The Knitting Narrative

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I have decided to learn to knit. I can crochet, but whenever I got into a craft store and search vainly for the one crochet pattern leaflet that is NOT for an afghan, I feel a sense of bitter jealousy at all those knitter's who have dozens of bright, attractive pattern cards to chose from. When I finally find the crochet pattern for a sweater, only to discover that it dates back to 1967 and that the wool it calls for was discontinued in 1972 by a manufacturer that no longer exists, the jealousy gets a little too much to bear.

Knitting is a lot like crocheting, how hard can it be? Keeping in mind that the reason that I do crochet and don't knit is that my mother crochets well enough to teach me and can't knit to save her life, it could get pretty difficult. But I'm prepared. I have a handy how to knit leaflet (I think it's of the same generation as those crochet patterns I keep turning up), I have a coworker who is an accomplished knitter, I have REC.CRAFT.TEXTILES.YARN. I don't have any knitting needles, but hey, that's a minor set back.

Not being one to waste my time when I decide to try something new, I set off to learn to knit without getting any knitting needles. After all, I might have hated knitting and wasted that $3.50 I would have spent on needles.

What did I use? Crochet hooks. Turned backwards. Now for those of you who don't knit, the primary difference between knitting needles and crochet hooks is that knitting needles are needles and crochet hooks are hooks. Frankly, they don't have a lot in common. But I am persistent. I managed, with some degree of difficulty to cast on about 20 stitches. Turns out casting on was the easiest thing I would do with those hooks. Painstakingly forcing the crochet hook through each of the stitches, I managed to master knitting and purling. I swatched a patch of about 20 stitches by about 12 rows. It took me about 4 hours, not counting the time I spent trying to cast on. Casting off was quite simply beyond my talents at that point.

Having taken my pitiful effort in for the faint praise of my colleague - who was vaguely astonished that I had managed to knit so evenly on the backs of crochet hooks - I decided to take the big plunge and buy a set of knitting needles. They were a size 6. The lady at Lewiscraft said they were a nice medium size.

LEWISCRAFT interlude: I shop at Lewiscraft because it is convenient and relatively inexpensive. Also, the people are nice. Frequently stupid, often unknowledgeable, but generally nice. Except for the mean one at the Fairview Lewiscraft. I had gone into the store looking for Patons DK Cotton. In black. Not the Young Touch line. I knew exactly what I wanted, all I had to do was get it. Unfortunately, it just wasn't that easy. They didn't have any - which was surprising, DK Cotton is kind of a summery weight and it probably doesn't sell all that well in black and I had seen it just a few weeks before. The nice one at Fairview Lewiscraft happily offered to order it for me. Perfect. It would take a little while but that would be okay, it would get there in time for me to finish the project before Christmas. A couple of weeks later, I went back in to check and see if it had arrived. No, said the mean one, it hasn't arrived. It hasn't even been ordered, that line is being discontinued and we aren't supposed to order it any more. All of this said in the same tone of voice one would use to tell a child that they really shouldn't drink out of the toilet just because the cat does. Hmm. So I wondered, since I had seen it at Lewiscraft stores recently, if any of those other stores might have it. Could she check? No. They won't have it. It's being discontinued. I felt like that child again. Now, I had seen this yarn as recently as 3 weeks before in THIS VERY STORE so it couldn't have been discontinued for very long, but there was no way and no how any other store would have it and she wouldn't even check. It was less than a week later that I was in a different Lewiscraft and lo and behold, found a supply of 12 balls of Patons DK Cotton. I bought them all.

...She (the nice one) also offered me a pattern for a child's scarf that was part of the Knit for Kids program. I was pretty confident that no kids would want to wear a scarf that I had knit. I was also pretty confident that I could have figured out how to knit a scarf without a pattern. Then I remembered the first thing I ever crocheted (a scarf, naturally) and I decided to take the pattern - just to be sure...

Crocheting interlude: That crocheted scarf was wildly unattractive. It got off to a bad start with the tacky off-white acrylic. It was pretty badly damaged by my 7 year old inability to maintain anything resembling consistent tension. It was tragically and hopelessly destroyed by the fact that I kept stitching into my turning chains on some rows and then skipping stitches in the middle of rows to try and keep the width more even. I loved it dearly when I finished. My crocheting, fortunately, has much improved and I have recently finished a large afghan (the off-white acrylic in this one is somewhat reminiscent of that first scarf but I needed a blanket and the yarn was cheap), two sweaters (made off the only attractive crocheted sweater pattern I have ever found) and a number of handbags of which I am very proud.

...I set off with my pattern and my knitting needles and a ball of the ugliest black worsted weight acrylic you ever saw (I bought it to try out some crocheted stitch patterns, not to actually make anything out of). Over the next 3 weeks or so, I worked on that scarf every day on the bus...

Transit interlude: Commuting sucks. Big time. I wanted to learn to knit primarily so that I would have something to do during all those hours on the bus. Crocheting, I have found, is easier on the bus than knitting. With that one single loop and no worry about dropped stitches, it's a lot easier to just smoosh a crocheting project in a bag when you get to your stop. Knitting, however, has one distinct advantage - people avoid sitting next to other people that have foot long sharp metal spikes in their hands. I rarely share my seat with anybody.

...After 3 weeks of working on that scarf almost constantly, it was about 8 inches long. Knitting was going nowhere fast. The problem with knitting, I have determined, is that the stitches are too small. A good double crochet in worsted weight yarn will net you of an inch. A knit stitch in the same yarn, maybe 1/8 of an inch. The other problem was, of course, that I crochet much faster than I knit. But hey, I was just learning and surely my stitching would get faster. Especially if I started working on something that I wanted to finish - as opposed to the scarf which I had less than no interest in and wouldn't wish on any child, no matter how poverty stricken. So I decided to tackle a sweater.

This is the part where you start clamoring "As your first real project? That's a little ambitious isn't it? Shouldn't you start with something a bit smaller first? Maybe some slippers or something?" For some reason, people were less than supportive of my decision...

Philosophical Interlude: I decided to start big for a number of reasons and they all had to do with knowing myself and my habits and preferences.

I know that I value money. By going out and buying not two but ten skeins of yarn, I was forcing myself to take knitting seriously - even if they were the cheapest balls of yarn I could find.
I know that I appreciate a challenge. A small project that would bore me would get put aside as soon as it was completed and if I hadn't learned to love knitting yet, I would never do it again.
I know that I like to finish things. By giving myself something big to work on, I gave myself a longer period of time to learn to like knitting.
I need to feel like I have truly accomplished something. A long rectangle wouldn't feel like an accomplishment, neither would something as small as slippers.
I didn't really need any slippers

Who would have guessed that knitting could entail such soul searching and self-examination? It makes sense though, counting K1 P2 doesn't even use up 10% of our brain, there's lots of room left over to think.

... Since I've never been particularly inclined to care what people think, I disregarded their admonitions and warnings and went off to buy some supplies. Now, having spent my whole life as a crocheter, I had a pretty simplistic view of what would be necessary to complete this project. A comparison of what I had anticipated buying to what I actually purchased:

Anticipated Purchased
Yarn Yarn
A pair of needles A pair of needles
Another pair of needles for the ribbing
2 stitch holders
Stitch markers
A ball-point needle for sewing the project together.
Those little orange things that go on your needles to keep the stitches from falling off
More yarn
Some more yarn
Actually, I bought quite a bit more yarn because I wasn't using the actual yarn called for in the pattern (in as much as it's hard to find patterns written for cheap acrylic).

Those Little Orange Things That Go On Your Needles to Keep the Stitches From Falling Off Interlude: I bought A LOT of these. For some reason that I fail to comprehend, my roommates cat loves these things. He loves them more than his toy mice. He loves them more than Tony's squash ball. He loves them more than whatever yarn I happen to be knitting with at the time. As soon as he sees one, he has an overwhelming desire to chew on it and to throw it under the furniture. At least that must be what happens because I have continually punished him for playing with them and I still have to fight him back whenever I take my knitting out. Maybe he's a masochist and knows that this is a sure fire way to get smacked., I don't know. The other thing I don't know is how he gets them off the knitting needles. _I_ have difficulty getting the stupid things off my needles some days and I have the advantage of opposable thumbs.

Having bought my supplies, I was _ready_. Hmm. I don't think you read that with sufficient emphasis. Try it again, because I was really *ready*. I had been practicing for so long that not only did I think I was prepared, I had to get started soon or I was never, ever going to pick up a knitting needle again.

I started on the front of the sweater. With casting on. Now, I'd been fairly successful at casting on so far. I ws using a method that involved starting with a loooong tail of yarn and then casting on. Unfortunately, in this case, what I really needed was a looooooooooooooong tail of yarn, loooong just wasn't enough. It took me about three tries to get the 145 stitches cast on. Three tries of getting to stitch number 135 and realizing with a sad, pitiful cry of pain that I was about 3 inches too short on my tail length. Sigh.

The sweater continued on uneventfully (if slooowly) until the expected happened. The skein ran out. Now, I knew this was going to happen and I was prepared for it, but what I didn't realize was that it was going to happen right then. When I saw the end of the yarn snaking it's way up my leg, I realized that I wasn't going to make it to the end of the row before running out. Never one to give up, I fought the valiant fight. I tightened my tension down to nothing. I strained to use the least possible amoung of yarn. I ran out on the fourth to last stitch. Sigh.

Now my biggest problem at this point was my inability to tear stitches out without dropping them. I hadn't yet encountered the helpful woman in the airport who was destined to teach me to pull stitches out properly and I was still removing the stitches from the needle, pulle the top loop out and then trying to jam the needle through the loop on the previous row before it ran. This painstaking exercise took as much as 30 seconds per stitch.

There was no way on God's green Earth that I was pulling 141 stitches out so that I could start the new skein at the end of a row. If I can work yarn ends in to my crocheting, I can do it to my knitting, dammit...

Knitting vs. Crocheting Interlude: Remember before when I mentioned that knitting needles and crochet hooks don't have a lot in common. Really, truly, neither do knitting and crocheting. Just because you can do something in crocheting doesn't mean it will work in knitting or vice versa. Other than being fancy ways of putting knots in yarn, knitting and crocheting have practically nothing in common. This was a lesson that I was about to learn.

...Well, I got that end worked in. It took me about an hour and half. I could have torn those dammed stitches out, reknit the row and had 3 kids in the time it took me to work those ends in to the fabric so that they didn't really show. I say 'really show' because of course, they do show. They show quite dramatically on the back and are pretty visible on the front if you know what you are looking for. The rest of my skeins of yarn will join neatly at the end of a row.

The sweater contains a pattern on front and back that starts in the middle of the sweater and then gradually increases in width towards the outside edges in a triangle shape. I worked the sweater all the way up to the point where that pattern reached the edges of the sweater and then stopped to read the next set of instructions. I read "Continue in pattern until work measures 18.5 inches from front ending with right side facing for next row." All right, that was fine, I could do that. I grabbed a measuring tape to see how much pattern I had left to do before I got to 18.5 inches. Hmm. I needed to knit an additional negative five inches. The work already measured 22.5 inches. I had checked and rechecked my horizontal tension throughout the knitting process and it wasn't more than about half an inch off. Unfortunately, my vertical tension was off - radically so.

So with much snarling and gnashing of teeth, I tore the back out. All of it. And I knit it back up a few inches and discovered that the tension was still completely wonky. So I tore it out again. And then one more time. I finally managed to get it knit up to the top. It was still out by about half an inch but I failed to care. I had knit the back about 3 times total and frankly, I was just a little bit bored with it. It was, however, good stitch practice and I think I may have finally managed to regulate my tension.

The next little adventure was the sleeves. Now the interesting thing about sleeves is that instead of decreases (which are easy, eh, you just a knit through a couple of stitches at the same time), the sleeve contains (oh the horror) increases.

I referred back to my handy little knitting pamphlet for instructions on increasing and though it did contain instructions, they were pretty much useless. Somebody had once explained to me how to Make a stitch and that was pretty easy but left those annoying holes in the fabric.

It was time to consult the knitting guru. The knitting guru is Anne, a co-worker with a lot more knitting experience than I have. She has been knitting since before the thought of me had even begun to speculate about crossing my parents' minds. Sometimes I think she has been knitting since before the thought of her had even begun to speculate about crossing her parents' minds.

Now the problem with consulting Anne is that she doesn't exactly sit near me. In fact, she sits in an entirely different building. That's about 10 miles from here. I could phone but knitting instruction over the phone is roughly as effective as sex by mail - a lot of talk but you are still left to pretty much figure things out for yourself.

Fortunately for me (and the continued good health of my sweater), the team was having a lunch.

Team Lunch Interlude: We have a lot of team lunches. A lot. Every time somebody leaves the team, we have a lunch. Every time somebody visits the team, we have a lunch. If someone gets married, has a baby, has a birthday or has a headache, we have a lunch. We have lunches to celebrate team accomplishments. We have lunches to meet new team members. We have lunches just because we feel like it. The team needs one of those bumper stickers that says Warning: I break for LUNCH.

With guarded optimism, I awaited the arrival of the kntting guru (the knitting guru is very busy and often doesn't have time to lunch). And then, oh happy day, the knitting guru arrived.

As other team members ate, drank and were merry, the knitting guru and I patiently ignored the heavenly smells wafting over from the buffet - we were far too busy knitting for such trivialities as food.

Fortunately for both of us, learning to increase wasn't nearly as difficult as I had anticipated (as long as I don't EVER have to increase on a purl row - how irritating) so we did get to eat.

Having learned to increase, I went merrily on my way and knitted those sleeves (with a few minor interuptions to go and buy more yarn - the problem with substituting yarn is getting enough without getting too much).

Having completed the sleeves and the back and the front and all the individual pieces, I arrive at the single most dreaded task of all projects. Sewing it together. I spent a few hours trying to convince somebody else to do it, but alas, my friends are just too smart for that. Which says good things about my friends anyway.

The worst part of putting that sweater together was definitely picking up the stitches along the neckline. Pick up 19 along left front neck edge, indeed. Which 19 precisely? Where do you pick up? It would take some serious calculus to figure out how to pick up those stitches evenly. I hated calculus.

Finally, I finished sewing it all together and in triumph I ... moved on to weaving all the ends in. Now when you've made a sweater in all one colour, there shouldn't be a lot of ends. But there were. Dozens of ends.

After hours of annoying and painstaking labour, I got all those silly ends woven in and hidden and came to the grand finale. Trying the sweater on. Of course, it didnt' fit. I knew I should have tried the bloody thing on before I wove all those ends in.

Positively quaking in fear at the thought of having to find the woven ends and pull them back out so I could take the sleeves off and shorten them, I did the cowardly thing. I ran off to rec.crafts.textiles.yarn to beg for help.

The advice I got was to cut a single thread in each sleeve at the point where the cuffs should start and pull the ends of the sleeve off, then, I could pick up the stictches along the sleeve end and just reknit the cuff without ever taking the sweater apart.

If you thought I was scared by the thought of taking the thing apart again, you should have seen how terrified I was at the thought of CUTTING a thread. I decided to wear the sweater to work, just once, with the sleeves too long. Then, if I ruined it, at least everybody would have had the chance to see it and would know that I had finished the sweater.

I proudly wore that sweater to work. I showed it to everybody. And I do mean everybody. I think the guy I showed it to in the elevator was the Vice President of Finance. He thought it was a lovely sweater. Or was too polite to say otherwise.

Two weeks later, I got up the courage and made those first snips on the sleeve. The sleeves came off beautifully, leaving me with a nice even edge to pick up the stitches and knit the cuffs. The only problem was, it was a nice even edge of 82 stitches!

The cuffs were only 53 stitches wide in the original pattern. Instead of being too wide, they were now waaaaaaaaaay too wide. My only option was to try and decrease some stitches in order to narrow the sleeves. The end result was sleeves that tapered nicely and then all of a sudden tightened radically. Not exactly the effect I was looking for but I guess I'll have to live with it.

Frankly, it probably would have been easier to lengthen my arms than it was to shorten those sleeves.

Having braved a sweater and come out victorious (or with at least a draw), I looked back on my (semi-) triumph and the lessons that I learned. I share them here in hopes that in the future, some other struggling knitter might not have to make the mistakes for themselves.

  1. Check your tension. Frequently. Not just your stitch tension, your row tension too. Just because you swatched the correct tension doesn't mean you are keeping your tension even as you knit a whole garment. Wouldn't you rather measure the thing every few rows than reknit the entire back twice?
  2. Buy good quality yarn. I knit this sweater out of cheap acrylic because I didn't want to waste a lot of money on a better wool blend. This was a huge mistake for a couple of reasons.
  3. Consult with the experts. I made frequent use of knitting experts that I know and the resident gurus on rec.crafts.textiles.yarn. I generally got good advice and always got great moral support. Knitter's are nice people and they are willing to help if you ask. I had some great conversations with people on the bus and in airports and at work and at the movies and all over the place because we were both knitting. If you learn just one thing from each of those people (or even teach them something) you've come out ahead.
  4. Knit while you do other things. I knit while I ride the bus and watch TV and chat on the phone. It gives me something to do with my hands (other than eat) and allows me to count all those hours in front of the toob as productive time (how many people can justify watching ER by making a sweater?).
  5. Just do it. I know, I sound like a Nike commercial but you can spend days and hours looking for the perfect pattern and the perfect wool and practicing until you get your tension perfect and rereading your pattern until you know it by heart but none of those things accomplish the goal. They don't get the sweater knitted. Sit down and knit. If you screw up, rip it out and knit it again.

So that's the story of my first sweater. I've recently complete a pair of socks and am working on another sweater. I plan to add some more narrative surrounding some my current and future projects soon. There's a lot to be learned in knitting socks that you'd have never thought of while doing a piece work sweater.

Well, its been awhile since I've written anything here. Partly that's because I've been busy, partly because if I wrote down all the things I've been knitting, I wouldn't have time to knit. Today, however, is special. It was one year ago today that I bought a pair of knitting needles and taught myself to knit. In that year, I've created a lot of great things (I'm almost done my Christmas 'shopping' and the only store I've been to is Lewiscraft) and learned quite a view lessons about patience and the value of a little hard work.

The list of projects created:

Current in progress, socks for Scott Kroy mixed with Mohair (warm fuzzy ski socks).

I've learned a lot of interesting things - like the fact that the technique I initially taught myself was not very effective. I have retaught myself a new way of holding the yarn that's much faster and better. The problem was, you see, that I was always holding one needle between my knees and moving the other needle around. That was quite effective when using a couple of long single points that a) reached fairly high off my lap for the actual work and b) weren't pointy on both ends. The problem arose when I tried double points. They aren't long enough to stick between your knees and they hurt, too. I still revert to between the knees occasionally when working with single points because its a bit of change to the strain on my arms but its just not half as effective as knitting with both needles held up.

I'd like to send a special thank you to the people on Rec.Crafts.Textiles.Yarn. These are a bunch of people who I don't know and who don't know me but who were willing to answer even the most basic of questions. Not to mention willing to be witty and amusing and fun at the same time. I got some great advice on that group.

To be continued...