So, a Few Words About Ball Bands

I have had a couple of conversations lately about gauge and yarn subs, so I thought I'd write briefly about how to read ball band labels. First, though, two things.

1) The Seaforth hat is now free to download from Ravelry. Go on! One skein of kettle-dyed loveliness will net you a fabulous hat for Spring (or Autumn if you're on the other side of the world to me). This one's on me.

2) I've updated the workshop page with the last few workshops of Spring 2015. I'm currently developing new classes, so this will be your last chance for some of these. I think that's a fair warning!

Now about those ball bands.

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A snapshot of what's on my table this afternoon! I also liked the array of languages. from L to R: Danish sock yarn (or at least a Danish ball-band), British Black Yarns Classic DK, Faroese Sirri Art Yarn, and Malabrigo Rios from Uruguay. Knitting is a global language.

Firstly, you need to understand that the ball band gauge is more a guideline than anything.

Suggested gauge on the ball band works to categorise yarns: this is double-knitting, this is a worsted-weight yarn and so forth. It is helpful for yarn companies as it’s easier to sell a line of yarn if it falls into a category than if it’s an outlier (many LYSs have sections based on yarn weights: "this is the lace section and here are the 4ply/fingering-weight yarns"). This way of categorising yarns makes sense for LYSs - quite simply, categories helps if you stock more than 10 different yarns. Not only can LYS employees confidently recommend yarn substitutions ("Oh, this hat is knitted in Unicorn Yarn DK? We don't stock that yarn, but you could try this DK from Glitter Kitten Yarns") but it makes life easier for everybody to agree on what a DK is and how it's different from a lace-weight yarn.

So there is a definite interest in having standard weights with standard gauges.

However, one thing is what we can all agree upon and another thing is reality. I am not saying this happens but yarn companies may sometimes “force” a yarn into a category even it is actually just a smidgen too fine or heavy to fall into a category. When I worked with LYSs here in the UK, I recommended they always swatched their yarns to learn the handle of the yarn and also (coughs) if a yarn actually worked up nicely at a certain gauge. I am not naming actual examples but there is one UK DK yarn with a recommended gauge of 23-22 sts that I always felt belonged to the sport category with a gauge of 25-24sts.

So, you have a ball band gauge that is a ballpark figure and occasionally a marketing tool. Keep that in mind. The stated ballband gauge does not always spell the truth and should be considered a guideline more than anything else.

Secondly, in a pattern you should always pay attention to a designer’s gauge

Every designer has different gauge and the knitter should try to get gauge (esp. something like clothing, oh my). I often liken knitting to handwriting: we can all agree on what a handwritten R looks like, but it'll always look slightly different from person to person. Designers are individuals too and as such their knitting gauge is also slightly different from designer to designer.

My favourite example is a Rowan magazine. I knitted two fair isle cardigans out of Rowan Felted Tweed. One cardigan used 3.25mm to get a gauge of 25 sts over 4” - the other cardigan used 4mm to get a gauge of 25 sts over 4”. Same company, same magazine, same yarn, two different designers. The ball band says a third thing, by the way.

Sometimes a designer may also deliberately play around with a yarn to get a completely different fabric than a 'standard' stocking stitch (whatever the agreed standard is, of course!). These days I think the most common deviation from recommended gauge is 4ply/fingering weight which many people are now happy to knit on 4mm needles at a gauge miles away from 28-30 sts over 4". On the flipside of the coin I had a pattern where I used a yarn I’d normally knit at 16-15 sts over 4” where I took it down to something ridiculous like 28 sts - it was dense. I explained in the notes that I wanted a very firm fabric and people were generally really happy. For me, it was about communicating why I had chosen such a dense fabric and not followed the ball band gauge.

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So, how to decode a ball band - in brief

Another yarn from the pile on the table is the Rowan Creative Focus Worsted. I thought it made a good little intro to ball bands (especially if you are not a confident knitter).

  • product code: this one always baffles people. When you work with masses of yarn (say, as a buyer or as a LYS owner), you need product codes so you can keep track of stock, do orders, and track best-sellers. Most shade cards also have corresponding product codes.
  • recommended gauge: CFW comes in at 20 sts and 24 rows over 4"/10 cm. That's pretty much standard for a worsted-weight yarn which is slightly heavier than a DK (which is 22 sts) and an Aran (which is typically 18 sts). Interestingly I get 21sts across 4" when I knit with CFW. One stitch out over 4" doesn't sound like much but it does actually matter when you are working with hundreds of stitches - then that one stitch can mean the difference between a well-fitting cardigan and a sad-looking thing at the back of the wardrobe.
  • recommended needles: guideline, folks, guideline. If you are a loose knitter, you go down a needle size and if you are a tight knitter, you go up a needle size .. after you have looked at the designer's chosen needle size and swatched.
  • product name: sometimes the actual name of the yarn gives you a clue as to the weight of the beastie. Creative Focus Worsted. Classic DK. Snowflake Chunky. Sometimes you have to look closer, though: Baby Cashmerino? Cocoon? Cascade 220?

If you are unsure about the various weights, the Craft Council of America has a great page about the North American system. The UK system is different (as is the Australian method, the Scandinavian system etc). The best person to ask about the yarn you are contemplating buying will always be your LYS employee (because they should know their stock better than anyone!) and I also recommend asking at your knitting group and, obviously, the designer!

Ah, my few words about ball bands turned out to be 1000+ words. So it goes.

Have a great weekend, folks!

Ingenious Impressions at Glasgow Hunterian Art Gallery

February 2015 273 Glasgow Hunterian Museum is currently hosting an exhibition on pre-1500 printed books, known as incunabula. In my previous academic incarnation, I used to work on the transition from manuscripts to printed books, so I was obviously thrilled to see this exhibition open in a local museum.  On Thursday I was lucky enough to catch a preview before going to a workshop the very next day. It is fair to say that the workshop turned out to be some of the best and most memorable hours of my life. I cannot thank Martin Andrews and Alan May enough for their generous sharing of all their knowledge and expertise.

Not only did I get to have a go at printing a page from the famous 42-line Gutenberg Bible, but I used a replica 15th C printing press built by Alan May for BBC's Stephen Fry & The Gutenberg Press programme (I recommend this programme - it was very well researched). May used several near-contemporary etchings and woodblock prints to reconstruct the press as no printing presses from the time has survived. I was very interested in an Albrecht Dürer etching showing a modified two-pull press which Alan May described as fundamentally flawed, yet utterly precise. Dürer is a fascinating figure, anyway, and I like the idea of him having fingers in a lot of pies!

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Another highlight was getting to cast my own type(!) under careful supervision. May & Andrews went through the entire process of carving out a prototype (the very name!), showing us how to develop a matrix from a prototype, before starting to cast types. It was absolutely fantastic.

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And dare I whisper that my next big collection actually has something to do with knowledge-making in Early Modern Europe? Much more on that when the time comes, but it's a huge thrill that this exhibition has opened up in Glasgow just as the next stage of research begins.

Ingenious Impressions at  Glasgow Hunterian Art Gallery runs from February 27 until June 21, 2015. Free Admission.

The Proserpine Shawl and the Arts & Crafts Movement

Yesterday I had a long conversation with my friend Natalie about life, work, and the whole big thing. I mentioned a long-term project that is slowly coming together, and Natalie laughed: Art history, storytelling and knitting. That is so very you, Karie. It is nice when others can see what I try to do. Still, I suppose it is rather obvious when you look at my latest collaboration with Knit Now magazine. This is a bit of a first for Knit Now. I collaborated with a host of talented designers on a mini-collection inspired by a 19th century design movement, Arts and Crafts. I was also asked to write an article about the Arts and Crafts Movement. It was one of those pitches where I was on board from the very first sentence. You can read more about the design movement in my article for Knit Now - I wanted to explain why so many designers continue to be inspired by it, how core ideas spread throughout the design world and - crucially - why it continues to influence knitters throughout the world (whether you know it or not).

proserpine_medium2The Proserpine Shawl is my contribution to the mini-collection. It is a semi-circular shawl knitted in a stunning custom dye merino/silk 4ply yarn from Triskelion Yarn in Wales. Caerthan was inspired by 19th century tiles at the V&A  and came up with this stunning teal especially for my shawl.

It was very important to me that the yarn should be something special as I was designing the shawl with the Arts & Crafts idea of truth to material in my head. Truth to material simply means that you take the material that is best suited to your project and you showcase it honestly. The long stretches of stocking stitch are designed with a stunning yarn in mind. I am a big fan of basic stitches (like stocking stitch and garter stitch) precisely because they let your materials take centre stage.

Still, you do get lace sections in the shawl. Proserpine was named after a painting by 19th century painter, poet and all-round bohemian, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. I read a lot of his poetry when I was an impressionable teen and it remains absolutely lovely. Quite apart from wanting to capture the drape of Proserpine's gown and sighing over DGR's the dragon-fly / Hangs like a blue thread loosened from the sky, I also took inspiration from the Roman myths of Proserpine. She was the Roman equivalent of the Greek Persephone: a goddess abducted to the underworld but restored to the world where her arrival heralds spring. So if you look closely you can see some leaves sprinkled into the shawl.

I am really quite in love with the entire project. It combines so many of my core beliefs about design - many of which I have inherited from the Arts and Crafts Movement.

I have been asked the following by a lot of people: if  you are outside the UK you can buy a digital copy here, though most UK shops should also stock the magazine.

All photos are © Practical Publishing.


(PS. the shawl edge looks a bit wonky. I was trying to block the shawl not long after I injured my knee in a serious accident. That was interesting)

That Sweet Spot: On Knitting Needles

I think we all have our own sweet spot in knitting whether we realise it or not. When you first start out knitting, you will probably try all types of knitting: chunky yarns on big needles, double-pointed needles and a self-striping 4ply for your first sock, scarf knitting using textured yarn on straight needles and so forth. Some people will continue to bounce back and forth, but most knitters will find their preferred type of knitting eventually. My sweet spot? I rarely use anything below 3mm (US 2) and above 5mm (US 8). I prefer circular needles above anything else - 80 cm (32") being my preferred cable length. I do not get along with interchangeable needles - an expensive lesson to learn - but want my circs to be fixed. As someone who designs and knits a lot of lace, I need a smooth join between needle and cable as well as a pointy tip. I'm less fussy about the material of the needle - wood, bamboo and good quality metal all work well for me.

(As for brands, there is a certain sense of one-upmanship in knitting (a bit like Top Trumps for crafty grown-ups) and I'm always a bit reluctant to play along with this. Apologies if the next bit reads like me slamming down a card or two.)

Until recently my go-to needles have been Addi Bamboo circs. They are not always ideal as the bamboo can be a bit soft and easily scratched, but I like how they feel in my hands. They are lightweight, yarns pass smoothly across the needles rather than slip across, and the cable has a pleasing solidity to it whilst still being flexible.

Addi Bamboos are not as easy to get as KnitPros and I have a fair amount of wooden KPs as a result. The needles themselves are smooth and the tips are nice and pointy. I am less keen on the cable which does not feel as high quality as the needle part. This was recently confirmed by a KP cable snapping at the join. If I were a DPN user or a straight needles gal, I'd probably like KPs more.

Addi Turbos form another big part of my tool box. The needles tend to be on the blunt side and the cables can have kinks (the latter is easily rectified by strategic steaming) but they are good workhorse needles. My 3.75mm (US 5) Addi Turbos remain my Beloved for no apparent reason other than 'they fit my hands so well'.

And then at Woolfest I decided to try out Chiaogoo needles after hearing friends talk about them like they were the second coming. I switched needles on a project so I could test them almost immediately and I've been in love ever since. They really, really hit that sweet spot for me.

Woolfest Acquisitions

The tip are pointy and have a nice, long angle to them which means I can quickly move from stitch to stitch (especially noticeable when working decreases into the back of the loop). The needles themselves are smooth but with the tiniest hint of grip which means slippery yarns stay put and my rhythm remains the same regardless of type of yarn. The join is equally smooth and allows for easy movement of stitches from cable to needle (always key).

But I am deeply impressed by the cable.

The cable feels substantial, but not weighty. No memory means no potential kinks and no curcling around when I magic-loop. I have also tried walking around whilst knitting an almost-finished top-down jumper(!) and the cable + join do not feel unduly stressed. The cable may feel slightly bulky for some knitters - especially if you are used to KPs - but I really like it. I have also road-tested the cable with flimsy lace knitting and it still outperformed.

To absolutely nobody's surprise, I have since added Chiaogoos in most of my preferred sizes to the toolbox. It was a bit of an indulgence but having proper tools make such a difference to me. I have finished two pieces of sample knitting since the needles arrived and a third is almost done. They have really enhanced my knitting joy.

What tools are essential to you? What sort of needles fit your hands and your style of knitting? What do you look for in a good set of needles? We are all different and I'm curious to hear about other people's sweet spots.

Short & Sweet

A short and sweet story: This morning I found a handknitted shawl in Glasgow City Centre. I worried because if I had lost a shawl, I would be absolutely heartbroken.

I picked up the shawl and sent out a tweet: Did you lose your knitted shawl in Glasgow city centre this morning? Nip into John Lewis Glasgow haberdashery dept & describe it!

A lot of lovely people retweeted me, but I still fretted. I posted on Ravelry too and though I got some lovely notes, I did not get any leads.

So, after work was done, I sat down to look through the Ravelry project database. The yarn was easy to identify: 218 pages of projects!? Ughr! I decided that it would be quicker to look through the Ravelry pattern database and thankfully the shawl pattern was fairly distinct with just 52 projects to its name. Using the combination of yarn and pattern I found the project - and the knitter.

The knitter is in Germany which threw me. However, I twigged it was a knitter with Scottish connections and I sent her a tentative Rav message: I know this is a long shot but..

And you know what? It was the right knitter! And the knitter's mum will be reunited with her handknitted shawl! Isn't the internet (and especially Ravelry) a wonderful, wonderful place?

Friday Linkage

I came home from my holidays Monday. Apparently I cannot leave the UK for seven days before the place is going to hell in a handbag as I have been rushed off my feet ever since returning. I'd share details but nobody really needs to hear me whine about my mountain of work! Denmark was lovely - absolutely lovely - and I want to share some of the highlights with you. There will be knitting involved (of course there will) but there will also be some tales of history and culture. Before I do so in a series of posts, let me just link some of the things I've read/seen/enjoyed on the internet over the past few days..