There is a very special place in my heart for garter stitch. It is the easiest of all stitch patterns, consisting purely of knit stitches when knitting a flat fabric, but that is just the beginning of garter's virtues. The edges will not roll, as in stockinette pieces, and the rows are quick and easy to count, two rows for every garter ridge. Garter stitch is the easiest and most basic of all welt patterns, with slim furrows cleanly wedged between raised lines of stitches. As I prefer scarves, throws, and wraps to be reversible, garter is one of my go to stitch patterns for these projects. When you knit every stitch, every row, both sides will look the same.
When a larger needle than recommended is used, garter takes on a very different look. The shawl below is knit in simple garter. The very loose gauge gives a lacey look, and makes this project a very quick knit. The only shaping is on one edge, every other row - easy peasy! Garter's simplicity allows Atacama, the hand painted, 100% baby alpaca yarn by Araucania, to be the star of the this show.
In Elizabeth Zimmerman's Baby Surprise Jacket, garter stitch again reigns supreme. Rows and rows of garter, worked most cleverly, shape this little jacket with only two short seams needed along the shoulders at finishing. Knitters have long enjoyed this little project that goes from an amorphous shape to savvy little jacket using only the garter stitch pattern. Knit with only a few modifications to the original pattern, the Adult Surprise Jacket is another hugely popular garter project.
Another example of the classic good looks of garter is the Ruana by Oat Couture. With a single, simple row of eyelet as trim and some easy shaping along the edges, this topper is a favorite at Rare Purls. The pattern gives the option of using worsted, bulky, or super bulky weight yarns, allowing the knitter latitude in yarn choices. Knit for Mum's Christmas gift last year, my Ruana (shown below) features Kathmandu Aran Tweed by Queensland Collection, using the worsted weight instructions. This luxurious, specialty yarn gives subtle texture to the fabric, with the additional interest of colorful tweed flecks. Again, the simplicity of the garment design and the garter pattern focuses one's attention on the luxurious specialty yarn.
When designing my bath mats, I want a simple pattern that will be as functional and practical as it is attractive. Bath mats are a wonderful way to enjoy your hand knitting and can be knit to match each bathroom. (They also make lovely housewarming gifts.) The last one I knit, using a double strand of Plymouth Oakmont and simple stockinette with a garter stitch border, has lasted five years and still looks great! The garter border lies flat and the mat looks nice on both sides.
Of course, no discussion of garter stitch would be complete without mentioning the venerable garter stitch scarf. These quick and classic scarves are most every beginning knitter's first project and can easily be worked up skinny or wide, long or short, and in any yarn. My favorite version is to loosely cast on approximately 175 stitches of bulky stash yarn (or multiple strands that will work up as bulky) on a #11 US circular needle, changing to several other yarns in coordinating colors in one row repeats. I leave long tails at both ends to have not only a handsome project with lovely, long and colorful stripes, but one that is also self fringing. Just be sure to bind off very loosely and you will have an accessory that not only is a stash buster, but a new slant on hand knit scarves.
While it does take more rows per inch than stockinette, which also means more yarn per inch, garter's ease of execution is unparalleled. Remember, when knitting in the round, simple garter requires an alternating row of purl stitches. This classy mohair cowl in garter takes only hours to complete on a 16 inch, #13 US needle. Rows of knits and purls in alternating rounds quickly create a fashionable accessory on a circular needle.
At every skill level, garter stitch is sure to remain a favorite with hand knitters. It is a most versatile stitch pattern, used in everything from the primary pattern in shawls and sweaters, to edgings on shells and borders on blankets. Whether knit into an easy scarf, or jazzed up with creative shaping as in Elizabeth Zimmerman's Surprise designs, there is beauty in this most basic stitch pattern. Simple elegance never goes out of style.
Although scarves, hats, and throws are popular projects for hand knitting, for years the industry has been geared towards the sweater knitter. If you flip through Interweave Knits, Vogue Knitting, or Knitter's magazines, you will see that most of the patterns are some version of a sweater, be it vest, shrug, pullover, or cardigan. Although yarn companies do offer accessory booklets, the new yarns each season are usually featured through sweater designs. Sadly, all too often, the novice knitter is intimidated by even the thought of casting on that first sweater. Sometimes, this hesitation is due to a disastrous prior attempt at a fitted garment. Other times, it is the thought of the more substantial investment in both time and money. Yet still, I strongly encourage knitters to give sweater knitting a go. There is nothing quite like the heady feeling of wearing one's own hand knit cardigan. It is a milestone in the knitting world! Here are some tips to help make the first sweater experience both enjoyable and successful.
My friend Jan wearing her first sweater
First, choosing the right sweater pattern is key. I always recommend that knitters tackle a garment that they enjoy. If you wouldn't be caught dead in a vest, it will be hard to get psyched up over knitting one, but if you know that your new grandchild would look awesome in that darling pullover, this motivation will help carry you through any new techniques along the way. Inspiration is a great friend to knitters.
My first adult hand knit sweater, circa 1979
After choosing the style of sweater, next comes the search for that perfect first sweater pattern. Just as a successful builder follows blueprints, the key to success in sweater knitting is to rely on the expertise of a well laid plan, a good and clear pattern. Although patterns are often rated with a skill level, it is not safe to assume your concept of easy is the same as the designer's. Also, there are differences among publishers as to the criteria used for their rating systems. Last year, I knit my husband a vest that was rated "beginner", yet it was certainly not a pattern that I would recommend for a beginner knitter. The stockinette body has interest in the trim, knitted insert watch pockets, simultaneous neck and armhole shaping, and a front band that continued into the neck band. Where it is an easy sweater for a knitter with some experience, most beginners would find it a challenge. As I recommend with any pattern, it is important to scan through the instructions before deciding to cast on, checking if it is within reach of your skill set. Check for unfamiliar stitch patterns, unusual construction or techniques, and designer notes. Taking on too many new challenges can lead to frustration and frogging (unraveling the project.) I am currently finishing an abandoned sweater from an above average knitter, as the design was fraught with techniques unfamiliar to her. It is a knitted lace, hooded cardigan with a very usual construction and early on, she became overwhelmed. Knowing the knitter personally, I truly believe that had she taken more time to read through the pattern, she would have chosen a different design and met with more success. Save that more intricate pattern for a later project.
Schematics are most helpful to sweater knitting
For a first sweater, I recommend a simple design, perhaps a basic vest, pullover or cardigan. The idea is not to dazzle with intricate lace or cables nor clever construction, but to learn how pattern stitches and pieces work together to form a garment. As an initial endeavor, I prefer a sweater pattern knit in sections, rather than the top down, seamless versions. This gives the knitter an opportunity to explore seams and to develop an understanding of the components of a fitted garment. Also, as the sweater is knit in separate pieces, each can be altered to improve fit, a more difficult undertaking in a single piece, fitted garment. Speaking of fit, if you happen to a be knitting a plus size, these more generous size sweaters fit better if they have bones, i.e. seams. My last top down pullover with raglan shaping in a plus size, a tunic from Cathy Carron in Hempathy, was knit to perfection and it looks great on my smaller sized dress form. Sadly, it looks like a sack on me and I wear it only when I do not mind looking like I knit for Omar the Tentmaker.
Dress form sporting the Hempathy tunic
As a rule, I suggest a quick check of the pattern on Ravelry for helpful feedback and errata. So often these days, there are errata for patterns that are necessary to successfully complete the design. Errata are corrections in published patterns, errors not caught until after the pattern has gone to press and far too many patterns have them. Errata can be a small detail, such as leaving off a fraction on a schematic, or something as major as an incorrect chart or gauge. Be thankful for the internet and the ease with which we can now find these errors in our patterns.
Ruched Tunic in Classic Elite Summer Set
Another example of a Ravelry rescue is when I got 19 balls of Elsebeth Lavold Calm Wool to knit a sweater coat and with such an investment in yarn, I checked to see what other knitters had to say about Phoebe, my Elsebeth Lavold jacket pattern. At the recommended gauge, I had used 3 precious balls and only had 10 inches of the back completed. I contacted a knitter who had completed the project, wondering if I should go up a needle size to conserve yarn. Her reply to me, mentioning how her beautiful sweater had stretched to the point that it was now worn only as a bathrobe, made me reconsider my change in needle size. The internet is abundant with helpful knitterly resources and in this case, saved me from huge frustration.
Knitting away on my latest sweater
After choosing a good pattern, pair it with an appropriate yarn. If the pattern has been written to promote a specific yarn, often all too soon that yarn will be discontinued and we must look for a substitute. A yarn company executive once told me that a good yarn will be in production for 2 - 4 years. After that it is a "great yarn." A yarn with a poor sales record, no matter how lovely, will be discontinued, sometimes with only one year of production. When choosing a substitute yarn, a close match in gauge and fiber content will yield the most similar results to the original design. If a pattern written for sport weight yarn is knit in bulky weight, you will end up with a gargantuan size sweater. A pattern written for gossamer mohair will probably disappoint knit in cotton. Even if the suggested yarn is available, perhaps it is too pricey or there is an allergy issue. If you have little experience in yarn substitution, your local yarn shop can be enormously helpful. The staff should be able to guide you to several good options for the original yarn in the pattern.
A Knitty design in three different yarns
Once you begin knitting, if there are questions about stitches, construction, or techniques, here again the staff from your local yarn shop should be able to help you. Some shops require that the yarn for the project be purchased from them, if they are going to be doling out advice, where others will be happy to help at an hourly rate. Some shops, including ours, see answering a few questions as an opportunity for goodwill with a new customer. (For those needing hand holding throughout the process, Rare Purls offers a First Sweater Workshop, helping the knitter from choosing the pattern to finishing.) If you are fortunate enough to have a local knitting guild, as an educational organization, they also offer help to needy knitters. For patterns on Ravelry, there is usually a pool of knitters who have accomplished the design and would be happy to answer questions on techniques and construction.
Wishing you every success in knitting your first sweater and all that may follow!
Copyright June 2011
Some knitters are seasonal stitchers, knitting only when the weather is cold or when whittling down a holiday gift list. Once the mercury rises, they put their knitting needles aside, in favor of tennis racquets, golf clubs, or snorkels. But as year 'round stitchers can attest, there is an exciting annual event going on at local yarn shops. A variety of deliciously cool yarns, available in a fresh palette of delectable colors are hitting the shelves for spring knitting. Spring and summer knitting is all about casting on fresh, fashionable wardrobe options. Tees, tanks, and lightweight fichus are a refreshing change of pace from the previous season's bulky sweaters, cuddly shrugs, and snuggly throws. This season, yarns are awesome with an abundance of plant fibers, from cotton to viscose. The designs are airy and cool, ranging from comfy casual to sexy evening wear, surely something for everyone.
Of course, silks, linen, and cotton, solo and in blends, are front and center in the spring yarn collections. Rayon, a modern spin on plant fiber, is always popular for lightweight knits. I love its sheen and slickery texture, as well as its easy care and breathable comfort. Bamboo is still the "it" fiber this season and is seen in yarns from fingering to bulky weights. My favorite is Berroco Bonsai, a very shiny and smooth, flat tape yarn with an interesting texture, reminiscent of bamboo itself. Knitting up at worsted weight, Bonsai looks smashing, even in simple stockinette. Though linen yarns are perennial favorites, I like this summery fiber best in blends. Pure linen, until thoroughly washed and worn, can be stiff and scratchy and has the tendency to stretch. Classic Elite has again shown their prowess in blending fibers in Soft Linen and Firefly, two unmistakably linen yarns that bring a friend to the party. From sexy tank tops to classy skirts, these yarns will not disappoint.
Of course, cotton is the bread and butter yarn of warm weather knitting. Cotton knits up so soft and breathable, perfect for everything from summer sweaters to socks. Its reputation for easy care, prompts many knitters to choose cotton yarns, for example Jill Eaton's Cotton Tails, for baby items. Cotton yarns with a healthy helping of wool, such as Cascade Yarns Sierra, Classic Elite Chesapeake, and Elsebeth Lavold Cool Wool, are customer favorites at Rare Purls. The wool guards against cotton's tendency to stretch and adds elasticity to the hand knit fabric. It also reduces the overall weight of the project. The synergistic combination (1 + 1 = 3) of cotton and wool is perfect for season spanning knits. Although last year saw a spike in the price of raw cotton, it is still an economical fiber option, especially as we see the price of wool climb up to 25% this year.
Naturally, accessories are key to spring forward fashion, so this season's designs will include cowls, scarves, and wraps in fresh, spring colors that will add panache to any warm weather wardrobe. Openwork scarves and shawls, whether crafted through dropped wraps or true lace knitting, are always popular projects for summer stitching. This is the one time of year that I see swimsuits, always bikinis, on needles or hooks. As most knit fabric stretches when wet, cotton yarns with a dollop of elastic, such as Cascade Yarns Fixation, are the very best for swimwear.
On Kay's Needles
Firefly, a viscose/linen blend from Classic Elite, is the latest yarn of my dreams. The fabulous feel of linen, along with the shine, and elegant drape of the viscose, make this yarn perfect for lace scarves and shawls, garment projects, and, believe it or not, kitchen curtains (check out CEY's spring 2011 book of home decor projects.)
I am knitting the Firefly Fringed Scarf from Picnic, a booklet of patterns from Classic Elite's 2010 spring/summer collection. Although the charts and written instructions were sufficient for me to knit Cecily Glowik MacDonald's charming design without a problem, there is a clarification on the CEY website that has proved helpful to many knitters on Ravelry. This pattern is rated intermediate and I certainly agree. The stitch count varies almost every row within 2 of the 3 sections and the stitch pattern changes on both even and odd number rows. I have found that an additional stitch marker and bamboo needles have made the knitting more agreeable.
Also on my needles is the Classic Silk Garter Stripe Pullover from Classic Elite. Last year, this pattern caught my eye, an easy season spanning knit in a gauge that works up quickly. I am using a color combo from a kimono design in the CEY booklet. The purple and tangerine stand out fresh against the neutral background, like fruit ripe for plucking. The yarn, Classic Silk, has the look of tussah silk, slightly nubby and matte, perfect for this casual garment. The minimal shaping made this project a very easy knit, TV knitting. It is looking fabulous and I can hardly wait to slip it on with my favorite jeans.
Copyright May 2011
Cardigan design by Zina
In Northeast Metro Atlanta, there is a most remarkable knitter, my friend Zina Rios. She frequently attends various knitting groups in the area and always turns heads with her lightening fast stitching, most always using sock yarn and the tiniest of needles. But her stitching proficiency is not her most impressive talent. Zina is a sweater wizard, knitting pullovers, vests, and cardigans from sock yarn, never using a written pattern. This bears repeating - she never uses a pattern. This cute, petite, Russian woman has such an understanding of fit and shaping, that with a percentage system akin to that of Elizabeth Zimmerman, she turns out unique and interesting garments that never cease to amaze me and a bevy of other local knitters.
Cardigan rear view
On several occasions. I have been so fortunate as to have Zina personally explain her design process in detail. Where she sees it as so simple and easy, I find it simply brilliant. Another of my knitting comrades calls it "terrifying," for she, like most of us, finds comfort in photos, schematics, and printed instructions, when embarking on a new project. But Zina only needs a swatch to be off and running, turning out sweaters and socks at a most prolific rate. Her preference for sweaters is top down and seamless. She incorporates cables and lace for both beauty and function. Zina also enjoys color work, which completes her design tool box.
Vest design by Zina
But truly the most wonderful aspect of our dear friend is her sweet and generous nature. She is always happy to nurture other knitters and is currently working with me on a shawl design, my choice of palette to learn her system of increases for shaping. I listen to her instructions intently, making notes almost as fast as her charmingly accented speech. Where I often rely on trial and error in my design process, Zina has amazing intuition. She maps out the sweater in her head, before casting on even the first stitch. I love that she relies on swatches, a practice I preach daily to my students. She can glean a design from a single swatch - amazing! -and the variety in her projects is endless.
Vest rear view
Recently married to Tony, the love of her life, Zina is happier than ever. I tell you , she glows! She adores her lovely daughters and embraces Tony's children, as well. Zina's outlook is so positive, so cheery, she is a welcome addition to several local knitting groups. Her free spirited approach to hand knit design is the only way she knows. Neither does she write out her many designs, preferring to encourage other knitters to try her patternless method for themselves. "Just choose a yarn and stitch pattern." "Make a swatch!" It is all so easy and solid for this small bundle of knitting magic, where for the rest of us, it requires a leap of faith.
Zina and Tony with her daughters
Although I am still in the inspiration phase of my new Zina style shawl, she has already given me some great guidelines for the fit I am wanting. Rather than work in strict terms like inches or centimeters, she instructs in more flexible terms, telling me to start at my collarbone and to reduce the rate of increasing at the "top of my boobs." This is the secret of her great fitting hand knits; they are custom fit to one person's body, using one particular yarn at a particular gauge. They are not just knit, they are crafted, and I have to say, the whole process still amazes me. Hundreds of sweaters have been knit with the help of the Sweater Wizard DVD, but for true knitting magic, you just have to meet our Zina.
Thank you Melissa for modeling.
Copyright Kay Mather April 2011
Recently, after many months of slow and tedious knitting, I ripped out my biggest flop in 35 years. I had chosen yarn and a stitch pattern for a "thank you" scarf, intended for the landlord of Rare Purls, Mr. Doug Spohn. Using Cascade Yams Venezia Worsted, an elegant blend of merino and silk, the scarf was to be knit in linen stitch, a lovely pattern that utilizes slipped stitches every row. I also chose to cast on the full length of the accessory and knit it in long rows, figuring I would save time with far fewer turns. As Doug is 6'4", I cast on 65 inches. While the slipped stitches created a wonderful texture on both sides of the hand knit fabric, they also made the stitching progress exceedingly slow, reaping fewer inches to rows worked than stockinette. Even on a #9 US needle, the scarf was taking forever, also due to the task of the constantly moving the yarn to the front, then to the back, every single stitch ad nauseum. Add to that, I kept finding myself lapsing into seed stitch, a personal favorite stitch pattern, but certainly an eyesore when it cropped up in the field of smooth linen stitch and extra work to unknit and rework.
As I had showed Doug the progress at one point, I felt I had to stick with the project, despite that I was finding no joy in the knitting. It was a great design, but my execution was flawed in a small section, involving several rows. I didn't catch the error, about midway into the 5" wide scarf, until after the bind off. There it was, about 8 seed stitches, not really a terrible flaw, but it really bugged me. Not only that, but the scarf was very subtle, not dashing or flashy, and it certainly did not look equal to the effort it had required. During the months of stitching, I had to take breaks from this project, as it was both boring me to death and aggravating my hands. I finished several other projects during the time my linen stitch fiasco was on needles.
Soon after binding off, my disappointment in the outcome prompted me to rip out every stitch. In less than ten minutes, my husband and I unraveled the entire project and the lovely merino/silk yarn was wound into a tidy ball, saved for another day. I found a super bulky, gray marl yarn and knit Doug a very simple scarf which ended up looking so much more suitable to the occasion.
Let me introduce you to the new man in my life. Last month, Luke bought me Rocky, a wonderful black toy poodle. Isn't he adorable?!
Copyright 2011 Kay Mather