I was very productive during this year’s Swatchathon, thanks to the nervous energy I needed in order to live through the events of January 2021. The topic of this blog is fiber arts, so I don’t get into politics that much, but I am a very political person and I don’t avoid the mention of politics when it affects my fiber arts. I always look forward to my January Swatchathon, when I make time to try out new techniques and make swatches for future projects, but this year, I was looking forward to it because it was January 2021. That is to say, it would no longer be 2020. I think everyone, regardless of their politics, can agree that 2020 was not a good year.
I actually got a jump on my Swatchathon projects in December, when I dropped one of my crummy acrylic gloves on the ground during a walk and couldn’t find it again. I have avoided making gloves because I don’t like using double-pointed needles for the cuffs and fingers, which are too small around to knit on my vastly preferred circular needles. But I needed gloves and I decided that getting over my dislike of DPNs would expand my options for making things that are better than what I can buy. Then I had the brainwave that I could put off using DPNs if I also revisited the two-at-a-time technique, which I had used a few times back at the beginning of my New Knitting Era about a dozen years ago, when I took up knitting again after a decade-long hiatus. I didn’t really like 2AAT that much either, because it can be a bit confusing and the yarns can tangle around each other, but it’s useful when you’re knitting two single-color items that need to be the same size as each other, so I decided it was time to revisit the technique.
I found a free pattern on Ravelry for a basic glove knitted in fingering weight yarn, and I dug out my long-neglected copy of 2-at-a-Time Socks by Melissa Morgan-Oakes. The instructions disoriented me a bit, but the operation is pretty simple. Using a 40″ circular needle, I cast on stitches for the ribbed cuff of one glove using one ball of yarn, then cast on stitches on the same needle for the other glove using a different ball of yarn. Next I bent the cable at the halfway point of the first set of stitches and pulled out a loop and did the same thing with the second set of stitches. The needle doesn’t have to be 40 inches, but it does need to be long enough to accommodate two sets of stitches with a loop of empty cable at the halfway point of each set of stitches. Put a marker into the bottom edge of the first set of stitches so that you don’t lose track of where you are in the process, and then just knit the stitches on the left needle where two needle points are available. The yarn will come around from the stitches on the back of the left-hand side of the bent cable, and when you knit the yarn from the back to the stitches on the front, you knit in the round. After you knit the stitches on the front, you turn the knitting around and push the stitches you just knitted back on the needle so you can bend the cable and you push the stitches you’re about to knit toward the point of the side of the needle you’re about to knit off from. Generally I find k1p1 ribbing pretty deadly dull, but 2AAT seemed to make it a bit more tolerable.
The pattern I chose was a plain vanilla Drops pattern for fingering weight yarn, and I followed it as literally as I could, using bits of leftover sock yarn for the fun of arranging color sequences as a way of relieving the boredom of plain stockinette, and I continued knitting 2AAT until I reached the fingers. The numbers and method the pattern provides are fine, but after I finished the gloves, I decided to make another pair because the fit of the first pair was big in some places and sparse elsewhere. I added a couple more rows before starting the thumb gusset, and next time I use the pattern, I will add several more rows there so that the cuff ribbing doesn’t climb up into the palm of the hand as it does on my current two pairs. I also need a couple of extra rows after knitting the pinky and before knitting the rest of the fingers, which will be a modification for the next pair. Knitting the fingers on four double-pointed needles really wasn’t that awful, although I understand that it’s possible to knit fingers with a double-knitting method that I haven’t figured out yet. Knitting on two circular needles works easily too. So from now on, no more store-bought acrylic gloves.
I finished the second pair of gloves on New Year’s Eve, and Charles and I celebrated New Year’s Eve by falling asleep in front of the television at home and generally being relieved that 2020 was finally ending. Unfortunately, January 2021 was just the 13th month of 2020, with more and more people getting sick, hospitalized, and dying from covid without a response from the then-administration, whose only interest in life was to overturn the results of a fair and honest election that the former president really, truly lost because a lot more people legally voted for his opponent than for him. When the would-be dictator talked about defending the rights of the 74 million people who voted for him, he was telling the 81 million of us who didn’t vote for him that we didn’t count. That wasn’t a surprise, since he had been telling us that every single day of the last four nightmarish years, which was why we voted against him. Each passing day of early January highlighted the fragility of the electoral legitimacy we had always taken for granted. What if he succeeded somehow at stealing this election that the states, courts, and his own federal bureaucracy had proven he had lost? My impulse was to wish away these torturous days between then and 20 January, when Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were supposed to take office, but I had swatches to make.
2-4 January 2021: Trump extorts Georgia Secretary of State Raffensperger, who had certified his state’s victory for Biden, to force him to “find” exactly 11,780 votes in favor of Trump in order to throw the state to Trump’s column. Instead Raffensperger releases the recording of the hour-plus-long phone call, and talk of a second impeachment begins. Since I can’t teleport into a sane world, I commence swatching for another warm sweater for my daughter in Minneapolis using the entire palette of Re:treat chunky roving yarn. I don’t really like the non-neutral colors of the Re:treat palette; they seem off somehow, like some brown got mixed into the dyes. They’re kind of muddy, while also being very saturated. But I have a trick for turning them into something other than the near-misses I see them as: black, white, and gray. I wanted to use one of Barbara Walker’s slip-stitch patterns that make a chevron stripe, but I while I was looking for the right pattern, I found a different one that I knitted up and didn’t like. Then I found the pattern I had in mind, False Flame Stitch, A Second Treasury of Knitting Patterns, p. 101. After a bit of groping and trial-and-error, I decided to arrange the palette in two groupings, the dark sequence and the light sequence, and in between each, a neutral sequence of light gray/white/black/dark gray. The black/white didn’t brighten the colors, but they gave the arrangements a focal point around which they could organize themselves.
5-6 January 2021: The two Democratic candidates for Senate in Georgia both win their 5 January run-off elections. I had supported the two Democratics with money and effort, and I rejoiced on 6 January when the elections were called for the two of them. I rejoiced for about 5 minutes. Then Trump unleashed a murderous mob on the Capitol, the Vice President, the Speaker of the House, and the senators, congressmen, and staffers who work there, in order to stop the certification of the President-Elect who had legitimately defeated him. My German friend Eva, in Cologne, messaged me to say that “the Capitol conquest” had made her cry, and I felt simultaneously shame and gratitude for her concern. We had a lively discussion on my Ravelry group, The Interior of My Brain, among the American, German, Canadian, British, and Australian members about whether American democracy could survive, even though this insurrection had ultimately failed to stop the certification of the legitimate president who had defeated the then-current occupant of the office. The Germans were particularly passionate about the subject. When a U.S. president triggers PTSD in Germans, Americans need to pay attention. One of the German members, Mechthild, sent me a gift that brought on one of those allergy attacks that causes a tightness in the throat and wateriness in the eyes: a hat pattern depicting the Capitol Dome in knitted stitches.
Not a week into January 2021 and already all this. Time was no longer working as it used to. How were we going to survive to Joe Biden’s and Kamala Harris’ inauguration on 20 January? Were we even going to survive, with a spiteful Trump still controlling the apparatus of government and the nuclear codes? Well, if time was going to stand still and keep us imprisoned forever in a Trumpian hellscape, I was going to take advantage of this weird blip in the time-space continuum and make A LOT of swatches during this endless January.
First, an experiment with felting, texture, and color pops, using a free pattern from Drops for a hot pad made from very large bobbles knitted in an offset arrangement and felted together until the bobbles were pretty much on top of each other. I knitted (and knitted and knitted) it in the dark gray Re:treat, with intarsia bobbles in feltable yarns left over from other projects for the random bits of color. The piece used up most of a skein in an 11″x13″ rectangle before felting. I decided to hand-felt rather than throw it in the washer as the pattern prescribed, because I wanted to have more hands-on control over how much the piece would felt. I scrubbed it for an hour with liquid dish detergent in alternating hot and cold water, to get an irregularly shaped rectangle of 8.5″x12″, which wasn’t a lot of shrinkage and the bobbles were still pretty far apart. The fabric between the bobbles was pretty dense, which could make a nice fabric for a jacket for me and cozy kitty-cat slippers for Charles, representing the cats of our children’s childhoods, one black for Devil and the other gray for Steve. My older daughter is very keen on my figuring out how to knit these Devil and Steve felted cat slippers so she can knit a pair for herself. For these projects, I will need to knit another swatch with fewer bobbles, machine-felted, to see if I can get a more regular shape and a tighter fabric.
On the knitting machine, I finally got around to trying out intarsia. It looked pretty straightforward in The Answer Lady’s video. As usual, everything went pear-shaped when I tried it. My Brother machine doesn’t require an intarsia carriage; the settings are on the carriage. I pushed in both part buttons and found the intarsia button underneath the holding cam lever and pushed it in so that I could move the lever all the way to the right to “i” position. Then I laid my yarns over the open latches in the arrangement I wanted. So far, so good, all according to the instructions. Then I moved the carriage, and it made a terrifying grinding noise and stopped dead when it reached the needles. And so did my heart. Nothing gets a reaction out of me quite like a bad noise from my knitting machine. I tried, ever so cautiously, to move the carriage backward, but it didn’t seem eager to move so I turned the release dial and lifted the carriage off the bed to inspect for damage. Nothing jumped out at me, but I’m not much of a diagnostician. I put the carriage back in place as carefully as I could, but it still didn’t seem quite right so I took it off again and backed away slowly. I asked Alison, the British lady who answers all my machine knitting questions, what her diagnosis was, and she asked if the carriage was properly engaged. I thought it had been, but maybe it wasn’t. I tried again, and this time there were no scary noises, so I guess the problem was that I didn’t have the carriage firmly on its rails. Now the problem was that I kept dropping stitches. I made a couple of sad little tangles before I eventually made something that actually looked like intarsia, figuring out along the way that it wasn’t enough to visually check that the latches were open– I had to stick my fingernail into the latches and drag it along the length of the needles in use to make sure they really were open.
Then there was brioche, which had been a recurring feature of my to-do list for my first several Swatchathons, then was a recurring feature on my didn’t-do list. A couple of years ago I attended a class at Lovelyarns to learn the basics of two-color brioche, and it seemed pretty easy, but the class produced a scarring sensory overload because I was surrounded by needy learners competing at high volume for the instructor’s attention. I produced a few rows of two-color brioche ribbing and called it a day, or a year, or a forever. But a few months ago I ran into a pattern composed of a couple of simple variations of two-color brioche ribbing, and I liked it enough to buy the pattern and yarn. I planned to swatch the pattern during the current Swatchathon, and then I took another look at the finished projects. Not a single one of the FO’s (finished object, knitter jargon) looked good on its wearer. Perhaps part of the problem was my pet peeve, bad photos, but I think that the underlying cause of the bad photos is that the shape of the garment doesn’t suit women who have flesh on their body between the armpit and the hip. But I had this yarn, a hairy sport-weight yarn in red and black, and I thought (still think) that two-color brioche ribbing would be a good way to use it if I can figure out a better garment shape.
Of course I had forgotten the little I had learned about two-color brioche ribbing from that class several years ago, but I thought it would come back quickly. Melissa has an instructional video on YouTube, which I referred to. And for some reason, it did not come back quickly. I was aphasic, the words and motions didn’t make sense to me. I had a mental block of resentment against brioche because… why? Because that class had annoyed me? Because I think brioche might be overhyped? Because I don’t like the abbreviations? Also that hairy yarn might not have been my best choice for trying to learn the technique. But I was determined to learn how to do this, because Melissa shamed me by asking if I needed to schedule a private lesson, and I didn’t want to be one of those people who don’t understand straightforward instructions. So I went looking for the brioche swatch I had knitted at that class, which was still on the needles. I looked closely at the stitches, front and back, and finally Dawn Broke Over Marblehead. Looking at live stitches on the needle, I could now see how the structure worked and why the sequence of the steps produced the two-color ribbing. I knitted a few more rows on the swatch from the class and then started another swatch from scratch. This time I got into the rhythm of it and it was a fun way to knit a two-color rib, a lot more fun than doing a stranded corrugated ribbing. Now I’m looking for a reason to use two-color brioche ribbing.
13 January 2021: Donald J. Trump takes his place in history as the only U.S. President ever to have been impeached twice. In less than a year. One interminable week before Inauguration Day. What will he break on his way out the door?
At this point in our national trauma, I moved on to the crochet phase of my Swatchathon because crochet is both soothing and absorbing and I don’t drink or take sedatives. I managed to finesse a pretty two-sided flower-shaped potholder out of the ten ugliest cotton yarns in the world, which I described fully here.
When I first got interested in learning crochet, I got a copy of Renate Kirkpatrick’s Freeform Crochet and Beyond. Bullions caught my eye right away, but I didn’t get around to trying them until this current January Swatchathon. They are addictive! Fiddly in exactly the right way to distract an anxious person waiting to see what a despotic “president” might do to avoid being ejected from the White House in a week’s time.
Then my nervous energy found an outlet on a green machine-knit stockinette square, my canvas for experiments with Britt-Marie Christoffersson’s Embroidery on Knitting book. The book provides instructions and diagrams for the basic forms of shapes embroidered on top of knitted stitches, then pages and pages of colorful photographs of variations on the basic theme. I don’t have much experience or proficiency in this form of needle art, but I grabbed a needle and yarn and did it anyway. Experience and proficiency are not required for just doing it.
I liked the shapes and colors so much on this green background that I began thinking about doing a much more elaborate experiment with machine-knit intarsia in a stylized flower shape knitted in pinks and reds. I was starting to envision this intarsia flower at the bottom of a sweater with improvised embroidered worms and medallions swarming all over the upper body. I’m not that great at charting or improvising naturalistic shapes, so I found a chart for a stylized camellia in Susan Duckworth’s Knitting, which I bought when it came out in 1988, glanced at, and never used. It finally found its moment in January 2021. While I don’t like charting my own original designs, I feel absolutely no obligation at all to follow a chart that someone else designed after it launches me on my way. I treated the chart as a way to orient me, since I was doing the colors completely differently, and I didn’t feel a lot of need to count precisely or adhere too closely to the chart as written. But as I worked, I found myself spending more and more time trying to find my place in the chart because I couldn’t really see what I was doing on the machine, since only the wrong side is visible while you’re working and I was using up to 10 different colors at a time, some of which were very similar to the adjacent colors. It was a very time-consuming way to work. But the results were so good that it was worth it, and there are ways to do it much more efficiently, now that I understand the technique. For one thing, highlighter tape, also turning the chart around so that the start of the chart is at the top. That way I’m working downward and can see where I’ve been as well as what I’m about to do.
Let’s throw everything at this green sweater:
20 January 2021: Inauguration Day! The disgraced and detested would-be dictator had searched for but found no way to usurp power and was going to have to get into an aircraft and leave the premises of the White House in time to fumigate the joint for the new President, who, I may have mentioned, was legitimately elected. I watched and rejoiced. Then we got in the car and drove to Philadelphia to celebrate with my two sisters and brother-in-law. We had discussed our exposure to The Disease, determined that we all had been good about avoiding it, and could safely get together. What an incredibly happy day! I needed an Inauguration Day project to knit while I was celebrating the start of a competent and honest U.S. presidency. That would obviously be the Capitol Dome hat pattern that Mechthild had given me as a gift, knitted in white Wollmeise fingering weight yarn. The hat would be a birthday present for my sister Nancy, who has dedicated her life to defending democracy for the last five years. The pattern hit the sweet spot between soothing and interesting, although it wasn’t evident until the hat was finished and blocked how effectively the stitches represented the architecture of the Capitol Dome. The only problem is that the finished hat fits like a large scull cap, which I don’t find attractive or functional. I’m going to have to take out the final decreases and add another couple of inches of the pattern sequence that precedes the decreases. I knitted another hat for Nancy in white Wollmeise DK, which came out perfectly, and one for myself in a bulky gold-flecked single-ply white wool yarn, now my favorite hat.
Everything about the inauguration was a joyous release from the meanness and ugliness of the previous regime. The optimistic and idealistic speeches, the executive orders nullifying the stupidest and most spiteful edicts of the deposed king, the beautiful array of coats among the First and Second Families, fairy-dusted Amanda Gorman, the first press briefing with a polite and amiable press secretary who not only didn’t lie but also didn’t insult journalists… it was like a miracle, it was like the way we used to be, and it felt as if we were finally celebrating the New Year, 20 days late. And then there was Bernie Sanders, cross-legged and hunched against the cold on his metal folding chair in his gray parka and upcycled mittens. A pattern for the mittens appeared on Ravelry before that metal folding chair had a chance to cool. Before I knew it, I was knitting a pair for Charles to use as a prop in a Purim play that he’s performing in, in which he plays the part of Bernie as narrator in a Zoom meeting gone wrong. I used Re:treat yarn again and applied the suddenly ubiquitous color and motif pattern to the Tin Can Knits basic recipe for “The World’s Simplest Mittens.” The mittens closed the circle on my 2021 Swatchathon, ending the way it started, with 2-at-a-time ribbed cuffs.
Class photo, January 2021 Swatchathon
Now for the “Where Are They Now?” follow-up to the January 2020 Swatchathon. The Class of 2020 was relatively small, but most of the graduates found gainful employment over the course of the year.
Clockwise from the left, gray and white stranded snowflakes: This swatch spawned two distinguished products of 2020. In February 2021, I’m wearing mine as I type. I’m pretty sure that as soon as Dr. Baby, in Minneapolis, gets home from treating patients at the VA, she’s going to put hers on too as a favorite component of her Professional Napping Uniform.
Double knitted intarsia, dark red and aqua dots: Yes, it was doable. Here’s where it ended up:
Plain off-white cotton machine-knit stockinette swatch: Its time will come, but it wasn’t in 2020. I would like to make a summer top out of that yarn with a lot of improvised hand-manipulated distressed holes around the edges. Some day. Summer 2021? Maybe.
Red and black mosaic stitch scorpions: It was a long labor and a complicated birth, but eventually Delirium Tremens was born.
Maroon machine-knit stockinette swatch with colorful popcorns: This.
Hand-knit and machine-knit entrelac: Hand-knit entrelac is not my jam, but I have spent a lot of the last year on machine-knit entrelac. During the 2020 Swatchathon, I practiced Susan Guagliumi’s bridging method, which keeps all of the stitches on the needles and achieves the joining of the side stitches of the previous sequence with the side stitch of the new rectangle by using the transfer tool to move the stitches of the previous sequence toward the new rectangle. I used this technique to make the neck bands for reversible ponchos for my two sisters in Philadelphia.
I might not enjoy hand knitting entrelac, but the exercise of increasing and decreasing the size of the rectangles gave me insights into the shaping of the sleeves and yoke of this all-entrelac-all-the-time machine knit tunic that I’m just finishing. Details in my next post.
May the January 2022 Swatchathon find us all in a better state of mind than the January 2021 Swatchathon did.