All the Right Angles

A line sticking straight up. A line sticking straight out. Nothing simpler while simultaneously nothing more variable, and maybe that’s why it’s such endlessly fertile ground for the ideas that I turn into stuff. Right angles were the basis of the hand knitting I did all during the summer, and they’re following me into the hand knitting I’m doing now. There is no end to the ways that right angles can be arranged, and my unending fascination with them comes from the mind’s effort to sort out the familiar and the new, repetition and variation, in the use of color, shape, and pattern.

My summer knitting was based on squares, both the shape of the garments and the patterning of the fabric. I feel very comfortable in dropped shoulder boxy shapes with a slope at the shoulder seam formed by adding a stitch or a row, depending on the direction of the knitting, at inch intervals to build a wedge from the point of the shoulder to the nape of the neck. Oversized dropped shoulder garments of the ’80’s and ’90’s deserved their bad reputation because they made the bodies underneath look lumpy and bumpy, but the simple trick of sloping the shoulders enables the fabric to glide over the bumps of the body that are supposed to be there while speaking not of the lumps that one wishes were not there. If you use the shape in a summer garment without sleeves, the shoulder slope whittles down the width of the fabric that extends beyond the shoulder point so that it conforms to the shape of the upper arm. So a boxy dropped shoulder shape without sleeves was the template into which I plugged fiber, color, and patterning. I had two garments planned for my summer hand knitting.

For the first, I used linen yarn in two colors, an aqua and a muted orange, different hues of a similar value, that is, there wasn’t much light/dark contrast between them. I knew that a low contrast color combination might be risky because it can be hard to read small patterns when they are done in colors of similar value, but I really liked the two colors together, and I enjoy low contrast color combinations because I like the visual effort the eye and brain have to exert to read the pattern. Mental effort, on my part and the viewer’s part, is success in my aesthetic. But not so much mental effort that the viewer gives up in frustration. That’s not success.

I will admit I flirted pretty hard with that line between success and not-success in using this color pairing with the mosaic stitch patterns I used for this project, which I found in Barbara Walker’s Mosaic Knitting book. I was looking for patterns that used the two colors equally in square shapes that took the eye in various directions but had enough space for each color to distinguish itself from the other, since different hues of similar value need patterning that gives each color enough space for each hue to be readable. There were a number of patterns that I wanted to try out, and as I swatched, my heart sunk. The colors were blending together in an undifferentiated fabric of holes and lumps. I couldn’t stop myself from picking at the stitches to try to even them out and show the pattern, and that helped me to feel that it wasn’t a lost cause, because the shapes of the squares started to meander over the swatches as they were supposed to do. I washed the swatches and pulled them firmly in all directions to make the stitches lie evenly and make the linen yarn bloom, which helped to fill in the holes. The swatches looked pretty interesting in real life. The patterning came in and out of focus depending on the lighting and angle. But photographing them was a challenge that almost scuttled the project. Nevertheless my friend Melissa (the yarn store owner who I mention all the time) told me to just trust her, it was going to be fine. So I knitted on through my ambivalence.

See what I mean? You can barely make out the patterning.

My two swatches were variations on a similar motif, and I couldn’t decide which of them I liked better, so I decided to use both, one for the front and one for the back. Then I made things more complicated by deciding to make the front in two halves with the colors reversed and a seam down the middle. The pattern I was using for the front appeared to use the background color more than the color for the lines of the wandering squares and I wanted the color use to be balanced, neither color dominating the other. Interestingly, Barbara Walker had offered the off-putting information that she had built this stitch pattern on a swastika shape. I cursed the Nazis for coopting and corrupting this ancient shape so profoundly that I had to think twice and swallow hard before going ahead with a stitch pattern that doesn’t look very much at all like a swastika. I decided not to give the Nazis that much power over my design decisions, and I reclaimed that intersection of right angles for my own purposes, which have nothing at all to do with ethnic “purity”.

My stitch count for making each half of the front had me ending at the halfway point of the stitch pattern, to which I added an extra stitch for the seam that would join the two pieces. I started with the easier side, the left side, because it had the patterning start at the right side of the chart, the usual place for the start of patterning, and used the orange as the background color because I was accustomed to assigning the blue to the black squares on the chart. The knitting still was slow and complicated, even on the easier side, and then I fumbled my way through the neck shaping and the slope of the left shoulder and didn’t write anything down. Then I started the more difficult side, which had me starting each row one stitch before the center of the pattern and reversing the colors. Sorting out all these spacial concepts was a lot of mental exercise, so much mental exercise that it was like knitting through sand thrown into the gears of my brain. I knitted on through the sand mucking up my mental gears, whimpering with brain pain.

Finally Melissa took pity on me and made me a new chart with orange where the black squares used to me, and handed me a blue colored pencil so I could make the background blue. That unstuck the gears, and I was able to knit on without impediment. Kicking myself for not having written down how I shaped the neck for the first side, I eyeballed my way through the shaping of the opposite side of the neck, and then the shoulder slope, and it came out all right. Finally, the seaming, and there was a lot of it. A simple mattress seam joining the two sides of the front was visually insufficient; it looked like nothing, it failed to emphasize the color reversal between the two sides. So I picked up stitches in blue from the mattress stitching between the two sides and knitted a couple of rows of stockinette to produce a rolled line that provided the definition I was looking for. I finished the neck and  sleeves by picking up edge stitches with the blue yarn, knitting a row, and binding off. Then the blocking. My yarn was 100% linen, which benefits from harsh handling to enable it to bloom, fill in the holes, and even out the stitches, which I desperately wanted so that the patterning would be visible. I washed it in some shampoo and yanked and pulled the fabric every which way, then threw it into the wringer of the washing machine and let it torture the fabric some more. Then I laid it out flat and let it dry. The stitches were even, the pattern showed clearly, and the garment fit exactly as I had intended. Unfortunately I couldn’t get the pattern to read in photographs. Pix or it didn’t happen, and if I couldn’t get the pix then everything I’d done would be like I hadn’t done it.

I played with all the levels in Photos on my Mac. I yanked everything left and right in every combination I could think of. I turned myself green in order to get the contrast between the two colors that I needed to make the patterning show up, I turned the soft grayed aqua into a vivid blue-green and the grayed apricot orange into something close to neon. I stopped caring that the colors didn’t look a thing like real life, just as long as the patterning and color reversal could be read. On my Ravelry project page, I named the project “Unphotographable.” And then, while I was writing this post, I stumbled onto the very simple secret to making the pattern read while retaining the true colors of the yarn and my skin, which isn’t actually green. The secret was the luminance setting, in the Selective Color category way down in the list of settings, which I had completely overlooked. I jacked the luminance all the way to the right, to its max, and suddenly the patterns came into clear focus while the colors stayed pretty close to life. I could get some additional clarity by jacking the contrast in the color category, but other than that, most of the other settings could stay in their original position. I could have spared myself a lot of trouble if I had known this. Now I feel a little like Dorothy, being told she could have gotten herself home without having to kill the Wicked Witch of the West if she had only known that all she had to do was click her heels together and intone “there’s no place like home”.

As I mentioned oh so many paragraphs ago, I had bought yarn for a second summer knitting project. The yarn was a cotton/linen mix, to which I added the leftovers from my finally-finished new linen top and supplemented with a Japanese yarn made of paper (!) and viscose. The colors were the colors of minerals, slate-blue, dark brown, charcoal gray, putty gray, white, as well as the leftover muted clay orange and light blueish-green of my mosaic stitch top and the gray-green of the Japanese paper/viscose yarn. My plan was to knit these colors sideways in many stripes of chevron stitch, right angles turned on their sides, whose ends would be knotted as fringe, evoking sedimentary layers that had been subjected to lots of geological processes. Like the previous top, the body would be a rectangle with sloped wedges at the shoulders. I planned to add the wedges after the rectangular body was knitted using a mesh stitch and forming the wedges by adding a stitch at each edge at one-inch intervals, then sewing the wedges to the top edges of the rectangular body pieces. I made a swatch and decided to make the garment just a bit longer and wider than the mosaic stitch top, so I cast on according to the number I got by multiplying my swatch’s stitches-per-inch gauge by the number of inches I wanted from the point of my shoulder down to the hem. I calculated the number of inches for the garment width I wanted based on the swatch’s rows-per-inch gauge.

My perfidious swatch
In-progress photo showing how the mesh wedges fit into the two halves of the garment to shape the shoulders

I knitted and knitted and knitted, and had fun combining my colors in various ways, sometimes emphasizing the differences between the colors and sometimes arranging them in gradients based on similarities in hue or value, then interrupting the gradients with the unlike colors. The flashes of white were like bolts of lightning. The knitting was fun, but there seemed to be an awful lot of it, and when I had finished the neck, I had ended up with a very wide neck. In fact, it was hard to keep the garment from slipping off my shoulders and even all the way off my body. It was also very long. I tried to live with the fit, but it’s not actually comfortable to wear. It’s baggy on me and I’m constantly putting the neck back onto my shoulders. My swatch lied to me. The garment grew way out of proportion to the size the swatch-based numbers I used should have given me. I suppose the sideways direction of the knitting stretched the stitch pattern lengthwise, and the fringe probably weighed it down as well. It’s a really pretty piece of knitting, but not on my body. So I’m treating this effort as a massively oversized swatch. I have enough yarn left over to reknit it in my true size, and I’ll cut back the number of stitches and rows based on the finished garment instead of my 5″x5″ swatch. When I have reknit it, I’ll give version 1.0 to a friend whose shape is better suited to it. Oh well. Stuff happens.

I managed to get a nice photo modeling this way oversized top, but it fell off me as soon as I moved

I am not done with right angles. I’ll never be done with right angles. Here’s a sneak peak at my current project, which will be a shaggy dog story when I’m ready to tell the tale. I dyed all of the yarn with natural materials.


4 thoughts on “All the Right Angles

  1. Grand results – yes, even though you have to make a second version of the chevron piece to fit yourself properly. Thanks for the tip on the “luminance” setting, too.

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  2. Thanks for the luminance setting info! Also, I adore that linen sweater and wish you’d write up that pattern (or at least a recipe) for your boxy drop shoulder sweaters, especially this one!

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    1. Thank you, Laura! I have written in a lot of detail about the construction of several of my boxy dropped shoulder sweaters. Take a look at my post “Slouching Towards Japan” from June 2018. That’s an explicit recipe based on a Japanese lace and bobble stitch pattern. “Back in the Box” from May 2019 might be informative too. Let me know if you need more information and I’ll try to write a post that answers the questions.

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