Monday, February 25, 2008

Video clip of A Better Way to Knit

At long last! Video of using a knitting sheath! It is not Star Wars quality, but this is my first try at VIDEO.

Without any more fuss:

I whittled this knitting sheath with a chip knife, just as a sailor of old might have. The “z” twist rope pattern provides excellent support, and is one of my favorites. The needles, I made from steel rod from the local hardware store. A set of such needles can be made in a few minutes with the tools that most home owners would have in their workshops for a materials and supplies a cost of a couple of dollars per set. Very good needles are also available from J&S ( at a reasonable cost. (No connection)

Note also, the Fair Isle heel. Using a knitting sheath also makes knitting Fair Isle easy, but that video is for another day.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Sheep and Goats in the Backcountry

A couple of mountain goatthat I photographed in Montana a while back.
I "used-up" some commercial wool socks on that trip.
Hand knit socks are better.

Good Socks

I like pretty girls. I like pretty socks on a pretty girl. However, I also like to hike, ski, garden, and spend time out of doors. For that, I like socks that are comfortable. There are times when I want socks that will stand up to a good long walk (days). I like to take my pretty wife with me on those walks, and I tell you she is not as pretty if her feet hurt.
My wife and a Sherpa friend on a summit in Nepal at dawn. (You cannot tell how cold it was that morning. The other Sherpa were huddling, shivering, and cropped out of the photo.)

I see a lot of knitters selecting soft, and softer yarns to knit into socks. That is fine if all you want to do is sit around and look pretty. However, if they actually go walking in those socks, those soft luxuary yarns disintegrate into lint and holes. There is a certain functional beauty to a hiking sock (or ski sock) that keeps your feet comfortable so that you can think about the birds and the bees rather thinking about your feet and blisters.

As a boy, I was trained to wear two pair of socks in my boots. By the 1990s, I had settled on a polypropylene liner and a wool-pile boot sock. The sales clerks at the mountain sport shops assured me that was state of the art, but I was never happy with that combination. In the year 2000, I started knitting. Boot socks were an obvious early project. I tried the Briggs and Little yarns. I tried Lopi with more success. The results were good, but not perfect. For example, my wife told me some of the Lopi socks were too scratchy. All in all, last fall, I found myself short of boot socks and determined to knit myself some really good ones. First, how thick? With good wool socks, does one need a liner sock? Results from some of the Lopi yarns convinced me that a good, hand knit wool sock did not need a liner or an outer sock. One good sock was all that was needed. I swatched a bunch of yarns. I Knit one sock of one yarn and another sock of another yarn, put them on and walked up mud ridge and back (15 miles). Then, I looked at the condition of my feet, and the condition of the socks. The soft yarns fell apart. That resulted in blisters. Many of the sock yarns with nylon in them were not much better.

What I ended up liking was MacAusland's 2-ply med yarn for winter socks and 2 ply fine for spring and fall socks. MacAusland's Woolen Mill on Price Edward Island ( ) is a funky old mill with equipment still powered by leather belts running across the ceiling. The yarn is sold in skeins and it retains a stinky spinning oil. I discovered it by talking to a hooked rug maker on Cape Breton Island. (Yes, she uses it as "rug wool"!) I made a detour to find MacAusland's. It was worth the effort. If you buy from the mill or mail order, you will need to wash the yarn before you knit with it. It is worth the effort. The yarn is not expensive, and for some things, it is the best yarn that I have knit. It comes from real sheep, and it has real veggy matter in it. It is still worth the effort. I have no association with MacAusland.

I ended up developing two patterns, both based on the Dad's Function over Form socks at; except that to get them as tight as I wanted them, I knit them on I had to use #3 steel needles - with sharp points for the med yarn and #1 needles for the fine. The gussets were picked up and the first 2 rows of gusset stitches were knit on # 1 steel needles. I hate holes in my gussets.

Here is what I think good boot socks should look like, tried, washed, and dried. The clerks at the mountain sports shops do not have really good boot socks to sell. I know they like to hike, and I know their feet will not be as comfortable as mine.
The natural color yarn is somewhat softer than the dyed yarns. The yarn gains softness when it is well washed and rinsed in a conditioner. The fabric is firm, but not unpleasantly so. Knitting large and felting down always produced fabric that was too stiff for my comfort. The hiking and gardening sock has a Fair Isle heel to protect my heel from the stiff counter in my hiking and gardening boots and ribbing to the toe for extra ventilation. The ski sock does not have the ribbing for firmer control. I will post a pattern on ravelry real soon now.

Below is the tool set used to produce these socks.
This Flemish style knitting sheath was worn at my right elbow, tucked into a heavy leather belt. The z twist of the pattern, provides extra stability for firm knitting. Yes, z twist is better than s twist in this case. It is not possible to knit this tight without a knitting sheath. And, the firmness of the knitting really improves the quality of the socks. After this project, I have greater respect for this little tool kit.
The red stitch marker was cut from a plastic straw.

My wife in her new hiking socks this afternoon. She liked them so much that she aquired the hiking socks that I had just knit for myself. Oh well! There is more yarn where that came from!

(I have no relationship with MacAusland's, except that I bought some of their yarn.)

Sunday, February 10, 2008

More basics

This is the mouth of my poor old Cornish fish (a knitting sheath that is strong enough to support long steel needles). It had worn until it was oval, and been re-enforced with different glues and epoxy. This morning it got a brass insert. We will see if that helps.

When I started learning about knitting sheaths, I was told that I would need curved gansey needles, which were no longer available. In fact the straight needles gansey needles work just best, but they aquire a curve as they are used over a period of hundreds of hours. Then, I pound them straight again and go back to my knitting. Curved needles were used with knitting sheaths for knitting miniatures, but that is an altogether different technique.

If you see a knitting sheath with brass insert (or a metal knitting sheath or knitting heart) then I know from sad past experience that it was used with metal needles. A knitting sheath with a metal mouth destroys wooden knitting needles.

One can knit socks without a knitting sheath. I could even knit hats, hoods, and scarves without my Goose Wing knitting sheath. I would knit slower, and there would be more stress on the hands and wrists, but I could do it. (Actually, I can make another knitting sheath in an hour with just my pocket knife and a candle.)

Real ganseys are another matter. Real. wind -proof ganseys (sailor's frocks) are another matter altogether. I cannot knit that tight, long enough to finish a gansey without a knitting sheath. Here I am testing the new "brass dentures" of my Cornish Fish, using 18" long US #1 double pointed steel gansey needles. The fish is tucked into my pants waist band over my right hip and the working needle is flexed forward under my right arm.

This is just back and forth swatching rather than real "in the round" knitting.

I am still amazed at how a knitting sheath tames these long needles. Such long needles are unmanageable without a knitting sheath. These gansey needles are even too long to use with a knitting pouch.

However, once you understand the technique, they make knitting a gansey ever so much easier and faster.

Another view showing how the yarn is held in my right hand. It is possible to knit "continental" style using a knitting sheath. Knitting continental style, one can knit even faster, but the fabric is significantly looser, and purling is more difficult.
Since my focus is on warm fabrics, I like to knit tightly, and I like stitches that add texture. Therefore, I usually hold the yarn in my right hand. Still, I knit fairly fast, and I can knit for exteded periods of time without much stress on my hands and wrists.

Back to basics

Here, I am knitting a sock with sock needles and a nice little knitting sheath made out of a Brittany Birch crochet hook.

This little system is light, inexpensive, and is the fast way to knit socks. The knitting sheath allows Me to knit faster than I can knit without it. For Fair Isle and standed knitting I can knit a whole lot faster. Your results may vary.

This is another view of the the knitting sheath shown above. I refer to this style of knitting sheath as "Flemish".

This is a classic "goose wing" shaped knitting sheath that I made from piece of oak. This style was common in Yorkshire. For scale it is shown with 10" long, #3 needles.

This it the goose wing knitting sheath in use. Note the differece in position between this the "Flemish" design in use with the sock needles above. Some Flemish designes work very in this position. Some do not. The most beautiful knitting sheath that I ever carved is Flemish style. It works well with sock needles, but falls out when I try to tuck it at my side in this position. It is just too polished. I was trying too hard to to avoid the "old wooden spoon" look.

Here is a "Cornish fish" style of knitting sheath. This one is carved of California Black Walnut, and is one of the best knitting sheaths I have ever produced. Unfortunatly, it is about worn out and will be tossed in the fire soon.

It is as ugly as an old wooden spoon, but it has served me well.

Saturday, February 09, 2008


For hundreds of years, most knitters made their own knitting sheaths. Many must have been "funky.” Certainly, we have examples of sailors scrimshaw and sailor carved knitting sheaths that were real art. These became sentimental keepsakes. However, knitting sheaths as tools wore out in a couple of thousand hours, the knitter made themselves another and they tossed the old one into the fire.

Knitting sheaths were tools that wore out. They carved themselves a knitting sheath that was the right size and shape, and had a nice feel, but it was just a tool that would be tossed in the fire in 6 months.

As I started making knitting sheaths, I was looking for, “What would work?” “What was the right size?” I make a bunch of rather “funky” knitting sheaths. Many did not work very well. Some of them worked. Some of them worked very well. One of the very best is in the photo.

It was on the kitchen table this morning. My wife said, “That looks funky!” Nobody would want it. She did admit that it had a lovely feel to it in the hand.

It was carved from California Black Walnut, and it does have a nice feel to it. It feels good in the hand, it feels good in the belt, and it works very well. It is not pretty, but it works very well and it is a pleasure to use. It only cost me a few minutes whittling to make, and when it wears out, I will toss it in the fire. It is not a pretty keepsake, but it is a good functional tool.