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Getting more satisfaction from your knitting – hints and tricks

Aunt Toby has not always been a knitter. My mom tried to teach me how to knit several times when I was quite young and then gave up (given her lack of success teaching me other stuff, I think there was a personality clash there someplace..). I was actually taught how to successfully knit by an elderly lady who was teaching a class at the YWCA for the once-a-week “Y-Teens’ group (which I realize dates me terribly but what the heck). Now, this was a very no-nonsense Italian lady who was not going to fiddle around with scarves or washcloths or anything like that. She started right off with mittens. Two-needle mittens (which meant that we had to learn to also sew them up afterwards), and she had us bring two balls of yarn and cast on both of them at the same time (horrors!) so that we’d finish both of them … at the same time. Clever as all get out. No one left that class with one mitten done and a half a mitten on the needles, nosireee Bob — two mittens, all done, all sewn up, all ready to wear.

I never forgot that. Later on, when I struggled with my own knitting, I realized that one of my biggest problems in terms of getting satisfaction from my knitting was that whenever I did anything that came in twos, I ended up with ones. Mittens, gloves, socks, sleeves. If it came in twos, I ran out of gas and entered Knitters ADD and ended up with one sock, one mitten, one glove and one sleeve. Oh, I’d also have the front and back done on the sweater, but one sleeve. Which meant that I ended up making a LOT of sweater vests and ripping down the one sleeve so that I had extras for hats, which of course only come in ones so I was safe with hats. But my kids and the DH got a lot of vests over the years.

Which made me feel rather unsuccessful with my knitting until I remembered Mrs. Iacovino (remind me sometime to tell you the story about a holiday party at her house which involved a ham left on the open oven door, a kitchen with a swinging door and a very very large white cat) and her trick with the mittens.

So, here’s my first tip: Finishing projects is Job One when it comes to gaining satisfaction with your knitting. It doesn’t matter if you do perfect gauge blocks, follow patterns to the nth degree or anything like that. If the item is not completed, you will not feel successful with your knitting. So. See the picture at the top? Those are the cuffs from two sleeves for a sweater for my grandson which are on one large circular needle (you don’t have to use circular needles, but it might help). I already did the body in one big strip that I am going to sew up on the side. When I get to the point on the sleeves at the underarm, I will stop, sew up the seam in the sleeves, and put the sleeves in the appropriate places on the big circular needle with the rest of the body (see Elizabeth Zimmerman Percentage System – just search on that one and there are a zillion hits on that). Then I will knit the rest of the sweater in one big piece, getting smaller as I go. At the end, I will have a whole sweater with two sleeves attached with a teeny bit of sewing at the armpits. No sweating, no guilt about one sleeve and no finished sweater. I recommend this method highly. It also will work for mittens, gloves (yes, there are two-needle glove patterns out there), and socks (ditto on the socks but you will have a seam up the back). And for those of us who don’t want to diddle around with knitting on 4 (or, if you following the European needles, 5) needles with the paralyzing worry about ‘do not twist the first stitch’, doing it this way is the answer to a knitter’s prayer.

Second Tip: For those folks out there who are diving into the whole vintage styles/clothing thing and are interested in vintage knits, you will notice (and everyone does – it’s the first thing that smacks you in the eye) that between the mid-30s and mid-50s, sweaters were rather, ahem, close fitting. There are several reasons for that. First, there were two sorts of sweaters at that time – sweaters that were worn right over an undershirt or slip like the knit tops we wear today and sweaters that were worn right over those or were worn over some sort of shirt or blouse. Central heating as we know it today was very different during that period which also coincided with not only the Great Depression but also the Second World War and ‘The New Look”. Shorter, fitted styles were not only in fashion but also took less yarn to knit up and therefore were more thrifty.

If you are going for a vintage look, you can find vintage and vintage style patterns but many times they are not designed for the bodies that people have today. Not only were people shorter and smaller in that period than we are today, they also were thinner primarily for two reasons: The Great Depression and the rationing during WWII. So, finding a vintage sweater pattern if your bust measures 40″+ at its widest point is a challenge. It’s easier to work with sweater patterns of today in lighter weight yarns and put in some features that give them that vintage look. The two biggest are shoulder pads (no biggie there; you can find shoulder pads to either Velcro(tm) attach or sew in) and shaping, particularly at the waist.

Now, there are multiple ways of making a sweater ‘suck in’ between the hips and the bust line:
1) Make the sweater actually smaller there by either putting in knitted darts or binding off a series of stitches at the edges on the front and back sides of the sweater as you knit the waist area. Of course, once you’ve done that and have knitted 3-6″ of waist area (depending on how tall you are and how long or short waisted your are), you have to put them back so that you have room for your bust and shoulder blades.
2) Make the fabric of the sweater smaller in that area by using a smaller size needle for the waist area and then switching back to a larger size needle. A good rule of thumb on that is using a needle 2-3 sizes smaller.
3) Make the fabric of the sweater ‘smaller’ in that area by using some crafty knitting stitches which suck the fabric in but which, when needed, will be flexible. The most common method of doing this is by using ribbing. And that is what is being demonstrated in that photo. The yarn which I used for this has a bit of alpaca in it, which is not the springiest yarn in the world. Which is another thing – certain yarns have more spring and elasticity to them – wool and wool blends are very good for this; alpaca, mohair, silk, linen, cotton, raimie, and hemp are not.

At the bottom of the swatch, I did garter stitch to show you just how wide 24 stitches on this needle are. The next bit is 2 knit/2 purl ribbing, which is a very popular ribbing scheme. See how you can see both the 2 purls and the 2 knits. They are on the same plane. And you can also see from the bending in at the edges that this sucks in the fabric a bit.

Then, I did some stocking stitch to separate this from the next ribbing scheme, which is frankly my favorite: 2 knits and 1 purl. You will see that you can’t see the purl in this ribbing the way you can with the 2 knit 2 purl (2K2P) ribbing, can you? That’s because it’s sucked down to the back side of the swatch. The reason for this is that every time you switch directions on the stitches (from the knit to the purl, you are flipping the yarn to the front or the back of the needle), this increases the tension in the knitting, which pulls it in. This is the same 24 stitches for the garter stitch, the 2K2P ribbing, and the 2K1P ribbing. In those 24 stitches, we get 6 changes of direction in the 2K2P ribbing and 8 changes of direction in the 2K1P ribbing, a 33% increase in changes of direction and therefore in tension in the knitting in the piece. I find 2K1P ribbing to be much more stretchy and elastic than 2K2P but also much more springy even after being stretched out. So, if I want to build in a vintage look to the waist of a sweater, I put in a panel of 2K1P into the waist area and then when I want to go back to regular stocking stitch once I get to area just below the bust, I just change to the stocking stitch. No decreasing the stitches, no increasing the stitches, just go back to stocking stitch.

Now, if you want to make this area fancier and get even MORE ‘suck in’ on it, you can build in cables. Rule of thumb on this one is this: The more ribs you put into the individual cable, the more ‘suck in’ you get. For example, a simple two-rib cable has less ‘suck in’ than a three or four rib cable and so on.

Don’t be afraid to do up swatches to see what the combinations of needs and your yarns do in terms of stocking stitch and then ribbing. This will give you a better idea of what the result will be. But it’s an easy and simple way to get a vintage look for your sweater and still have it be comfortable to wear.

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One Comment

  1. Duchesse says:

    My mother was a stellar knitter who simply, as a Depression bride, never considered that one would not finish a project, or use that little odd bit left as stripes in mittens or socks. (“Oh”, we’d say, “I remember that colour!”)

    Learned to knit but got so tense that my projects were often discoloured by my sweaty hands. I abandoned knitting for the more immediate gratification of sewing, as in, run up a little fake fur miniskirt to wear that night.

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