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.