Thursday, May 13, 2010

Shetland Shawls and Me

My knitting plans for this year were fairly simple. Make a summer sweater or two, socks for the winter, a sweater vest for my DH, and spin for a shawl for myself. Life, as it so frequently does, had other ideas.

Occasionally, like most knitters, I get ambitious. Six years ago when we were expecting our first grandchild, I wanted something quite special to welcome that new life into the family. Not considering all the possible repercussions, I pulled about 5 ounces of merino/clun forest fleece from the stash and spun most of it very, very fine, plying for a gossamer-weight two-ply yarn.

I then proceeded to knit a simple Shetland shawl – technically, a hap– with a garter-stitch center section and a wide border of Feather and Fan. That shawl was, to put it mildly, well-received; used for that grandson’s christening and then lovingly packed away to be used for his bride and their children.

Now fast-forward to the late winter/early spring of 2010. My Navy NCO son and daughter-in-law have announced that they are expecting their first child in October. And my darling son has made it clear that he would like for me to make another shawl for this baby. This is how traditions get started in our family…but I still think making an heirloom piece is a wonderful thing to do for a new baby, and I’m off and running.

First I put out the word for more fleece from, if possible, that same sheep. Why that particular sheep? My sons knew him! Luckily, the shepherd (a good friend) had some of the fleece, in roving form, stuck back and was willing to part with it under these circumstances. So I picked it up at a hastily-arranged luncheon in late February and took it home to start spinning.

Since I love designing things, I began designing the shawl as I spun. Again, I spun a gossamer two-ply of about 55 wpi. Definitely a bit on the fine side! But this particular fleece fluffs up beautifully, and the washed yarn is closer to 45 wpi. About 1200 yards and 4.5 ounces later, I was ready to start knitting. The plan I conceived was for a Fir Cone central square surrounded by a Tree of Life border and a Crest o’ the Wave edging.

The central square was planned as a Fir Cone pattern knit on the diagonal. I thought that pattern reflected the mountains of Western Washington and their covering of evergreens quite well, and would give a reminder of the family’s whereabouts when this child was born.

I did, however, feel the need for a large swatch, so I spun a bit extra and cast three stitches onto size 2 needles, then followed the Fir Cone pattern as shown below, increasing each row by K1, yo and inserting patterns as needed to fill the space. When I reached 8 repeats, I removed the stitches from the needle to a cotton yarn, soaked and then blocked to get some idea of the number of repeats necessary to reach the 24-inch square I wanted.

If you plan to use these charts, be advised that there’s a knit row between each pattern row. Stitch conventions are pretty standard as far as yarn-overs and single- or double-decreases are concerned.

This was something of a challenge to knit, since the stacked double-decreases at the exact top of the stacked yarn-overs makes for a popcorn-looking texture on the needles. I wasn’t at all sure that I wouldn’t end up pulling the entire thing back out if those decreases didn’t block flat – that was one of the reasons for such a large sample. The other reason, of course, was to have a ‘working copy’ on which to try out the other elements of the pattern.

Reassured by the blocked sample that the shawl would indeed block flat, I cast on again for the actual shawl and started knitting. When I reached the 17 repeats necessary for the 24-inch square, I began the decreases in a mirror fashion to the increases; K2tog, yo, k2tog at the beginning of each row, using up pattern repeats as I went.

After again reaching 3 stitches, I k3tog and bound off that stitch. Next step was to wash and block the square, since I had decided that it would make picking up all those stitches (140 each side = 560 total stitches) much easier – and it did!

I had originally thought to use a single, small 20-stitch repeat Tree of Life pattern followed by a larger version spaced between the small repeats. But I changed my mind while picking up stitches and reworked the chart to do three offset rows of trees instead. I decided that the large trees were just too large for a small person. The chart is shown below, rotated 180-degrees simply because I’m feeling too lazy to switch it around.

I’m presently at row 16 of the chart, beginning the decrease portion of the first line of trees. Other than the slow-seeming purl rounds, it’s going well – and the slowness of those rounds is strictly illusion. I clocked a pattern row and a purl row, and there’s no difference in the actual time required to knit them.

The shawl is shaping up just as I’d hoped – it appears as if the fir cones have fallen from the trees. Again, this is a reflection of the Washington coastline. On a visit a couple of years back, my husband and I drove up the peninsula, marveling at the way the evergreen-covered mountains tumble into the bay.

The final touch will be to knit on the edging. I thought Crest ‘o the Wave would be appropriate, both for the family background (my dad was also an NCO in the Navy) and the ocean surrounding the peninsula where the children live. I’m planning to use Eunny Jung’s variation from her Print o’ the Wave Stole pattern (, since I prefer it to the ‘standard’ Shetland variation. I’m debating whether to use a garter-stitch ground or the stockinette she shows in her pattern, but since I’ve chosen garter for the rest of the shawl, I’ll probably go with that.

Photos of shawls in progress are pretty bleah, but here’s one for those who can visualize the finished product from the cleaning rag it appears to be now.

Returning to the subject of family traditions, there’s a second installment to this story. Turns out I need to complete another shawl, for another grandchild, before year’s end. While another grandchild is always fantastic news, I must admit that as a knitter I’m a bit overwhelmed. A lace shawl every year or two (or six) isn’t too bad – you’ve got plenty of time to spin, design and knit, and I enjoy the challenge of doing so intermittently. But knitting two shawls in less than a single year is enough to panic even me just a bit!

I’m currently trying to decide whether to start spinning the superfine Jamison & Smith Shetland top I bought (as a possible fiber for a shawl for myself next year) or simply work on the design for the present and leave the spinning until the current shawl is complete. There’s a part of me that is leery of starting another spinning project while I’m still working with this yarn; what if 1200 yards isn’t enough to complete the shawl? I’m doing my usual ‘just in case’ on that possibility – spinning 20-30 yards of the merino/clun forest every couple of days so that I can match the yarn I’ve used to date.

But since designing can be done while knitting (even knitting a different pattern!), I do have a preliminary design in mind for this second shawl. Different parents, different personal histories, so a very different shawl. I’m considering a center star surrounded by Celtic knots flowing into a framed rose pattern for the border. Knit in the round, but with increases placed (after the star is complete) so as to form a square, or perhaps an octagon. I’ll likely continue the rose motif into the edging, unless I find a pattern I like better. Stockinette ground rather than garter. Yes, a very different shawl.

I can hear someone asking if there aren’t enough lovely patterns out there for me to find one that will suit me instead of going through the design process. The short answer is “probably.” The longer explanation is that I want these shawls/baby blankets to be absolutely unique, as is each of these children. These are to be heirlooms, passed down from generation to generation. Each will be accompanied by an explanation of the patterns chosen, and tell the story of how, why and by whom it was made. Luckily, my children grew up with the mindset that certain handmade things are quite special and worthy of protection from the rough and tumble of daily use. So I can count on them to keep these shawls in such a way that they will be available for future generations.

There’s also the fact that I have great difficulty following someone else’s pattern. I want my own individual stamp on anything I make. Otherwise, why spend all that time and energy?

So if you don’t hear much from me for the remainder of this year, now you know why. As happens all too frequently in life, plans for this year have changed drastically– and I’m trying to keep up!


Anonymous said...

What an amazing person you are! That need/want to pass on such a magnificent item is such an amazing burden as a knitter and spinner. You are on wonderful creative journey that I find very inspiring. Congratulations on the impending arrivals, I hope all goes well for your family and your journey.

PJ Kite said...

Thank you, Rebecca! I do hope I've inspired you to do something similar - if not for a special someone, then for yourself!

elizabeth said...

THIS - this is why I'm a spinner and knitter! Of course, I haven't attempted anything like this, but the very idea of it is the whole reason spinning and knitting appeal to me. As a relatively new fiber person, I feel like I have to knit everything RIGHT NOW, but this reminds me of the value in well-thought-out and executed projects, or rather - in this instance - works of history and art.

What a wonderful gift!

PJ Kite said...

It's nice to hear that this is still the sort of project that hooks people into fiberarts, Elizabeth! It's called fiberARTS for a reason, and all too often non-fiber people choose to focus only on the practical side of fiber.

That drive to do everything right away will lessen just a little bit with time (maybe!). For me, the spinning process gives me the time I need to plan (and revise, and revise yet again) the knitting. A personal 'rule' of sorts - don't start the knitting until the spinning is done - enforces that for me. Most of the time... But sometimes you just have to dive right in!

elizabeth said...

You've inspired me to design Christmas stockings for my family. I've wanted to have handknit stockings for awhile and your explanation of picking motifs to suit the parents made me realize that I can do exactly that for each member of my family! Not only will the stockings have their names, but they can also reflect their personalities. Thanks!

PJ Kite said...

That's great, Elizabeth! It sounds like an exciting project, and one of those heirloom projects that family stories are told about for generations! Let me know how it turns out, OK?