Swatch of the Month: August ’16 // Aran sweater legends

EDITOR’S NOTE: You all know how I feel about an Aran sweater, and can imagine how my heart raced when I first saw this swatch. This is another delicious post by Jess to occupy you today or this weekend, and we’ll be back next week with the Top-Down Knitalong kickoff! Woohoo, see you then—
—Karen

Swatch of the Month: August ’16 // Aran sweater legends

There’s one style of knitting that perhaps has an aura of myth above all others, one that even non-knitters know and admire. You know the one – the Aran sweater. Oceans of cream cables laden with symbols. Worn by fishermen on the Aran islands for thousands of years. Each sweater inscribed with unique motifs that could identify a fisherman’s drowned body after his ship was lost at sea.

Funny thing about those legends – they’re not true.

THE HISTORY

When we talk about “Aran sweaters,” we’re talking about the heavily cabled, cream-colored sweaters that hail from the Aran Islands, a cluster of three islands in Galway Bay off the coast of Ireland, named Inishmore, Inishmaan and Inisheer. Their cliffs jut dramatically into the Atlantic Ocean and the rocky soil doesn’t make for fertile farming, but tenacious men, women and monks have called these islands “home” for hundreds of years. It’s a land full of pagan myths and history. Do a quick search online for photos – it’s magical and  gorgeous.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Aran islanders’ lives were incredibly hard. They subsisted on simple crops like potatoes, and kept pigs and cows along with sheep for wool. Surprisingly, they didn’t make their living off of fishing – while the islanders were experienced fishermen, they weren’t able to afford boats large enough to take full advantage of the nearby fisheries. By the turn of the century, islanders were reliant on exporting kelp to the chemical industry for fertilizer for most of their income. Famine, crop failure and poverty were a persistent reality. 

And guess what? Up until the early 1900s, there is no historical record of what we now call Aran sweaters. In fact, the only evidence of knitting on the islands is of wool stockings.

THE MYTHS

In 1936, a man named Heinz Edgar Kiewe stepped into a Dublin shop and happened upon a sweater. It was a striking cream pullover with a center panel of braided cables and an intricate combination of zigzags, twisted stitches and moss stitch framing the center braids. A photograph of the sweater was later published in Mary Thomas’s Book of Knitting Patterns (1943), the first book ever to publish an image of an Aran sweater.

Kiewe, a Prussian-born, self-styled anthropologist, is responsible for much of the resulting international fame of the Aran sweater, as well as the fables surrounding it. He later went on to write books like The Sacred History of Knitting (1971) in which he makes dubious claims about the history and origins of the Aran sweater and its cable motifs. In one such claim, he argues that a figure in The Book of Kells (circa 800 CE) is wearing a knitted catsuit, and therefore the Aran sweater has clearly been around since that time period. Taking a closer look at the image, it’s easy to see that the heavily-stylized figure could be wearing a woven outfit, a knitted outfit, or no outfit at all.

Another pervasive myth is that the Aran sweater was made for and worn primarily by fishermen. In fact, there is no evidence that the Aran sweater was ever a traditional fisherman’s garment at all! All photographic evidence points to Aran fishermen wearing ganseys that were likely bought on the mainland and produced by contract knitters in Britain — ganseys being thinner, seamless garments with underarm gussets for movement, and decorative knit-purl patterning contained to the upper portion of the sweater. What the earliest photo evidence of Aran sweaters shows, according to Deirdre McQuillen in her compact history The Aran Sweater, is that the heavily patterned white sweater may well have gotten its start as a communion sweater for children.

As for the story that the Aran sweater was used to identify a dead fisherman? This fabrication likely arose from playwright J.M. Synge. In his play, Riders to the Sea, a drowned man is identified by the dropped stitches in one of his stockings.

Swatch of the Month: August ’16 // Aran sweater legends

THE TRUTH, ACCORDING TO ALICE STARMORE

At this point, it’s worth noting that the strongest argument I’ve found for the origin of the Aran sweater is from Alice Starmore’s book, Aran Knitting. I read several other chapters regarding Aran sweaters in classics like Patterns for Guernseys, Jerseys and Arans by Gladys Thompson; A History of Hand Knitting by Richard Rutt (also a key source for McQuillen); and Knitting in the Old Way by Priscilla A. Gibson-Roberts and Deborah Robson. None were as detailed and thorough as Starmore in digging into the history and questioning assumptions about the origins of the craft. Starmore, a revered Scottish knitting designer, clearly has an axe to grind against Kiewe and others who have perpetuated the Aran myths. The book is worthwhile for the gorgeous patterns alone, but it’s her thorough research into the history and dismantling of the fabrications that make it such a gem.

Starmore makes quick work of Kiewe’s crockpot history. But then she digs deeper, and actually visits the eleven Aran sweaters in the collection of the National Museum of Ireland. The true history of the Aran sweater, she argues, can be found right where it started – in the knitting itself. From this evidence, Starmore draws several conclusions about the construction, style and patterns of Aran sweaters. I have condensed and paraphrased some of her key findings here, but encourage you to check out her book for more detailed explanations.

First, the Aran sweater evolved from the traditional Scottish gansey. In 1891, the Congested Districts Board was established to help stimulate the economy on the Aran Islands, primarily with farming and fishing. Around the turn of the century, the Board brought in Scottish women, known as “herring lassies,” to help energize the fishing industry. These women were experts at gutting, filleting and packing fish, and were most numerous on the islands during World War I. And whenever they weren’t working or were taking a break, they were knitting. It’s most likely that Aran women learned Scottish gansey knitting techniques from these herring lassies.

As techniques for knitting sweaters didn’t arrive on the Aran Islands until the early 1900s, any claim that an Aran sweater “tradition” is hundreds of years old, and has been passed down generation to generation, rings false. As the hand knitting industry began to pick up in the 1930s, Starmore argues that the development of the sweater design and patterns became heavily influenced by commercial considerations – basically, what would sell to tourists. Some examples of this can be seen in the color choices, weight of the yarn, and designs of these sweaters. The earliest Aran sweaters that Starmore has identified were cream, red and navy, but she thinks that the classic white won out because it shows the stitches most clearly. Same goes for the heavy weight of yarn used, which create bold, striking patterns with the greatest visual impact. Lastly, the most dominant patterns in Aran sweaters have evolved from openwork patterns, chevrons, and delicate twisted stitches to ropes, braids, honeycombs, diamonds, moss stitch and bobbles – a combination of patterns, she argues, that won out because they were most marketable as masculine fishermen’s sweaters. Of course, these are her own conclusions, and it’s very possible that the common design elements of the Aran sweater evolved for a variety of additional unknown reasons.

So, what is an Aran sweater? Starmore defines it this way:

An Aran sweater is a hand knitted garment of flat construction, composed of vertical panels of cabled geometric patterns and textured stitches. On each piece of the sweater there is a central panel, flanked by symmetrically arranged side panels. The use of heavy, undyed cream wool is a classic – though not essential – component of the style.

Of course, when knitting your own Aran-inspired sweater, you can take any bit of this definition and follow it, discard it, or evolve it to make something that’s truly unique and your own.

Swatch of the Month: August ’16 // Aran sweater legends

THE SWATCH

When knitting a swatch for this month, I knew I wanted it to include two elements – the yarn must be a natural cream wool, and the knitting must include cables. Lots of cables. Beyond that, the possibilities for a classic Aran sweater are seemingly endless, as you can incorporate any variety of rope cables, braided cables, twisted stitches, bobbles and more into a pattern.

For my yarn, I chose one made with wool right in my backyard – Cestari’s Traditional 2 Ply Worsted, a heavy worsted-weight Columbia Targhee wool raised and spun in Virginia. During the trade show in June, I had the chance to meet Francis Chester, the owner of Cestari Sheep and Wool Company, and pet, squish and admire his 2-ply that I had heard only good things about. The yarn is a very sheepy wool – it’s minimally processed and has a high lanolin content, making it feel slightly waxy when you knit with it. And it’s hardworking. I’d imagine that anything knitted with it would last generations, and the fabric benefitted from a good soak to block and soften it. (I bought my skeins from Tolt Yarn and Wool.)

As for the cables, I’ve knit plenty before, including rope cables, honeycombs and twisted stitches. But I had never worked braided cables, so I decided to knit a swatch that included a group of them, as outlined in “Swatch 8” in Starmore’s book.

The exciting thing about this family of cables is that they become increasingly more complex as you move right to left. The two cables on the right are basic plaits, the first with four strands and the second with five. The center braid is identical to the second braid, but with a single purl stitch worked between each rope. Moving even further to the left, the next braid shows the knit stitches moving across the purl background by one stitch before crossing over each other. The final braid on the far left is the most complex, incorporating all of the crosses of the previous two braids. Overall, Starmore’s swatch was a fantastic study in braided cables, and one I’d highly recommend practicing to increase your understanding of cable construction.
—Jess Schreibstein

Yarn: Cestari Traditional 2 Ply Worsted in Natural
Needles: US7/4.5mm bamboo needles
Gauge: 22 stitches / 28 rows = 4 inches in braided cable pattern, below

Swatch of the Month: August ’16 // Aran sweater legends

M E T H O D

For the braided cable charts, please see Alice Starmore’s Aran Knitting

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Q for You: How do you clean your handknits?

Q for You: How do you clean your handknits?

I ran into a discussion on Instagram recently where people were expressing surprise at the notion of blocking a finished sweater (as opposed to just blocking individual parts before seaming), and I was so surprised at the surprise! I thought blocking a finished garment was standard practice, and I almost always do it. Even if I’ve blocked the parts before assembly, I still want the seams and bands and whatever else to have the benefit of a good soak and flat-dry. (If you’re not familiar with the blocking process, click here.)

I also hear from people here on the blog occasionally who say they’ve never blocked anything in their lives. And I’m not sure if it’s a semantic thing or a misunderstanding of some kind, but it leaves me wondering if they’re saying they never clean anything, or just that they do it some other way (dry clean?), or what exactly. So I’m sort of dying of curiosity!

While not every yarn on the planet should be submerged, most (if not all) natural fibers benefit hugely from a good soak, especially if it’s wool yarn and a lanolin-based wool soap. I’ve noted before that I don’t immediately block everything — hats and mitts in stitch patterns that don’t really need it might not get soaked until the first time they’re in need of a wash. And for me and my knits, routine cleaning doesn’t necessarily involve a soak. My O-Wool Balance garments go into the washer and the dryer! I think that yarn actually benefits from it. The 100% wool stuff very rarely needs anything in the way of cleaning, and when something does I often use a trick I learned from my friend Anie, which is to just toss it into the dryer (dry) for a few minutes while a load of wet laundry is tumbling, to give it a good steam. Works like a charm!

So that’s my Q for You today: How do you clean your handknit goods?

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Q for You: What’s the yarn you can’t resist?

Q for You: What's your yarn-buying weakness?

I have a weakness. A very clearly defined one. No matter how much I get bothered about the quantity of yarn in my house, no matter how many oaths I make about not buying yarn without a clear purpose and intent to cast on, no matter how close I am to throwing my entire stash in a few garbage bags and dropping them off at the center for creative reuse, when I’m faced with a certain type of yarn, I cannot stop myself from buying a sweater’s worth. What type is that, you ask? Small-batch, minimally processed, undyed medium grey yarn. Pictured above are the Sawkill Farm yarn I bought at Rhinebeck in October, Fancy Tiger’s all-Colorado Junegrass from their 10th anniversary celebration (which I didn’t get to go to — but I did get to buy the yarn online!), and Ysolda Teague’s Blend No.1, which I bought after petting it and her utterly perfect Polwarth* sweater in D.C.** They are not the same. The Sawkill is the most unusual blend of breeds; it’s sheepy and airy and farmy. The Junegrass is also farmy and delicious but also squishy and soft. (Sheep soft, not marshmallow soft.) And the Blend No.1 is sport weight, for pete’s sake! They’re as different as night and day.

If you factor in the salt-and-pepper Linen Quill that Purl Soho sent me and the darker grey Hole & Sons I bought from their second (and apparently last) batch, I have five grey sweaters in waiting. And I also genuinely believe I can come up with five sweaters as different from each other as these yarns are, and that there’s no such thing as too many grey sweaters. But clearly if I meet any more small-batch grey yarn in the near future (“but I’ll never have another shot at it!”) I need to remind myself there will always be another one and I have many at home.

So that’s my confession, and also my Q for You: What’s your yarn-buying weakness?

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*Seriously, y’all, that is the perfect sweater. The details are incredible.
**There are no shopping links for the four small-batch yarns discussed here because none of them are available for purchase. See what I mean?!?! I had to!

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PREVIOUSLY in Q for You: Yarn management, collected

Swatch of the Month: July ’16 // Herringbone Churro

For this second installment of Swatch of the Month, Jess has really outdone herself! This is a rich and meaty post, and I hope you’ll spend some time with it today or over the weekend. And please have a lovely one! Here’s Jess—
—Karen

Swatch of the Month: July ’16 // Herringbone Churro

When you visit Oaxaca, one of the first things you notice are the textiles. Hanging from doorways, draped across clay walls and clotheslines, piled up on tables, spread at your feet. The landscape is a rolling expanse of tans, sage and stormy blue mountains, but the buildings, the clothing and the woven rugs are a riot of color – fuchsia, peach, indigo, marigold. Zapotec weavings are ubiquitous in Oaxaca and particularly in the small village of Teotitlán del Valle, where I stayed for a few days for a one-on-one weaving residency.

As I’ve talked about on Fringe before, I visited Oaxaca in 2014 for a wedding but extended my stay to study under Federico Chavez Sosa, a third-generation master weaver who taught me to weave rugs in the traditional Zapotec style. On my final day in Teotitlán, I knew I had to take home a few skeins of the rainbow of Navajo-Churro wool yarn that hung along the walls of his workshop. I wasn’t an active weaver then and am still not now (hope that a bigger space that accommodates a floor loom could change that someday), so it never occurred to me that not all yarn could or should be used interchangeably for both weaving and knitting. Caught up in the colors, the excitement of the week and probably a healthy dose of FOMO, I picked out a few skeins in the hopes of knitting a sweater or two, and brought them home where they’ve sat in my stash ever since.

Swatch of the Month: July ’16 // Herringbone Churro

THE SHEEP

The thing about Navajo-Churro wool is that it’s coarse and probably not something you’d want to wear next to your skin (although I’m sure Churro diehards would disagree). The Navajo-Churro sheep are descendents of the Churra, an ancient Iberian breed known for their hardiness and adaptability. They’re part of the so-called “primitive” breeds – meaning those that haven’t been bred to specific characteristics and can trace their lineage back to early Bronze Age sheep – along with perhaps better-known breeds like Icelandic, Jacob and Shetland. Their long, double-coated wool has a coarse, almost hair-like, outer layer while the inner, shorter coat is fine and soft. But it’s just these qualities that make the wool so well-suited for weavings, rugs, blankets and outerwear, which is what it’s been primarily used for since the sheep were brought over by the Spanish in 1494, becoming the first domesticated sheep in the Americas.

From the the time they were introduced, the Churra were relied on for food and fiber along the upper Rio Grande Valley, the southernmost tip of Texas where it meets with Mexico. With colonial expansion, flocks grew into the thousands in North America. Pueblo and Navajo acquired sheep through trade and raids, and the Navajo in particular took to shepherding, growing their flocks exponentially and using the Churra wool to produce textiles that became the basis for their economy. Over time, the name of the sheep changed from “Churra” to “Navajo-Churro,” although the sheep are also referred to as both “Churros” or “Navajo sheep.”

In the late 1800s, the U.S. government sought to further control the Navajo tribe by controlling their flocks. The U.S. Army slaughtered tens of thousands of Churro sheep in 1863 and federal agencies led crossbreeding programs with finewool sheep, like Merino, to provide softer fiber to the garment industry. These crossbred sheep were not well suited to the climate, however, and suffered. Drought and government-imposed stock reduction programs in the 1930s further decimated the breed. Small pockets of “old type” Churros survived in isolated villages, but by the 1970s had reached near-extinction, their numbers dwindling to just 500 sheep.

To protect the breed from further depletion, a Utah State University animal science professor named Lyle McNeal founded the Navajo Sheep Project in 1977. About ten years later, the Navajo-Churro Sheep Association (N-CSA) was founded. To date, there are over 6,000 sheep registered with the N-CSA in the U.S. alone, and breeders can be found across the Southwest and beyond. Preservation efforts from dedicated ranchers are helping ensure their continued rebound, as well as allowing Navajo to continue their traditions of handspinning and weaving with Churro wool.

Further south in Oaxaca, native weavers were using cotton and the backstrap tension loom to produce textiles for clothing and trade as early as 500 B.C.E. When the Spanish arrived, they recognized Teotitlán’s potential as a weaving center, and instead of dismantling the culture there as they did for so many other communities, they forced native laborers to weave for Spanish colonies. They introduced Churra wool and the fixed-frame pedal loom to the Americas, allowing weavers to produce weavings – primarily blankets – on a faster and larger scale than ever before. As in North America, Merino sheep were introduced to try to “improve” the Churro breed, but by the mid-1600s the Churro wool blanket industry was already well underway. (Note: It’s here that my research goes cold on the Churro breed in Mexico – if anyone knows more about the history of the Churro in Mexico and in Oaxaca specifically, please share in the comments!)

By the 1970s, weavers in Teotitlán had begun creating large rugs on even larger looms – some ten or twelve feet. In 1974, the introduction by American importers of the July issue of Arizona Highways, dedicated to contemporary Navajo rugs, sparked a flurry of imitative weaving by Teotitecos. Today, weaving production in Teotitlán is focused primarily on an export market rather than selling solely to Mexican nationals or tourists. Color schemes, designs and quality of the rugs created by both Zapotec and Navajo weavers alike are now driven, for better or worse, by the American market. In Teotitlán, a small village in one of the poorest states in all of Mexico, entire families have found economic success in selling their rugs internationally, with many importers in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado. The rugs and weavings of today, as they were centuries ago, are still created with Churro wool.

Swatch of the Month: July ’16 // Herringbone Churro

THE SWATCH

The few Churro skeins I have were carded, spun and dyed by Federico and his family in Teotitlán, and still have little flecks of grass and hay caught in the fibers. Not all weavers in Oaxaca can afford to use natural dyes in the yarns and weavings, but many still do, relying on dyestuffs from the nearby landscape – lichen, bougainvillea blossoms, pomegranate skins, indigo leaves, and even shells of caracol, or sea snails. The skein I used for my swatch is a single-ply fingering weight, dyed with cochineal, an insect that feeds on the nopal cactus and whose larvae is crushed to produce a range of vibrant reds, pinks and purples.

Given the coarseness, I knew that I didn’t want to use this yarn for a sweater, so I considered creating a fabric that could be used as functional for the home. Imagine a set of placemats or the front of a pillowcase, with the front knitted up and black linen sewn on for the back, *swoon*! To approximate the look and feel of a weaving and to stand up to continued use, I wanted the gauge to be tight and thick. I also knew that I wanted to use a simple, geometric pattern that drew inspiration from Zapotec and Navajo designs and allowed the yarn to sing. After sketching several motifs and looking through some stitch patterns, I landed on the woven transverse herringbone pattern in Barbara Walker’s A Treasury of Knitting Patterns. Knit up, the design was exactly what I was envisioning.

To be honest though, knitting with Churro wool was tough. This was likely exacerbated by the slip-stitch pattern and tight gauge, as I held the yarn double and knit on size 6 needles to get the thickness I wanted. It really gave my hands a workout! However, the swatch softened up a lot after blocking, and I could easily envision this fabric used in outerwear, like a poncho. I’m totally in love with the stitch pattern too, and it would make a great scarf or cowl.

Despite the challenges, I’d highly recommend working with Churro wool to expand your horizons and try something uniquely different than what you might be used to. Churro wool production is supported by weavers and textile artists who are working with this special fiber. Need more ideas beyond knitting or weaving? When I was at TNNA a few weeks ago, I brought this skein with me and passed it around, asking others how they might use it. The best answer I received was from Jill Draper, who recommended felting it. The coarseness would make it felt it up like a dream. Knit it up quickly in a loose gauge, then felt the heck out of it in your washing machine to create a fabric you could use for all sorts of things.

Here are some resources for buying Churro yarn, but I’m sure there are others – please chime in with suggestions!

Swatch of the Month: July ’16 // Herringbone Churro

Yarn: Handspun Navajo-Churro wool dyed in cochineal, held double
Needles: US6/4mm Addi Turbo needles
Gauge: 22 stitches / 34 rows = 4 inches, in woven transverse herringbone pattern (below)

M E T H O D: For the woven transverse herringbone stitch pattern, please see Barbara Walker’s A Treasury of Knitting Patterns.

Swatch of the Month: July ’16 // Herringbone Churro

If you’re interested in learning more about Navajo and Zapotec textiles, there are a good number of resources out there. Five I’d recommend are:

  • Textiles from Mexico by Chloe Sayer (haven’t read this one personally, but it’s considered a classic in the field)

Jess Schreibstein

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Q for You collected: Yarn management!

Q for You collected: Yarn management!

Yesterday’s yarn-winding post on Mason-Dixon Knitting (and the ensuing hypnotic discussion), followed by two different emails about related subjects, had me digging back into former Q for You posts on yarn handling that seem to be begging to resurface! (Plus on Friday I had a little meltdown about how much yarn is in my house, completely untamed at present, and how I need help keeping it under control.) These are perpetually pertinent subjects, the answers to which I never tire of seeing, and there’s so much assorted wisdom of this crowd stored in these posts. So today I’m encouraging you to take a look at the collected responses and add your two cents to each—

Do you wind your own yarn? (winder or by hand, balled or caked)
How do you sort your stash? (by color, by weight, by what)
Does having a stash work?
How do you close out a project? (what do you do with your leftovers)
How do you store your yarn? (for aesthetics and safekeeping)

And if that’s not enough Q for You for one sitting, browse through them all here at your leisure.

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My First Sweater: Jenn Steingass (aka @knit.love.wool)

My First Sweater: Jenn Steingass (aka @knit.love.wool)

A few Elsewheres ago, I included a link to a fantastic interview on the Kelbourne blog with Jenn Steingass, better known as @knit.love.wool on Instagram, about her amazing bounty of colorwork yoke sweaters. After it ran, I got a nice email from Jenn, in which she mentioned that her very first sweater she had ever knitted for herself was from my top-down tutorial! Which of course I love to hear. Wanting to hear more about that sweater, though, I asked her to do a My First Sweater q&a here on Fringe, and she kindly obliged.

Jenn’s only photo of the finished sweater is the sadly dark and grainy one above, but if you want to see copious beautiful photos of her abundant output since then, make sure to check out her Instagram feed and Ravelry page. And with that—

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How long had you been knitting when you decided to knit your first sweater? What got you to do it?

I’d been knitting for about two and a half years when I decided to knit myself a sweater. I’d made raglan sweaters for my kids, maybe 10-15 of them, some of which are on Ravelry and some that I never added to my project page. I wanted to make myself a sweater sooner, but I got pregnant with my second son so I put my plans on hold. Having knit so many woolies for my kids, I often wondered what it would be like to wear a garment made just for me out of nice wool yarn.

Your first sweater was improvised from my top-down tutorial. What made you choose that path as opposed to following a pattern for your first one?

Yes! Had I known that I would someday be chatting about this sweater on your blog, I would have made sure to take better photos. I was so excited to have knitted a sweater for myself, I immediately started wearing it and proceeded to live in it for the next year or so! Unfortunately, it went missing when we moved last year, and I have looked for it quite a few times but haven’t been able to find it anywhere. This picture was taken almost a year after I finished the sweater.

First, I decided I wanted to knit a basic stockinette sweater because the yarn I was going to use was marled and too busy for any sort of intricate stitch pattern. I’d tweaked raglan sweater patterns for my kids in the past, so I felt like I’d probably be able to improvise one for myself. I searched for a plain raglan pattern on Ravelry, but had trouble finding a simple, classic raglan. I think I had used too many filters in my search and that’s why I didn’t find what I was looking for. I somehow found your Improv project page, although I can’t remember exactly how I ended up finding it since it’s not technically a pattern. From there I followed the link to the tutorial on your blog, and also used the notes on the Improv page itself. It was perfect for me because I had already started altering patterns.

What yarn did you use, and how did you choose it?

I used worsted-weight Elsawool 2-ply, woolen-spun Cormo in Marled and it was a dream to work with and so nice to wear. I remember how soft it was, yet sturdy at the same time. The plies were spun in such a way that the yarn was really round, almost like it was one solid piece instead of two strands, and it was so bouncy. It was definitely some of the most perfect yarn I’d ever used. My favorite yarns are woolen or mule-spun domestic non-superwash wool. I had wanted something similar to my favorite Targhee yarn from a now defunct yarn company called Sweet Grass Wool. I think someone had recommended Elsawool when we were chatting about yarn via private message on Ravelry. I’d originally bought it to make a hooded romper suit for one of my boys but never got around to knitting it. It was the only yarn I had in my stash in sweater quantity at the time, so I used it for my sweater. I wore that sweater so much and the yarn didn’t pill hardly at all. I’d recommend it to anyone who loves wool!

Everyone I know who’s ever knitted with Elsawool is evangelical about it. How did the knitting go — what were some of the hurdles or challenges or thrills along the way? What surprised you about the process, if anything?

The knitting went well! I guessed at what I thought my gauge would be. I tend to look at a yarn, decide what needle I should use for it, and then guess what my gauge will be based on other similar yarns I have worked with in the past. I started doing that not long after I learned how to knit and then I would measure my gauge when the project was finished and blocked, and then would take note for future projects. When I want to knit something, I just want to cast on and go, so I don’t want to knit a swatch and then wait for it to dry. I understand I would have more consistent results if I had the patience to knit swatches, I just prefer to plan my projects using a hypothetical gauge instead. I like the mystery of whether or not things will work out or not. It keeps my on my toes.

I lucked out and my gauge was very close to what I thought it would be. My sweater fit me pretty well. I remember wishing I had either started with a few more stitches when I cast on, or stopped the raglan increases a little sooner and cast on a few more stitches when I separated for the body and sleeves. My yoke ended up a little more deep than I wanted. It was no fault of the tutorial, I just knit a few too many rounds for the yoke.

The most surprising part of the process was how long it took compared to a tiny kid’s sweater! For me, I have to build up tolerance for how long projects take. I remember thinking I could never, ever knit myself a sweater when I first learned how to knit, because it felt like it took so long just to knit small items. I am not quite at the point where I feel like I have desensitized myself to knitting a whole adult sweater in fingering-weight yarn on size 1 needles, but I have a feeling there will come a day where I won’t be fazed by knitting a sweater at such a fine gauge!

You mentioned above that you basically lived in it, so apparently it was a success in at least some ways. Did it live up to all your various goals and expectations?

Yes, I was totally thrilled with it and was so proud to have finished it. I loved the yarn I used, so it really was a delight to wear. The fit wasn’t 100% perfect (my own fault for not swatching) but it was good. I often slept in it in the winter — that’s how much I liked it. I wore it as much as possible up until I knit my second sweater a little over a year later. I continued to wear it in rotation with other sweaters I’d made until we moved. I would absolutely be reaching for it if I still had it. I might just have to knit it again because I liked it that much.

Do you feel like an improvised sweater was a good place to start — as in, would you recommend it as a starting point for others?

I felt like improvising a sweater based off the notes on your tutorial was very easy — it definitely helped that I had prior experience knitting a variety of pieces for my kids. I have a feeling it wouldn’t have gone as well if I hadn’t knit many other things first, but that is only because I guessed at what my gauge was going to be.

I can see how the following the tutorial would be beneficial for a first sweater project because it explains each step so much more than the average pattern. I like how you’ve provided pictures of what the sweater will look like as various stages in the knitting process – I imagine that extra info would be immensely helpful to a new knitter who is nervous and doesn’t know what to expect while trying their first raglan. I definitely think it would be an excellent first sweater project for an inexperienced knitter, so long as a gauge swatch is knitted in the round first.

I know you’ve knitted tons of amazing sweaters since then — your colorwork yoke sweaters are jaw-dropping. How does your experience of improvising a top-down sweater now impact your work on other sweaters, whether they’re from patterns or otherwise?

Thanks for the nice compliment about my sweaters! I really love making them.

Knitting my improvised sweater made me a more confident knitter. One of the things I love most about knitting is building on what I’ve learned from my successes and failures and applying that knowledge to future projects. I realized that closely following patterns isn’t always necessary — that sweaters are often very customizable at any point in the knitting process, and that a few simple math equations help make a well-fitting knitted garment possible. I began heavily modifying most of my projects from that point on. After having knit my sweater, I went on to improvise several top-down raglans for my sons in handspun of various weights, and all of them were based off of what I learned when I used your tutorial for my sweater.

For my lopapeysa-style sweaters, I use colorwork charts for the yoke but now redesign my sweaters by altering the stitch counts for the body, sleeves, yoke and collar. I know I picked up my improvised sweater several times as I knit some of my first colorwork sweaters and used it as a point of reference for stitch counts and measurements for the body and sleeves. The things I learned while knitting my improvised sweater also helped lay the foundation for my designing endeavors. I’d recommend the tutorial to anyone who is interested in knitting garments with a more personalized fit or even for those who hope to publish knitting patterns in the future.

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PREVIOUSLY in My First Sweater: Mary Jane Mucklestone

All photos © Jenn/@knit.love.wool, used with permission

Help a fiber friend?

Help a fiber friend?

I know a lot of you are fans of Rebekka Seale and her incredible Camellia Fiber Company yarns, and I’m fortunate to have her as one of my best friends here in yarny ol’ Nashville. In fact, she was a huge help to me before we moved here, when we’d barely met, scouting out space for Fringe Supply Co. to land before I even knew where Bob and I were going to live. (Priorities, y’know.) Before getting into the yarn business, Rebekka painted fantastic house portraits and couldn’t keep up with the demand. Now she and her husband are pursuing adoption, which you may know is criminally expensive, and to help raise funds for that she’s taking house portrait commissions for a limited time only. Adoption is obviously a really personal matter and she’s been hesitant to post about house portraits on her Camellia Fiber Company feeds, so I’m sharing it here! I know the fiber community to be a warm and helpful one, and I can imagine a lot of you would like a custom portrait of your home and to help out a fiber friend in the process, so I wanted to let you know about this. If you’re interested, you can see some examples of past portraits and place an order at houseportraits.space

I have to say, I don’t think she’s charging enough for them (adoption or otherwise), so I would encourage you to insist on paying more if you’re able! And as my way of helping, I’m also offering a 10% coupon on your next Fringe order to anyone who commissions a portrait from her. Just forward me your order confirmation at <karen@fringesupplyco.com> (or email me saying you’ve ordered one and I’ll confirm with Rebekka) and I’ll respond with your discount code.

My heartfelt thanks to anyone who’s able to help out with this. And of course, if you don’t have any need for a house portrait, I’m sure buying yarn also helps!

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Images courtesy of Rebekka Seale