Sometimes I get an idea for a project that pushes its way to the front of the queue because a practical need requires it, or because my curiosity is urgent and must be acted on right away. That was not the case for this bug-covered pullover for my husband. My interest in it reached such a low ebb at one point that it’s a miracle it got knitted at all.
It didn’t start off as a burdensome obligation. The glimmer in my eye was conceived a couple of springs ago, when I was looking through Barbara Walker’s stitch treasuries of mosaic stitch patterns while scouting out square-based stitch patterns for a different project. I ran across the stitch pattern for a scorpion, which I immediately envisioned as an all-over pattern that looked like an alcoholic’s withdrawal hallucination. I saw it in some orange-tinged red Wollmeise DK and black Wollmeise DK, which I had bought years ago for a sweater for my husband that I never knitted. I asked Charles if he liked the scorpion as an all-over pattern, and would he wear it if I knitted it up in a sweater for him, and he said he did and he would. So I put it in the queue. I knitted the swatch when the next Swatchathon rolled around, which was last January, and I started the sweater in May. It would be a couple of months of knitting, completed maybe in September, as a conservative guess.
Then I made a decision that cost me months. I started to worry that I wouldn’t have enough of the red yarn and I felt a need to conserve it. I also hadn’t settled on exactly how I was going to do the upper body, where I would need to shape it around the shoulders and enable a head and arms to get in and out of it. However, I did have a black-white-gray multi in Wollmeise DK and dark red Wollmeise DK, and I thought that I would reprise these two yarns in the yoke somehow. I don’t usually like ribbing, and I decided to avoid a 1X1 ribbing by knitting the black-white-gray multi in garter stitch punctuated by slipped stitch bumps in dark red.
I realized that was a bad decision almost immediately, but I thought its wrongness was because I had knitted the edging on too large a needle that gave me a loose and floppy hem. But I kept going for about four inches in hopes that I would come to like the argyle pooling pattern once I got to the mosaic stitch scorpions. Then I had trouble establishing the mosaic stitch pattern. I couldn’t focus on it. I had trouble internalizing its logic, which was odd, because the swatch was very easy to knit since the pattern is symmetrical and looks like the creature it represents. But now that I was knitting the actual garment, I couldn’t get it right. In fact, I had so much difficulty establishing the pattern that I left out one set of the legs and kept knitting it that way without realizing I wasn’t following the pattern until I got to the sleeves and checked the chart again. Oops. It took me a couple of months just to knit the first couple of pattern repeats because I kept falling asleep when I knitted it. I avoided the project most of the summer and found other projects that needed my attention. I blame my mental block on that misbegotten hem edging.
Finally, at the end of September, I finished the project I was using as an excuse not to work on this sweater and a jacket that I’m knitting and had put down because it requires a rethinking of its math. So I had to choose between two projects that were being delayed by mental blocks, and I picked up this sweater because I felt bad that I hadn’t knitted anything for Charles in a while and I wanted him to have a new, warm sweater. Guilt can be a good motivator.
This time, when I knitted the black bugs on the red background, the pattern took root readily and I moved along toward the armpits at a pretty good clip. I think that became possible because I had a heart-to-heart with the white-black-gray multi and we mutually decided that it could stay where it was until everything else was done, but then it was going to have to go. As I knitted, I came to the conclusion that the edging that would best serve the appearance and function of the sweater would be the deadly boring 1×1 ribbing that I avoid whenever I can. I made my peace with 1×1 ribbing in the black yarn, since I had plenty of it.
I also had quite a bit of white Wollmeise DK as well. I was talking with Melissa about how to add new colors in a way that made design sense. When I suggested combining the white with the black, she told me not to hesitate because I had already established a high-contrast graphical design element in the all-over red-on-black insect pattern, and doing the same in white-on-black for the sleeves would be a thematically consistent variant. From there, the next design decision was the yoke.
Actually the yoke required a number of design decisions. I would be joining white-on-black sleeves to a black-on-red body, and I had a numbers question to resolve. If I were to do the yoke as a raglan from armpit to neck, I was going to have to figure out the rate of decrease for the mosaic pattern. Also I was going to have to figure out where to add short rows to raise the neckline at the back and lower it in the front so that the neck didn’t cut in at the throat and sink draftily at the back of the neck, while riding up at my husband’s lower back. Short rows are really hard to do in an all-over mosaic stitch, if not impossible. So I punted. I resorted to my favorite yoke method, which is a raglan halfway up and a round yoke the rest of the way. This permitted me to be inexact about the angle of the decrease in the raglan and enabled me to correct the shaping with math that is familiar to me, through decreases distributed around the circumference of the yoke. Round yokes are a great vehicle for my comfort zone, stranding. And I knew exactly what stranded motif needed to be on that yoke: Muhu flies!
Muhu is the name of an Estonian island with a distinctive folk knitting tradition characterized by a lavish use of bright colors, especially red, orange, and pink, and finely detailed representations of flowers and insects, birds, and animals and geometric all-over patterns against strong black or white graphical contrasts, usually stranded. In fact, the reason I bought this orange-tinged red and black yarn years back was because I had just gotten the definitive tome on the Muhu folk art tradition, Designs and Patterns from Muhu Island (which seems to be out of print at present), and I had been seized by the idea of using one of the all-over geometric patterns in the precise black and orange-tinged red shown in the illustrations. That never happened, but now I saw a strong generic resemblance between the Muhu pattern and the all-over effect of the bugs I had knitted. It made visual sense to me that I would come full circle and look to Muhu colors and its emblematic fly chart for the upper yoke. My husband was fine with flies circling his neck. I also had perfect Muhu shades of pink and orange, and he was fine with them too. The flies would be black, as flies are, against a striped background of red, orange, white, and pink. Now I just had to play with the numbers.
Having sewn the black and white half-raglan sleeves into the similarly shaped red and black half-raglans of the body, I calculated the number of stitches currently on the needle against the number of stitches I wanted to end up with at the neck, reduced over the length of the knitting yet to be done. In addition to figuring out where to put the decreases while maintaining the charted shape of the flies, I also needed to find places to put in short rows at the back so that the back of the neckline is higher than at the front. This is essential when knitting for my husband. He has a very long back that curves at shoulder level, and it needs a fair bit of extra length to cover him completely without the sweater riding up.
After the raglan decreases, I had 288 stitches (a really good number because it’s divisible by many multiples of 2 and 3), and I was at the halfway point between the armpits and the neck. A quarter of those stitches needed to go before I started the flies. First I worked the first set of short rows in a round of plain knitting between the end of the mosaic knitting and the start of the stranded knitting, and then I decreased 25% of the stitches on the needle, and that fortuitous number, 288, enabled me to do a brainless knit-2-knit-2-together decrease all the way around, which resulted in another fortuitous number, 216 stitches. The neck needed to be somewhere between 80 and 100 stitches. The chart for the flies was 17 stitches wide and 22 rows high. I needed two pattern repetitions for the length to the throat and 10 additional rows for the length at the back of the neck, which would shape the neckline. There were plain rows at the beginning and the end of the chart, so each of those plain areas was an opportunity for a set of short rows, and that gave me three places for short rows, at the bottom of the first set of flies, at the start of the second chart repetition, and at the end of the second chart repetition. I needed two more places where I could put in extra rows without messing up the shape of the fly too badly, and I found a place in the chart where there were three identical rows in the body of the fly. A set of short rows would make the thorax of the fly two rows longer, which isn’t hard on the eye. Or on the knitter. Two reps of the chart gave me the two additional short row opportunities, so that was 10 additional rows to raise the back of the neck and cover my husband’s crazy long back.
There were a couple of ways I could have done the decreases to shape the yoke. I could have done a lot of decreases on one of the two plain rows between the lengthwise repetition of the pattern and left myself with a multiple of 17 for the second set of flies. I didn’t though; maybe I should have. Instead I saw that the chart had 11 empty spaces between the outer reaches of the antennae of one fly and the next, and I liked the idea of narrowing that space with decreases. With 216 stitches on the needle, I did 12 repeats of the 17-stitch pattern + 1 and put the extra stitch between the motifs. I did the first set of decreases, one per motif, on the first and second stitches of the motif on the fifth row. The next set of decreases was on row 12, on the two stitches after the first stitch of the repeat and a second decrease on the two stitches before the last stitch of the repeat, leaving two plain stitches between the decreases. That took out 36 stitches in the first sequence of flies and left me with 180 stitches, 10 repeats of 18 stitches. I did the same decreases in the second sequence plus an additional set on row 19, on the fourth and fifth stitches from the start and end of the motif, eliminating another 50 stitches. At the end of the flies, I had 130 stitches, with an additional set of three decreases on the next row at the center of the motif and on either side of the antennae, to get rid of another 30 stitches, for a final total of 100 stitches. I did the final set of short rows, then a folded ribbed neck band in black.
But I wasn’t done. I still had to unpick the failed hem edging. That took a couple of days, then the everlasting 1×1 ribbing in black. Not much to say about it, except that it was finally done and didn’t offend the eye.
As I was knitting, I was having qualms about the size and fit. My husband is a man of average proportions, and this looked as if it was going to be a circus tent, especially since the gauge was pretty loose and the yarn is prone to stretching way beyond what a gauge swatch will indicate after the work exceeds a certain weight. Also the yoke decreases in the stranded flies were producing an odd funnel shape, and I had fears of the upper yoke bunching up around Charles’ ears because it wasn’t wide enough to fit over his shoulders. When I finished the knitting but before I blocked it, I made Charles put it on, even though I knew that was a mistake because I always hate the way everything looks before it’s blocked, and sure enough, it looked terrible. I told Melissa it looked terrible, and she laughed at me because I always say my unblocked garments look terrible. I do that every time for the reassurance of getting her to laugh at me for doing what I always do, as if we are both following a kabuki script. So I blocked it. It fits him generously, but the hem isn’t at his knees and the sleeve cuffs don’t drag on the ground when he walks, and the yoke conforms to the shape of his shoulders when the shoulders are inside the yoke. It functions as the warm comfortable sweater it was intended to be.
It turns out that I actually would have had exactly enough red yarn for the simple red and black sweater I was originally planning. But instead I got something more interesting.