The weather has gotten colder in places north of the 45th Parallel, where I know people whose temperature control is important to me. Stocking them with knitted winter survival gear gave me the opportunity to play with an idea that is so ubiquitous that we don’t even notice it in daily life. That is, the intersection of horizontal and vertical lines in right angles. I played with boxes and vertical and horizontal shapes embedded in each other, and checkerboards, and straight lines that go this way and other straight lines that go that way, and the exercise made me feel closer to understanding the shapes that are in my daily experience, at least for the time while I was experimenting with them.
I improvised a sort-of matching hat and mittens set for my daughter who is facing her first Minnesota winter, using some thick, thermal roving-style yarn that was so soft and warm that wrapping oneself in it is like crawling back into the womb. The yarn is Re:treat, manufactured by West Yorkshire Spinners, and I chose three colors, blue-gray, rust, and mustard yellow. I cast on 80 stitches, kind of a lot for such thick yarn, but my daughter has a large head to accommodate an endowment of brains. Knitting in the round, I made a border consisting of a line of plain garter stitch in blue-gray, a line of slip-stitch garter bumps in yellow (knit one in yellow, slip the blue-gray on round one; purl the yellow, slip the blue-gray on round two), and repeated with the rust in an offset position, ending with a line of plain garter stitch. Then I improvised a stranded design in rust and yellow that arbitrarily combined horizontal and vertical lines. I knitted a few stitches in one color, a few more stitches in the other color, built vertical lines and rectangular spaces, cut them off into squares with a horizontal line in the other color, built small rectangles in large rectangles, made the lines turn corners. Sometimes the shapes looked like buildings. Sometimes they looked like robots. I shaped the crown in five segments with the decreases all facing the same way (ssk) to make the pinstripes take a spiral shape.
I improvised the mittens as well, without using a pattern. You can probably see that the two mittens are shaped differently from each other, because I didn’t bother writing down what I did for the first mitten and merely eyeballed the length of the second thumb and the distance between wrist and fingertips before decreasing the fingertips. The thumbs grew out of a pair of increases at the base of the wrist, pinstriping the new stitches until I had enough to get around the thumb. The mittens ended up being too big and wanted to fall off Zoe’s hands when she moved them, so I felted them only very slightly to accommodate another layer of mittens or gloves inside when it gets very cold. Zoe reports that her hands haven’t been cold since she got these mittens. That’s gratifying, of course.
I wasn’t done with the Minnesota Winter Survival Kit, but I also wasn’t done with playing with the meeting of horizontal and vertical lines. I finished the second pair of Strong heel socks that I had been knitting at the time of my last post, which explored the visual possibilities of simple rectangles in many alternating colors. Checkerboards want your attention: the eye loves the regularly alternating color of a simple four-sided shape. After a while the regularity gets boring, but if you change the colors frequently, the variations entertain the eye. I changed both colors every six rows so there are a lot of ends, which I haven’t been too meticulous about weaving in. But the effect is a lot of color in a patchwork effect, using only two colors per row, which is a relatively cheap and easy way to work a lot of color in an almost random way that is disciplined by the regular alternation of the rectangle shape.
Zoe was equipped with hat and mittens, but her birthday was coming up, and I had some of that lovely soft, warm yarn left over and begging to become a scarf. I wanted it to be reversible, and I found a pattern I liked in a book I’ve had for years and never used, titled (of all things) Reversible Scarves by Audrey Knight. The pattern I chose striped horizontally on one side and vertically on the other in a clever and mysterious way. But I don’t mind spilling the secret. The pattern is made up of only a few components, but each part plays a vital role. It has a four-stitch, four-row repeat. You cast on a multiple of four stitches, plus three edge stitches, on a circular needle, and do a set-up row of alternating knit and purl ending with a knit. Don’t turn. Slide the work back to the starting end of the needle. Attach a contrast color and knit, slip the next stitch with yarn in front, knit, purl, knit, slip with yarn in front, knit, purl, knit, so that the slipped stitch is surrounded by k-p-k on either side. Turn the work, purl the purls, knit the knits, slip the slips with the yarn on the same side as the first row, which now is the back. Slide the work. Using the first color, purl, knit, purl, slip the next stitch with yarn in back, and surround the slipped stitches with p-k-p. Turn the work and knit the knits, purl the purls, and slip the slips with the yarn on the same side as the first row, now the front.
And it’s really cool because on both sides the purl stitches essentially disappear and the fabric looks like stockinette, but when you slip with yarn in front, you get a horizontal stripe and when you slip with yarn in back, you get a vertical stripe. Essentially, it’s double-knitting, thanks to the slipped stitches and the sliding of the work on rows 2 and 4. It’s a mathematically elegant pattern because every element of it is deceptively simple while playing an indispensable role in enabling each side to do something that seems to be precluded by the other side. It’s kind of like magic. It didn’t take me very long to memorize the pattern and to grasp where I was in the sequence by seeing if I had one or two rows and if the yarn of the slipped stitch was in the front or the back. But I marveled for an embarrassingly long time at the miracle of the verticality on one side and the horizontality on the other, until once when I was trying to sleep, I figured out how the sliding of the work was the element that made it happen. As I write now, it has been a month since I worked with the pattern, and in the meantime I have lost that clarity of insight. It’s back to being a magic trick that I don’t fully understand.
So I really can’t tolerate writing a blog post and being unclear about why something I’ve explored deeply works the way it does. I have spent a bit of time recreating my thought process, and now I understand why sliding the work is an essential element in creating a design whose different sides are usually mutually exclusive. Sliding the work enables each side to be dedicated either to verticality or to horizontality. You cast on, you turn the work and knit your set-up row in your first color. The side where you leave Color #1 is Color #1’s home territory. Then you slide the work, attach Color #2 at the opposite corner from Color #1, and start the pattern with the slip stitch in front, on the second stitch of the four stitches in the repeat. That’s your horizontal side, Color #2’s home territory. Turn the work for the second row of the horizontal stripe, which just repeats what you did on the first row. Slide the work. Now you’re back in Color #1’s home territory, and the slipped stitch is the fourth stitch, slipped with yarn in back, after purl-knit-purl on the previous three stitches. The slipped stitch with yarn in back forms the vertical stripe. I’m amazed at how these simple operations conceal magic tricks!
I was entranced enough with the elegance and cleverness of this stitch pattern to decided to reuse it after I finished Zoe’s birthday scarf. This time I was going to make pieces using the pattern, which I would put together by seaming a horizontal piece to a vertical piece, in the shape of a baby jacket for a new male of the human species who I was about to meet for the first time. The jacket was made up of rectangles, since babies are very rectangle-shaped, and anyway I was not ready to try to figure out how to incorporate shaping into this stitch pattern. There were seven pieces: a back, two fronts, two sleeves, and a wide shawl collar made up of two pieces with opposite sides facing and connected at the back. The sleeves were long enough to be cuffed, showing the meeting of the horizontal and vertical sides. The shawl collar was wide enough to fold over on itself, which allowed the horizontal and vertical stripes to meet in geometric shapes. I used a three-needle bind-off in vivid sky blue to emphasize the right angles of the construction and the convergence of the horizontal and vertical stripes. The buttons were a lucky find, rattling around in a bag I’ve had for 30 years, and they were odd old buttons when I got them. They look kind of Art Deco to me. I wonder how old they are.
There really is no simpler design than a horizontal line meeting a vertical line, but simple as it is, it never stops being interesting, possibly because, as I sit here in the cluttered room where my computer is located, my eye is falling on at least a thousand meetings of horizontal and vertical lines. I said up at the start of this post that playing with these lines helped me to understand the shapes they make, but I’m not sure that is true or if it even means anything. I think that what I get from the exercise isn’t actually understanding; it’s more like what I get is the ability to notice things that are so ordinary that they are almost invisible. And the act of noticing makes me feel that I am not drifting blind and insensate through my lifespan. As I used to exhort my children when we took walks together, look and notice!