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Not a Sweater

I know some of Aunt Toby’s readers are looking at the title and saying to themselves, “She’s hitting the sauce because that is TOO a sweater.”

And you are right – that is a sweater, but your dear Aunty does not want you to think of it that way. I want you to think of it as knit material that currently is in the form of three tubes: two sleeves and a body. Because we all (me included) look at finished clothing and unless we are aficionados of certain internet programs such as Threadbangers or some of the sewing blogs, we just see what it is..not see it as potentially something else.

Now, many of us grew up in families where grannies and moms would make over clothing for younger siblings – but usually what happened was that a dress or pair of pants were shortened or taken in. The items still remained in their same basic format – but smaller. I however, grew up in a family where I saw my mom turn several plaid wool skirts into the lining for a great grey duffle coat for my big sister. Pleated plaid skirts have a whole lot of yardage in them, so it was pretty fascinating to me to see my mother take the waistbands off the skirts, undo a few stitches here and there, take out the zipper(which, like the player to be named later, would go into the sewing drawer in the kitchen and turn up in another skirt at another time), steam iron the now flattened pieces, cut out the pattern for the lining, sew it together and voila – clever new warm lining for a winter coat for my sister.

In this particular case, though, we’re looking at knit goods and in their own way, depending on the quality and how they were made, knit goods are even more flexible than clothing made from woven fabrics because first of all, you can actually take them down to their basic components: yarn. We’re not going that far with this, but if you can find a good quality sweater (at home, at a charity shop, consignment or thrift store), with a little bit of care, you can take it apart into its component shapes (sleeves, body, ribbing from the neck if that is a separate piece that’s been sewn on). This only works well if (and you can tell this if you look inside and we’ll do that another time)if the sweater has been made up of what are called ‘sweater bodies’ (that is the knitting machines were set up to knit a separate front, back, and sleeves and the edges are all knitted in) rather than ‘cut and sewn’(which if you look inside, requires them to use an overcast machine to catch all the cut edges so that the sweater does not start to shred and run – really cheap sweaters are ‘cut and sewn’ – nice sweaters are done with sweater bodies). If you have sweater bodies, you can literally unravel the sweater and have yarn for..another sweater.

But we’re not talking about that here. What we’re doing here is taking a sweater that I liked when I saw it (and I still like it, but I’m short and it came with a huge ribbed turtle neck, which is hot, itchy and uncomfortable), and shortening the neck – and yes, we’re going to have to cut it.

I can hear the heavy breathing from here because people do not like to slice into finished stuff. They aren’t too keen on cutting into unfinished goods either, but somehow cutting into a sweater just gives people palpitations. I give you two traditional examples of knitting that uses cutting: Scandinavian sweaters and Fairisle sweaters, which both use a technique called steeking. Suffice it to say that one of the steps (other than laying down in a darkened room with the stiff drink, as the sainted Elizabeth Zimmerman used to caution) is to carefully cut across a bridge to create useful things such as necks and armholes and center front openings. All WE want to do is make the collar shorter.

In this case what I did was this:

1)Measured one inch of stitches in the center front – on this sweater, the ribbing ran approximately 8 rows to the inch, so I knew that in order for me to end up with an inch-wide neck, I was going to need two inches of rows, or 16 rows of stitches.
2)Taking out my trusty box of little safety pins, I counted up from the neck seam 16 rows and put in a safety pin in that spot every inch or so around the neck. Since the neck seam dipped down in the front, if I’d just cut across the ribbing, I’d have only ended up with two inches at the side seams – and I’d have had about 4 inches of ribbing in the center front which is not what I wanted.
3)Taking a cable knitting needle of a size that I thought would work (these stitches were not particularly fine, so I was using a US size 2), I inserted one tip at a side seam, and following the safety pins, picked up every stitch around(since the ribbing is 2 knits/2 purls, that was pretty easy to keep track of).
4)Here’s the ‘take two aspirins, lay down and then take a stiff drink’ part: Taking my trusty sharp scissors, I cut the ribbed fabric about 3 rows above where I’d picked up the stitches. I then overcast them (I did it by hand; you can do it with the zigzag or overcast on a sewing machine but I find that it tends to pull out the edges of the ribbing and the end product doesn’t work really well for me when I try to sew it in).

Now to harvest some yarn from the left over turtleneck:
1) Most commercial sweaters are knit in pieces and then, using what’s called a ‘linker machine’ put together. That means that usually a turtle neck or other collar piece is knit in a way that the raw edge is what is linked up with the neck (which is the opposite of what happens with a handmade sweater, where the neck stitches are picked up and then knit up from there). So, the part of the collar closest to my face is the bottom and the edge that I need to unravel is the part that was linked up to the sweater.
2) Do not panic. Deep breathing helps.
3) Take the top edge and say these words, “this is not the edge I want; I want the side I cut.” Flip the collar so that the cut edge is toward you. There may be a seam. Find that and undo that(trusty scissors again).
4) Find the end – it might take several tries but you’ll find it if you continue to pull out yarn. Trust me. It might take a bit of doing but you can do it.
5) Unravel yarn and wind it around something like a piece of cardboard, the left over tube from toilet paper, etc. You’ll need a good bit but turtlenecks have enormous amounts of yarn in them; unwind enough for a ball that slightly smaller than your fist.

Back to the neck:
1) Knit (or knit and purl – whatever the pattern is) one row on your cable needle, using the harvested yarn.
2) Bind off, in the ribbing pattern, using the harvested yarn. Leave a long tail (three times the circumference of the neck should do it).
3) Pin down the bound off edge, matching that to the neck seam. You will be bending under those three extra rows that you used when you cut the neck. It’s OK – the sweater will not fly to pieces.
4) Using the long tail and a darning needle, sew LOOSELY to the neck seam, stretching it a little bit as you go so that you end up with a nice, easy neck.
5) Voila – you are done!!

Here are a couple of sites where people just like us (well, some are a lot younger than us..) are doing fabulous things with radical makeovers on clothing):

Slapdash Sewist
Pattern Review Recycling Contest

(Steek Cutting photo from Steven)

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  1. Laura says:

    Great post, Aunt Toby. (I’m a big Threadbanger fan/subscriber. SUCH fun.) And ANY post that references the marvelous and much-missed Elizabeth Zimmerman is a-one in my book! Just yesterday I went through my box of wool sweaters I’ve been collecting from thrift stores and felting, with an eye toward upcycling them (I have a lot of projects in mind). There is something about cutting into a wool sweater–even when felted– that does take the breath away.

    I knew a woman who grew up in war-time Germany. She learned to knit from yarn her mother obtained by unraveling a very fine merino wool sweater. Both projects (obtaining the wool and a six year old knitting with it) sounded hellacious. May all of us, everywhere, be able to knit in peace!

  2. Toby Wollin says:

    My mom, who was a nurse/midwife in WWII in Scotland and London, talked about the whole ‘picking down’ process that they went through. She is also the person who taught me that you can make dessert out of anything – including stale cookies.

  3. Laura says:

    And let us remember the six (I think it was) families mentioned in Joy of Cooking who among them shared a single bay leaf, used again and again!

  4. Toby Wollin says:

    hehehe..Laura – that reminds me of George Carlin’s comment that if you don’t have deoderant, just use a bay leaf’ll smell like chicken soup!!

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