Monday, July 21, 2008

More on Pit Knitting

Look at her go! (I have been watching knitting videos—again!) Pit knitters can be wicked fast. And, they can knit tighter without damaging their wrists. So, why do I bother with knitting sheaths?

I have been experimenting with pit knitting. It has its virtues, and its faults.

Fault 1, Pit knitting with fine needles (DPN) for fabrics designed to be worn in cold weather is uncomfortable.

Fault 2, Pit knitting does not let me use the spring of the needles to knit faster and tighter.

That is my story and I am sticking to it.

Knitting Warm Woolens

My rules of thumb. Not yet edited up, but just as a data dump.

"Spinning in the grease" does not make warmer woolens. The old fisherman’s wives knew a lot about keeping sailors warm . They washed the wool so they could dye it, then they added a spinning oil, spun the yarn, knit the object, fulled the object, and then re-oiled the wool. It worked in the days of fishing the Banks in open boats, and it works today. The spinning oil does affect how tightly the yarn can be spun, and that affects the ultimate weatherproofness of the knit object. Oiled wool does stay drier, but it only takes a drop.

As a reference look at some 5-ply gansey yarn. Firmly spun yarns are required for knit items that much have a good warmth to weight ratio. Tightly spun yarns are required for knit items that must shed water or be windproof. (Spinning on wool wheel (spindle) will allow tigher spinning than using a flier.) Very tightly spun plies, loosely plied together (such as Lion Brand Fisherman’s Wool) when very tightly knit also produces a weatherproof fabric. Early in your spinning career, it is worth knitting swatches of these yarns, and thinking about the fabrics produced. Tightness of knitting is critical for weatherproofness and warmth.

Think of a knitting needle as a lever for moving yarn. (Or, even a lever for packing yarn together to form a tighter fabric.) Hand held needles provide a mechanical advantage of 1:3. With a knitting sheath you have a mechanical advantage of 1:30 or 1:50. This additional leverage allows knitting tighter. Hand held needles can not apply enough force on the yarn to pack it tight enough to produce weatherproof garments. My needles for outdoor wear are #1 with Aran weight for downhill ski wear and #1 with worsted weight for general cold weather wear. I knit 10 wpi yarns at 5 spi. Those yarns are packed against each other in the fabric.

Finer wools ( merino, Shetland) are better for dry cold. Coarser wools (Cotswold) are better for shedding water. Woolen spun is better for dry cold, worsted spun is better for blocking wind and water.

Some decorative stitches such as Lizard Lattice dramatically improve the warmth of the fabric. Fair Isle, twining, and weaving dramatically increase the warmth of a fabric. For foul weather wear, woolens need to be completely washed and fulled after knitting. This process will take essentially all of the spinning oil off of the wool! It can be easily replaced by adding a drop of baby oil or a drop of lanolin to the final rinse water. This works as well as spinning in the grease, and is less likely to smell or attract moths, and it allows washing the woolens at the end of the trip or season, or whenever they need to be washed. I repeat myself because this is a common misconception.

In cold damp weather, very tightly knit woolens will become damp on their outer surface as moisture from the body passes through the fabric and condenses on the cold outer surface of the fabric. This can be reduced by dying the wool blue so that the outer surface of the garment absorbs some sunlight.. The sunlight keeps the surface of the wool warmer so that less moisture condenses. Using a naturally dark colored wool is better than a lighter colored wool, but not as good as navy blue. This is a tiny effect, but it works surprisingly well. Note the blue wool will increase surface condensation at night, so it is worth wearing an outer garment (oil skin) at night. If worn under foul weather gear (oil skins) then cables and bobbles allow ventilation between the oil skin and the gansey which tends to keep the outer surface of the gansey drier.

Loose knit wear tends to flap around and pump air through the fabric, dramatically reducing the warmth of the garment. Snuggly fitting knit wear is warmer.

Cold feet one morning in the days before I knit.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Belts v. Sheaths

I keep going back to the question, “Why did knitting belts survive when knitting sheaths died out?”

There are three basic answers that keep coming to me.

The first is that there was more social stigma to using a knitting sheath than to using a knitting belt. As the Fair Isle knitting industry started up in the late Victorian era, the knitters needed to knit as fast as possible. Previously, most professional knitters had used the cheaper knitting sheath, thus knitting belts escaped the social stigma attached to professional knitting. However, for Fair Isle, a knitting belt was as good as a knitting sheath without the social stigma. The knitting belt was more akin to the knitting heart worn by ladies for leisure knitting and thereby socially acceptable.

Second, Fair Isle sweaters started being knit for tourists or for export in late Victorian times. They were knit more loosely than the older sweaters knit for local consumption. The firm support of a wooden knitting sheath was not required for this looser knitting. A knitting belt was a softer, more comfortable device that gave adequate support to the needles for the type of knitting being done.

Finally, even Shetland fishermen were using “steam” vessels by 1900, and did not have the same need for warmth that earlier fishermen on sail boats required. (Working in the rigging in foul weather puts special requirements on the seaman’s clothing.) Thus, in late Victorian times the need for the very warm clothing that could only be produced by fine steel needles was much reduced. (If your boat has an engine, and you do not need to go into the rigging, then a “pea coat” is almost as good as a gansey, and much cheaper to produce. Fishermen are nothing if not thrifty!) Therefore, the need for knitting sheaths to support fine steel needles died out. Over time the knowledge of how to make and use knitting sheaths died out, while knitting belts continued to produce Fair Isle knitting for tourists and export.

If you are going to be knitting Fair Isle sweaters, a knitting belt really is a good tool. It is better than “pit knitting” or trying to hold a #2 DPN in your thigh crease.

On the other hand, if you want to knit fine socks, warm ganseys, or an Aran for your mouse, then a knitting sheath is better. The down side of knitting sheaths is that they must fit the needles. The upside of knitting sheaths is they are the most ergonomic, and you can knit things with them that are very difficult to knit in any other way.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Pit Knitting

Holding a long DPN under your arm as you knit (“pit knitting”) is a way to control long DPN and to obtain additional mechanical advantage for knitting tighter. Knitting tighter is a good way to produce warmer fabrics for wear out of doors or in structures without central heat.

As with anything in knitting, there are a number of variants to pit knitting that work, and there are tradeoffs between the various styles. The needle can be held higher in the armpit or just above the elbow. The needle can pass under the right thumb or above the thumb in a pencil like grip. Then, there are still all the variations of holding the yarn. Thus, pit knitting encompasses a whole collection of knitting styles. These are documented in various videos on the Internet, and as I look around groups of knitters in California, I usually see a pit knitter or two.

The fact that pit knitters make it to the world speed knitting championships reminds us that pit knitting can be wicked fast, and a quick look at the ergonomics of pit knitting shows that it puts less stress on the hands and wrists than most knitting styles.

Many of the virtues of pit knitting are the same as the virtues of using a knitting sheath. Is there still an advantage to using a knitting sheath? I believe that there are several.

First, pit knitting requires long needles. Short needles are handy for socks, gloves and other small items. The owner of our LYS is a pit knitter for large items, but she knits small items on sock needles or small circular needles. Knitting sheaths work very well for even miniature needles.

Second, pit knitting works better with larger needles, and is more difficult with finer needles. Knitting sheaths can work with any size or length of needle.

Third, pit knitting works better with single point needles. The double pointed needles used to knit seamless garments are less convenient for pit knitting. I like the seamless comfort and durability of sweaters knit in the round without seams. (I just had a sweater come apart along the its seams.)

Fourth, pit knitting does not stabilize a steel needle sufficiently to take advantage of its spring action. It is this spring action that makes long thin steel needles such wonderful tools.

Fifth, once a knitting sheath is put on and adjusted, the needle position is very stable. In pit knitting, the needle tends to move, which can interrupt knitting. Moreover, in tight knitting as the stitches are slid along the working, sometimes the needle can be pushed against the chair back. This changes the work zone and may not be good for the chair.

Sixth, in every pit knitting style that I have seen, or been able to devise, the right wrist does have more stress on it than with good knitting sheath technique. Ultimately, the ergonomics are not as good for pit knitting as for knitting with a knitting sheath with the needle under the thumb, and using the good old English lever throw. Knitting continental style with a knitting sheath can also be very ergonomic, but continental purling often seems to put a torque on the left wrist

Holding the working needle in the thigh crease improves ergonomics over pit knitting, but I do not like to hold fine DPN in my thigh crease and holding a needle in the thigh crease does not allow the use of short sock needles. Nor, can I hold a steel DPN in my thigh crease tight enough to take advantage of the spring of the steel. Moreover, I do not get the kind of consistent needle placement that I get with a knitting sheath, but this may be just a matter of practice.
Over all, I think it would be a waste of effort for me to practice pit knitting or crease knitting. Knitting belts are better, and knitting sheaths are better still

This raises a serious question, "Why do the professional knitters in the Shetlands use knitting belts, rather than knitting sheaths?" Stay tuned for the next post.