Good yarn requires patience and listening. And why put your efforts and talent into anything but? Learning to speak the language of your yarn is tricky yet vital to your success. I know how to do this and I can teach you.
The listening really should start in the yarn shop. Walk into your favorite shop and stop. Close your eyes. Yes, close your eyes! Breath. Now open your eyes. What’s the first yarn that attracts you? How would it look as a hat? How about a scarf? Once a yarn gets your attention, it’s important to listen to it. What does it want to become? Sometimes it’s not what you thought you were looking for.
Listen to your yarn
Listening isn’t always easy though. “I want to make a cardigan!” If you fight the yarn, you can get frustrated and it may sit in the closet for the rest of your life. You can’t throw or give it away, it cost too much! Listen to your yarn. I have learned after many years and failed attempts not to struggle with it. A fine yarn needs to age and mature like a good wine. Set it out where you can see it, hear it, feel it, live with it. Sometimes it tells you what it wants to be while you are sleeping. Occasionally, while in the middle of another urgent project, it calls you and you can’t ignore it. It usually wants to be something that there isn’t a pattern for, and something that you didn’t get enough yardage/skeins for. Maybe you weren’t listening in the store when it was saying, “buy all of me in the same dye-lot”. Never mind how many other projects are talking at once. You have my permission to have more than a few in the works!
Strike while the inspiration is there and the yarn is voicing its opinions. That is what makes successful finished garments into works of art. What does the yarn tell you? Has it evolved since you got it? Did it take the left turn at Albuquerque? A cardigan? A baby sweater? A skirt? You don’t need all the details right away, just a concept. Now in your notebook, sketch what it tells you. No, you don’t need graph paper or rulers. It does not have to be to scale. Mrs. Crabbyartteacher is never going to see this. Just you. But I will share mine. Here is a picture of what my linen yarn tells me it wants to be. See Fig 1.
I rarely use a pattern. I find that if I want something to fit right, I have to tweak a pattern too much. I may as well start from scratch. Be creative. I use books, magazines and patterns as inspiration.
Starting from scratch means making a gauge swatch. I make several 4″x 4″ swatches of different needle sizes and I usually try out stitch patterns too. Elizabeth Zimmermann (EZ) says to make a hat as a gauge swatch. A great idea if you have enough yarn and you like hats. If you are going to be working your item in the round, a hat is the best way to go. You are actually making a swatch in the round. If you don’t have enough yarn, unravel the hat.
When I end up with the “hand” that I like, that is, the feel of the fabric I’ve made, I make a few notes. (Get a notebook now. I can’t tell you how many lost pages and partial patterns I have because I didn’t keep them together). Your notes should include needle size, stitches per inch and rows per inch. I pin the swatch I like to one of the wrappers that came with the yarn (this can then be pinned into your notebook!) Then, I make another exactly like it. Unravel the rest of your swatches unless you plan on making a funky sampler. When the second swatch is finished, but not cast off, make a slip knot near the last stitch you completed (this marks were to start measuring). Now unravel it. Measure how many yards you used. You know, nose to wrist, rough measuring. With a 4″x4″ swatch, there are 16 inches square. For the sake of easy math, let’s say you used 16 yards. That means you need a yard of yarn for every square inch you are going to knit. This is actually very close to the measurement for the linen that’s been yelling at me!
The next step is to measure whoever you are making this for. In this case, the linen is for me. So I measure bust, length from back of the neck to where I want the top to stop, armhole to about the same place on your hip that you want to be the lower edge, hip circumference, waist size, depth of armhole (top of shoulder to where you want the lower edge of the armhole to be). This is just for the top. The skirt measurements are there too. See the notations on the sketch? I always work in pencil. You will need to erase. It helps to have a knitting buddy measure for you. Not your husband!
Now you need to decide on basic construction. Will you work this in the round or back and forth? Set in sleeves or raglan? There are so many great books out there about these basic shapes that it would be silly to rewrite them. Look up how to make raglan sleeves in the round, or whatever it is your yarn has told you to do. EZ is an incredible reference. Buy her books. All of them! The linen is worked back and forth since it tends to stretch. I am hoping that side seams will add a little stability.
Math classes were always hell for me. I practically break out in hives thinking about it and I still have “math” nightmares. Really! But with age…let’s just say I do things my own way now.
Take the sketch you drew with the measurement notations on it. Draw a rectangle around it coming close to the edges of your design. In the case of the linen, the total length of the tank and skirt is 49″. The circumference at the widest part, the lower edge of the skirt, is 56″. 56 x 49=2254 square inches. Since we need 1 yard for every square inch, we need 2254 yards of yarn. In this case, I have 8 skeins at 270 yards each. This adds up to 2160 yards. Not enough, but I’m not panicking. When we drew the rectangle around our design, we ended up with surplus inches. The areas shaded in gray. See fig 2. That is, the areas that fall outside the perimeter of the garment. I have a difference of less than 100 yards. When designing for yourself, it’s easy to fudge that much into your pattern. I could calculate the square inches of the shaded areas and figure it out more closely, but that takes the fun out of it for me. If you need exact, have at it!
Pick up your needles…
In this example, the lower front edge of the top is 21″ across. My gauge is 5 sts = 1 inch. Get out the calculator…21 x 5=105. Cast on 105!! I give myself the freedom to design as I go, hence the pencil. I thought I would be doing the shaping one way, but when I get there, the yarn has given me a new insight. I listen, recalculate a bit, and knit on. I often have to draw actual stitches to see what needs to happen especially in the case of decreasing and increasing. It’s like a close-up view. It may seem silly, but it really works. When I get to the neck edge or armholes, I use my reference books and a little math. Don’t be afraid to rip back or un-knit if you aren’t happy. Misunderstandings happen in all communications. Listen again.
Be ready to evolve with your yarn. Sometimes it wants a vacation. Give it a rest while you listen to another fiber. It’s okay. It’s not cheating. It’s part of speaking Fiber-ese. Send me questions. I’d be happy to help you interpret what your fiber is telling you! Happy knitting.