Nature and the Machine

In a frenzied quest this last summer to meet the deadline for a juried textile art exhibition, I neglected my knitting machine all summer long while I hand-knitted wall art, and when I finished those pieces I came back to my machine wondering if I still knew how to use it. The project that verified my knowledge and muscle memory was a sweater for my sister’s birthday that ended in a zero, and it was based on the color scheme of Carol Sunday’s Milano pullover pattern, applied to my own dropped shoulder pullover template. I had wanted to make the sweater for myself, using my own plant-dyed yarn, but my sister’s house is decorated entirely in the colors of my yarn so I knew they would be perfect for her. Sometimes I can be not-selfish.

Carol Sunday's Milano sweater pattern
Carol Sunday’s Milano sweater pattern, as done by Carol Sunday

The Milano pattern makes a boxy, oversized, striped sweater with a color sequence of two sets of rough gradients that play off of each other in alternating wide and narrow stripes. The pattern is designed for hand knitting in heavier yarn than the Wollmeise lace base that I dye with, so the numbers in the pattern were not applicable to the yarn I was going to knit on my machine. There were shaping details in the pattern that I ignored because I am still not a very confident machine knitter and wanted to keep it simple with a template that I have done successfully several times. The only part of the pattern I actually used was the color sequence, and even then only a bit of it, but I bought the pattern anyway because the inspiration for the garment I made was clearly Carol Sunday’s design. I had some of the colors Carol used, and then I made up my own color sequence when I didn’t have the colors in the pattern. The principle Carol used for her arrangement of the colors was to divide her colors into cool and warm shades and “number them from cool light to dark, warm dark to light.” Then she had some complicated calculation for the “numbering”, but I didn’t know what she was talking about and went off to do my own thing my own way.

So what I did instead was to go through my stash of plant-dyed yarn. First I found the colors that most closely matched Carol’s and copied her arrangement of them, impaling the colors of the wide stripes on one long circular needle and the colors of the narrow stripes on another long needle. It didn’t take very long before I abandoned a conscious search for sequences from “cool light to dark, warm dark to light” and chose colors that formed a rough gradient in the wide strip colors, and then looked for colors to contrast with them in the narrow stripes. Generally the colors were gradients in terms of hue and value, but sometimes they weren’t. I had some loose logic that connected the colors through either hue or value when I didn’t have colors that did both. My loose logic seems to have sufficed, probably because plant-based colors are almost always compatible with each other thanks to the shared organic composition of the plant dyes.

Color sequences of plant-dyed yarn
I stuck two sets of colors, in rough gradients, onto two needles and reused parts of the sequences in various ways throughout the sweater

I’m not conscientious about labeling my plant-dyed yarn, so now I find that I’m pretty fuzzy about which plants produced which colors. I think the greens at the extremes of the top needle come from a dyeing session in the UK with my British friend Liz in 2017 using nettle and dock, can’t remember which green came from which plant. I should check the blog post The Witches of Warwickshire for clarification. Hmm. Just did. Still unclear. The brown at the right end of the top needle is onion skin, the brown at the left end is avocado. The purple at the left and the light purplish at the right of the top needle are both fermented pokeberry. The pink next to the light purple is amaranth. The two light yellows after the pink could be pretty much anything. The green-yellow might be tansy, or it could be fig leaf, or maybe coneflower. The light bluish green is weld overdyed in indigo exhaust, a souvenir of my dyeing session last May with Gwen and Liz at Gwen’s house outside Oxford. The light grayish purple between the deep purple and the light green might be from last summer’s dyeing with cherry. Cherry is a fugitive dye, so I would not expect it to retain that color if my sister is wearing her sweater much.

On the bottom needle, the three blues are probably black bean. I can’t remember what the greenish brown is, maybe eucalyptus leaves from my dyeing in May with Gwen and Liz. The red-orange is full strength madder, from that same UK dyeing session, and the orange next to it is weld overdyed in madder, same session. The dark brown is overcooked avocado modified by baking soda. The yellow next to it, I don’t know exactly, maybe something yellow, possibly goldenrod, overdyed in amaranth exhaust. The lighter yellow might be marigold. The indeterminate color at the left end might be an avocado exhaust dye or possibly one of those attempts at orange I did using murky yellows and amaranth exhaust.

To my relief, the machine knitting went quite easily despite the summer’s hiatus, because there’s nothing like repeatedly fixing the same mistakes to drill a set of procedures into one’s brain and muscles. I was able to retain the color sequence, even though a lot of the colors are pretty similar, by sticking each color back onto its respective needle after I finished its strip. When I got most of the way up the body, I reversed the color sequences and started using the colors for the thin stripes in the wide stripes and vice versa, without being too slavish about the order. I just was careful to do the same thing on the front as I did on the back. If you’re consistent, no one questions arbitrary aesthetic decisions. And then on the sleeves, I purposely decided not to be consistent. I used the same set of colors for each sleeve, but I reversed the usage of the wide stripe colors and the narrow stripe colors on each sleeve. There was a practical reason for that design decision, aside from the fact that too much consistency isn’t very interesting: I was afraid of running out of some of the colors.

Knitted color sequences of plant-dyed yarn
The color sequences knitted up

I used my formulaic shoulder shaping once again, a short row every 8 stitches up to the neck opening. I have discovered that the simple arithmetic that I would intuitively use doesn’t take everything into consideration, so I now have learned to count everything out right there on the machine. And the reason why I now know to count everything out on the machine is because I didn’t do that with this project and ended up with a slightly narrower neck opening than I was planning, and I got an extra row on one side of the shoulder than the other. I also had some trouble keeping the stitch after the short row turn on its needle, which is a symptom of problems with the weights on the knitting. I experimented with the placement of my claw weights but I couldn’t get a consistent solution. I fixed the dropped stitches, pondering what I was doing wrong, and moved on to the seaming. After struggling for a long time with seaming and binding off in many previous projects, I can now do it quickly, easily, and accurately, thanks to the hands-on guidance I got from Rachel last May.

The most time-consuming part of the seaming process is putting the loops of the seam stitches onto the needles in an even distribution. The good thing about having a regular 20-row/2-row striping sequence, as I did in this sweater, is that it’s easy see where to align the stripes on the seam, front and back. I had been calculating the number of stitches on the seam by multiplying the number of rows by .75 and eyeballing the distribution of stitches onto those needles, but now I think it’s easier to calculate the number of stitches in the seam by groups of rows, here 20 + 2, which would be 16.5 when multiplied by .75, and putting the last edge stitch in the group on the 16th needle all up along the length of the seam, then fitting in the rest of the stitches any way that’s easiest to get the transfer tool into the stitches and onto the needle.

I fell in love with my sister’s finished sweater! I hoped against hope that somehow she wouldn’t like it and I could keep it. It looked cute on me.

Modeling Milano-inspired pullover
Wishing and hoping my sister wouldn’t like her birthday present
Milano-inspired pullover modeled by its intended recipient
Wishing and hoping to no avail. The birthday girl loved her birthday present.

A view of the side seam of plant-dyed Milano-inspired pullover

But it looked cuter on her, and she immediately pronounced it her new favorite sweater. That was the best outcome. My family had a wonderful weekend celebrating her significant birthday together, all five of my sisters, the husbands, and whichever children were around. When I got home from the birthday weekend, I set to work on a sweater for myself, using the yarn I dyed with plants over the course of the spring and summer.

I haven’t written a blog post on plant dyeing for a while, but I did do a fair bit of dyeing this summer, using plants I found on my daily walks in Baltimore and also plants I found near our cottage in northern Michigan when we were there in June. Generally, they were muted shades of greens and yellows, nothing so spectacular or unique that they screamed out for a post of their own. They deserved one, for the sake of documenting results, but I was preoccupied with deadlines and knitted faces and political and existential angst. By the end of the summer, I had an array of subtle colors that looked beautiful together, especially when it was late enough in the season for the paper mulberries to start fruiting for fermentation baths and enabled me to dye lots of pink-orange yarn.

Plant-dyed yarn in subtle colors, offset by orange yarn
Haphazard jumbles of yarn inspire my designing

To summarize how I got these colors: there are a lot of greens, and they come from a wide variety of sources. The pale green on the left of the front hanger probably came from Virginia bluebell that I collected in the park in April, and the leafier greens could have come from tansy or iris collected when we were in northern Michigan in June, perhaps modified with baking soda to enhance the greenness. I also got leaf greens from yarrow overdyed in black bean exhaust bath, and the dark green on the front hanger came from yarrow overdyed in the first bath of black bean soaking water. There’s a yellow peeking out from the shadows on a rear hanger, between the paper mulberry orange and a gray hank; that yellow came from mushrooms I found in Michigan (I can’t even pretend to identify mushrooms). The gray came from my mushroom expert friend Samantha, who gave me some Paxilla Atrotomentosa she found in an undisclosed location in the Baltimore area. I failed to document the pink on the left of the rear hanger, but I have a memory of barely simmering some Virginia bluebell and getting that pink, whereas baths cooked with more heat came out green. The lovely splotchy brown on the sock blank is simmered walnut leaves, back in June, from the local park. Next to it, mostly hidden by the paper mulberry, is a green with a bluer cast that came from phragmites I collected at their peak in late August at Cape May, New Jersey. The grayish/lavender/light blue next to the pink hank came from fermented smooth spiderwort flowers I picked in Michigan.

I wanted a sweater whose design preserved the effect of these subtle colors juxtaposed one against the other in a way that simultaneously played up their differences while displaying their similarities. That would require them to be used in fairly large chunks of color, set off by a strong contrast color, the pinkish-orange. Simple parallel stripes are hard to beat, but I thought the similar-but-different idea would be best served by displaying the color chunks as wedges. It would also be a good exercise for forcing me to master the mechanics and mathematics of machine-knitted short rows.

For this sweater, I decided to use all 200 of the needles to get an oversized fit. Since I was kind of worried about making excruciatingly slow progress because of the stitches jumping off the needles at the short-row turns, which was a problem in all of my previous sweaters, I decided the angle of the wedges would be quite acute, with 20 stitches per short row over 200 stitches. I needed to figure out how to do the short rows on one side of the wedge, then get the carriage over to the correct side to make a balancing wedge at the other edge of the sweater. After waving a finger around in the air from side to side trying to envision how to make this work, I finally sat down with the back of an envelope and a pencil and made a schematic that showed me that each wedge needed to have an odd number of rows, either in the short-row segment or in the pink-orange dividing stripes, in order to get the carriage where it needed to be to balance the wedge pairs. So I started off with two rows of pink-orange starting at one end of the machine or the other, changed the yarn color, and put the needles at the opposite end into hold in successive phases until I had done gotten to my last 20-stitch step. That was 20 rows, including the two rows of pink-orange. Then I knitted all of the stitches, for 21 rows, and that put me onto the opposite side of the machine to start the balancing wedge on the other side of the knitting. Each pair of wedges was 21 rows deep, for 42 rows on the row counter.

Short-row wedges machine-knitted in plant-dyed yarn
The colors, the math, knitted up

I also discovered how to keep my row-turn stitches from jumping off the needles. I put my cast-on comb onto the knitting as soon as I knitted the first row after my e-wrap cast on, and left it there until I folded the rows for the folded hem, then decided to keep using the cast-on comb as a weight throughout the course of the knitting. The cast-on comb weighed much less than the claw weights that I had carefully placed right under the row-turn stitches, thinking that what I needed was more and more weight to keep the stitches on the needles. That wasn’t working reliably, but the stitches stayed where they were supposed to be when I used the cast-on comb instead because they distributed the weight evenly. So I realized that I didn’t need tons of weight; I need an even distribution of the weight.

This time I managed to mirror all sides of the shoulder shaping accurately. It meant breaking the yarn and having another end to weave in (which I may or may not have done) in order to get the carriage to the side of the work that balanced the short rows, but at least it looks perfect from the outside.

I love this sweater so much and have been wearing it almost nonstop since I finished it almost a month ago. This is testing the light-fastness of the colors, and some are holding up and some are changing. The browns, greens, orange, yellows, and dark gray seem pretty stable so far, but I noticed the fading almost immediately with purplish yarn I dyed a year ago using cherry fruits. The yarn had held its color while sitting in cakes in a storage bag, but turned brownish-gray when it started to get some steady wear. The pinkish lavender and blueish lavender may also be changing to gray. I accept the wabi-sabi, knowing we all change with age, some of us quickly and some slowly, but we all age if we’re lucky enough to live that long.

Modeling a machine-knit pullover made of plant-dyed yarn knitted in short-row wedges
I’m congratulating myself on my cleverness for so perfectly aligning the wedges at the seams
Back view of plant-dyed pullover machine-knitted in short-row wedges
Rear view
Front view of plant-dyed pullover machine-knit in short-row wedges
Front view

5 thoughts on “Nature and the Machine

  1. Love the details! Although we all age and change, it seems a shame that those great colors won’t always have the same effect together. And, your sister’s love for her sweater certainly resulted in an even more awesome one for you!


    1. I could get philosophical about change and life and transience and all that stuff, but it’s easier to accept the colors that will emerge sooner or later because the biochemistry produces only colors that are really compatible together.


  2. Abby, I love both of these sweaters (as well as the fabulous socks & details from the previous post)! I’m not sure I can manage the time to do the hand dyeing, but I seriously need to find the time to consider investing in a knitting machine!


    1. If you do get a knitting machine, I expect you’ll manage much better with it, much faster, than I have since you are much better at understanding and following instructions than I am. I need someone like you by my side to help me understand how to do what I’m being told to do!


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