Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Inventory of knitting methods

Most modern knitters would say that one's method or style of knitting is purely a matter of personal preference.  I add that a knitter's knitting style affects the fabric that they produce.

First, I would divide knitting styles by the tools used:

  1. single point needles (SPN) (including single point cable needles)
  2. double point needles (DPN) (including hand held sock needles)
  3. gansey needles (DPN)  (hand held or pit knitting)
  4. double point cable needles (CN)
  5. nalbinding needle 
  6. sock needles with knitting stick
  7. gansey needles with knitting sheath
  8. Shetland long needles with knitting pouch
  9. swaving pricks with knitting sheath
  10. Portuguese knitting hooks 
  11. other hooking and frame knitting tools
On Ravelry, they take the first 4 of those tool kits and claim to find a couple of hundred different knitting techniques. I am not so sharp eyed, and would say that these are all variations on a few knitting methods, that include, but are not limited to: English, American, continental, Portuguese, Irish Cottage, and Weldon.

For me, the English style produces better gauge, the continental is faster, and Irish Cottage /Weldon are remarkable for showing off a young woman's pretty hands. (With hand held needles, I revert to continental, which I learned because I was told it would allow me to knit faster.) 


Kits 1, 2, 4, and 5 are tools that are easy to carry to a tea, to market, to court, and while traveling.  The downside to these tools is that they do not facilitate knitting very fast, or very tight. Nalbinding can produce Eastern Cross Stitch, but slowly. Portuguese knitting hooks (10) are also portable, and allow production of ECS faster than nalbinding, but slower than knitting with a knitting stick.

Any knit fabric can be done by Nalbinding. It is the most versatile, and the slowest method of producing a knit fabric. It is widely used for repair and restoration, so it is well known to museum curators. Nalbinding can also produce fabrics that cannot be knit. On the other hand, knitting can produce fabrics that are not economically practical to nalbind. 


Over the last 15 years, I have visited archaeology sites and historical museums around the world. By and large, I found archaeologists woefully ignorant of knitting sheath technology. Curators at knitting museums in the UK, knew about knitting sheaths, but had not made replicas and learned to use them.  They could not produce fabric samples that could be handled and tested. And, they did not have working knitting sheaths with appropriate needles to test and identify wear marks that could be used to separate broken DPN from broken  "awls"  at  archaeology sites.  The nature of broken DPN was the first lesson that I learned as I started using knitting sheaths.  This constrained my thinking until Pressfield pushed me to look at metal trade routes in the late Bronze Age.

While any knit fabric can be made by nalbinding, the process is too expensive for some purposes. For example, socks worn with sandals in a sandy environment have a short life span. Socks made by knitting would have half the cost, and be more practical. On the other hand, for a sentimental keepsake, no price is too high, and nalbinding is the perfect production technology. Here, a rare (keepsake) item is more likely to be preserved, while the more common item is likely to be discarded and not preserved.  In such analysis, one must consider not only the cost of the particular object, but also the time invested in the development process to work out construction details. Objects with sophisticated detail are likely to be the result of generations of design. Generations of design suggest a lower cost method of production such as knitting rather than nalbinding.  That is, a room full of knitters, each knitting 3 pair of socks per week is more likely to get all the details correct, than a wife nalbinding one pair of socks per year.  (It is one thing to work from a written pattern, and something very different to just work from memory.)

Tool kits 6 to 9 can be used to produce any fabric produced by tool kits 1 to 4, but they can also be used to produce fabrics that cannot be reasonably produced by kits 1 to 4.

Short DPN with a knitting stick (tool kit 6) is the right tool kit for knitting socks with patterned stitches including Eastern Crossed Stitch, clocks, and Argyle. Knitting sheaths/sticks change the physics of the process, and allow faster and tighter knitting.  


With a knitting sheath, I use an English style of knitting that give me a tighter and more consistent gauge. Knitting English style with a knitting stick, I knit much faster than I can knit continental with hand held needles, so I do not feel that I need the extra speed resulting from knitting continental. And, with a knitting sheath, I do not find continental to be that much faster.

Modern knitters (using hand held needles) dismiss the virtues of Eastern (or Western) Cross Stitch because it is not worth the extra effort. However, it is so much extra effort because they have forgotten how to use knitting sheaths or Portuguese knitting hooks to knit such fabrics rapidly and easily. The right tools and skills make these fabrics feasible. Choice between ECS and WCS for a project depends on direction of ply twist in the yarn. 

Gansey needles with a knitting sheath (tool kit 7) allow faster, tighter, and more ergonomic knitting than any of the above methods. the flex of the long needles give more power than can be achieved with short DPN. While the finger motions of English or continental knitting with Gansey needles with a knitting sheath are somewhat similar to those of knitting with hand held or pit knitting, the physics are different, allowing faster and tighter knitting with much less stress on the hands and wrists. This is very suited to worsted yarns and knitting patterned stitches. Gansey knitting with a sheath has no equal for knitting weatherproof sailor's sweaters from worsted yarns. Thus, the resultant fabric is very different from the techniques above. Jerseys are also knit on gansey needles/ knitting sheath. 

Gansey knit fabric can be replicated with nalbinding, but it is very hard work, and not an economically feasible technology for equipping a shipload of fisherman. 

Shetland knitting (8) is very similar to knitting with gansey needles, but done in a different position.  In shetland knitting some of the effort to drive the working needle comes from the knitting pouch, and part come from the knitter's upper arm. While gansey knitting is driven by the weight of the right arm and the spring of the spring steel needle. Thus, the Shetland needles can be stiffer or less springy than gansey needles. Shetland knitting is also very suited to fast, sustained knitting. I think Shetland knitting has the advantage for knitting woolen spun yarns and Fair Isle knitting.  A Shetland knit fabric can be as warm as any gansey knit fabric, but you may have to use hand spun yarn to get such warmth. Shetland knitting is also suited to knitting large lace objects, however, I do not find it suited to small objects such as lace points for collars and lace cuffs.

I like ~8" DPN and a knitting sheath for fine lace points and lace cuffs. A knitting sheath or knitting heart stabilizes the needle, and makes fine lace much easier and faster. Fine lace is more fun when it can be knit faster. In theory, it can be done, but good luck nalbinding fine lace.

Swaving (9) or knitting by rotating a curved needle, can rapidly produce very fine, tight fabrics. It does not do well with pattern stitches including ECS.  It is not suited for knitting out and about.  It does not work well for Fair Isle.  However, for knitting strips of garter stitch or small objects (socks and especially gloves) in the round, swaving has no equal. Swaving pricks apply compound leverage so the applied force can be small, but produce a large effective force resulting in a very tight fabric.  Needle and hand motion is tiny, and guided by the knitting sheath, and can thereby be very fast. Needle motion feels very different, but looks to an observer to be rather similar to sock needles with a knitting sheath. 


This is an optical illusion as the physics of the motion are very different. The main difference is that needle motion is controlled by the knitting sheath and the tension of the fabric. Since fabric tension controls tension of each stitch, the over all tension can be very uniform. It does feel a bit weird as it is performed.  For gloves, it is a game changer. For fine gloves and fine socks, swaving is far and away the best hand craft method for producing such objects. Swaving pricks work best when less than 8" long, so swaving does work better for small objects. Sheringham Guernseys knit from 3-ply at 12 to 14 spi, are better knit with long knitting pins (1.5 mm) and a knitting sheath. However, if I wanted to knit a shirt of an even finer fabric, with good density, I would swave it, using 2 sets of swaving pricks.  I have not tried swaving yarns finer than lace weight. 

Portuguese knitting hooks (10) provide a reasonably productive way to produce ECS while out and about. I like ECS for socks because it provides great cushion, ventilation, and durability. Even linen stitch and fisherman's rib does not provide the durability of ECS.  Add-in the cushion and ventilation, and the ECS is a great fabric for sock heels and soles -- if you know how to make with with reasonable effort.

ECS on PKH does not require a knitting pin to hold the yarn. 

Thus, hats, I knit with uncrossed stitches, but knit tightly with DPN/knitting sheath. My standard tool kit for large garments is gansey needles with a knitting sheath.  Arans are knit flat with a pair of gansey needles and a knitting sheath.  All Fair Isle goods are knit with a knitting pouch (mostly with long Shetland style needles, but sometimes with sock needles). Worsted gloves are swaved.  The legs/ cuffs of hose and boot socks are either swaved or gansey knit.  The feet of hose and boot socks are knit on steel sock needles with a knitting stick so the sole can be ECS.  Summer socks for sandals are knit on sock needles with a knitting stick. Dress socks are swaved.  Large lace objects are knit Shetland style, while lace points and cuffs are knit on fine (1.2 mm) DPN with a knitting sheath.


I knit scarves, shawls, comforters and other loose fabrics on DPN with knitting sheaths because it is fast.  


Rugs, trivets, and such are knit on gansey needles because I like the fabrics and speed with which they can be produced. 

So that is how I knit from head to toe. I have put a lot of effort into discovering how these fabrics can be produced. If these fabrics could be produced by hand held needles, I would know. Fabric produced by hand held needles looks about the same, but it does not perform as well, and stress on the hands and wrists limits production. For another thing hand held knitting is slow. I have not actually knit an entire object with hand held needles since 2006, and that was only because I was on an airplane, the knitting sheath had been left in the rental car, and the knitting pouch was in checked luggage. If that happened to me today, I would just read. It is better for me to do something else than to waste my time trying to knit without the right tools.

Using a knitting sheath is so much faster and easier, that if I did not have a knitting sheath, I would stop and make myself a knitting sheath.  On any knitting project, with a fabric that can be produced on CN or SPN, a knitting sheath reduces the number of hours required to knit the object by more than the number of hours required to make the knitting sheath. This is true for any non-trivial object.  On other hand, I do put more effort into making better knitting sheaths for larger projects.

When I start a knitting project, I decide what kind of fabric I want.  Then, I choose the tools that allow me to best produce that fabric.  I have actually worn out a couple of sets of US1 Addi Turbo CN. That was a learning experience. I know what CN will do, and what they will not do.  One may succeed in knitting a swatch on CN, but trying to knit these fabrics with hand held needles either results in injury, or the fabric being so loose / uneven that it does not meet specifications. I know that sock needles and a knitting sheath allow me to produce fabrics that I simply cannot knit on CN or SPN. I know that gansey needles with a knitting sheath facilitate the production of other fabrics that cannot be knit on hand held needles.(I consider the different gansey patterns to be different fabrics suitable for jobs.) I know that swaving facilitates the production still different fabrics that also cannot be knit with hand held needles. Somewhere out there is fine lace.  I should likely  have listed a tool kit for fine lace, but nobody NEEDS lace finer than what can be produced with the 1.5 mm gansey needles mentioned above.

I consider the redevelopment and description of knitting tool kits 6 through 9 to be a significant body of work.  It needs to be organized and indexed. Whatever faults the text has, the concepts are the craft of hand knitting, where better is better. The craft of hand knitting is different from the pastime of hand knitting. The pastime of hand knitting is run rather along the rules of Queen Victoria's court. (In Queen Victoria's court, one had to be careful not to knit like a professional.)  

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