Knitting to gauge
Last weekend I took my first-ever knitting class. I’ve been knitting for 45 years, but never took a class before. I learned by what my mother and grandmother taught me, by reading patterns over and over again until I “got it,” or by asking any sympathetic knitter I could find – usually the owner of the local yearn store. (Nice typo! Of course I meant “yarn store,” but it’s always a “yearn store” for me as well.)
About two years ago I decided to get serious with my knitting and challenge myself to try things I have never tried before. There are so many beautiful patterns out now, and such wonderful materials to work with; I wanted to make something (many somethings) with my own hands that were lovely, complicated, and appropriately difficult. I felt it was time to stretch my mind and try something that I knew would be hard for me, but not impossible. I know the importance of keeping those synapses firing as I age, and this is a fun way to challenge my brain cells while producing something beautiful and useful.
Here’s the reason I knew it would be difficult. When I was a junior in high school, we took IQ tests. (We probably had taken them earlier as well, but this is the year that I remember.) When the results came back, I was called in to the principal’s office and told that I would have to take the test again. No explanation was given; this was all very buttoned up and hush-hush. So I took the test again. What I learned later (my mother had her ways of finding out what was going on) is that I had scored so much lower in the Spatial Relations part of the test than the rest of it that they assumed there had been a mistake in the scoring. Second time, same results. This girl is abysmal in Spatial Relations.
So knitting and sewing are challenging for me. It takes a huge effort for me to look at a sewing pattern, for example, which is printed to show the garment inside out, and figure out what it’s supposed to look like when it’s finished. It’s a little easier with knitting, for some reason, but there are still plenty of spatial challenges. Oh, and math challenges, too. Did I mention that I was pretty much a Math Moron after seventh grade?
So last weekend I gave myself a Saturday and hied me off to The Mannings (left photo -- click on it to enlarge), which I am told is the largest and oldest yarn store in the country. And it happens to be right here in central Pennsylvania, off in the middle of nowhere. Isn’t this bucolic looking? Wouldn’t you just like to move in and spend the rest of your days knitting there? I was enthralled!
My class was on gauge, a knitting essential which I have pretty much ignored for the past 43 years. When I got serious about knitting two years ago, I realized I was going to have to pay attention to gauge if I wanted things to fit, and this three-hour class gave me all sorts of good reasons to knit swatches and figure out gauge – not just for the increased likelihood that things might fit when completed, but also as a way to try out pattern stitches and see how the material behaves.
I’m about to launch into Elizabeth Zimmerman’s Baby Surprise Jacket, a classic that has probably been knit by every serious knitter since the 1950’s. It’s a real spatial relations test! And while gauge probably doesn’t matter all that much for a baby sweater, I am using unfamiliar yarn (Sirdar Tango, which knits up sort of like terrycloth) and I needed to do some experimenting to figure out what size needles to use.
In the middle is a photo of my first swatch, using size 5 needles. (You can enlarge this by clicking on it, too, but who would want to do that?) Way too big! The fabric was floppy and loose, just generally unsightly and unsatisfying. Furthermore, look at how it bulges on the sides. (This is a 6” swatch, much bigger than I really needed to make it, but I have plenty of yarn.) I tried out some stripes, and learned that two rows (bottom) or four rows (top) of contrasting color look okay, but three rows (middle) looks downright weird.
On my next swatch (right photo), I used an edge that I learned from sock knitting: knit to last stitch, put yarn in front, slip last stitch as if to purl, and on the beginning of the next row knit that stitch through the back loop. It makes a tidy edge that stayed tidy through being machine washed with a load of towels and jeans. The gauge was nearly right with size 3 needles. So I’m knitting the sweater with size 2’s, and now I know that it won’t shrink in the washing machine and dryer, for which the Mom of this not-yet-born baby will thank me. I’m a firm believer that baby clothes should be completely washable.
Stay tuned for photos as I sweat my way through this simple but not intuitive pattern.
And if anyone knows how to post a blog entry with the text wrapped around the photos, instead of having them all appear at the top, please let me know! (Does anyone else find Blogger very difficult to work with?)