More Than It Seams 

When ponchos had their moment in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, I was immune to their charms. I’d been a few years too young to participate in the hippie movement, and by the time I was old enough to leave my parents’ house and live independently, the proto-punk cynicism of the hippies’ younger siblings caused me to reject ponchos and their flower child earnestness. But suddenly last fall, 40-something years on, I became smitten with the practicality and elegance of the poncho and started paying attention to their various shapes and construction methods. My new appreciation for them had a lot to do with the fact that I had a knitting machine and just enough competence with it to knit large rectangles, and I had a lot of multicolored yarn that pools beautifully when knitted on a knitting machine.

I’m now working on my third poncho, and each one has taught me a lot. In the first poncho, I used waste yarn at the beginning and end of the rectangles, without using ravel cord. Getting rid of the waste yarn at the end of the knitting was easy, just unravel it; it’s less easy at the cast-on part of knitting, but I have discovered that it can unravel if I pull the thread of the cast-on out of the first stitch of the second row and then frog from there. I also experimented with ravel cord and with substitutes for ravel cord, such as a shiny utility twine that I got at the hardware store as well as dental floss. Neither worked very well. Ravel cord is better. I’m told that crochet cotton and embroidery floss are as good as ravel cord, but that means driving somewhere to buy them and I haven’t gotten around to that. Or I could order it online, but I just ordered another couple of spools of ravel cord from the company I usually order machine knitting stuff from.

Close-up photo of transfer tool hanging stitches on knitting machine
Seemed like a good idea at the time, but there’s trouble ahead. The white cord is shiny, but that doesn’t mean it’s slippery enough to unravel easily. Also note the split stitches that have been placed on the machine. Nothing good happens when you try to machine-knit split stitches.

So I knitted two of the rectangles and left the second one on the machine so that I could hang the first one, knit side facing outward, on the same needles as the first one so that I could join 140 live stitches. You’d think that hanging live stitches from the end of one rectangle on top of the live stitches of a corresponding rectangle would be a no-brainer because the stitches are already fully formed and each panel has the same number of stitches, but until you know how to avoid the myriad ways to snag the yarn on the sharp latches of the 200 tiny needles of the machine and how to control the tension of the stitches so that they don’t drop off the needles, there are a lot of ways for things to go wrong. One major mistake I made was missing a needle or dropping a stitch and not noticing it until I came up short at the end, and I tried various ways to keep my stitch count accurate. The best method I discovered was to push out three needles at a time onto which I would transfer three stitches. I used the three-headed transfer tool and put a finger under my fabric so that I could get a visual contrast around the outlines of my stitches that would enable me to pick up three stitches right underneath the ravel cord, cleanly without splitting the yarn. Splitting the yarn and snagging stray plies onto the latches, hooks, and pegs cost me hours and hours in repair time because the machine won’t form the stitches properly, or will just drop the stitches, if it encounters an improperly hung stitch. It occurred to me belatedly that I could have saved myself a lot of rehanging because of missed and dropped stitches if I had attached stitch markers to the stitches I was putting onto the machine at 15-stitch intervals and matched them up with 15 needles as I worked.

There was a substantial learning curve when I hung stitches from the side edges as well. The most important lesson I learned from my first poncho was to never, ever, ever again fail to attach stitch markers at regular intervals to ensure that I would have the same number of stitches on the two rectangles I was joining and to make sure the stitches were evenly distributed. Failing to do that for the first poncho cost me many extra days of work when I joined the panels together and ripped out the joining over and over again because I couldn’t make the corners meet at the same place, and then having to search for ways to even out the bunching and rippling in the seams and at the neck, whose sides were different lengths. In the subsequent ponchos, I put stitch markers into each side of the knitting every 20 rows as I made the fabric, each time I moved the claw weights. When I transferred the edge stitches to the needles, I used a 3:4 ratio, that is, for every 20 rows, 15 edge stitches went on the needles, after pushing out five groups of three needles for every section of 20 rows.

Stitch markers at 20-row intervals to ensure even hanging of side stitches for smooth seams
I wised up and marked the edge stitches at 20-row intervals so that I could align the sides when hanging them on the machine for seaming. It made it much easier to attain a smooth distribution of stitches for seaming. But I hadn’t yet learned that the 3-headed transfer tool wasn’t the way to hang the stitches cleanly and completely on the needles.

As for the mechanics of lifting loops from the edges and placing them on the needles, I felt very clever and efficient when I wrangled loops onto the 3-headed transfer tool and forced them into their places, because I thought it made it easier to space the stitches evenly and equally on the two layers. Eventually I realized it was a false efficiency. The struggle to get the three heads into the stitches and then to get them off the tool and onto the needles was splitting and shredding the stitches, and the knots in the selvedge didn’t want to stay on the needles when I tried to push the stitches of the second layer through the stitches of the first layer in the joining of the two layers. Big lesson: shredded and split stitches and knots that don’t go cleanly onto the needle are not a good predictor of machine knitting happiness. I found that it saved me time and headaches to use the single-headed transfer tool to find 15 edge stitches that went onto the needles without a fight.

A search of videos on the internet showed me that I could get a good seam by hanging one layer on the needle, pushing the stitches behind the latches, hanging the second layer into the hooks of the needles in front of the latches, and pushing the needles all the way back to working position so that the stitches of the second layer go through the stitches of the first layer.  Then knit a row and latch off the stitches, each through the previous stitch. I spent a lot of time studying a Diana Sullivan video for joining a shoulder seam using the latch tool, and it looked so natural and easy when Diana did it. She just stuck her tool into the stitch in the needle and pulled it through the stitch on the latch tool in a blink of an eye, where’s the problem? Well, there are 200 needles with latches that can catch and imprison yarn that wanders innocently across it like a spider capturing a bug that falls into its web, and another 200 gate pegs that are almost as grabby. The latch tool is made up of a hook that closes with a latch on a hinge, each part of which is very snaggy and grabby, and the latch is very sensitive to pressure and gravity. Gee, what could possibly go wrong? I looked on the internet for a video or an article that might give some guidance on how to control the latch tool and didn’t find anything, so I was on my own. I calculate that each of my ponchos had 805 stitches to bind off, and there are two ways to look at that: 805 opportunities to make a bloody hash of the bind-off or 805 opportunities to perfect my manipulation of the latch tool. Actually it was a lot more than 805 stitches, because I’ve made three of these ponchos and didn’t really figure out how to master the latch tool until I got to the second panel of the third poncho. So that was 2,415 potential disasters or 2,415 learning opportunities.

My near vision isn’t acute enough to see the various openings I had to put the tool into and take it out of, so I had to learn how to use my other senses to give me the information I couldn’t get from my eyes. That’s where my sense of hearing and my perception of pressure came in handy. My mother went blind in her late 80’s and early 90’s, but she continued to use her sewing machine to make her clothing, draperies, and ornamental pillows. That used to amaze me, but now I understand how she did it. After shredding, mangling, and laddering many, many stitches, I learned the sounds and sensations that signaled that I had gotten the tool cleanly into a new stitch, lifted it off the needle, and passed the previous stitch through the new stitch and off the latch tool without snagging bits of my stitches on the various sharp grabby things. It was a matter of approaching the various openings with the latch tool at precisely the right angle and with just enough pressure to keep the stitches from falling off when and where they mustn’t fall off while keeping the tension just relaxed enough to lift out of the needle and onto the tool without getting trapped by a latch that didn’t want to open. It takes a lot of skill to strike that balance, and experience is the only way to get it.

So what I learned after about 2,000 tries was to pull the stitch on the needle out past working position far enough to open up the stitch a little, and angle the bottom curve of the latch tool into the opened stitch, avoiding contact with the latch, and listen and feel for the release of the latch tool into the new stitch. The sound and feel would be a clean snap of release rather than a strumming of the plies of the yarn and sudden resistance. Then angle the tool so that the latch opens and the hook is inside the new stitch, while allowing the previous stitch to slide down the tool and behind the latch, which frees the latch to enclose the new stitch safely inside. Then relax the pressure on the new stitch and lift it gently, delicately, tenderly, off the needle. I don’t think I need to explain how I learned that pulling too hard on the new stitch when lifting it off the needle would also lift its neighbor to the left off its needle as well, not to mention the likelihood that it would snag on the needle or the latch and get shredded to hell. As I said, 2,000 prior opportunities to learn.

For my first poncho, after I wrestled my uneven seams into some semblance of their intended geometry, I had a relatively small and somewhat asymmetrical double-triangle neck opening. I decided to disguise its asymmetry with a double-sided ribbed cowl neck. I picked up stitches with a hand needle around the neck seam of one face of the poncho all the way around the neck and hand-knit a knit-one-purl-one ribbing until I couldn’t stand it any longer, then folded it over and kitchenered the live stitches to the neck seam of the other face. It looks OK, it’s a little drafty, not ideal but not a disaster. For the second and third poncho, I’d learned my lesson from the first and got identical stitch counts for the side seams, which made joining the panels quick and easy work with lovely smooth seams of the same length, and gave me even double-triangles at the neck opening that were several inches larger than the neck of the first poncho. I decided that it would be better to machine-knit the collar in two ribbed pieces, 8″x13″ each, folded lengthwise and attached to each other and the V of the poncho’s neck opening at right angles. I preserved the reversibility of the poncho by hand sewing the collar pieces to the two faces of the neckline. I’m very, very much happier with the look and functionality of the collars of the second and third ponchos because they are so much tidier and warmer than the neckline of the first.

Double-faced panels assembled to form body of poncho with stitches on hand needle for cowl neck
This is the poncho that taught me the need to mark my rows while knitting the rectangles so that I could align my stitches for even and smooth seaming. I did a lot of bunching and stretching to make the corners and edges roughly align, but the alignment is indeed rough. Compare with the lovely even seams of the second poncho below.
Second poncho assembled
Evenly distributed side stitches gave me (mostly) smooth seams, even before blocking, that were easy to assemble. The bunching up at the neck is due to flaws in my hand-sewing, not the machine seaming.
Neckline of second machine-knit poncho
I was especially pleased with how well the neck came out after I learned how to control the number and distribution of side seam stitches

I should probably say in fairness to that first poncho that despite everything it put me through, the tassels helped to weigh down the edges of the seams and make them align, and blocking smoothed out almost all of the bunchiness of the seams. No one would ever know I feared it was going to be a lumpy mess. I’m really very happy with it and people say nice things about it whenever I wear it. And I learned so much from it!

Now I have a good handle on how to use the transfer tools and latch tool to hang stitches and join them in well-formed seams, and I’m looking forward to using those skills to make garments that use seams as a design feature as well as a structural element. I’m learning the vital skills of using the knitting machine in the order in which I need them in order to make what I want to make and in the way that makes sense to me, by practicing and practicing and practicing in private, away from well-intended experts who confuse me by trying to make me learn the way they did. Of course I appreciate the information they have, but when it comes to learning a deceptively basic skill like handling a latch tool, it’s best if I retreat behind closed doors and emerge bloodied but victorious, hours, days, weeks, or months later, as long as it takes.

So here are the trophies of my poncho campaign:

The first one is knit in Wollmeise lace-garn in Rhabarber, Peggy, Uluru, and Regenbogen, with Vamp as the accent color.

You can see some of the unevenness in the joining of the two rectangles in the photo of the back view, but it’s not really too awful.

Here’s the other face of the same poncho.

I made the second poncho for my sister Nancy, the jewelry artist, who makes magical things that are often purple, blue, and orange. Her poncho was knitted from Wollmeise lacegarn in Single Malt, Magnolie dark, Kürbis, Mauerblumchen, and accents in All Inclusive.

machine knit poncho
Here’s Nancy wearing her poncho. I think she likes it.

I’m now working hard at getting the third poncho done. At present I’m about 3/4 done with the tassels, and there are still a lot of ends that need to be hidden away. Here’s my daughter modeling it when there were fewer tassels and the ends are in full view.

The yarn I used for the third poncho was Wollmeise lacegarn in Franz, Potzblitz, Pfefferminz Prinz, and Isarkiesel, with accents of Frühling. I have finished installing the tassels and hiding the ends, although I haven’t yet blocked it or gotten modeled photos of the finished product. The angles are pretty precise and the seams look tidy, and once it has been blocked, anything that is not now perfect will become perfect. I got better at the hand sewing too. The neck is everything I want in my warm garments. Now that I know what I’m doing, I may have to make myself another!

Finished double-faced machine-knit poncho

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