Measure Twice, Knit Once

The boiled wool sweater is coming along and it’s time for me to clue you all in on the next step in our process.  You remember we did our swatches, measured them for stitch and row gauge, fulled (not felted) them and measured again, right?  It looked like this?IMG_1581

All that is essential information, and you could start casting on right now if you wanted to.  But I’m going to suggest that knowing what size sweater you plan to make is the most important part.  If you’re going on a road trip, you need a map.  And your trip will be better, more trouble free, if your map is highly detailed and accurate, right?  It’s also true for knitting.  Highly detailed and accurate measurements will be the road map for our sweater.

Start with one sweater recipient.  In our case, we’ll use Daniel as a guinea pig.



This is Daniel.  He has graciously agreed to be measured, even thought the sweater is not for him, so you can see how it is done.

First and foremost, you want to know how big around the chest of  your sweater should be.  For both men and women, this number will be the baseline for all the other numbers.



Have your subject raise his arms and find the widest part of the chest (or bust, in the case of a woman.)



Then have them drop their arms and relax.  The chest will be stretched up and down, and therefore smaller when the arms are raised, and you want the measurement to be as wide as it’s going to get.  So, ams down and relaxed, please.



Make sure your measuring tape is parallel with the floor.  If it dips down in the back, or droops on one side, or any other distortion, you will be adding inches you don’t need.



Have your subject breathe normally.  No need to take deep breaths or hold anything in or out.  We’re going to build in the proper ease later.  The measuring tape should be about as tight as a form fitting undershirt.  Don’t pull it until it cuts into the flesh, and don’t let it droop in loose festoons around your subject’s body.  With all that in mind, bring the end of the tape to where it overlaps  and write down what it says.  Easy, peasy, lemon squeezy.  This measurement is going to be what we’re going to call 100%.




Now that we know how wide to make our sweater, we need to know how long to make it.  We want to know two numbers associated with length.  First over all length.  measure this from the nape of the neck to where you want to hem to fall.



Then measure from the underarm to the same hem length.  You don’t want to put the end of your measuring tape  all the way up into your subject’s pit.  Start from where you or your subject believe a comfortable arm hole on a comfortable sweater would begin and go down from there.

Now that you know the general coordinates on your road sweater road map, length and width, you’ll need a couple more details to make the sweater of your dreams.



The cross back measurement goes from sleeve hole to sleeve hole and helps determine how much to decrease at the armholes.  Measure from where a sleeve hole would be to where a sleeve hole would be.  Or…if you can imagine drawing line from the crease between the upper arm and the back straight up to the shoulder on each side, measure between these imaginary lines.



You also want to know how long to make the sleeves.  For this you can take two measurement, though you may not actually need both.  First measure from the middle of the back, out across the lower part of the shoulder, down the gently bent are, around the elbow and on down to the wrist.  If you’ve ever looked at men’s dress shirts, you will have noticed that they are sized with two numbers.  They might have tags that read “15 1/2 – 33″  or “16 – 35.”  The first number is the neck circumference, and the second is this center back to wrist measurement.  It can help make sure that, in comparison with the actual sleeve length, the back is not too big…in which case the shoulders will droop…nor to small…in which case the seams will pull and, possible tear.  Since most boiled wool sweaters are going to be drop shoulder, we may not use this measurement.  Though, if something goes wrong, it can help us figure out if we’ve botched the back or the sleeve.



For our purposes, measuring from the under arm to the wrist is probably a more useful number.  Again, you don’t want to jam the thing up into your subject’s pit.  Just a comfortable in between place where a comfortable sleeve would fall.

And you wrote all that down, right?  Now, go do it all again and write it won again.  In carpentry there is a saying; “Measure twice.  Cut once.”  In carpentry, once you cut the board you can’t put it back together so you should be sure you are being precise before you actually take the saw to anything.  In knitting we can almost always take some thing back and re-work it.  But do we really want to?  Measure twice; knit once.

When you have everything properly measured and correctly recorded.  We’ll begin calculating how many stitches to cast on and how long to knit.  Tune in next time!

Did you get all that?

Once upon a time, knitting was something of an oral tradition.  You learned from your mother or grandmother.  Or, if you took it up as a profession, maybe from your guild master.  And there was no such thing as a pattern.  Let me say that again.  There was no such thing as a pattern.  You learned the basics, then you freestyled.  Mostly, you made it all up as you went along.  If you saw something you wanted to duplicate exactly, you either figured it out on your own, or you went to the person who made it and asked how it was done.

The history experts tell us that knitting was invented…probably by men, probably in the middle east…a little over a thousand years ago.  The earliest known written patterns didn’t come along until more than 500 years later.  Even then, the instructions were not anywhere near what we think of as a pattern.  Look at this lovely things from Godey’s Ladies Book from mid 1800’s.  Can you figure out what they’re talking about?


I had a first class lecture on the evolution of pattern writing and how you can learn so much from reading contemporary books and magazines.  But WordPress ate it.  It was a little convoluted and hectoring anyway.  So I think I will just content myself..and hopefully you…by giving you a few more “patterns” from Godey’s and seeing what you make of them.


Princess Royal would be one of Victoria’s daughters.  Wonder if her mother or her nanny knit if for her.


It’s not you; this one is incomplete.  The rest explains how to drop stitches in the cast off and pull them back to the cast on.  Kins of like the Princess Royal scarf.  It make s a kin of cheaters lace.  In the shop we call it The Surprise Scarf.



This one doesn’t even have a picture to help you out.  Flying blind?  Apparently no problem for those mid-19th century gals.

I think I might actually try one of these to see if I am as clever as I think I am about figuring this stuff out.  Want to join me?

It’s not a pattern; it’s a process

I really wish I could just read a pattern…or write one for that matter…for a boiled wool sweater.  But this is where the rubber hits the road with gauge, both of the stitch and row varieties.  You really do have to start with swatching.  And I don’t mean a wimpy little 3 inch dealy.  You want a good big 8-10 inch square whopper.  I started by casting on 60 stitches.  I gave it a good garter border all around, then knit until it was square.  I actually knit two of them so we can compare them as we get further along.IMG_1568

Then we need to know how many stitches per inch.  That sounds like a simple thing, and it is…sort of.  It has been said by many a sad knitter that swatches lie.  Like a good interrogator, I make them repeat their story over and over looking for any inconsistency that might give me a clue about when my swatch is lying and when it is telling the truth.  When I measure my gauge, I count the stitches per four inches, the stitches per two inches, and the stitches per inch.  Then I do the division.  I do this at three or four different places in the middle of my really big swatch.  If I’m coming up with a consistent number, I feel reasonably confident that my swatch is telling the truth.



In my case, I came up, pretty consistently, with 5 stitches and 6 rows per inch.  Then I measured the over all dimensions of the stockinette portion of my swatch.  Why the stockinette section?  Because garter and stockinette have different gauge, and will shrink differently.  I’ll be knitting my sweater in stockinette so it is the stockinette I want to focus on.  My swatches measured 10 inches wide by 9.25 inches tall.   Make a note of these numbers.  You’re going to need them more than once as you figure things out.

After you’ve precisely measured your stitch and row gauge, it’s time to shrink your swatch.  I did mine by hand, though you can throw it in a top load washer with a bath towel if you prefer.



A little hot water, some soap and lots and lots of agitation.


You actually want to be kind of rough with it.  Swish it around in the water, squeeze it, knead it like bread dough.  When the water starts to get cold, add more hot and keep going.


You want to aim for agitating it until it has gotten as small as it is ever going to get, and you can’t readily see individual stitches or rows any more.

When you’ve achieved maximum shrinkage, measure the stockinette portion of your swatch and recalculate your stitch and row gauges.  Since you won’t be able to see your individual stitches or rows, you’ll have to do this by simple division.  Measure the stockinette portion of your swatch, and divide by the original stitch and row counts of the stockinette portion of your swatch.



Make note of these new gauge numbers.  Then, just for fun, calculate the percentage of shrinkage.  In my case 9 inches wide by 7.5 inches tall, which means 10% shrinkage side to side and 19% shrinkage top to bottom.

Once you have all these numbers swimming in your head, go take a nap.  You’ve earned it.  We’ll talk about casting on next time.

When you really think about it…

Is there a knitter alive who does not owe a huge debt of gratitude to Barbara Walker?  Her body of work spans half a century.  Her stitch dictionaries are some of my most precious design tools.  Her innovative thinking rivals Elizabeth Zimmerman’s.  She created the mosaic technique of color work that only uses one color per row.  She pioneered the resurgence of top-down knitting.  She unvented the ssk! She is a living legend and a Goddess in the knitting universe.  And she still has so much to teach us.

So we should not be quick to turn our faces away from her designs, right?  But when was the last time you looked at a garment she designed?  Let’s parse today’s Fabulous of Gawdawful offering.

Pant Dress


I know your first impulse is going to be, “not in a million years,”  but wait a minute.  Let’s start at the bottom.  I admit knitted pants are trying to most figure types.  The way they cling.  The way they bag.  The way they get pill-ie and worn across the bum.  Not so lovely.  But look at this beautiful stitch work.

Pant Dress

Now use your imagination.  Boot toppers?  Leg warmers?  Leggings?  Hmm.  Not so terrible after all.  Even the colorway works better if there is a little less of it and it’s applied to a contemporary style accessory.

And the top?  Forget the hair style and matching reticule.  Just look at the beautiful stitching.

Pant Dress


Love the updated application of traditional Scandinavian colorwork across the shoulder and upper sleeve.  Love the scaled red and gold body.  Again, use your imagination.  What if it were a tiny bit longer?  Would you wear it with jeans?  Or what if it were a tiny bit longer, with leggings, or tights and leg warmers?  Probably.

Pant Dress


And I have to say, I really love the modified set in 3/4 length sleeve.

Everyone uses the stitch dictionaries as templates for creative design.  Could we use the original patterns in the same way?

DIY to the end

I really love the custom labels you can put on your finished items.  It’s like tying a bow on a package or signing a painting; such a satisfying moment.  But I have been uninspired by the designs I’ve seen lately.  And they don’t always have all the information I want on them.  What’s a knitter to do?  I am the boss of my knitting and I know I can be the boss of my labels and make them exactly how I want them.  Really.  I know I can.  I just don’t know how, yet.

Well, I did what I usually do.  I Google-ed “diy garment labels” and, oh, my lovelies, did I get some great ideas.  It’s a lot simpler than I thought it would be.  From carving my own custom stamp out of an eraser to using printable t-shirt transfer paper to printing directly onto fabric, it even sounds like fun.

Here’s a list of my favorite tutorial sites:

My favorite method turned out to be the butcher paper/print directly to fabric method.  It was easy and Liz and I had a great time watching them come off the printer.



Design your label on whatever software you have on your computer.  I used Pages on my MacBook.


Here’s me ironing my freezer paper to my muslin.



Trim the fused freezer paper and muslin to 8.5 x 11.



Put your fused freezer paper and muslin in the printer.



And print.



Cut out your labels.  I like the ones that fold in half with the care instructions on the reverse side.



Sew onto your finished project.  And, voila!  Very quick.  Very easy.  Very fun.  Very satisfying!



Old Wives mostly got it right.

If you’ve been hanging around the shop recently, you know that Liz and I are “racing” to finish our dueling sweaters.  It started about 6 months ago when a young sternman came into the shop with a pair of neoprene wristers in his hand and a gleam of hope in his eye.  (For those of you who don’t know what a sternman is, he is the second working man on a lobster boat.  His position is toward the stern of the boat…hence the name.)  This particular sternman had a sweater he loved but it had some flaws and it was wearing out.  Sternmen get wet while they work and their sleeves catch on the wire of the traps and other things.  In Maine, the ocean water fluctuates between about 45 and 55 degrees Farenheit.  That, my lovelies, is cold.  And on a brisk mid-winter day, when the wind is whipping and the temperatures plunge, wet cuffs can be awfully unpleasant.


We all know the fiber your clothing is made from is important to over all comfort.  Any maritimer will tell you, cotton is a deadly no-no.  Polar fleece can block wind and keep you toasty, but loses all its effectiveness if it gets even a little damp.  Divers will tell you that neoprene will keep you warm, and they are right up to a point.  Thinsulate?  Maybe, but again wet is an issue.  Our sternman was hoping we could make him a new sweater and attach neoprene wristers to the sleeves in an attempt to keep the wet out…in the hopes of keeping dry and warm.  What to do; what to do?


Now I can hear some of you shouting from the ether because you already know the answer.  For those of you who don’t already know, wool has a wonderful property; it retains heat even when it gets wet.  Yup.  There’s a really good reason all those Irish and Scottish and Scandinavian folks developed their various sweaters and shawls and mittens and socks.  They live in cold damp climates with maritime traditions and they needed ways to stay warm even if they couldn’t stay dry.  For hundreds of years, long before the invention of polar fleece, neoprene and Thinsulate, those folks relied on wool.


They developed techniques and traditions of using wool that incorporated making it thicker, too.  Stranded color work, heavy cables and…fulling.  What’s fulling, you ask?  These days we call it felting, but they are technically two different things.  Felting is when you use unspun fleece and apply moisture and agitation.  Fulling is what you do after you spin and knit wool.  All of these methods make the worked wool thicker, more wind and moisture resistant, and more hard wearing.  Sounds perfect for a working stern man, right?


After Liz started working on a traditional boiled wool sweater for our stern man, I got in touch with Captain John of the J&E Riggin.  Low and behold, he has the same criteria for the perfect sweater.  Wind and moisture resistant, warm and hard wearing.  So…Liz and I are knitting dueling sweaters.


Old Wives may tell tales and you might be tempted to discount what they had to say, but they often had good reasons for doing things the way they did.  And we’re taking their advice.  Stay tuned, and we’ll tell you how to do it, too.


One from the vaults.

Everything old is new again…sort of. I’ve been a knitter and a crocheter for most of my life. I’m the daughter of a life long knitter and crocheter. Some of my fondest childhood memories of the fiber arts world were the arrivals of the magazines. My mum went grocery shopping every two weeks and, while my siblings flocked like seagulls around the peanut butter to see who would be the first to put a finger track through the virgin smoothness of a freshly opened tub, I would make a dive for the knitting magazines that periodically graced our shopping bags. The hours I spent pouring over the designs and trying to figure out which sweaters I would ask Mum to make for me…or, later, which ones I wanted to make myself.

To this day, I don’t have subscriptions. I love the hunt and the moment of serendipity when I run across a tried and true favorite, or discover a new title. Interweave and VOGUE probably wish I would just go ahead and subscribe, but then the joy of pulling a fresh copy out of a shopping bag would be lost.

And I am nostalgic enough to have saved many of them. My mother’s hand written notes or hash mark in the margins where she modified a pattern or was counting rows are part of my knitting legacy. Like a scrap book, they make my past so immediate. There’s no way I’ll part with them. I’m also nostalgic enough to pick up back issues and genuine antiques when I run across them. I have boxes and boxes of old McCall’s and 101 Sweaters Workbasket from the 1950’s onward.

You see, I owe a debt of gratitude not only to my mum for teaching me the stitches, but also to the stable designers whose name I never knew and the editors who kept putting out the information I craved.  It was in the pages of these magazines that I learned to be a knitter. It was there I learned my psso from my k2tog. It was there I learned my sleeve length to blouse size ratios. It was there I developed my sense of knitwear fashion…and color…and fit…and proportion…and the passage of time.

Let me share with you something fabulous…




Remember the 80’s?  I know you’re tempted to roll your eyes and mutter something about big hair and awful color blocking, or the decade long obsession with Victorian florals.  Or maybe you’re a hipster with a nostalgic eye for the retro statement of dolman sleeves.  Okay, I admit all of it.  But there are a few other things in these pages.  Look at this beauty.IMG_1617

I know, I know.  No one is ever going to put me a mock turtle neck again, either.  I have no real neck to speak of and the mock turtle line just makes me look like Uncle Fester.  And I gave up shoulder pads a long time ago.  And a great sweater should never stop at the natural waist.  And the gathered sleeve caps; don’t even get me started on the gathered sleeve caps.  But here’s the deal.  Once you’ve learned the building blocks of great design and how to manipulate them modifying this pattern for an updated fit is quick and easy.  And all that’s good about this pattern is still there for you to use.  The lace work is very pretty.  The proportion of vertical stripes to graceful arches is eye catching and flattering.  If you’re looking for a spring/fall sweater or something to layer under a blazer for business wear, you could go farther and fare worse.  It only takes a little reworking.  Shorter sleeve cap and deeper armhole, scoop neck, longer waist.  Can you see it?

white lace redux

A little imagination, a good handle on the building blocks and a little time and this gem gets a new lease on life.  And it was in the pages of this magazine and ones like it that I learned the imagination, the building block and how to manipulate them.  Because of them, I’m the boss of my knitting and I can do what I want.  The next time you see an old magazine at a yard sale or in a book shop, take a minute to see what’s inside.  Or if you ask at OTR, I’ll show you some of my collection and we can parse it together.  There’s gold in them thar pages…and everything old can be new again.