Poncho Envy 2.0 X 2

Three years ago I was a scared beginning machine knitter. The one thing I felt confident making on my machine was rectangles, so I put my designer brain to work on using my very limited skill set to make something interesting and attractive. One of my first solutions was a double-sided poncho made of two 2-sided panels of different Wollmeise multis intersecting with each other to create a diamond with a V-shaped neck opening. It was my first introduction to using the machine to join seams together, and as usual, it was a steep and arduous learning curve. The first poncho, which I kept, was my flawed but functional prototype. I offered to make ponchos for my daughters and sisters, but only my younger daughter and my sister Nancy seemed interested in the offer. So I made three ponchos my first go-round, and each one was better than the one that preceded it, and by the time I finished the third one, I was done with ponchos and began slowly to expand my machine knitting beyond variations on rectangles.

Three versions of machine-knit poncho design
The original three ponchos. Nancy’s is the one in the middle. The one on the right is the prototype with the drafty neck. The one my daughter is modeling, on the left, wasn’t quite done when I took that picture.

Several years passed, and in January I was visiting my sister Mandy and noticed Nancy’s poncho draped over a chair by the door. Did Nancy forget to bring it back with her to Florida after Thanksgiving? The answer was no, Nancy had left it in Philadelphia on purpose since the only time she was in a place that was cold enough for it to be useful was when she was in Philadelphia for Thanksgiving. So now the two Philadelphia sisters, Mandy and Sanna, were negotiating daily about who would get to wear it when they walked their dogs together because it turned out that it was the perfect light wrap for a mild winter. This time when I asked if they wanted me to make  them ponchos, the answer was an unmistakeable yes. And colors? Mandy said she liked blues and greens and didn’t like to look too conspicuous. Sanna said she likes bright colors but also not-bright colors, which wasn’t especially informative, so I asked if she trusted my color sense and she said she did. For Mandy, I found four different blue-dominant multis, and she liked them. For Sanna, I went with my gut. I like her in red, and she might not always want to be flamboyant, but she can’t help being flamboyant, so I found red multis with dark contrasts. Bright but not bright.

I knitted four panels for each poncho, a different multi for each panel, 140 stitches at tension 7.1 for 350 rows. I have learned from experience that I need to place markers at the edges of the knitting every 20 rows to make it easier to align the edges when I seam them together. It could be some other number than 20 rows, but the advantage that 20 has is that it’s easy to track on the row counter and the number goes evenly into the 3:4 ratio for getting a smooth seam from stitches picked up from the side of knitting, since knit stitches are wider than they are tall. Using a 3-pronged transfer tool, I pick up three stitches and skip a stitch five times between the markers placed 20 rows apart. When I made my first set of ponchos, the seaming was a big source of stress and drama. But this time I knew all the tricks and made smooth and evenly aligned seams pretty efficiently. No need for the tassels that disguised the puckers in my seaming for the original ponchos. For the sake of reversibility, I made visible seams a design element and knitted three rows in a contrasting color on the outside faces of the panels so that the seam was a clean and visible line that delineated the diagonal structure of the poncho. I hand-sewed the two panels together, laying the bottom edge of each piece into the side edge of the other piece and folding it over halfway to make a diamond shape. I stitched the pieces together in a way that showed the curled edge of the panel seaming on either side of the poncho.

When I made my first poncho, the one that I kept for myself, I hand-knitted a ribbed neck edge by picking up stitches around the v-shaped neck opening and knitting around straight upward until it was wide enough to fold over and sew down on the reverse side. That was really time-consuming and tedious, but worst of all, it left me with a loose and drafty neck, which is the worst thing I can have in something that is supposed to keep me warm. I corrected the subsequent iterations of the poncho by figuring out the dimensions of a 2-piece neck band that echoed the assembly of the body panels, and knitted them using my ribber. I haven’t used the ribber since then. I don’t like the look of ribbing very much, and also I had such a hard time lowering the ribber to put it out of use that I really feared I would never be able to use my main bed again and have been afraid to use the ribber ever since. For this second set of ponchos, I planned to keep the structure of the neck band that I worked out for the second and third ponchos in the 2017 iteration, but using entrelac instead of ribbing.

I had experimented with machine-knit entrelac during January 2020 Swatchathon, with this purpose in mind. But when I swatched with the yarn I was using for the blue poncho, the solid blue for the right-leaning rectangles started shredding so badly that the stitches fell off the needles. Yet the yarn, a Wollmeise Lacegarn (100% superwash merino in a weight somewhere between lace weight and fingering) didn’t appear to be degraded. Was there something wrong with my machine? Why was it eating my yarn? I got a lot of advice. Check the brushes, are they moving freely? The brushes did move, but maybe not so very freely because there were bristles sticking out of the holes that might be impeding the rotation. I ordered new ones and while I waited for them to arrive, I trimmed the bristles that poked out. My yarn still shredded when I made the right-leaning rectangles. The new brushes came and I installed them. The yarn still shredded. New advice, check the sponge bar. It still had some give and the needles still seemed to sit in their proper place, but the sponge was showing its age, so I swapped it out with a springy, shiny new sponge bar. The yarn still shredded.

This is the swatch for my original plan for the blue poncho. A stitch marker is holding a destroyed stitch in place so that it doesn’t ravel. I spent the next 6 weeks trying to figure out how to prevent my yarn from being destroyed in machine-knit entrelac.

Back to suspecting my yarn. I had made my Swatchathon swatch with sock yarn that was 20% nylon, and shredded yarn wasn’t a problem then. I went through my stash for some heavier yarn than the original yarn, hoping that the heft of the yarn might be a factor. This switch to a different yarn meant changing my design plan, but I thought that the yarns that I used for the body of the poncho didn’t have a very interesting effect as an entrelac neck band, so I was not sorry that the quest to diagnose my technical problem prompted me to find a better alternative to my original design decision. My stash dive produced an ochre and black colorway that produced an ineffable vibration in my brain when I held it up against the blue multis of the poncho body. I get that vibration when I have an unusual color combination that works. The substitute yarn was fingering weight in 100% merino, and I hoped that its more substantial weight would keep it from shredding, even though it wasn’t sock yarn reinforced with nylon. It still shredded.

Broken stitches, broken heart. The destroyed stitches are marked with yellow arrows and circles. With the benefit of experience as well as Alison’s advice, I understand that the claw weight was doing a lot to stress the yarn to its breaking point.

So now what??? I wailed to Alison, one of the experienced machine knitters I met last year at a machine knitting weekend hosted by Rachel Brooks. Alison told me to push the rubber wheels that are used for tuck knitting out of operation. I did. The yarn still shredded. Someone on Facebook suggested that maybe the the two phalanges of the sinker plate might be misaligned. I thought that maybe one of them might be protruding a little beyond the other one, so Alison suggested that I could try loosening the screws and pushing that side back away from the sinker pegs just a tad. I did, and the yarn still shredded. It seemed to me that there might be a little bit of roughness where the edge of the sinker plate might be snagging the yarn, so Alison told me to smooth the edge gently with a nail file. I did, and the yarn continued to shred. Alison was flummoxed by my persistent problem, so she tried her own swatch to see how the mechanics of the method was stressing the yarn. The method is one that Susan Guagliumi teaches in her Craftsy/Bluprint class on special color techniques in machine knitting. I would post the link, except that Bluprint is going out of business and I haven’t heard what is going to happen to the classes that are on that platform. Susan has vowed she’s never again going to participate in a platform in which she gives up rights to her work. Anyway, the instructions for Susan’s entrelac method are in her book Hand Knits by Machine, which I don’t have yet but probably should. Fortunately Alison did have the book, and was able to report back to me that she had a good theory about why my yarn was shredding.

Susan’s instructions recommend forming the base of a new layer of entrelac rectangles by picking up two loops of the side edge stitches, which produces a more solid, less holey join for the two directions of the knitting. Alison pointed out that the picked-up edge is thicker than normal knitting and therefore tends to catch on the latches and hooks when the carriage engages the new yarn in the needles, and that was what was causing the shredding. The solution Alison proposed was to push the in-hold needles into an upper working position, making sure the fabric came behind the latches and up slightly over the edge, so that the stitches on the needles were clear of the latches and out of harm’s way when the carriage passed over them. That did seem to help somewhat, but not totally. Alison told me to stop blaming my poor machine, which was working exactly as it’s supposed to work and only wants to bring me pleasure: the problem was my yarn. 100% lace weight merino hand knitting yarn isn’t the same as yarn that is made for knitting machines, which is reinforced in some way that fortifies it for the rigors of machine knitting. She told me to wax my yarn, because waxing yarn is a thing. I knew that theoretically, because I had been given a chunk of wax when I was at Rachel’s machine knitting weekend. So I wore a lot of grooves into that circle of wax, and I was finally able to get through the first half of the first neckband.

First neck band, first poncho, both sides of reversible poncho

However, I had a new worry, which was that I might have miscalculated the number of stitches I needed to get a pair of neck bands pieces that would fit comfortably into the opening. I was using the gauge from my Swatchathon entrelac, and there were a lot of holes at the corners of the rectangles that I had since learned how to avoid, and that swatch had a bigger gauge than what I was now knitting. But I rinsed and stretched and blocked the finished piece that I had sweated blood to complete, and I convinced myself that I could make it work. So I did the second half of the neck band with the same number of stitches as the first, slowly and oh-so-carefully with an eagle eye after each pass of the carriage for stitches that had a broken ply or two. There I hand-fed the yarn into the needles until I could get those stitches safely off the needles and out of danger.

By the time I finished the first pair of neck band pieces, knitted in fingering weight 100% superwash merino,  my success with waxing yarn and avoiding destroyed stitches emboldened me to knit the neck band for the second poncho in the 100% superwash merino lace weight yarn that the body of it was knitted in. I had a reliable gauge for the size I needed, which was a cast-on of 65 stitches rather than the 55 stitches I had used for the first one because it was knitted in heavier yarn. These pieces rewarded me for my struggles with their predecessors. Here I figured out that I could whiz through the set-up triangles if I positioned the corner of the claw weight to align with the first stitch of the new triangle and not move it again until the triangle was completed. Then I noticed that the first couple of stitches at the left end of the work were particularly prone to shredding, so I preemptively took them off the needles and onto locking stitch markers until it was time to work them. I also observed that the normal means of weighting my stitches, with claw weights underneath the rectangles being worked, was stressing the yarn and causing the stitches at the end of the rectangles to pop a ply, so I took all the weights off the work and very gently pulled the fabric downward with one hand while moving the carriage with the other hand. By the time I got to the second piece of the second neck band, I had gotten pretty good at dodging the Scyllas and Charybdises of applying Susan Guagliumi’s entrelac method to my machine in my chosen yarn, and that final piece was pretty much perfect.

Now all the machine-knitting was done. Or at least all the planned machine-knitting was done. I folded the pieces of the first poncho’s neck band width-wise and hand-stitched the pieces so that they closed at the bottom and side edges, and then started to stitch the two pieces together for the interlocking folded V to fit them into the neck opening. That was when my earlier fears got real. The neck band really was too short to fit into the opening no matter how much I tried to stretch it. Physical reality is physical reality, and I would not be able to torture the neck band into having length it just didn’t have. Or could I?

Something genetic kicked in here. My mother was a maker of great resourcefulness, ingenuity, and terrible taste. Mostly she sewed, which was why I was the most weirdly dressed kid in Durham, New Hampshire’s school system (other than my sisters Sanna and Mandy), but she also knitted a little. When Mandy was maybe about 5, my mother knitted her a sweater with a gray background and an intarsia design of the three little kittens and their mittens, but she ran out of gray yarn. She threw in some green yarn and called it grass, and a monster was born. From then on, my family had a new verb, to grass, as in, “Mom, why is there a purple sleeve in that yellow blouse?” “Oh, I grassed.”

So I grassed. But unlike my mother (or more accurately, because of my mother and the childhood trauma her grassing had inflicted on me), I put some thought into how to make an intentional design feature out of the correction to my inaccurate planning. The functional purpose of the correction was to add about an inch and a half of length to each piece. This additional length could become a logical part of the design if it incorporated already-established parts of the design in a new way. Rather than making inch-and-a-half long pieces of entrelac out of the same yarn and grafting them to the already-knit pieces with the hope that the graft would be invisible, I decided to make lengths of knitting in a contrasting color that would become a focal point. For that I used the same solid blue that I had used for the visible seams, whose reverse stockinette fabric outlined the seams with a roll that looked like a welt. So I went back to the knitting machine and made a piece of knitting with welts with a couple of rows between them, done by knitting four rows and moving the first of the four rows onto the needles using a transfer tool and knitting a couple of rows, and repeating the operation until I had an inch and a half of length. The welts served another purpose, which was to make a fabric with the same heft as the entrelac, which was knitted in heavier yarn, to prevent the extension from sagging and looking flimsy. I overestimated the width I needed by a couple of stitches, so I had to squeeze the new piece into the edge of the old piece, and it looked a bit wonky. I did the second piece better. When I blocked it, it settled into place pretty well, and when the poncho is worn, it’s perfectly fine.

Hand-sewing an imperfectly shaped “grassed” neckband into the poncho opening and hoping for the best

As for whether I achieved my goal of a grassing operation that looks like a planned, intentional design feature, I can’t help seeing it as a rescue operation. But I do like the way it leads the eye up the seams, around the V of the neckline, and up to the face. It has a kind of a space age look, kind of Star Trek-ish, as if the blue insert serves some kind of communication or transportation function. My friends on my Ravelry group assured me that without the blue insert, the neck band would have been static and dull. They were nice enough to say that it was an essential design element, without which something would have been missing.

One of the four possible ways this reversible poncho can face
Here’s the other side of the poncho. It can also be worn back-to-front, although there’s really no back and no front

The neck band for the red poncho required no such emergency rescue measures because the piece I had abandoned for the first poncho, before I figured out how keep the yarn from breaking, had given me a good  gauge. The assembled piece fit easily into its place without any drama other than the thrilling contrast between the dark brown-red of the yarn that alternated with the vivid red/brown, red/orange, and red/fuchsia multis. It was a nice change for something to work out as originally planned.

Four sides of one reversible poncho:

My original idea was to complete these ponchos in time to give them to my sisters in April, while it was still cool enough for them to be useful. But covid-19 lockdown meant we weren’t getting together in April under any circumstances. Even if we could have gotten together in the spring, making these ponchos wasn’t the straight shot I had thought they would be, and in April, and  in May, and into June I was still working on them. We finally got together for Mandy’s birthday last weekend, and I was able to bestow them on Sanna and Mandy just in time for a sweltering mid-Atlantic summer. I told them they could work out between them who got what, but they gravitated to the ponchos I had envisioned for each of them personally. Sanna was very surprised to be told she was flamboyant, but she loved the dramatic reds. Mandy kept finding things to notice in the blues. I patted myself on the back for reading them both so accurately.

Poncho Envy and Poncho Envy 2.0, modeled by 4 of 5 of us on a hot June day. We missed Nancy! And I missed the fifth poncho, in Minneapolis with my younger daughter, who I also miss.

5 thoughts on “Poncho Envy 2.0 X 2

  1. Thank you so much for your detailed explanation of your process. I have been thinking a poncho would be a good first real project on my knitting machine. I love the way these turned out, and the blue tab definitely looks like a design element.


  2. I loved following your journey with the poncho design. You are very talented and each one is so beautiful and unique. I particularly love the poncho over shorts look!!


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