Monday, September 30, 2013

Design Inspiration: Eulalia Shawl

My grandmother Eulalia was always a warm, comforting presence in my life. She taught me that tea and toast make you feel better when you're sick and to never, ever stop having adventures.

Last April, we were planning a trip to Oklahoma to see her. She had been fighting heart disease for a while, and that spring, took a turn for the worse. We hoped to get to see her one last time.

We weren't as lucky as we wanted to be, and that trip turned out to be for her funeral. We packed our bags, I brought my knitting, and our family came together to say goodbye to a very sweet, strong woman.

With purple yarn that reminded me of her, I wanted to create some comfort for myself and as a testament to her. I cast on. I decided to use a little stockinette at the beginning and end of the shawl. The rolling inner and outer edges symbolized the lives that touched my grandmother and the lives that she touched. I think we are never truly finished with our life’s work but we wouldn’t have a place to begin, if it weren’t for those who came before us.

I had several false starts. I would knit for a while, then find that I had added too many stitches to one side of the shawl. The next time, I had too few. Then, I would accidentally knit all of the edge stitches instead of working them the correct way.

"This is a simple knit," I told myself. "It's seriously only four rows, for most of it. What's wrong with you?"

I guess sometimes you're just too upset to manage. If all I mess up is my knitting in those moments, I guess that's ok. Frustrated, I gave up and knit a sock - that turned out to be 4 stitches narrower than the one that was supposed to be its mate. I didn't notice the mistake until I started the toe decreases.

Back at home, I put down my knitting and cleaned out the basement. I felt like I was expressing my grandmother's very German need for order and peace.

When that was finished, I sat down and knit this shawl in two days. That's pretty fast for me. It IS really easy. I just wasn't ready to let go for a little while.

Nerd note on her rather unusual name: Her Germany-born parents heard the word (among other things, it is a type of grass), and liked it so much they used it as her name.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Casting On and a False Start

This is from the second try.

I churned through the first mock-up of the pattern pretty quickly. I was really eager to get this little sweater on the needles!

I like to have a rough draft of the pattern that is as complete as possible as I knit the sample. It's easier for me to take notes and make changes from that than to write out what I'm doing as I go.

I was working along, loving the yarn, and little questions kept nagging me, at the back of my mind. Had I accounted for the front band stitches? Was I really sure that the increase rows would work out well for every size? Did I have too many stitches on the back? Why were the smallest and 6-month sizes so close together in stitch count? There really did seem to be too many stitches being cast on all at once for the second tier of the neck for it to look right. 

I've learned not to ignore those questions for too long. A poetry teacher once told me to take anything you write and put it away, where you can't see it, for at least a day. A week is better. When you look at it again, all of the mistakes will leap out at you. 

I took a second look at the spreadsheet. I had forgotten to note where I was ignoring and where I was including the front band stitches. I needed some of them (but not all, because they overlap) for figuring out things like the real, final chest measurement of the resulting sweater. I didn't need any of them for figuring out if the 4x + 1 stitch pattern repeat right before the sleeves and body were divided would fit. 

Worst of all, I hadn't thought of it as a 4x + 1 stitch pattern repeat. I'd noted it as a 4x + 3 repeat. Two stitches may not sound like a big deal, but it mattered a lot, in this case. 

I struggled with it a little bit. This stage of design seems straightforward, but there are moments where it can feel like trying to make a bed with a blanket that's too small. I get it all good on one corner only to find that another corner is bare. I even went on Twitter and complained a little bit about it - and felt much better when other designers chimed in, saying that designing raglan-style sweaters is way harder than it looks.

I finally took out a pencil and paper and scribbled around a bit, writing down every decision I made about the math and why. That clarified things. I can get locked into the spreadsheet too much and lose sight of what I'm actually trying to accomplish.

I went through the pattern notes and inserted the new numbers, which now made more sense. I reprinted the pattern and started again, still madly in love with the yarn.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Swatches and Thanks

My bare-bones pattern is mostly a series of headings and questions to myself. This one started out like this:

Sizes To fit 3 [6, 12] months, although babies vary greatly. When in doubt, knit the larger size! Our adorable model is wearing the six-month size. (Does the family want the full name, first name, or just Adorable Model here?)
Finished dimensions Chest: 18 [19, 20] inches; Length: 9.74 [10.5, 11.75] inches.
Yarn Dream in Color, Perfectly Posh Sport, sport weight, 70% wool, 10% mohair, 10% silk, 10% cashmere. 320 yards/293 meters in 100 grams. Color A: Amber Glass; (HOW MUCH?); Color B: Heavenly: (HOW MUCH?). 
Needles #5 (3.75 mm) needles, or size needed to produce gauge. (CHECK THIS) Any kind of needle can be used, but you will also need two #5 double-pointed needles to make i-cord. 
Gauge 24 stitches = 4 inches in both one and two-color stockinette stitch. (CHECK THIS)

As it turned out, I was half correct about the gauge. 6 sts/inch was totally cool with #5 needles on the single-color portion of the swatch. The two-color portion, not so much.

I should stop here and say a big THANK YOU to Laura Ricketts, who became my instant friend in May when she drove up to see me on a personal mission to make me give up my fear of color-stranded knitting and intarsia. Her knitting is awesome and wonderful and almost as nice as she is in person.

Anyway, when I saw that the two-color portion of the swatch didn't succumb to my screaming at it and trying to block it wider (I don't know why that doesn't work), I did a second swatch with larger needles. That portion of the pattern changed to:

#5 (3.75 mm) needles, or size needed to produce gauge. (I needed to use #5 for one-color stockinette stitch and #6 for two-color stockinette stitch.) Any kind of needle can be used, but you will also need two #5 double-pointed needles to make i-cord. 
Swatches complete, I emailed a tech editor (Stephannie Tallent) to get on her schedule, messaged a friend who has an adorable baby about modeling for photos, and got to work putting together a spreadsheet to get actual stitch counts before casting on for the sample sweater.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Answering the Call

Magazine (and book) knitting projects usually have to be kept top-secret until they are published. For the last few months, I've been responding to more calls for designs from yarn companies. They can lead to really positive relationships for both parties. (As the designer, you really need to read what is wanted from you/what is being offered and decide if that will work for you. There are as many ways to do this as there are yarn companies!)

In this case, I sent a submission in to Dream in Color for their Perfectly Posh Sport yarn line. They offered to provide yarn support and some cross-promotion in exchange for running a knit-a-long of the design. 

I went to Paris in May on vacation and now I just can't shut up about it. Um, I mean I took a ton of photos and am turning to them for inspiration a lot, which probably bothers at least a few of my knitting-group friends. 

One was this little wood building on the grounds of the palace at Versailles, near where you can rent boats for the Grand Canal. 

I have no idea what it is. Guard warming house? Just cute? Anyway, I loved it. Looking at it a few months later with a knitter's eye, I thought it would be a cute baby sweater. I sketched a basic shape, figured out what sizes I wanted, and started writing a very rough draft of the pattern. In homage to the little building, I called the design Keys to the Castle.

This is the first page of the pdf I sent to Dream in color. 

They accepted my idea and suggested an alternative goldish-colored yarn to the one I picked off the website. I always bow to whoever has actually seen the yarn. Choosing colors from a computer screen can be a tricky proposition, at best. 

Tune in tomorrow for what happened when the yarn hit the needles...

Monday, September 23, 2013

Good Editing = Good Writing

Kate, who is just so adorable.

Years ago, one of my favorite teachers told me, "Good writing can't happen without good editing."

He was doubly correct when it comes to writing knitting patterns.

You can have a lovely knit sample and gorgeous photography for a pattern, but nothing can make up for unclear, ambiguous writing or mathematical errors.

If there's anything I've learned from working as a journalist, it's that no one, no matter how talented, experienced or careful, can be trusted to truly edit his or her own writing. At the absolute minimum, I firmly believe that every pattern should be printed out and read by at least one person who is not the original author. If nothing else, they might catch a grammar or spelling error.

Why does a grammar or spelling error matter to a knitter? Consider the relationship between a photographer and her subject. Some people are so nervous about having their picture taken that the slightest hesitation or misstep on the photographer's part blows apart their confidence entirely. They bail. They cut and run, at least emotionally. They challenge and criticize. Good photography might happen under those conditions, but great photography will be almost impossible.

A spelling error in a knitting pattern, even in the preamble that a lot of people don't take seriously, shakes the knitter's confidence. They may have paid good money for this pattern that looks like a rough draft.

Worse, and hiding in a thicket of k1 and p2, is a Math Error. This is often enough to destroy the knitter's confidence in the pattern, the designer, and even his or her self as a knitter. It's horrible.

Fortunately for all of us, there are people who have trained in the art and science of avoiding both. They're called Technical Editors, but they really should be called Pattern Guardian Angels.

I was really lucky and landed a great one with Knitty, Kate Atherley. She was prompt, gentle and kind. It takes a special kind of person to point out that you made a big, honking mistake without making you feel like an idiot.

Even better, when my pattern used a technique that she hadn't used before, she picked up yarn and needles and TRIED IT. (And, whew, said it worked.) That, ladies and gentlemen, is super awesome.

So, raise your needles (or hook, or spindle, or shuttle) in salute to the humble technical editor, who doesn't even always get credit for his or her work. Without them, we would all be sending each other many less-than-happy messages on Ravelry.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Design Inspiration: Tootsie Socks

My Tootsie socks were published in the Spring + Summer 2012 edition of Knitty. Appearing in Knitty was way too exciting for words!

In December of 2011, I had just written a review of The Knitter's Book of Socks and was returning the copy I used to the library. (I now have one of my own - a Christmas gift from my sweetie.)

I turned the book around to put it into the return slot and looked at the orange/brown sock on the cover from the side. I thought, "Why not knit a round heel that ends on the back of the heel?"

I had already experimented with one or two afterthought heels, and had a few notes jotted down about making an afterthought heel that included a gusset. So, I sat down with needles and yarn that weekend and worked out how the decreases would have to work to get the shape I wanted. I showed the result to my friend, Allison, the owner of Simply Socks Yarn Company, and she told me I should send the idea in to Knitty.

I worked up a pair of grey-and-white socks, using the heel and a simple twist-stitch rib pattern that I had swatched a few times, but hadn't found the right project before. I photographed them in a very awkward way using myself and a mirror as the model, and sent it off.

When I heard that they wanted the design, I literally did a dance for joy. The color change was suggested and I knit up a pair in Tangerine and Chocolate.

Then, a wonderful turn of luck landed my twin sister in town on the weekend that I really needed to photograph the final socks. Allison let us use a little space in the shop and we had a great photo shoot. It is still the most fun I have ever had taking photos of handknits.

Thursday, September 19, 2013


I'm still going to keep the podcast at the Journal Gazette site and I blog frequently there, too, but I want to restart this blog as a way to talk about my design process for non-secret projects.

I've been working on a book about sock knitting, and that's taken a lot of my energy, but I also learned to weave, which is still very exciting.

So, I want to chat here about what I'm doing, my hopes, dreams, etc. I hope you want to come along.