Teachings of the Fiber Goddess and the Zen Master

Everyone is familiar with the way people rationalize eating things they know they’re going to regret by telling themselves half cookies don’t have calories or holidays are for overeating. Knitters are familiar with a variation of this kind of logic when they visit yarn stores in other cities and add to their SABLE (stash acquisition beyond life expectancy) situation with yarn purchases because yarn from a new city somehow doesn’t… count… or… something… Anyway, that was how I came home Minneapolis’ Steven Be yarn store with four skeins of merino fingering weight yarn from Dragonfly Fibers, which turned out to be local to me back home in Baltimore. When you visit a pretty yarn store in a city halfway across the country, buying a sweater quantity is just de rigueur, right? And the yarn is still exotic, even if it was produced 45 minutes away from home, assuming light traffic, right? Especially since Washington Beltway traffic is rarely light.

I traveled a thousand miles to acquire local yarn

While my longterm plan is to use up a lot of my Wollmeise stash before I die, I feel obligated to use new yarn purchases a lot more immediately. This yarn hung around for over a year while I tried to figure out what to do with it, and a Ravelry knit-along (KAL) with a deadline of winter solstice, 21 December, motivated me to figure it out. One of my goals for machine knitting in 2019 has been to learn to use short-rows for aesthetic effect, which I’ve done some, but have been needing more experience with to internalize the technique and its geometry. My machine knitting mentor Rachel directed me to Jane Harrison’s machine knitting adaptation of the famous Lizard Ridge pattern on her Needles of Steel blog, so I swatched it in the Dragonfly yarn with delineating colors from my Wollmeise stash. I liked the way it looked, so I did a little math and started the back of my sweater.

The first thing I noticed was that even though I had a multiple of 8 plus 3 stitches, as the pattern told me to have, I couldn’t get the numbers to work out at the end of the repeats as they did in the pattern and in my swatch. I never figured that out. The second thing I noticed was that it didn’t matter, which is why I didn’t go to the trouble of figuring it out. The combination of Lizard Ridge short rows and my yarn produced organic, painterly clusters of color and line that turned inaccuracy and inexactness into design features. It was thrilling to see how the vivid blues and purples looked like peacock feathers against the greens, yellows, and oranges drawing curvy lines around the almond-shaped motifs, and mechanical precision in the alignment of the ridges was not an aesthetic asset. That was liberating. In fact, the side that faced me while the work was in progress, the purl side, looked like a French Impressionist painting, maybe Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and it was so pretty that I decided that I was going to have to make the garment reversible.

The view from the wrong side, which inspired me to disappear 350 ends. Yeah, I did the math.

On the other hand, knitting short rows on every single one of 171 needles was a laborious and delicate process and took a lot longer than machine knitting usually takes. Getting the tension right so that the stitches stayed on the needles when I did the short rows was a very delicate balancing act. I did a lot of experimenting with ways to arrange my weights. I spent a lot of time repairing stitches. Even the three rows of plain knitting between the offsets was fraught, because the Dragonfly yarn was a single loosely-spun ply that tended to break when the carriage knitted the left-most stitch, apparently because that stitch was under more stress than any of the others. Tying off the ends of the broken stitch, at most a quarter of an inch on each end, was another time-suck. The preventive measure I didn’t know about would have been to have pulled out that needle into hold and hand-manipulated the plain-knitted stitch into existence, which would have required putting the rest of the needles, which were all in hold after their short-rowing, into upper working position. But if I have learned anything from this project, and I have learned a lot, it’s exactly where upper working position is. I hand-manipulated the short-rowed stitches of the striping when I got to the shoulder-shaping of the front, for which the design dictated color changes every other row, leaving the first few stitches after a color change inadequately tensioned. I spent lots more time in stitch repair on that back piece, but it taught me what I was up against. When I got to the front, I hand-manipulated a lot of stitches in the shoulder and neck shaping, which was time-consuming, but repairing the stitches is more time-consuming.

A couple of days into knitting the first piece of this sweater, I began to realize I was in the time crunch I described in my previous post, Product Knitter Hell, so I began carving out more machine-knitting time out of my fairly structured day to work on it. My usual hour and a half of daily machine knitting turned into three or four, and it still took a week to complete that first piece. Finally I could take the piece off the machine, and I confronted a nasty shock: the short-rowed fabric had contracted into a texture of peaks and valleys that made the piece about the size of a small cushion cover rather than the generously-sized dropped shoulder pullover my swatch had fooled me into thinking I was making. I soaked it thoroughly and stretched it out on blocking tiles fastened severely with blocking combs, then steamed it to flatten any residual insubordination. Well, it wasn’t going to be generously oversized, but theoretically it would be wearable. It did look as if it was going to be short, so I decided that when it was time to finish the garment, I would try to add some weight to the bottom edge with a loopy i-cord edge in hopes that it would pull it lengthwise.

One of the things that was different about knitting the Lizard Ridge pattern on the machine was the need to find a way to count where I was in the fabrication of my knitting. Because so many carriage movements are required to make the almond shapes of the Lizard Ridge pattern, the usual method of keeping track of rows through the row counter didn’t give useful information. The row counter counts the number of times the carriage crosses the center of the machine, where it trips a lever that one-ups the counter, and I was doing a lot more cross-center carriage movements than one per row. So I turned it off and manually added a click to the counter at the end of a sequence after having worked the short row motifs from the left of the work to end up at the right edge. Completing the first half of the pattern added one click, making the number an odd number; completing the offset added one more to make the number even. So when I began the first half of a new sequence, which started with eight plain stitches before commencing the short-rowing, the row counter was supposed to be on an even number. I was going along on the front of the sweater, just about to start my ninth sequence, when I noticed that something wasn’t quite right. I should have been starting with the offset, knitting a half-almond at the left side, but I couldn’t, because I had already done that. And why was there a straight line of plain knitting when there should have been a curvy line? I thought, then counted the number of sequences I had knitted, then thought again, then counted again, and finally realized that I had missed the first half of the new sequence when I did sequence 9 and had repeated the offset instead of starting the new sequence where I had intended to start it. So I got up and walked away to think about my options before I caused any more damage.

I headed for the yarn store, an easy walk but enough of a walk to activate my faculties, and while I was walking, the Fiber Goddess joined me.

Fiber Goddess: I gave you an opportunity to do an interesting variation on this pattern. Aren’t you going to thank me?

Me: I guess the only alternative to thanking you is ripping it out.

FG: Ripping it out would be an insult to the gift I gave you! Have you learned absolutely nothing from me, silly wench???

Me (muttering): My wench days ended a while ago.

FG: Yet the silliness is as alive and well as it was decades ago when you were dating what’s his name! No. You don’t rip it out. And you don’t do it once and pretend it didn’t happen. How many times do I have to tell you, an anomaly done once is a mistake. When you repeat it, it’s a design decision. You’re welcome.

Me: Thank you, Fiber Goddess. That’s why you’re the Fiber Goddess, not the Relationship Goddess.

But she didn’t hear that last comment. She had already disappeared. So I went back to the machine and looked at where I was in the construction of the garment piece. The total number of sequences I needed was 22, and this variation was at the ninth sequence. Doubling up the offset every fourth sequence from that point to the end would have the doubling on sequences 13, 17, and 21. The even number of four variation sequences meant that the final pair of sequences restored the order of the original pattern, which balanced the number of rows on the edges. Yes, I could make this work.

On orders from the Fiber Goddess, I embraced the difference in the striping on the front and back as a design feature

I was also noticing on this second piece of the garment that I was knitting it better and reconstructing many fewer dropped stitches. I had found the one single place in the short row motif where I could affix my claw weight where the tension was precisely balanced, not too much and not too little, and I noticed how the movement of the carriage felt when the stitches were knitting correctly, smooth and without resistance. I learned that I needed to slow down and position the claw weight two rows down from the stitches on the needles, with the left-most claw directly under the left-most stitch at the beginning of the short-rowing and the other claws securely in the stitches of that row, then moving the carriage in a movement as slow and smooth as tai chi. I learned to take the time to double-check that the hold button was pressed in when it needed to be and released when it needed to be, and to take the time to think and notice. My knitting machine was my Zen master, teaching in tangible terms the practical benefits of focus, consciousness, and awareness. Its lesson was a koan: in order to do something quickly, do it slowly. The time it takes to be aware, mindful, and in control is the time it takes to save time. There’s the secret to life, all ready for your next needlepoint wall plaque.

Next the sleeves. I put the increases into the edges of the plain rows, a pair for each sequence. I tried to center the motifs between the two sides and increase the number of motifs as the number of stitches in the sleeves increased, but I couldn’t figure the numbers accurately. It would have been nice if I could have made the two sides connect evenly at the seams, but I’m not that good. I admit my limitations and move on.

When I seamed the pieces together, I made a design decision to put visible seams on the purl side because purl sides don’t usually show and I wanted to play up the unusualness of that feature with another unusual feature, done in a way that made it clear that the sweater wasn’t inside-out. I hung the stitches of each side onto the needles, a stitch in three rows, then skipping a row. Since the Dragonfly yarn is rather fragile, I formed loose stitches through hand-manipulation to join the two sides using one of the Wollmeise contrast colors, then used the latch tool to bind off the stitches, rather than connecting the two sides by running the carriage over the stitches on the needles. Here’s the decorative visible seam.

Once the pieces were assembled, I put the i-cord edging onto the hem. That was stressful and even physically painful because I was in a desperate time crunch, as I described in in my previous blog post. But I escaped repetitive motion injury, I made my flight, and the loopy trim looks nice on both sides.

Misplaced optimism about time made a nice hem treatment but ruined the evening before a trip

During the trip that caused my time crunch, I had a hope that I might find an opportunity to work on the hundreds of ends on the purl side in order to make the sweater reversible, but that was a sweet, laughable fantasy. When I got home, the ends, as well as the i-cord edging for the cuffs and neckline, still awaited me, but at least I could do them at my leisure, applying the i-cord to each stitch on a tension that was looser than the rest of the knitting. As for the ends, I pulled them tight so that the stitches next to the seaming would be as tidy as possible, then I affixed the ends to the fabric with little stitches in green thread and a sewing needle, and snipped them. The stitches in the green sewing thread are invisible enough for my satisfaction, and the result meets my standards, which I admit can be kind of forgiving. It actually wasn’t as onerous a task as it sounds, relative to the fact that absolutely everything about this project was laborious and time-consuming. What’s an extra day or two to tack down ends when everything else has already taken forever?

The Zen Master concurs.

A small slice of my ends eradication campaign: before (left half of the picture) and after (right half)
The knit side
The purl side

16 thoughts on “Teachings of the Fiber Goddess and the Zen Master

  1. Stunning. Thanks for the notes, and I’m glad the Fiber Goddess made a visit.

    As I rush to finish holiday gifts, my loom is teaching me your Zen lesson (Its lesson was a koan: in order to do something quickly, do it slowly. The time it takes to be aware, mindful, and in control is the time it takes to save time.)

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  2. Though it looks great worn both on the right and wrong side, that purl-side effect is stunning. You were spot-on with the description–it looks very much like van Gogh’s Starry Night!

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      1. I’m using my LK-150 machine, using Caron Big Cakes plus a strand of Premier wool-free sock yarn, plaited so the sock yarn is on the public side. Going to be an envelope -style 18 inch square cushion cover. Thinking of using I-cord loopy fringe idea on closure end to secure to sewn on buttons. Such fun! Grateful for your colorful blog.

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