shaping first began. And hard to be sure you’re measuring to the same spot each time you check your progress. One option is to pin a removable marker in that row, but I prefer a mini version of the lifeline. When working the first armhole bind-off row (or later if need be) I’ll just run a short piece of waste yarn through an inch or two of stitches that will line up with the armhole edge. Then all I need to do is measure from that line to the top of my work. You can see here I’ve worked just a little over two inches from my first armhole row, so I’ve got a ways to go.

p.s. Keep in mind the best “waste yarn” is anything non-fuzzy or grippy, so it doesn’t leave any fibers behind when you pull it out. Thin, smooth cotton or dental floss is best.

p.p.s. The knitting pictured is my Spiral-Spun Waistcoat in progress. I decided on 3×1 garter rib instead of the 2×2, thanks to a suggestion from Annri in the comments on my swatch post. Thanks for all your input!

How to knit a hat, part 2: Gauge and size

How to knit and measure a gauge swatch

I’m reminded why I always shy away from writing about swatching: There are a thousand caveats. I’ve kept this as brief as possible but the fact is it’s an important subject and I want to do it minimum viable justice. It’s a long post. So first let’s talk quickly about whether you need to swatch for a hat, and then I’ll launch into the whole how-to.

The answer to “Do I have to swatch for a hat?” is the same as for anything: Only if you want it to fit. A lot of people don’t swatch for hats, and I’m in this camp. (And it has led to multiple “learning experiences.”) Often you’re trying to squeeze a hat out of single skein and don’t want to give any of it to a swatch. Or you just really want to cast on and knit the hat, and figure you’ll find someone it fits when it’s done. Or you accept ripping as an integral part of knitting, so you let the hat be its own swatch and are prepared to rip and restart if need be.

My friend Rachel was elated to have knitted her first hat last week, and over the weekend I got a series of deflated text messages from her. She had soaked her hat, which was all ribbing, and now that the ribbing had relaxed it was way too big. I told her the hat-that-don’t-fit situation is a rite of passage. She replied plainly, “It’s very discouraging,” and yes, it surely is. But it can be avoided simply by knitting and measuring a gauge swatch first.

WHAT IS A SWATCH?

A swatch is a square of fabric that puts you in control of your outcome. The point of knitting a swatch is to understand how the fabric will behave and to establish your gauge — to see if your stitches are the same size as the pattern drafter’s stitches, and thus whether your finished item will be the same size as the pattern indicates. So the most important thing about knitting a swatch is that it has to be a nearly exact replica of the thing you mean to knit. Therefore:

• Use the exact yarn
No two are the same; a dyed yarn will even behave differently than its undyed version

• Use the exact needles
Your gauge will likely be different if, e.g., you swatch with bamboo and knit with metal

• Use the exact method
Swatch flat if knitting flat; swatch in the round if knitting in the round

HOW TO KNIT A SWATCH

In knitting patterns, gauge is usually stated either in stockinette stitch or in the stitch pattern used for the item in question, and it’s measured over 4 inches but might be stated as the 4-inch measurement or divided by 4 for the 1-inch measurement. I.e., “20 stitches and 28 rows over 4 inches” is the same as “5 stitches and 7 rows per inch.” You measure 4 inches rather than 1 to make sure you’re getting an accurate count of fractional stitches in a given inch, which can add up to quite a lot over the span of a garment.

In order to measure 4 inches, you need at least that many stitches — ideally more. The best swatch is a big swatch (especially if you really want to know if you like the fabric), but at bare minimum, you don’t want to be measuring edge stitches in your 4 inches. Sticking with that 5 sts/inch example above, you know that 20 sts will be about 4 inches (depending on whether you are a looser or tighter knitter), so you want to pad it to give yourself margin for differences and for measuring. I would cast on at least 25 stitches, but again, preferably more. And unless you already know yourself to be a loose or tight knitter, start with whatever needle size the pattern recommends.

Many people like to put a garter-stitch border around their swatches because it looks nice and because stockinette will roll. Others believe (especially if your swatch is small) that the difference in stitch and row gauge between garter stitch and stockinette will affect your measurements. I’m a purist, so I keep my swatches to only the pattern stitch and don’t put a border on them.

Again, if the item you’ll be knitting is knitted in the round, you must swatch in the round, and vice versa. Most people’s gauge varies between their knits and their purls, so if you knit a stockinette swatch flat (knitting on one side and purling on the other), your gauge will be different than when you knit stockinette in the round (knitting every stitch). And vice versa. Garter stitch worked flat is all knits; worked in the round it’s a combination of knits and purls. Here’s a good tutorial on swatching in the round — it’s much easier than it sounds.

HOW TO MEASURE A SWATCH

Here’s the frustrating truth: Some patterns list unblocked gauge and others list blocked gauge. Some don’t specify. (If you don’t know what blocking is, click here.) What you really need to know is: A) is the fabric going to change when you block it? and B) what are the final measurements?

So once you’ve got at least 4 inches of fabric — wide and tall — bind off loosely and measure your swatch. Write it down. Then block it however you will block your garment. If you don’t intend to ever wash your garment, okey doke, you’re done. If you intend to wash your garment by hand, go ahead and soak your swatch. If it’s machine-washable yarn and you intend to use the machine, machine wash your swatch. Then lay it flat to dry.

If you’ve done as I’ve done and knitted a plain stockinette swatch, you’ll have an annoying little rolled up worm of fabric. If you pin the edges while it dries, as pictured, it will flatten out, making it easier to work with and to measure. But you want to know the natural size of the fabric, so don’t stretch it when pinning. Once it’s dry, measure it again.

I’m pretty sure it was in Pam Allen’s Knitting for Dummies where I once saw the suggestion that you put a pin in the swatch at the 0- and 4-inch marks before counting. I’d never done that until I did for the sake of these photos, and that’s pretty sharp, so you should do that. First line up your ruler horizontally across the bottom of one row of stitches, with the zero point of the ruler at the outer edge of a stitch, as shown. (A knit stitch, which we’re looking at here, looks like a V. We’re counting Vs.) Put a pin at 0 and at 4. Now count how many stitches are between the pins, and that’s your 4-inch stitch gauge. (Divide by 4 for how many stitches per inch.) Now position the ruler vertically alongside a column of stitches. Again, place two pins and count the stitches between them. You can see here I have 20.5 stitches and 30 rows over 4 inches, or 5.125 stitches and 7.5 rows per inch.

Remember, I’ve knitted a stockinette swatch for this example because that’s the most common case. But your swatch should be in whatever stitch the pattern calls for where it states the gauge.

HOW TO “GET GAUGE”

Assuming you want your garment to match the pattern dimensions, you need to match the pattern gauge. If your stitches are too big (fewer of them per inch), try again on a smaller needle. If your stitches are too small (more of them per inch), try a larger needle. Make whatever adjustments are needed until you’ve matched the pattern’s gauge.

If it’s not important to you to match the pattern dimensions, you can always choose to knit at a different gauge, just make sure you know how different your gauge is and how much of a difference that will make to the finished dimensions. With hats, it’s fairly common to tweak gauge to tweak the size. I have a big head and most hat pattern dimensions are too small for my liking, so I look at every hat pattern and think “can I knit that in the next heavier weight of yarn on a needle one size bigger?” (E.g. if it’s a worsted-weight hat on 7s, I’m inclined to knit it in aran weight on 8s.)

Gauge is a function of yarn weight, needle size and the knitter’s tension, any or all three of which can be varied to get the desired results. It’s delayed gratification — casting on a swatch when you want to be casting on a hat — but you’re that much more likely to be gratified by the hat you wind up with.

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PREVIOUSLY: How to knit a hat, part 1: Anatomy lessons

How to knit a hat, part 1: Anatomy lessons

How to knit a hat (that fits)

Knitting a hat is momentous in a knitter’s life. The simple act of knitting in the round — creating a three-dimensional tube instead of a flat rectangle of fabric — is eye-opening. But then comes the crown, where you’re suddenly learning about shaping (in this case decrease stitches) and working small-circumference fabric either on double-pointed needles or via the Magic Loop method. By the time you weave in the two ends — only a few knitting hours later — your bag of tricks has grown exponentially.

Hats are a favorite among seasoned knitters for many reasons: 1) They’re relatively quick. 2) They’re an excellent blank canvas for all sorts of stitch patterns and thus 3) a small-scale way to get to do lots of different kinds of knitting. 4) They don’t require much yarn. 5) There’s almost zero finishing involved. And 6) just about everyone can use one. They’re also fairly straightforward, as knitting projects go, and if you simply follow a reasonably good pattern you’ll wind up with a hat! (And it will fit someone, if perhaps not the intended head.) No need to give it any more thought than that if you don’t want to.

But for any of you who do want to — to understand the steps and maybe exercise some control over the fit — let’s talk about the various parts of a hat, techniques employed, and decisions you might choose to make along the way—

PART ONE: The cast on

Most hats have a stretchy brim — which we’ll get to in a moment — but possibly the most important thing is for the cast-on to be stretchy. You don’t want your hat to either bag out or cut into your forehead. For that reason, hats generally call for the Long-Tail Cast On, which is nice and stretchy. And while there are patterns out there for hats knitted flat and seamed, most contemporary hat patterns are knitted in the round on a 16″ circular needle. (I’ll talk about the Magic Loop alternative below.) Working at one end of the circular needle, you’ll cast on the prescribed number of stitches, then the pattern will likely tell you to place a stitch marker (to keep track of the beginning of the round) plus some version of two things: “join in the round” and “be careful not to twist.”

“Join in the round” or “join for knitting in the round” means simply what’s pictured at the top of this post: spread your stitches around the circular needle with the working yarn dangling from the right needle (place the marker on your right needle) and insert the right needle tip into the first stitch on the left needle to begin knitting in the round. From here on out, every time you pick it up and put it down, you’ll always hold it with the working yarn coming off the right needle.

“Be careful not to twist” means making sure your stitches aren’t twisted around your needle. If they are, you’ll be knitting a mobius loop instead of a tube, and there’s no way to fix it other than to rip it out. So line up your stitches as pictured above, with the cast-on edge running along the inside of the curve of the needle, so you can see for sure that the stitches haven’t wrapped themselves around the needle.

PART TWO: The brim

Most hats have a stretchy brim so it will cling to your head and stay on. That typically takes the form of a couple of inches of ribbing, the stretchiest of knitted stitch patterns (and the ribbing is also often worked on smaller needles than the main fabric, so it’s tighter and stretchier). You aren’t beholden to the pattern, though. Maybe you only want an inch of ribbing and the pattern calls for two. Or maybe you want your ribbed brim to fold up so it’s double thick — you are welcome to knit four inches of ribbing instead of two (assuming you have enough yarn) and then roll it up. Maybe you want it to be 3×2 or 2×2 ribbing instead of 1×1, or vice versa. Or maybe you don’t like ribbing and want to use a different stitch pattern entirely. These are easy modifications to make — just be sure you’ve thought through any ramifications.

3×2 ribbing, for example, isn’t as stretchy as 1×1, so your hat might not be as snug. The hat’s main stitch pattern might be designed to flow organically from the ribbing, and changing the rib multiple would disrupt that. 3×2 ribbing is a repeat of 5 stitches (3 knits + 2 purls, repeated across the total stitch count) whereas 1×1 is a 2-stitch repeat. So your cast-on count would need to be a multiple of 5 instead of a multiple of 2. If the pattern’s cast-on count doesn’t divide evenly into your desired multiple, you’ll need to tweak the stitch count, and then also increase or decrease by the same amount on the last ribbing round in order to have the correct number of stitches to begin the body.

PART THREE: The body

With the most obvious exception being a beret, hats are generally knitted as a straight tube (no shaping) until you get to the crown, and the length of that tube is the primary factor in how tall (i.e., fitted or slouchy) a hat is. Any pattern worth its salt will tell you the finished height of the hat, and most patterns will specify in inches, within the instructions, how tall the body of the hat should be before you begin shaping the crown. Reading into the pattern, you’ll find a sentence something like “knit until the hat measures X inches from the cast-on edge.” If you prefer your hats longer or shorter than the finished dimensions given, the body is where you’ll want to make adjustments. Say the finished height of a hat is 9.5 inches and you prefer yours to be only 8 inches — you’ll want to eliminate 1.5 inches from the body. So if the pattern says to knit until 7.5 inches before beginning the crown shaping, you’ll subtract 1.5 inches from that and only knit to 6 inches. (If you’ve added extra fabric for a fold-up brim, make sure you’re measuring from the fold.)

In the above example — that is, a 9.5-inch hat that says to knit to 7.5 inches before the crown — we can infer that the crown rounds add up to 2 inches. But if your row gauge is different from the pattern’s row gauge, your whole hat, including that crown depth, will be different. So once you’ve got four inches of the body knitted, stop and measure your row gauge. If your gauge is bigger (fewer rows per inch) and you follow the pattern to a T, your hat will be taller, so again you might choose to adjust how many rounds you knit before the crown. Or vice versa — smaller row gauge (more rows per inch) means you’ll wind up with a shorter hat, so anticipate or adjust accordingly.

Of course, the body of a hat might be based on a chart or a repeat that requires a certain number of rounds to be worked. In that case, changing the height of the hat might mean working one more or fewer repeat, and having the final measurement be a difference of the height of that full repeat. (We’ll talk more about charts and repeats as we get into the Fringe Hatalong Series.)

PART FOUR: The crown

The crown is where things get really interesting from a knitting perspective — and the world is full of hat patterns with dazzlingly designed crowns. There are countless methods for shaping a crown, but all involve gradually decreasing the number of stitches in each row until you’re down to just a few — so the tube gets narrower and narrower until it meets in the middle. That means you’re eventually going to have too few stitches to stretch around the 16″ circular needle we started out on. Commonly, a pattern will call for you to switch to DPNs (double-pointed needles) once you reach that point. To do so (unless your pattern is more specific than this), you knit 1/3 of the stitches onto one DPN, the next 1/3 onto a second DPN, and the last 1/3 onto a third DPN, so your stitches are evenly divided between three needles — or as close as your stitch count will allow — and those needles form a triangle. Using a fourth DPN, you work across the first needle, which frees it up; use it to knit the stitches from the second needle; and so on, around and around and around. It looks wildly intimidating, but is actually quite simple, and a hat crown (where you already have a volume of fabric on the needles) is the easiest way to learn it. (There’s a good video here.)

The alternative is to knit the entire hat on one long circular needle using the Magic Loop method, for which there are countless video tutorials on the internet. (I’ll let you Google that since there isn’t one I’ve personally relied on — I’m not a Magic Looper.)

The pattern will always tell you how many decrease rounds to work — typically alternating between decrease rounds and straight rounds. Then it will tell you: once you have only X stitches remaining on the needles, break your yarn and thread it onto a tapestry needle, then pull it through the remaining stitches and cinch to close. Pass the end down through the center and weave it in on the inside, and voilà, a hat!

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In case you missed the announcement, I’m launching the Fringe Hatalong Series of occasional hat knitalongs this week and the first pattern pick is suitable for your first hat. I hope you’ll join in — details to come on Thursday!

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