In March 2020, Covid-19 came to town and it really hasn’t left. We thought it would, back in March, if we stayed inside and knitted, and it would have left if we hadn’t had a president like Homer Simpson who got bored with waiting for the curve to flatten after about five seconds and said “The waiting game is boring, let’s play Hungry Hungry Hippo.” But back in those innocent and optimistic days, we ran to the yarn store and bought lots of yarn to tide us over until the pandemic was tamed, which could be as long as long as two months… well, we were innocent and optimistic then, and here it is August, and it’s not tamed.
But I bought yarn, not that I was in any danger of running out of the stash I had accumulated during my several-year-long Wollmeise binge some years ago. I did it because the yarn was pretty and I was worried about well-loved small businesses, like my local yarn store Lovelyarns, going under during lockdown. I bought enough yarn for about six sweaters, two of which are still pending. But I made four of them, one in crochet out of cotton yarn whose dye pattern distributed itself in hemispheres around the motif, and I machine-knitted the others in stripes that let the yarn do what it wanted to do. In fact, that’s the common denominator for all four of these projects: letting the yarn do what it wanted to do.
I bought the cotton yarn last; I used it first. It was a summer yarn, it was getting to be summer, and it was a good time to make a summer top. The pattern came from Noro Magazine #30 Motif Tunic, from their Fall/Winter 2013 issue. I didn’t use Noro yarn. Mine was Urth Yarns Uneek Cotton, which had a larger gauge and a different dye pattern from Noro. It was dyed so that, in knitting, it would knit as stripes that changed color in a gradient. This crochet pattern was made up of motifs worked in a circle, and instead of stripes, the colors arranged themselves by aggregating one color on one side of the motif and another color on the other side. I bought the yarn from Lovelyarns’ Urth Yarns trunk show in May, and Melissa estimated that I would need five skeins, so I bought five skeins in different colorways that each had something in common with at least one other skein.
The pattern had a wide crocheted ribbing that gathered the motifs close to the body at and below the waist, and looking at the finished projects, the only person who looked good in that ribbing was the teenaged model on the Noro pattern. I don’t like ribbing very much anyway, and since the yarn I was using would make larger motifs than the Noro yarn used in the pattern, it would be plenty long enough without the ribbing. There were half-motifs to make the bottom edge of the motifs straight so that they would fit into the ribbing, and I decided to dispense with that too and make a design element of the star-like shape of the motifs, with the points of the motifs emphasized by round dangling medallions hanging down from their edges. On Ravelry, the project notes for the 30-something separate projects made from the pattern suggested that there was a problem with the schematic provided by the pattern, since everyone who had made the garment said they had had to give up on the schematic and fit the pieces together on their own. I’m good at figuring out how to fit pieces together on my own, so I was warned but not daunted. My more immediate complaint about the pattern was that the instructions for making the motifs was strictly in the form of numbers and symbols, and no chart to indicate how the type and number of stitches fit together to make the shape. That was annoying. There should always be charts.
Working with this yarn to make this motif was fun because the way that the colors bunched up each on its own side looked intentional, even though I was just using whatever color came along. My favorite parts were the places where the color was transitioning to the next color. It seemed to take forever for the color I really liked in each skein to come along, and the way the colors paired up was not necessarily the pairings I personally would have chosen. In fact they rarely were, but the total effect when everything was put together worked out to a very pleasing set of color relationships. Putting it together was its own set of headaches. The pattern recommended a join-as-you-go method of joining the points of the new motif to the points of its neighbor during the last round of the crocheting according to the schematic provided. Unfortunately, if one attempted to follow the schematic, the result would not only not look like the modeled photograph but not be wearable unless one lacked arms. So I followed the photograph. And like everyone else who had preceded me in using this pattern, I discovered that assembling the motifs according to the schematic would have resulted in something that didn’t have armholes. So I assembled it in the very simplest way, by making front and back structurally the same and joining up the points that connected the motifs around my body and gave me a hole to stick my head through, places to stick my arms into, and kept the work from falling off my body at the shoulders. At the end I made dangly medallions by crocheting the first round of the motifs.
Then I turned my attention to my knitting machine and the first sweater quantity of yarn I bought just before lockdown. That was five different colorways of Ancient Arts sock yarn that looked when I bought it as if it might lend itself to a rough fade. I swatched it, and it was evident that I was going to have to do many more color changes than I wanted to do to make the colors blend, so I decided I was happy with very wide stripes that were distinctly different from one another. This would be a raglan pullover, very basic, proportionally wider in the body than the sleeves, which meant that the body side of the raglan would have a faster rate of decrease than the sleeves in order to get the length from armpit to neck that I wanted. The numbers worked out so that the decreases on the front and back were two decreases every other row from the start of the upper torso to the neck, while the decreases on the sleeves started on the third row after binding off at the underarm, two every other row for eight rows, then skip three rows, and repeat until six stitches remain.
I had a design challenge when I got to the upper sleeves, which was the alarming rate at which I was using up the color of the stripe at the beginning of the rota, faster than the other colors, so fast that running out was a real possibility. So the Fiber Goddess paid me a visit.
Fiber Goddess: Stripes, dear. Use your Wollmeise solids. Compatible colors, but make it a bold contrast with the color sequence you’ve established. This is a really good place for black and white and that light aqua you put aside somewhere. Make a mirrored sequence that covers the space of the two bottom stripes in the raglan.
Me: Hmm, yes. And wouldn’t it be cool if it was on just one sleeve?
Fiber Goddess: Yes, it would be cool. All right then, got it under control? Have a lovely day, dear.
Me: Wait, what? You’re leaving without the usual gratuitous swipe at my age, appearance, and intelligence?
Fiber Goddess: What kind of monster do you think I am to beat up on you when you’re so obviously a wreck?
Ah yes. That’s my Fiber Goddess.
As it turned out, I would have had exactly enough of that first color, in an epic game of yarn chicken, to maintain the rota established in the front and back, but I think that the black-white-aqua striping on one shoulder is an actual improvement to the design. No regrets.
I really like the way this sweater fits, and I’m very pleased with the delightful way each colorway knitted up to display a very different dye pattern than the others. There’s something about this sweater that makes me very happy. Maybe it’s the consistency of the yarn that makes it feel so effortless to wear, and maybe its the fact that I have gotten very good at mattress stitch for the raglan seams and very exact at lining up my stripes and the seam stitches when hanging the seams for joining on the machine. It feels like a perfectly crafted garment. No modesty either, I guess.
The numbers for this raglan worked so well that I decided to use it as a template for related sweaters. Those numbers spawned a couple of saddle-shoulder variations knitted in fingering weight yarn using all of the first sweater’s numbers up to 36 rows toward the neck. Then I calculated a transitional stripe on the front and back for the next 18 rows that short-rowed the number of stitches between that point in the raglan to the edge of the neck opening, divided into nine 2-row segments (18 rows) to create shoulder shaping that would replicate the fit of the template sweater. That way, the saddle, after 36 rows of raglan shaping on the sleeve, would be a straight block of back-and-forth knitting bridging the front and the back, divided at the neck and shaped at the front to make a neckline, then rejoined at the other side of the neck and continuing down the other side and into the second sleeve using the same number of stitches and rows, in reverse. To verify that this plan was going to work, I measured the template sweater at the various points across the shoulder along the path of the curve of the top of the front and back to make sure that the number of stitches I would have after doing the sleeve raglan decreases would work. It looked as if it was going to be just fine.
Then I measured the row gauge against the stitch gauge, and it was pretty close to the usual 4:3 ratio. While the sleeve/saddle piece was worked parallel to the body, the number of saddle rows would be the same number as the number of body rows, but the rows of the saddle would round a corner and start running at a right angle to the body stitches, and there I would need a 4:3 ratio of saddle rows to body stitches. So I multiplied the number of body stitches from that point across the back by 1.25, and that was the number of rows I would knit to get across the shoulders and neck. Then I would resume a 1:1 ratio after the saddle turned into a sleeve again. I also calculated the neck shaping for the front side of the piece. I wanted to connect the body pieces to the sleeves/saddle using a method that would serve as a design element. Once again, I turned to Diana Sullivan’s zigzag panel join, which I had used several times to connect side seams. Now I wanted to see if I could apply the panel join evenly around curves and corners at a stitch:row ratio that was not one-to-one.
The yarn I used for this variation was from a local-ish dyer (Philadelphia), Shirsty Cat. Melissa had just gotten a shipment and was displaying it on Facebook Live, and when she got to a blinding hot pink called Annie Get Your Gum and a green-based multi called Bog of Eternal Stench, I messaged in “that yarn is mine,” because I was so delighted by the names. Also I’m in a serious pink and green phase right now, and that pink was the ultimate in pink. I wasn’t, and am not, so very sure that the green multi was my very best green but I decided I was going to act as if it was because I loved the name. Melissa had her delivery person, in a mask, bring the yarn to my door that afternoon, and that, ladies and gentlemen, is how a yarn store stays alive during a pandemic lockdown.
I started off with a contrast color for my usual folded hem, a Wollmeise colorway called Zarte Knopse, a spring green whose German name translates to “delicate bud,” and alternated the pink and green multi in bold stripes up through the short-row shaping where the sleeve/saddle would be attached, and bound off. I didn’t do it perfectly, I was off by a stitch or two, but it was minor enough not to drive myself crazy over. Then I did the same for the other side, but I ran out of the first skein of Bog of Eternal Stench and the next skein was visibly different from the first skein. I decided that the side with the visibly different Bog skeins would be the front, and that I was going to make a design feature of the dyeing variations in these hand-dyed skeins, because I didn’t want to put it on the back and have people think I was treating it as a flaw. I was apprehensive about undertaking the sleeve/saddle, since I had never done such a thing before, but it was surprisingly easy. I especially liked the tidiness of the decreases and increases of the neck shaping.
Every time I do Diana Sullivan’s Zigzag Panel Join, which I had used at this point on three previous sweaters in the last nine months, I have to go back to the video and watch it several times before I can figure out which piece goes first and which direction the two pieces need to face in order to avoid making a Moebius of my garment. Now I have done two more sweaters with that join, and I’ll still have to look at the video next time I attempt it. It’s easy once I have everything going in the right direction, but I can’t retain the positioning of the two pieces and the order in which they are joined. Thank goodness for Youtube. I started off with the back, because there I really did intend to hide my flaws on the back side. There were some rough spots, but by mid-back I had figured out the spacing. I had wisely placed markers into the edges where the two pieces needed to align, a vital bit of forethought. Matching up the markers as I worked kept me oriented, but the ratio was the same as picking up stitches for a button band on a sweater.
This experiment showed me that I had a successful formula for an interesting variation on a standard raglan pullover, and now I knew how to use another sweater quantity of pandemic yarn. This yarn was from another local dyer whose yarn I have used before, Haute Bohéme. I organized my color scheme around a multi of blue-gray, orange, yellow, and pink, and matching semi-solids of those colors, with the pinks and oranges arranged in a gradient. The blue-gray semi-solid was the contrast color for the edges and the saddle shoulder. The multi delighted me by knitting up in different pooling patterns for every stripe in which it made an appearance, argyles, vertical stripes, and combinations of the two. I used it again for the panel join, and there the colors arranged themselves in clumps. The technically toughest part of the project was doing the gradated stripes while short-rowing the top segment of the body, which shapes the saddle. When I had to change colors at the start of a short row, I needed a way to anchor the new yarn so that I wouldn’t lose my stitches when I moved the carriage, so I tied the new yarn to the old yarn and hand-fed the yarn into the first three needles before knitting the rest of the row with the carriage. It was not the most straightforward way to machine-knit, but it beats repairing stitches, and it was the best way I could think of to do what I wanted to do.
The colors and the pink-orange gradient were a pretty exact match for the sunsets we see when we’re taking our annual two weeks by Lake Michigan.
In July, when I finished these projects, the weather at home in Baltimore was at its July armpitty worst and not exactly conducive to modeling long-sleeved wool sweaters. Northwest Michigan offered more sweater-friendly temperatures at the end of July and very photogenic backgrounds. Unfortunately when we got there I realized that I had forgotten to put my tripod in the car, so the first thing we did was to drive into town to the camera store and get me an emergency upgrade. I had a lot of fun with my new tripod, which I used in all of the modeled photos in this post. From now on my modeled photos will offer a few more backgrounds and poses than me smiling brightly at something off to the right on my front porch because that’s the only place I could find to balance my little phone camera table tripod.
I have definitely been busy trying to turn my pandemic yarn into stuff, yet somehow I have yet more sweater-quantities waiting their turn. But the vagueness of that “somehow” is actually the result of the very specific actions Melissa has taken to adapt to adverse circumstances, which may be the new normal for quite some time, and not only survive but even thrive. If I were a professor at a business school, I would assign my students the Lovelyarns case study to document and learn from. Although plenty of yarn stores have gone under, yarn is a commodity that people want to use when their routine is disrupted and they have a lot of time on their hands, and it can be obtained at any price point, but it requires resourcefulness, tech savvy, and hard work to keep a yarn store going when the usual in-person shopping experience is not possible. I have linked to Melissa’s web store, which is well organized, complete, and user friendly, but prior to March, the Lovelyarns website mostly listed hours and in-person events. Melissa scrambled to get her inventory online, and she is assiduous in keeping it up-to-date. While she was in the process of getting the web store fully operational, she displayed new inventory on Facebook and Instagram, offered virtual tours of the store on Facebook Live and via video chat, and took phone orders, which went into the mail or was hand-delivered within a 15-mile radius, usually the same day. She has continued to do that even after the web store became complete and functional. Previously her customers were local or visitors to Baltimore who happened to find her store. Now she sends packages almost daily to customers all over the United States.
And, much as I like Melissa, I wouldn’t buy her yarn if she didn’t have really good stuff. She has great yarn because she has maintained and cultivated her relationships with local dyers and her yarn reps in a mutual survival strategy. She also has maintained her relationships with her customers, spending hours on FaceTime with customers who have become friends and helping them with their technical questions. The Lovelyarns Youtube channel grew out of Melissa’s service to customers who needed more help with techniques than she could provide in person, and now they can watch Melissa demonstrate cast-ons or bind-offs or whatever, over and over again at their convenience. She, with her husband’s technical assistance, has worked hard on the production values as well as the content, and she releases videos for KAL’s, CAL’s, and knitting and crochet techniques on a regular schedule with the goal of monetizing her channel. Owning a yarn store is never a big money-maker in the best of times, and typically they have been the domain of well-off ladies supported by husbands who get a tax advantage in writing off their wives’ business losses. Many of those are the yarn stores that are shutting down. That isn’t Melissa’s situation. Lovelyarns is her sole source of income, and adapting to bad times has been a matter of survival for her.
Someday, maybe in a year or two if we can replace the current U.S. regime with an administration that governs on the basis of fact rather than magical thinking, we can go back to the previous normal in which people can go about their business unmasked and gather together in small spaces without fear of contracting or spreading a deadly disease. If that happens, the measures Melissa has taken as a matter of survival to expand her reach and tighten up her operations will put her in a much more secure position than prior to our current nightmare.