No seriously, I started knitting when there were fewer choices in fibers, weights, uses…just fewer yarns! And way beck then, I could choose from a variety of synthetic stuff from department stores or good old fashioned wool. It was the fiber of choice for my great-grandmother when she made mittens that she sowed across the countryside like seeds. And it’s still a favorite of mine.
The Bartlett Mill in Harmony Maine has been in operation since 1821 and still uses the last working spinning mule in America. (You can look at a video of it in operation here
Most commercial yarns are spun from combed top on large machines that pull the fiber in such a way as to give it a smooth surface finish. This is called worsted spun. At the Bartlett Mill, they use carded fiber, and the spinning mule pulls the fiber in a back and forth motion that mimics the motion of hand spinning, resulting in a fuzzier surface. This is called woolen spun. The result is a fuzzier, loftier and, warmer yarn.
In an age where everyone is looking for soft, softer, softest, old fashioned woolen yarns are often overlooked as “too scratchy.” But let me tell you what happens to soft yarns; they pill and wear thin in a very short time. They can’t help it, poor darlings. It’s their nature.
A good old fashioned sturdy woolen yarn is a bit uncomfortable if you rub it against the under side of your chin, and I have to admit that I would not wear it next to my skin. But if you are looking for a perfect yarn to make an exterior garment, like a heavy sweater or coat, or if you want your knit wear to last a long long time, or if you just want to rediscover the joy of a springy wool that feels alive in your hands, Bartlett should be your go-to. I knit a sweater for my active 8 year old which he wore and wore and wore. He is now 16 and has long since out grown it, but look at it?
Bartlett Fisherman 2ply is one of the few remaining choices for making traditional Fisherman’s Mittens (Thanks to Robin Hansen for publishing a pattern for the fabulous Chebeague Island Mittens though most of the old wives made them without patterns) and it is ideal for all your felting projects.
When I was 11 years old, my mom was knitting matching sweaters for my dad, my uncle and my two brothers for Christmas. They were beautiful Aran adventures and I was fascinated. Eventually they looked looked like this…
That’s my dad on the left in the traditional off white. My Uncle Mark is on the right in baby blue that brought out all the bluey-green oceanic highlights in his lovely Finn eyes. Those are my brothers, Michael on the right and Matthew on the left in bolder warmer orange and red. They were all thrilled to get their sweaters on Christmas morning. And no one noticed a thing.
See…I had a guilty secret. When Mum was working on Dad’s sweater, I had picked it up out of her basket and was looking at the rope cable on the side of the front panel that goes up to the shoulder. She had finished the armhole decreasing and was about 2 inches from finishing the front. When she saw me turning it around and poking at the yarn, she went wild. In a voice that will ring in the naughty girl corridors of my mind forever, she yelled, “PUT THAT DOWN! You’re going to drop my stitches! Do you have any idea how much work I’ve put into that…” and more in that same tone. Well. I put it down fast enough, and she thought no more about it. But I did.
About an hour later, Mum blithely went out shopping. As soon as I heard her car turn the corner, I was back in the knitting basket. I picked up that beautiful sweater and was poking at it again, trying to figure out how she had done it. When I heard the kitchen door open, I thought Mum must have forgotten something and come back to get it. Knowing she would be very cross indeed if she caught me with her sweater again after expressly telling me to leave it alone, I ditched the thing as quickly as I could and was innocently reading in the corner of the sofa when my brothers careened through the room on their was somewhere else. A narrow escape, and I went back to pick up the sweater.
That was when I saw the disaster. The exact disaster Mum had been afraid of. I had indeed dropped stitches. I had dropped eleven stitches, to be precise. They had run down several rows in the middle of that cable on the right shoulder.
At this point in my life I can acknowledge that we would all have gotten over it. Eventually. Probably. But at that moment my breath caught in my throat. My life flashed before my eyes. At that moment I was certain I was going to die. I was certain that my mother would end my life. Unless…
I’m not ashamed to admit that when my life was on the line, I thought briefly of framing one of my brothers. Trouble was, neither of them had ever shown the least interest in knitting. And I had already been caught messing with that sweater. There was no way Mum would believe the boys had had anything to do with it. My only option to save myself was to put those stitches back the way I had found them and vow to never touch yarn again.
There is a way, in moments of stress, when ones senses can be heightened and the ability to focus on the smallest details can become crystal clear. I had one of those moments. The world fell away and I saw only that off white wool and its serpentine path through the knitted work. Each stitch rose up as a cul de sac in the ongoing road from the cast on row, through the overpasses of the cables, the roundabouts of the honeycomb center panel, the cobbled surfaces of the purl stitch ground and the textured stitches rising like causeways. To this day, I visualize knitted fabric as a kind of intricate road map where everything goes in its proper direction to its destination. When I was able to see it that way, I was able to see how to reconstruct the parts of the path that I had destroyed. Using the tips of the needles, I picked up the stitches where they lay and pulled loops through loops, crossed stitch paths and lifted those columns back onto the needles in the proper order. The adrenaline burned the process into my memory more than any other knitting I have done since.
When all eleven stitches were reconstructed and back on the needles I was able to let my breath out and time seemed to flow around me again. I gave a few gentle tugs to even out the tension and carefully put the sweater back in the basket. I was again reading in the sofa corner when Mum arrived back home with a car load of groceries. In the next few hours, I was on tenter hooks waiting to see if she would be able to see the patch job. All through dinner and evening TV I was waiting for some repercussion. As I went to bed I was especially nervous; after we kids were in bed was prime knitting time for Mum. I went to sleep waiting for a shriek of discovery that never came.
On Christmas morning when Dad, Uncle Mark, Michael and Matthew tried on their new sweaters and posed for the picture above, I almost couldn’t watch for fear that some one would be able to tell what I had done. But, nope. As you can see, they are smilingly oblivious. And I bet you can’t see any mistake either.
About 30 years later, I was at Mum and Dad’s for Christmas again. I was knitting in the kitchen while Mum did something with the grandkids in the living room, and my sister asked my how I learned to pick up dropped stitches. As I finished telling her my story, I heard my mothers voice from the living room saying, “I TOLD YOU TO LEAVE THAT SWEATER ALONE!” This time, I was pretty sure she was not going to kill me. The statute of limitations has run out; that sweater is long gone. Besides, necessity is the mother of invention and that is how I learned to pick up dropped stitches…and cross cables, and much, much, more knitting arcana. So I laughed at her, and she admitted that she had never noticed, so I must have done a bang up job of it.
I’ve never again been afraid of knitting. I am the boss of my knitting thanks to my mother…sort of.
This is the Tulip Pattern from Barbara Walker’s A Treasury of Knitting Patterns.For those of you who are familiar with the collection, that’s the blue one or the first one. It’s on page 25 and is worked as follows:
Over a multiple of 3
Rows 1 and 3 (RS) – Knit
Rows 2 and 4 (WS) – Purl
Rows 5 and 7 – K1, * p1, k2; rep from *, end p1, k1.
Rows 6 and 8 – P1, *k1, ps; rep from *, end k1, p1.
Rows 9 and 11 – *P2, k1; rep from *.
Rows 10 and 12 – *P1, k2; rep from *.
And it looks like this:
It’s not super stretchy so it won’t nip in like straight up ribbing does, but has a combination of knit and purl stitches that makes it lie flat. It gives a bit of textural interest to an otherwise plain stockinette fabric, or is subtle enough not to draw too much attention on something more complex. It could also be used as an all over fabric. The example you’re looking at is still on the needles, but I’m thinking it will flatten out a bit with washing and blocking. All in all, a sweet edge treatment.