Wednesday, July 01, 2009


Many thanks to everyone who has continued to visit this blog, and leave me lovely comments about what they've learned or enjoyed.

What have I been up to, and why has it been so long since my last post? Well, things change during our lives, and sometimes they change in most unexpected ways. As you can see from the photo above, I've done a little travelling this last year. Italy was an education in many ways, and my time there was much too short. It was a work-related trip, and I did indeed work hard for the first portion of the trip. But the second portion was pure pleasure - a solitary trip across from Genoa to Venice via Trenitalia and four days in a beautiful city before another crossing delivered me back to Genoa for the flight home.

The trip grew out of a change in my daytime job. A promotion of sorts and much-changed responsibilities and duties have kept me learning steadily. I'm finally (16 months later) beginning to feel that I know more or less what's expected of me, and have a routine in place to meet those expectations. The change has been good for me, letting me stretch myself in unexpected directions, and changing my focus. Change is indeed a good thing at times in our lives... I have no time to be anything but grateful about our recently emptied nest!

From a fiber standpoint, I've been learning, and applying, some...not new lessons, but new applications of old lessons. When you have little time for spinning and knitting, you tend to make that time count. I've concentrated on project planning as the path to that. I don't have time or energy to expend on failed projects right now. That sounds a bit arrogant, I suppose, so let me explain. I've gone from 10-20 hours per week for knitting and/or spinning to less than 4. Failed projects are certainly learning experiences, but analysis is often required to extract that learning. Analysis takes time. Since I'd rather spend as much time playing with fiber as possible, I've concentrated on designing "successful" projects. How on earth do I guarantee (within limits, of course) that a project will be successful?


I think about what I want, first of all. I've been working on lots of sweaters this year, mostly for summer or three-season wear. I've actually only completed one, but I have three others at various stages from barely cast-on to finishing up sleeves. I'm quite pleased with all of them. Let's see if I can go back through the planning process so you can see what I'm talking about.

East Tennessee's central valley is a moderate climate. We have little in the way of snow, and temperatures range from a high of the upper-90's in July-August to the upper 30's and low 40's in January. Humidity levels are quite high during the summer, and compared to someplace like the desert southwest, fairly high year-round. That means we wear lots of cotton, some linen, rayon, and silk, and lace- to sport-weight wool. Even lace-weight alpaca is for the rare one or two days per year it actually stays in the teens and 20's - except for caps and gloves. But cotton is a year-round option. Wool-cotton mixtures are three-season wear.

My usual routine is work, gym and home, with occasional forays for an evening out for dinner, at a theatre performance or concert. Making my own gym clothes...doesn't appeal to me. Occasions for "dressy" clothes in my life are few - it's a relaxed part of the country where even high-end restaurants find jeans and a nice top, perhaps with the addition of a jacket, sufficient. My work clothes are, for electrical safety reasons, non-conductive natural fibers. Mostly that translates to khakis and a knit t-shirt during the summer and jeans with a t-shirt topped by a sweater or vest in the fall, winter and spring. The clothes I wear to work, with minor changes in accessories, will go pretty much anywhere I do.

Like most others, I live within a definite budget. While good yarn isn't completely outside my means, I do have to shop carefully. Some of the changes I talked about involve income changes linked to the current economic recession. While our overall income has dropped only a bit, any drop makes a difference. I still get sticker shock from paying as much for a week's worth of food for two people as I used to pay for a family of five. Which is a long-winded way of saying that I want value for my dollars. So I think about which yarns will give me the look and weight of fabric I want while still standing up to more than a single year's wear. And while I don't mind hand-washing, I must admit that I love machine-washable convenience for most of my everyday clothes.

Styles that will carry over multiple years are another part of the planning. I don't knit that quickly, so I look for well-fitted, timeless styles that flatter my body, in colors that suit me well. How do I know what colors and styles suit me well? Folks, I'm well into my fifties. By now, I've learned what colors work with my skin and what colors don't. Ditto styles - collars, silhouettes, lengths. If you haven't figured that out yet, schedule a shopping trip with a really good (and truthful) friend - or almost any female teenager. Try on a variety of styles and colors, asking for an opinion each time. You'll learn a lot in a hurry. Oh, did I mention you should leave your tender feelings behind on this expedition? Never ask for an opinion if you don't want to hear it...

By the time I'd worked my way through this process a handful of times with my daughter and/or mother, I had a pretty good idea what works on me. I have an hourglass shape that is short-waisted and heavy-breasted. Sounds great - but I'm only 5 feet tall. So standard natural waist shaping with ribbing works well on me; so does a high hip-length with close shaping at waist and bust. Princess lines are good on me, as are v- or crew necklines. I stay away from tunic-length tops unless I plan to wear them as a dress substitute; boat necks don't flatter me at all; and turtlenecks only work as a layering item. Even then, mock turtlenecks are better. Cowel necklines...don't work.

Waist shaping is easy, and can be incorporated not only on the "side" seams, but also at the back (center or 3-4 inches either side of the center), included in the stitch design (cables, ribbing) or however you can make it work. While I've tried vertical bust darts once, I didn't like the look with the other pattern elements in that design, and ripped it back out to go back to my usual short-row bust shaping. (I'll try it in another design, though.) Sleeves...I wear almost every style of fitted sleeve (short bell sleeves aren't good with a heavy bust), but fitting sleeveless styles so they don't gap can be a challenge. I usually meet it with a set of decreases between the high bust in front and lower shoulder blade in back, oriented on a tangent to the binding.

So now you have my personal "standard" styles, and some guidelines about the type of fiber I will find most wearable. So it's time to shop for either fiber or yarn.

I do like cotton, and I like to spin cotton. However, my previous knitting projects with my handspun cotton were only moderately successful. The yarns pilled and wore too fast to suit me, even when spun with a great deal of twist and plyed to balance. The cotton yarns I like to wear are soft, but with body enough to stand up to wear - in other words, multiple plies. I don't really have any desire at this time to spin 8-ply cotton yarns. That may change, but right now it doesn't appeal. There are plenty of commercially-spun possibilities available, and some of my favorite include cotton/silk and cotton/linen blends. I've also used cotton/modal and cotton/rayon blends with some success. Cotton is practical for my climate, offering year-round wear, and if lace, fingering or sport weight, moves well on my body. So cotton is almost always a component in yarns I choose.

I'm a spinner - I LOVE wool. It breathes, it moves, it cushions, it bounces...a wonderful fiber. But in this part of the country, it's at best mid-winter wear. Oh, you can get away with a fingering-weight wool vest from perhaps mid-November through mid-March (more likely mid-December through mid-February), but whatever you're wearing underneath had best be summer-weight! I already have a couple of sweaters that fit this bill, and a Fair-Isle vest on the needles...wool is out. I want something I can wear a lot.

I like knitted linen...the texture, the colors, and the drape always scream "summer" to me. And unlike woven linen, knitted fabrics don't wrinkle whenever you glance their way. It's only soft after considerable washing, though, and I promised myself after my last knitted linen project I'd never knit something big from it again - my hands hurt for months, both during and after I'd finished. Perhaps a blend of linen and cotton? there anyone who doesn't love the feel of silk fabric? Whether textured or smooth, knitted or woven, crunchy or soft, silk is the fiber I feel defines the word decadence. It's fairly easy-care, in lace or fingering weight you get a lot of knitting for your fiber buck, nothing else drapes like it, clings like it, moves like it. It's one of my favorite fibers to spin, especially from caps or handkerchief preps. Dyeing silk is pure pleasure. Silk is always on my list of possibilities. But designing with silk yarn takes careful work to make sure the cling and the stretch which sometimes comes along with wearing is controlled. I'll never forget the handspun silk t-shirt I knitted early in my knitting life. It hung straight from the bust, and the longer I wore it, the longer it became. A mid-hip length with a crew neckline was a knee-length scoop-necked dress after only 3-4 hours! But I've learned a lot since then, and silk is definitely a contender.

All right, I have some ideas about design, and I've narrowed my fiber choices some. Now comes the next big decision - purchase fiber and spin it, or buy yarn and get straight to the knitting?

I love spinning. The feel of my feet moving in a gentle rhythm with my hands, fiber slipping through and gathering on the's was these moments of peace that got me through raising three teenagers. Fiber is less expensive than yarn, which is always nice for the fiber/yarn budget. Time spent spinning is always pleasant, spinning the yarn myself lets me completely control the design process...time to explore some options. I'll start with the fiber stash.

Let's see...I have plenty of silk caps. I could dye either before or after spinning, and it would be fun to spin the yarn myself. But it will take a lot longer, meaning I'll not wear the top until at least next spring, and time spent spinning will definitely cut into my overall fiber time. What about silk yarn? Hit the internet and yarn catalogs. Ouch! Silk would definitely need to be spun from fiber already on hand. Final decision: it's a great idea for a project, and I'd love doing it, perhaps spinning during the winter or during our vacation in the fall. But for now, let's put a handspun silk sweater on the back burner.

That pretty much leaves cotton. While I can certainly spin cotton (and do!), I still have the drawbacks outlined above. It's a much less expensive yarn purchase, wearability is great, you can usually machine wash and frequently machine dry. Let's see what's out there...nothing online strikes my fancy. I'll wait. An impromptu day-trip led to a 'crawl' of yarn shops that aren't quite local, and... Oh, this is nice! A variegated "ocean"colorway in fingering-weight 8-ply cotton that's fairly soft, yet with enough body for ribbing and/or lace designs. Not too dear, since 100-gram skeins are about $18 each and I can do a short or cap-sleeve design with three skeins. Even better, I'm getting a definite "picture" of a sweater that would be wonderfully wearable on me.

Needless to say, I bought the skeins. No guilt at all, since my DH was along on this trip and absolutely pushed me into it (he loved the colors). Now for a swatch! The size 4 mm needles recommended on the skein band gave a terrible fabric - stitches too big and floppy, fabric sleezy, washing and blocking just made it worse, gauge for me was 4 sts/inch instead of the recommended 5.25-6. I ravelled it back out to save the yarn and cast on again - to a size 2.75 mm needle! Within a dozen rows, I knew I had to find a happy medium - the swatch was waaaaay too stiff! I moved up to a 3.25 mm needle, and found the right balance. A nice fabric, gauge 5.25 sts/inch, stitch definition in the pattern I wanted was lovely, with lace holes that were just right. Washing softened the hand, 'set' the stitches, and made the final decision easy.

The 'picture' I'd formed in my head wasn't complicated. A high-hip length top, with a modified horseshoe lace pattern at the bottom, and 2 purl stitches between lace repeats forming ribs up the fabric. Sleeveless, or cap sleeves? Cap sleeves, if there's enough yarn; if not, I can wear it as a top in the summer and a vest the rest of the year. Waist shaping, short-row bust shaping, and a slightly-scooped neckline. Neck finishing...probably pick up and knit a 'collar' of the lace, or just an i-cord edging. Let's see when I get there. A little basic math later, and I cast on and began knitting from the bottom in the round.

The knitting on this one is going quite well. I did tink back about a dozen rows when I decided that the vertical bust darts just wouldn't work within the ribbed patterning (yep, this was the one!) and that I'd be better served by my usual short-row bust shaping. I'm through that now, and almost ready to start the decreases between the bust and armholes. It fits beautifully (yes, I do consider time spent transferring a couple of hundred stitches to a ribbon, then trying on the garment in process, and slowly slipping all those stitches back to the needles time VERY well spent), the colors aren't pooling unpleasantly, and it just feels good!

Of course, I won't be wearing it too soon...I got a request for a pair of fingerless mitts from a friend who does a lot of barn work, and that sidetracked me into designing a wool yarn for those, and now I'm knitting. I don't usually knit for someone outside the family (and not all of them!), but this particular friend both knows and appreciates the effort.

So now you have it - what I've been doing, and perhaps a few things to think about next time you start a new project. Hopefully I'll get back to posting on a fairly regular basis now... Till next time!