More signs of spring are popping up everywhere. I saw a beautiful brown rabbit, an almost perfect Peter Rabbit look-alike, in the driveway last night. Lil’ One: “Hop! Hop! Hop!” My “Lenten Rose” (Helleborus orientalis) is pushing up right on schedule. And last but not least – I bought Lil’ One a “Sheepy-Bunny” at Joann Fabrics when I was out shopping for nice bright fabrics and tiny buttons for my next two creations. What weaver/knitter can resist a sheep with bunny ears?
As I’ve mentioned, spring energizes a bit of a cleaning frenzy. In my digging and re-arranging I came across my very first hand knit sweater:
I must digress with a bit of history here. I learned to knit from my Grandma when I was pretty small, about 8 years old I guess. I made a few simple squares for a Cabbage Patch Doll vest (ooh, I just totally dated myself) and a scarf attempt or two, even a barbie sweater. However, I mostly gravitated toward crewel embroidery and sewing through my middle school years, until I found weaving in high school. College rolled around and I was completely smitten with weaving and spent many weeks at Harrisville Designs, NH, in their unique mill house studios studying with Deb Chandler and Donna Muller. Which brings me to rediscovering knitting. At about 19 or 20, this first full size sweater was well removed from my initial tutelage under my Grandma, and yet I picked up the needles like riding a bike, and was almost instantly in the groove knitting away.
I started my project in Harrisville one summer where I purchased Alice Starmore’s Celtic Collection on a total whim during a weaving workshop. I was inspired by my classmates knitting in the evenings after our intense days of weaving. I chose the “Kilronan” pattern from the lushly photographed pages of Starmore’s book and had someone show me how to cable. As Peaceful Knitter would say, I had a rich “knitting fantasy” of walking through the fall leaves in a New England forest with this fantastic sweater on, high laced up boots and jodhpurs, and a glorious walking stick – horse optional. Being that I was in Harrisville, it seemed completely logical to use what I could grab immediately. I bought about 6 or 7 cones of the shetland weight wool in a delicious “chocolate setter” tweed brown, and took on my very first sweater project. It never even crossed my mind that a complex celtic cable sweater might not be the best beginner’s choice. All was well as I worked along. I even remembered useful tidbits like how to knit back, and how to pick up dropped stitches. It was a great …. 7 year knit. Yes folks, 7 years I worked on it now and then.
So, how did the reality live up to the fantasy after all that? I think the ziplock bag and pinned on note saying “repair” is a testament to the somewhat bittersweet end this sweater story comes to. I was very proud of the finished sweater. I was a beginner, however, and swatching was something new. I had made little tiny swatches up in two colors, mostly to choose the color I liked. I measured to a “good ’nuff” standard and thought I was good to go. On the needles it was everything I imagined. I loved the cables and tweed and looked forward to walking my dogs in style on crisp fall days. In the end, after I put it all together it was not a horrible failure, but it was too small to ever be the luxurious wool topper I intended. I wore it stubbornly for a few years, being sure to tug at it and keep my shoulders down, and then somehow it got put away one spring and just never really came out again. When I moved a few years back I found it, and it had a moth hole and looked pretty worn out. (Blocking was another lesson since learned that may have helped.) I will fix it someday, maybe today even, and hopefully it can be worn again. It is impressive, intricate work – I just wish I had been smarter in the planning phase all those years ago. Live and learn, as they say.
I did learn a few things about careful swatching my very first time out. So now, I share my rules for swatching to keep a 7-year sweater from ending up in a ziplock in the back of a closet.
1. Make your swatch big enough to measure a full four inches in the center well away from the edges. I calculate this by taking the four-inch stitch count, divide by 4, then multiply by 5.5. This ensures enough width to run a selvedge in garter usually, and definitely a four-inch center area from which to measure the gauge.
2. Make it tall enough. Row gauge is a pain, I know, but at least determine if you are close by knitting up three inches between edges so that you can get a good clean 2 inch row count. A full four is better, of course.
3. Use and abuse the swatch just as you would the sweater. One huge error I made in my first sweater swatch was I neither washed nor blocked any of the swatches. I had overlooked the fact I was using weaving yarn which is not “fulled”, and once I washed the sweater the first time it changed dramatically, and shrank. So wash it, squish it, pull it, put it in the dryer, block it, press it, or whatever it takes to make sure when your “real-life” clothing care routine is in play the garment will still fit.
4. As the carpenter might say to the knitter, “measure twice, stitch once”. I place my swatch flat, and without stretching or smooshing it, I lay a ruler over it and mark off four inches in the bottom half of the swatch with two pins. I count it, then do it again somewhere in the top half of the swatch. Then am sure I have a good number. Same thing for row count.
5. Do the math. If your count is even a little off, do the calculations, as onerous as it may seem, to make sure that the size you are making really will fit. If you’re really off, start at 1 again and make another swatch!! You’ll thank me later.
Now, you should never have a swatch related failure again, and neither will I – if I can just follow my own rules😉 !