Friday, September 24, 2010

Going Down The Road Counting Bad

Sshhhh…. I'm going to let you in on a secret.

Although knitting lace is an exercise in anality, where the stitch count ultimately must be correct, this does not mean that you must perform each stitch cluster perfectly and, if you goof, you must pick or rip back to correct your error.

Instead, think of driving down a straight, flat county road in the Midwest. It may appear that you could just set the cruise control, let go of the steering wheel and stay on the road. But, of course, you can't — there are imperfections in the road surface and grade, your car's alignment, and the "straight" road isn't really ruler straight. All these imperfections conspire to throw your car a little to the right, a little to the left, and anywhere but straight down the line.

So while you drive down that "perfectly straight" road you constantly make small adjustments to the car's trajectory, adjustments so small that anyone observing your moving vehicle would perceive it as going straight.

Thus is it with knitting lace. As you knit along thousands of stitches, with hundreds of small elements of increases and decreases, you goof. You miss a decrease and end up with an extra stitch; you forget to pass the slipped stitch over a S1K1PSSO and, again, there's an extra stitch; you miss a y/o, or put in an extra decrease and your stitch count is too low. You can even have the correct stitch count, but the stitches are in the wrong place because you put a y/o before a decrease rather than after.

And, of course, you may simply have counted wrong at one point or another — gawd knows just how easy it is to lose one's place in counting a line of two or three dozen stitches, especially when one is interrupted by kids, cats, husbands, telephones and doorbells.

Yes, the stitch count must ultimately be correct but, even more importantly, the stitches must be in the right place so the pattern elements line up.

In the above chart section, it's easy to see the elements which are in straight line; charts are theoretically perfect (more on that later). The knit section looks like this:

When the piece has been stretched and blocked, there will be a straight line of stitches with no decreases running through the center.

My solution to going down the road counting bad is to not try to count too early — the more stitches there are, the less likely you are to count correctly and, if the stitch count is off, the less likely you are to put a correcting increase or decrease in the right place. Plus, you'll drive yourself nuts and waste time fanatically counting, counting and counting again -- wait until you're closer to needing a correct stitch count between elements, at the beginning or the end of a motif.

On the other hand, it's important to have enough stitches and rows to make the correcting increases or decreases as unobtrusively as possible: if you end up with only two stitches where you'll need five when placing a new element it's much easier to add one stitch over each of three rows, than trying to turn two stitches into five within a single row.

And always remember the pattern, not the stitch count, rules — put the elements in their proper place and if that means increasing two stitches on one side of the element, and decreasing one on the other side, do it that way.

Then there are those instances where you're fucked up within an element — and when you go to knit the next row nothing is where it's supposed to be, you've a decrease where there should be a y/o, a y/o where there should be a plain stitch — you know, where it's just not right.

Importantly, understand that it may be your perception, not a mistake — look again at the chart for the previous row, and for the current row, and check that you're interpreting the chart correctly. If it still all seems wrong, put your knitting aside: when you're fucking up all over to hell and back, most likely it's because you are tired and should put the damned thing away until the next day — or at least for a couple of hours

In the long run you lose no time. Because half the time it's not that you've fucked up, it's just that you lose track of where you are and think you fucked up, and in trying to correct the nonexistent fuck ups you will create a fuck up.

But, if you do end up with a true fuck up, the easiest option — in my opinion, the best option — is to plow ahead, figure out where the elements should be for the next row, and get the stitches in that order through brute force. Trying to drop a few stitches down a row to correct the error almost invariably leads to disaster — you likely won't be able to correct a multi-stitch error in any event, and make a bigger mess in the end. This photo shows what happened when I missed catching a single stitch when trying to pick back and correct an error:

Yes, that one stitch's connections to the various decreases and increases and y/o's in the previous rows quickly multiplied into seven loose stitches two rows down.

A forced alignment over a few stitches in one row will almost surely be invisible to anyone not searching for it. Consider an expressionist painting — while from a distance it makes a coherent image, close up it appears as a jumble of paint splotches. Knit lace is the same — from a distance it gives an impression of perfect precision, but within it's such a massive number of stitches and elements, errors become invisible among the entirety, as long as the elements end up correctly in line.

Next time: reading charts — including discovering where the chart is in error.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Double Fuck Up

It's a fact of lace knitting: sometimes you fuck up. And when you do, you have to figure out how to correct your error — whether to pull it out and start over, or adjust and carry on.

But sometimes — rarely, I'll admit — the fuck up can make everything turn out as it should have been, but not as you had planned.

* * *

When you've been knitting as long as I have, you learn there are some things that you absolutely despise doing, so you figure out ways to not have to do it.

I hate sewing together sweaters — so I adapt patterns to knit in the round.

I hate picking up stitches — so I'll do neck and armhole shaping with short rows instead of binding off, which leaves the stitches live.

With the Princess Shawl, the instructions read as follows:

Knit the edging for 85 points. Leave the final stitches on a thread for picking up again later to work the top edging strip. Now, pick up 10 stitches per point (850 stitches) plus 15 extra evenly picked up along the edge = 865 stitches.

Now, one of the reasons I hate picking up stitches is that phrase "evenly" — I'm never entirely confident that I am picking up evenly. The very thought of picking up 865 stitches is so totally mind-bogglingly tedious — the type of thing where, if I had to do it that way, I'd never even start the project. That's even more so when, because of the gauge at which I'm knitting, I have to add 20% to the pattern — doing 13 repeats of the 78 stitch border pattern instead of 11 — which would entail picking up 1,021 stitches.

Sharon Miller points out, in her 2007 update to the pattern, that one can increase the pick-up rate per point, so one doesn't have to knit as many pattern repeats — that by picking up 14 stitches per point, one would only have to knit 62 pattern repeats to arrive at shouting distance of the 865 stitch target. Then again, I have to wonder why the fuck she would originally have instructed a pick-up rate of 10 per point over 85 points, with an extra 15 stitches spread out, when it's much simpler to just knit one more goddamned point, sticking to the 10 stitches per point, and leaving only 5 extra stitches to sprinkle through the pickup.

In any event, there was no fucking way I was going to pick up 865, or 1,021, stitches across 10 feet of lace edging. Instead, I used one of my other tricks: at the inside edge of each odd-numbered pattern row, I cast on an extra stitch, slipping it onto a coiless safety pin. Not only did I avoid picking up stitches after the fact, by using a new pin at the start of each pattern repeat, it also acted as a row counter, keeping track of exactly where I was in the 20 row pattern repeat, and automatically generated a 10 stitch per inch "pick up" rate.

To keep track of exactly how many repeats I had completed, I placed stitch markers on every tenth safety pin — one marker on the tenth pin, two on the twentieth pin, up to the 80th pin. I had figured that with 85 points, I could use a 12 stitch per point pickup rate, then add one to get to the required 1,021 stitches.

It was a long haul knitting the edging — almost two months, what with work, family and gardening interruptions, but, finally, I was at the 84th repeat. And, because knitting lace is an exercise in anality, where one needs to make sure that one's count is correct, I went back and re-counted how many pins worth of stitches I had.

WTF? When I went back and counted, I was fucking 15 repeats off. Sigh… I didn't remember doing it, but I apparently had marked every fifth, instead of every tenth, repeat, at the beginning of the project.

So I took a deep breath, girded my loins, and started knitting again, cursing my middle-aged forgetfulness. Except…

When I got to repeat 84 (again), I remembered I hadn't forgotten that I had marked every fifth, rather than every tenth repeat.

I remembered that I had forgotten that, concerned that I'd run out of coiless safety pins before I could get to the crafts store to buy more, I'd put two repeats — twenty stitches — on some of the early safety pins, and that I had been on repeat 84 when I counted the first time and I now was at repeat number 99 — not 84.

OK — time to recalculate again. I could stop at 99, which would mean 10 stitches per point with 30 extra stitches spread through the edge.

Or I could do the simplest, and most correct, calculation of all — knit another 3 repeats, for a total of 102, and use the pickup rate of 10 stitches per repeat, with only one extra to add in.

So that's how the double-fuck up ended up turning out to be exactly right.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Tension, tension

As I've attempted to lure others into "knitting small" (or, as the Polish Princess calls it, "jock knitting") -- knitting lace on 000 (1.5 mm) needles with thread -- many people assume that they "can't" do it because they "can't" handle needles that small, "can't" see stitches that small, or "can't" tension thread that fine.

Balderdash! It's just a matter of what one is accustomed to -- and it is amazing just how quickly 000 needles become "normal".

If you can sew on a button, you can knit on 000 needles -- which are larger than a sewing needle -- using the very same thread with which you would sew on that button (at least if you sew with cotton thread). If, like me, you have middle-aged eyes, use whatever level of reading glasses you would need to sew on a button and you'll be just fine.

I will admit that knitting with 6/0 (.75 mm) needles is more difficult, as by that point the needles are flexible and wire like; you'll need thread finer than sewing thread and it is hard to see what you are doing, but a magnifying light takes care of that problem; and you do need to adapt decrease techniques such that one is only handling one stitch at a time (relying on slipping stitches over from either the left or right depending on the desired decrease) -- really, going to this size is more a matter of "yes I fucking can do this", and a display of virtuosity than pure enjoyment. But I have done it with Kinzel's Daffodil; and I will do it again with Niebling's Lyra.

But, back to the main topic (and I do have a tendency to make a lot of side excursions, as one can glean from all the parentheticals and emdashes and elipses -- it's just how my mind works) of keeping tension.

It's just like using a sewing machine (and I'm back at sewing metaphors which is odd as I really, really, really dislike sewing -- well, except playing with my Singer treadle machine is kinda fun).

If you're getting incorrect tension on your sewing machine, the first thing to check is did you miss one of the thread-through spots? Or, conversely, did you pass the thread over a machine part where it shouldn't be?

Tensioning yarn when knitting is just the same: how much tension you have depends on how many places the yarn has to pass through/over -- the more friction spots, the more tension. Smaller yarn needs more tension applied to it than a thick yarn, so smaller yarn needs to wind through more places.

I knit Continental style. If I'm knitting something with a sport weight yarn, the yarn goes over my little finger, under the ring and middle finger, then over the index finger.

When knitting with cotton sewing thread, I wrap the thread around my little finger once or twice, then wrap the thread around my ring finger, before going under the middle finger and over my index finger. It can get problematic, though, as sometimes my fingers will get all tangled up in the thread just when I need to quickly drop my knitting and prevent some household disaster or another from happening (and there almost always is the potential for some household disaster or another).

The gossamer cashmere/silk yarn I'm using for the Princess Shawl requires even more tensioning and has a tendency to wrap around itself, so I'm using yet another trick: weighing the yarn down with coiless safety pins (you can find them in the jewelry making section of a good crafts store).

Make sure there's a gap between where you are sitting, and where you've put your yarn. Then just hang two, three or however many safety pins it takes on the yarn, and allow them to hang in the gap between you and the yarn. The advantage to this method is that, as well as providing consistent tension on the yarn (and not ending up with your fingers entangled by yarn running over-under-around-and-through them), it also keeps the yarn from twisting back on itself and knotting. A real win-win.

Of course if one has cats like the ever-helpful and charming Caligula (seen here "guarding" the tools of my craft), one will need to watch out for a fascination with the swinging safety pins. So far, though, that hasn't been a major problem.

[UPDATE] Even better: I've found that my lace needle gauge makes a wonderful weight -- it's just right for the cashmere/silk; I don't have to wind the yarn around my fingers at all!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Setting Goals

I'm currently knitting on Heirloom Knits'Princess Shawl. I started in early June, and am nearing the end of Stage One: I'm at 78 of 85 repeats of the lace border that surrounds it all.

When people see my lace knitting, the biggest question seems to be "how long does it take to knit something like that?"

A fucking long time, that's how long. For the mountable round lace pieces of 100 or more rounds and depending on the complexity of the pattern, the knitting process can take 150 to 500 hours. During the winter months I can pull one off in one to two months. During gardening season, or if I'm putting in a lot of extra hours at work for one or another reason, those hours are spread over a longer period and progress is slowed.

Many people cannot imagine spending more than a few weeks on any knitting project. My view is what's the hurry -- you get out of a project what you put into it. What does it matter if I knit one piece, or four, in the same four month period?

One trick to this, though, is to consistently accomplish something. Barring illness or emergencies, I make sure to knit at least a little every day -- and set mini-goals for myself. On the Princess edging, my goal has been 3 pattern repeats a day. Sometimes I've only made 1; other days I've done 4 or 5 (those are really dull days at work). And some days -- like today -- there are so many distractions I have a hard time finishing off one.

I've learned over the years that if you put something aside for more than a couple of days, it becomes too easy to never pick it up again, or at least not until after a long delay.

So I plug along, consisting knitting at least a little, until the project is through.

For the Princess, it likely will take about a year to get it done. But hey -- what else would I have been doing?

Monday, June 21, 2010

A Pox On Jargon

Please note: I will never, ever describe the color of anything as a "colorway".

Yee gawds, save me from unnecessary jargon.

I do not know when it became hip to describe one's yarn choice as a "colorway" -- perhaps when knitting became hip (again; is this the 2nd or 3rd time in my life?).

I hate jargon; it is silly and exclusionary.

If we love our craft, we should make it as accessible as possible, including the ways in which we talk and write about it.

Besides, it would truly be teh stoopid to say I knit Niebling patterns with "cotton sewing thread in a white colorway".

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Areas Of My Anality

This is the story of a woman whose standard size knitting needle is a 000, and who habitually knits with cotton sewing thread.

I learned how to knit when I was 10 or so. I had already been exposed to sewing, embroidery, crochet and quilting — I knew how to do them, but none of those handcrafts really grabbed me, to where I knew I wanted to devote hours and hours to total mastery.

Knitting was different. My mother was teaching herself to knit, and I picked up one of her books, figured out how to cast on, and I was off and running. Until I graduated from high school, I was rarely without a knitting project on my needles — usually baby sweaters or booties for the nieces and nephews that had started arriving about the same time I learned to knit.

I stopped knitting for several years, having started to devote myself to drinking. I picked it up again when I sobered up in my mid-20s. It was like coming home to an old friend — but soon, I became bored with just knitting sweaters and afghans and the like.

Borrriiiiiing. But, by the early 1990s, hand spinning had a resurgence in the United States; I bought my first spinning wheel, a used Louet, for $100 (a lot of money for me in those days!) at a fiber fair. I struggled to learn the coordination between treadling and drawing during the Clarence Thomas hearings, never quite sure if I wanted to throw the bobbin at the teevee because of my frustration at the hearings, or my frustration at my inability to produce a useable yarn.

Learning to spin was like learning to ride a bike or drive a stick shift: eventually something "clicked", and I could treadle and draw and had the control to produce whatever type of yarn I wanted to. It's been many, many years since I've done any spinning — it takes a lot of space and goodly blocks of un-interrupted time, such that life with children and cats makes spinning difficult. I do, however, have a trunk full of unspun fibers, and four wheels awaiting my eventual attention.

When I was pregnant with Elder Son, I started knitting again — back to baby sweaters and booties! One day, when I was at the yarn store, I happened upon The Second Book of Modern Lace Knitting by Marianne Kinzel.

Oooooh. I just had to know how to do that! I've knit many of the patterns in both the First and Second Books of Modern Lace Knitting — along with collecting every publication I've come across over the years. In 1996 I completed the "Tudor Rose" pattern on size 000 (3/0) needles, using cotton sewing thread (that's size 50 thread). It's framed and hanging over the mantel in the living room. I've also done the "Daffodil" pattern on size 000000 (6/0) needles, using size 100 thread (see above).

Now, I am not, over all, an extremely anal person: my filing system is "piles of paper until I get around to putting them away"; housework... bleh. My "style" of garden design is "oooh, what an interesting plant, now where can I possibly stuff it".

But I do have my areas of analness. Like time: I am totally anal about timeliness. And at work, I'm absolutely adamant about the need to properly format documents (I'm a legal secretary).

And lace knitting — an exercise in absolute anality. To have it work, one must count, count, and count again — the correct number of stitches, in the correct order, must be maintained.

I hadn't done any lace knitting for 5 years or so — until I saw some German knitting magazines on ebay, touting the lace patterns of Herbert Niebling.

OMFG WTF! The designs were so outrageously good I told the Mister I'd be dropping some big bucks to buy several of the magazines; the designs are highly prized by lace knitters, and few are available outside of the German publications. There is one book in English of his patterns, and the biography portion reads:

[Niebling] said about himself, "As the composer writes down he notes that he hears, in the same way I write down the stitches that I see." Herbert Niebling was born in 1905 in Holstein and was already knitting his own socks as a six year old. Knitting and knitting patterns cast their spell over his entire life. When he died in 1966 in Frieburg he had created thousands of designs for knitted lace over the course of his forty year career and had knitted many tablecloths himself.
So, I bought several German magazines, and ordered Lyra from Lacis. Since late December 2009 I’ve finished 2 Niebling patterns — Lyra and Goldregen — and I’ve started a third, one of the patterns from The Knitted Lace Designs of Herbert Niebling.

Alas, I didn’t find Lyra to be that difficult to knit; Goldregen had some interesting-to-execute stitches (although I made changes in knitting similar stitch combinations on the subsequent Niebling), but really, conceptually wasn’t that difficult.

When dealing with challenges which require anality, I find techniques which minimize the possibilities of going off-track. With Nieblings, using an abundance of stitch markers to map out each motif in each section (with Goldregen I often had a dozen markers in each section), it became very easy to track just where I was, and what I should be knitting.

So I needed to find a new challenge, and I have: I’ve embarked upon knitting the Princess Shawl from Heirloom Knits, which I’m executing in pale gray cashmere/silk.

I will return to Nieblings — I can use his designs as a break from the Princess Shawl. And I am finding the every-row-pattern of knit lace, as opposed to the every-other-row-pattern of lace knitting, to be a challenge. Additionally, it surprised me how differently I have to tension the cashmere/silk thread compared to cotton sewing thread.

I am hoping to convince others that "knitting small" isn't that hard. It just takes a little getting used to. If, like me, you have middle-aged eyes (I'm 51), you might require reading glasses; and you do need good light. But otherwise, anyone who has mastered the basics of lace knitting can turn a tablecloth pattern into a piece of art for one's walls.