Thursday, February 04, 2016

Good Knitting

I get asked if I consider myself a"good knitter" on a fairly regular basis.  Usually, it is as a snide, "Do you think you are an expert knitter?"

That is a hard question to answer, because what is an "expert knitter"?

Is it someone that has been through the Master's Knitting Program?  No, I have not been through the any MKP.

I think being a good knitter is being able to knit the required fabric to size and finish the object appropriately.  For example, boot socks need to be durable; and, socks knit for winter wear should be warm, while boot socks knit for summer wear should be cool.  Objects knit to be decorative should be beautiful, and stay beautiful for an extended life span.  Knit sportswear, should have appropriate warmth for the activity, be attractive, and stay attractive for many seasons of  wear.  Objects knit to be worn during work should be very suited to the nature of the work.  In any case, the knit object can be no better than the fabric. At the core of being a good knitter is being able to knit, not just a good fabric, but the right fabric for the object. And, the object can be no better than its fit. Thus, at a minimum, I think that a good knitter can produce excellent fabrics with near perfect fit and finish in a reasonable time period. And, an expert knitter can produce exceptional fabrics with perfect fit, and finish, very quickly.

Traditionally, British seaman's sweaters were considered masterpieces of  knitting. A catalog of  such objects is  Gladys Thompson's, Patterns for Guernseys, Jerseys, and Arans (PGJA).

However, most modern knitters do not knit the fabrics as described in the PGJA. The first sweater in the book is A Channel Island's Guernsey as knit on a commercial basis for working seamen. The suggested yarn is 5-ply worsted spun, at ~ 1,000 ypp, and the pattern says that 416 stitches give a chest of 44 inches in pattern. That is 9.5 spi or  37 stitches per 10 cm in pattern.  Total number of stitches per square inch is around 150.  I expect a good knitter to have knit such objects at the stated gauge, and had them fit very well. That yarn, knit at that gauge, has virtues, which do not appear when the yarn is knit more loosely. Knitting "tightly" is a misnomer, as the virtues are achieved by knitting with finer needles to produce more stitches per square inch, rather than knitting "tighter".   A good knitter knows how to work with these virtues because the knitter has made and tested a variety of such objects.  Such knitters have worked with fine needles before, and climbed the substantial experience curve. One does not knit such objects on a first try. (cf: Rae Compton's patterns)

Another set of examples in PGJA are the Sheringham Guernseys and ganseys that are knit with finer yarns, resulting in as many as 240 stitches per square inch. Again, the path to the finer fabric leads through finer needles, not tighter knitting.  The needles used for Sheringham ganseys, are so thin e.g., (1.5 mm) and flexible, that "knitting tighter" is simply not an option. Yarn tension is absolutely limited by the spring constant of the needles.

Finer fabrics require finer needles.  And, more stitches per square inch requires faster knitting to finish objects in a reasonable period of time. It can be done.  It is a matter of knowing the craft, and having the right tools.

For years, I worked almost exclusively with US1 needles, but over the last several months, I have converted to needles in the 1.5 mm range. The full transition took a couple of years. The first part of that transition was leaning that blunt needles allowed knitting fast enough to finish finely knit objects in a reasonable time. It required understanding the physics, visualizing the skills, making the tools, and then actually developing the skills. Again, the bottom line is that both tools and skills matter.  The skills without the tools are nothing.  The tools without the skills are just junk. However, I do not see instructions in modern knitting text on how to practically produce such fabrics, and such fabrics are ignored in modern master's knitting courses.

The bottom line is that I think Gladys Thompson's, Patterns for Guernseys, Jerseys, and Arans, as written, sets an enduring standard of knitting excellence. A careful reading of  Weldon's Practical Knitter, tells us that, yes people did knit like this, but the gauges are not as clearly stated. In fact, the Woolen Guernsey Frock in Weldon's Twenty-First Series, is similar in gauge the first Guernsey in PGJA  but includes some additional finishing detail that the expert knitter may wish to use. If one can knit the objects in PGJA ( or Weldon's)  as written, then that is a much sterner test than any modern master knitting program. What master knitting programs teach -- is how to knit in the fashion of our time.  Such knitting is not an enduring standard of excellence.

Current contents of  my knitting project box including a leather apron,
2+ hanks of 5-ply worsted spun LONG WOOL,
knitting journal, PGJA, knitting sheath,
 crochet hook, tapestry needle, and stitch markers. 

There are ~10,000 stitches on the (6 x 1.5 mm x 12") needles at this point. If I was knitting an Elizabeth Zimmerman sweater (e.g., 5 spi), it would be ~ 1/4th done.

Close-up of  needle tips.

 A gauge swatch, knit in the round, on gansey needles for the current set of projects.
Gauge is ~150 stitches per square inch with the 5-ply, ~1,000 ypp worsted spun yarn.

That is a gauge that one is NOT going to get with larger needles, regardless of how strong their  hands are.

This is absolutely one of the best fabrics that I have ever knit as outer wear in foul weather.  It is very much on a par with the Aran weight MacAusland (the great gardening gansey) knit on the 1/8th inch steel needles, but is a great deal less work to knit.  And, while just as warm, it is much lighter in weight and more comfortable to wear. 

The project box contents for a Sheringhan gansey differs by the kind of yarn, and a few more stitch markers.  These days, I knit the Sheringham fabrics very much in the style of the sock fabric below. For a pair of downhill ski socks, I use the 5-ply yarn, and the same needles, but sometimes I swave the feet. For a pair of sport socks, I use 6-strand, worsted spun, 1,650 ypp yarns with 1.5 mm swaving needles.

Swaved sock in progress on 1.5 mm needles.
6-strand, worsted spun, 1,650 ypp yarn
This cabled yarn is cool and the fabric breathes very well.

They are all nice fabrics, each with its own virtues.

Return from a Memorial Day climb in Yosemite. 

The previous day and night, our camp, (4,000 feet higher, and on the west side of the ridge) got several feet of snow that promptly blew into drifts many feet deep. We were equipped for an early summer climb, not for a descent in deep snow. Getting out was quite a slog. We said some unkind things about weathermen.  On the other hand, Bishop and Lone Pine did get only a trace of  rain that week,  

These are the kind of guys that get the gear I knit.  We go, we look, we touch, we feel.  In those days, we wore poly-pro, and we smelled.  Wool is better!

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