Steekalong prep: Mary Jane on choosing yarn

I’m thrilled at all of the enthusiasm over the upcoming Fringe and Friends Steekalong featuring Mary Jane Mucklestone’s Sólbein cardigan — kicking off January 1st. Several questions have been raised about color and yarn choices, which obviously need to be decided before casting on, so I’m doing a couple of advance Q&A’s with Mary Jane this month, starting today with those concerns. (We’ll talk about steek method alternatives next.)

To recap, Sólbein is designed for Léttlopi Icelandic wool yarn which is both unique and affordable — I’ve written about the yarn before here. In this case, it’s also knitted at a larger gauge (which works due to magic discussed below), the result being a sweater that knits up quickly, is somewhat less warm than if you knitted the same yarn at a more typical gauge, and is even less expensive, using less of an already affordable yarn. If you’re unsure about the lopi fabric, I highly recommend buying a few balls to swatch with, especially given the price point — knit a swatch, soak your swatch and get to know what the fabric is really like. If then it is not for you, we talk about the challenges and options for substituting yarns below. And you can use your leftover Léttlopi to make some Giving Mitts.

So with that, here’s Mary Jane — and if you have other yarn questions not answered here, please ask them below!

. . .

First, let’s talk about picking colors for Sólbein. I did the big roundup of palette suggestions that were mostly based on your model of using light/medium/dark shades of a single color. Can you talk about the effect that has, and why you chose it over a more contrasty or colorful approach?

When I designed the sweater it was based on the prompt “lines.” I love a simple prompt. I started thinking about radiating lines and eventually about light streaming through my windows on a winter’s day, and sunbeams. I wanted an ethereal kind of shimmer. I design on the needle and knitted the light one first.  To get the effect I saw in my mind’s eye, I chose a group of three colors that were fairly close in value, with the white acting as a bold color … if that makes sense.

When thinking about a second colorway, charcoal seemed a great choice for the main body color, so different from the first version. Choosing such a dark dark allowed different spacing between the values, but still in the same sequence: darkest for the body, middle for the ribbing and lightest for sunbeams. The medium color also become beams, when they progress into the darkest color.

So that was just my personal thinking about a knitted way to describe lines and my interpretation of lines being light. I’ve seen some really cute bright versions of Sólbein though — some even in candy colors, still arranged in a value sequence — and they are super cute!

Léttlopi is not like any other yarn I’ve ever used, and I find it impossible to describe to anyone — it’s so incredibly light and has such a halo that the fabric is more like a puff of wool-infused air or something. You’ve compounded that by knitting on a larger-than-usual needle: It’s aran-gauge yarn (or heavy worsted) knitted here on chunky needles, but the resulting fabric is not loose stockinette because of the way the lopi fleece blooms to fill the would-be gaps. I’d never seen that done before your Stopover pattern (and I wound up trying it with my little black raglan sweater). Is that a trick you’d seen before with Léttlopi?

I love Léttlopi. I love the fuzz and the loft and the lightness of it. And the shine — it glimmers. We traveled to Iceland in the ’70s and my mom got a lopapeysa which I’ve always always loved. It was so thick, but still so light in weight, and that’s the thing for me — lopi produces a warm but lightweight garment. So the memory of the utility of that sweater has never left me.

I came to knit Léttlopi at a loose gauge because I was in a hurry. I always wore my favorite storebought lopapeysa I got a few years ago, and a friend pointed out that I had it on in every picture and I needed to be wearing my own designs. Realizing that I had a week before my next trip, I consulted my stash and thought … why not? I didn’t have regular lopi, only had Léttlopi, and I figured I could use a bigger needle for a faster knit. I also wanted a warm sweater that wouldn’t weigh a lot because of airline weight restrictions, and that could take a beating being squished and compacted in a suitcase. I did a little swatching and I kept pushing the needle size, seeing how big I could get away with. Léttlopi is magical; once washed, the loft of it fills in the gaps of the loose gauge. 

All of those lopi traits and gauge trickery are what makes it difficult to suggest yarn substitutions. A typical aran-weight yarn would not do well being knitted at such a large gauge, and especially with colorwork involved. Substituting here would require using a chunky yarn, which would result in a heavier, denser sweater. It might be more or less warm than the lopi, depending, but it would not be the same light-as-air sweater. On top of which, not all yarns are suited to either colorwork or steeking. It needs to be a woolly wool with some grip. (Nothing super smooth, slippery or superwash.) Which doesn’t leave a lot of options! Do you think it would work with any of the lighter, more roving-y wools like Turbine and Puffin and Quarry? What’s your best suggestion?

Hmmm … yes. You can substitute, but I can’t think of any yarn that will produce a sweater that is as light in weight as Léttlopi. But not everyone needs a sweater to cram in a suitcase, or that weighs next to nothing. So swatch! Swatching is fun. It’s like an experiment — like you are a knitting scientist or a knitting explorer charting new territory!  Test out a potential yarn and decide if you like the knitted result. Wash the swatch to see what happens. See how much larger you can make it with blocking. Léttlopi has a lot of leeway — when it’s wet you can make it grow if you want it to grow, or just pat it into place if you don’t want it to. 

But you want answers! I’ve used Puffin when I’m swatching for design and I want a yarn where I can rip things out without much harm… so I know the gauge will work and it will be pretty. But it will be different, it will be more solid and weigh more. Quarry is kind of like roving, so it will probably work, and be fairly light. It won’t have the glossy sparkle that Lettlopi has, but it could be nice. So yeah. Everything will be a trade off, but that’s fine, and can be an adventure of discovery!

Among those not averse to using lopi wool, several people have also asked whether the unspun Plötulopi would work? And I’m wondering the opposite — any reason someone couldn’t use the bulky-gauge Alafoss Lopi? In which case you’d be knitting it at standard gauge, for a more typical Icelandic outerwear sort of garment, am I right? 

I think Plötulopi stranded double will work, in fact I’ve seen it done on Instagram. I wouldn’t use a single strand because I don’t believe the edge will be strong enough to support a button band. Standard Lopi will be fine, and it will make a more traditional lopapeysa. It will be heavier and warmer and can function as a jacket. It could be fantastic now that I think about it. Not for my international flights maybe, but as outwear it would be great.

Obviously, whatever one is considering potentially substituting, as you’ve noted, it would be exceptionally important to knit a big swatch, make sure it’s suitable for the colorwork and gauge, and also potentially cut the swatch to confirm the steek will hold. How do you advise swatching for this sweater, in any case?

Well, ideally, you swatch the way your garment will be knit, so in the round, with the needles you’ll be using … so a hat-sized swatch. I’d practice both plain stockinette and do some of the colorwork lines. Really get a feel for the fabric you are making. I hear some groans … . If you really really don’t want to do that, you could also knit flat, utilizing a Shetland technique called “brak an eek”, or break and join. On a circular needle you knit flat, joining yarn on the right edge, and breaking it on the left edge, sliding the stitches back to the right, and repeating. You knot the broken yarns after a couple of rows. Keep in mind if you’re new to this, it might take a bit of practice, and you also won’t be able to reuse the yarn. In either case it’s a bonus if you want to try out your steeking method on the swatch, great preparation!

Interesting — I just leave a long loop across the back of the swatch for each row, and cut the loops at the end.

The other option for anyone wanting to substitute yarn but not wanting to go the bulky route would be to knit aran-weight yarn at aran gauge and to do their own gauge math. Any caveats for anyone thinking of going that route? (Other than “don’t ask Mary Jane to do your math!”)

I say go for it if you want to. Since it’s knitted top-down, you can easily knit it to the length you want. A friend of mine has had great success knitting Sólbein at a 4.5 stitch gauge. She’s had to fiddle with things and ripped a bunch out but her finished sweater is divine

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PREVIOUSLY in Fringe and Friends Steekalong: Sólbein palette ideas

17 thoughts on “Steekalong prep: Mary Jane on choosing yarn

    • Oh whoops – i think that might have been in reference to a different example. I’ve pulled that sentence in search of further clarification.

  1. This makes me wish yarn companies offered tiny gauge/swatching balls. Though I suppose the shipping would be ridiculous.

    • Some of them do have “tasting” samplers and other assorted opportunities/possibilities, but it’s definitely not ubiquitous. Wish there were a way …

  2. I wore one of my Stopovers Saturday and love the airiness and delicate long “hairs”. It can be itchy so I wear a LS tee underneath. Plus it is “sticky”. Meaning it won’t slip off your needles easily. And the colors are so heathery vibrant!

  3. I started swatching and my stitches were loose and I was struggling with the fabric so I pulled it out. I should try again, since now I see that is how it should be. A question, the chart increases, so should the swatch include increases or would you start half way through the color work so you have all the increases done and are swatching the full chart? Does that make sense?

    • Hard to say whether your gauge might have been even looser than the pattern without your having blocked and measured it, but it sounds like you might wind up going down a needle size? I personally would swatch with the increases just to see how you like the initial bits, along with a generous portion of the solid main color, both to really see how it looks and for measuring purposes.

  4. Very excited about this! I still can’t believe that I picked up the perfect three colors in a sweater quantity while I was in Iceland this summer, not knowing what I was going to do with them. My biggest dilemma is that I had envisioned using these to make a long, duster length cardigan sweater. I love the look of the Solbein as written, but I’m also toying with the idea of lengthening it. There’s enough yarn and it’s top down, so I may decide last minute while I’m knitting it.

    Going with the make a hat style of swatching, so I’m excited to cast that on in the next week!

  5. Fell in love with the sweater when it came out, so I’ve got the yarn and need to get some swatches done. Looking forward to KAL.

    • She would have had to do all new math for each step along the way to get whatever her desired measurements were. Top-down makes that easy to do (see the Improv tutorial linked in the right rail if you’ve never done it before) but in this case you’d also need to factor in the required stitch counts and multiples for the colorwork sections to work out correctly.

  6. Pingback: Sólbein Steek Reinforcement — Mary Jane Mucklestone

  7. One consideration if you are changing gauge is row count. I’ve been swatching with Lascaux and realized that I might need to lengthen the chart as well as knit a larger size.

  8. I received a gift of Lopi lace weight yarn from Iceland. I made a shawl. It’s a gorgeous shade of raspberry and softened beautifully when I blocked it. My 1st time working with it. I loved Lopi.

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