Friday, February 22, 2008

E is for Ends

DSC01834For a long time, this was the Endless Fair Isle sweater, but I’m very pleased to say that it is now the sweater that has reached an end...without ends.

I bought the yarn (Rowan Donegal tweed 2-ply, sadly no longer manufactured) in at least four different stores in England and the U.S., and began work on it in August of 1997. A month later, I brought the project with me on a cross-country trip to meet my boyfriend’s family in Oregon. They surely wondered then why anyone in their right mind would even contemplate such a clearly fruitless project. And they may have continued to wonder why I kept bringing the same project along on my visits over the years, as it never seemed to progress much. Yes, the boyfriend and I married, and the people I met then are beloved family members now. This project has moved with me three times and has traveled almost as much as I have over the past ten and a half years, often lying neglected in my carry-on during long plane rides. It languished in its unfinished state, body and one arm complete, the other arm half worked, for about five years. Somehow, I wanted the drive to push through and finish it.

My history with Alice Starmore’s design goes way back. Her stunning book, The Celtic Collection (1992), was my entrée into Fair Isle knitting. donegalhatShortly after I bought it in 1994, I swallowed hard and dove into her design, Rosemarkie (also still available as a kit in Hebridean 2-ply from Starmore’s online store, Virtual Yarns). A few months later, I was fortunate enough to be able to take one of the Fair Isle knitting workshops she gave while criss-crossing the States. It was an inspiring experience; during the next year, I designed & made at least a dozen Fair Isle hats. DSC01848In fact, I swiped Donegal’s swirls for a pillbox-style hat in blues and grays (above, modeled on its gracious recipient), and later tried out in a swatch yet another color combination in red/orange and yellow/green (right). It’s a robust design that looks great in many different color stories, but my favorite is still Alice’s original lineup, which I chose for the full version—lovely, jewel-like shades of dark purple, copper, deep blue as a backdrop to the muted rainbow of swirls. Starmore calls the colors “rustic,” which fits, but I like to think of them as regal, too.

DSC01817A bit about the pattern itself:
It is called Donegal, both for its (Irish) Celtic swirls, and for the yarn prescribed by its designer. She debuted the design in Celtic Collection, and later published it with alternate color schemes in her book, In the Hebrides (1995, and well out of print, but still occasionally available on book auction sites or eBay). Starmore continues to offer kits for Donegal with her yarn, Hebridean 2-ply. Starmore’s stated design inspiration was Celtic knotwork in stone carvings and interlace in manuscripts, so it’s not a surprise that the swirl, turned on its side, forms a curving capital “E.” Because of the swirling nature of the design, it is difficult (but certainly not impossible) to memorize the 28-stitch pattern repeat, let alone the frequent color changes that come at almost every row. This means that the knitter must follow the chart closely throughout the evolving project, especially if that project takes over a decade to complete and includes long lacunae. DSC01849The body itself comprises 364 stitches per row, which somehow seemed more manageable than its arms, and at 203 rows (plus the combined 297 rows for the arms, added to about 90 rows of neckband, ribbing & cuffs) and with some calculations, I think the project required about 125,000 stitches. Perhaps it was the ends, rather than the end, that blocked my path. The “right side” of the fabric looked perfectly even and innocuous, but a slight flip would reveal a tangled mess of ends—two for each of the many, many color changes. I estimate the number of ends at just over seven hundred. Each one, I’m happy to now report, has been woven in its turn into the forgiving knitted fabric.

I can’t say that it was a sense of futility that kept me from completing this project. After all, I had long since conquered other Starmore patterns, including Rona, which took just a few months. DSC01843It was motivation. I was finally able to rekindle that remembered fondness for this project and to love every moment of finishing it when I joined Ravelry and saw that 26 other people had worked on or were tackling this same pattern with great success, verve, and joy. Their example, added to the encouragement I received from complete strangers to whom I had exposed the raw edges of my flailing project, really gave me the impetus I needed. As I returned to this project, I found in it small artifacts of my life—cat hairs from much loved pets now gone, my own very long hair from a time when I had the luxury not to cut it, receipts and color charts—all reminders of this sweater’s embryonic years. DSC01850So last week after I finished the second sleeve, re-knit the first cuff (my tension, it seemed, has changed in ten years), after I had wrestled with weaving in those last few ends, after I found (gasp!) two dropped stitches that had miraculously stayed in place and were easily repaired, after I had washed and blocked, after I had waited two agonizingly long days as it dried, and after taking a very deep breath, I put it on and I wore it.

Rewards for having read through this long post:DSC01821

Celtic knits & knots
Alice Starmore bio (Wikipedia)
Girl from Auntie’s Alice Chronicles
Alice Starmore Hebridean yarn review (Knitter’s Review)

Celtic manuscript design

Saturday, February 16, 2008

D is for Danish Damask

damaskdD stands for quite a lot of things in the knitterly world: Dutch, Dalarna, Delsbo, Dales (as in Yorkshire) or even Design, but since my husband’s family has roots in Denmark, I have settled on two: Danish & Damask. The test square pictured here is a damask “D,” a sketch for an eventual Danish garment for my husband. I’m afraid at this stage, that’s all there is to it.

Textile scholars generally agree that knitting took hold in Scandinavia first in Denmark in the sixteenth century. Knitting traditions in Denmark apparently owe much to Dutch families who settled on the island of Amager, near Copenhagen. They brought their own styles with them and passed on their patterns (favoring simple, knit-purl designs) to Danish workers. From the seventeenth century onward, the Danish favored fabrics that were textured, as if they were damask. In knitting, damask does not refer to the lustrous, reversible jacquard fabric that makes such wonderful upholstery. Rather, damask knitting is textured through simple purl stitch patterning, and is technically (but not visually) reversible, like woven damask fabrics. Damask knitting of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries imitated aristocratic garments knit the same way, only of silk and much finer, which were an expensive English export.

The traditional Danish knitted garments most often referenced are the nattrøjer, a tight-fitting night shirt, and the skrå-trøje. Beth Brown Reinsel has developed classes and patterns for both. Follow the link to get more info about her skrå-trøje design (about which I know absolutely nothing except that I want to make one!). Another traditional Danish design is the sømandssweater, or sailor’s sweater.

RefnaesHere’s an image from F. C. Lund’s portfolio, “Dansk Nationaldragter” from the Historiemaler Series (Kolding, 1915). Lund’s series is on historic Danish folk costumes, and interestingly, several of his models knit or wear knitted garments. This image depicts a girl from Refsnæs (in north Jutland, or Nordjylland), who knits while she walks in wooden shoes, also carrying what looks like a cask of butter on her head.

More recently, Denmark has been in the knitting news for the work of Danish designer Vivan Høxbro. She has explored domino (another D!) and shadow knitting to produce some really unusual fabrics. Her kits are distributed in the US by Harrisville Designs.

Danish Knitting Bib

Other resources

And just because
A nineteenth-century knitting sampler that includes a textured alphabet that is neither Danish nor damask, but is English and recalls what might have been an inspiration for the knit-purl damask knitting fabrics.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

C is for Cable

ccableI think of the cable as an elemental part of knitting, perhaps because the pattern abbreviations tend to look like fugitives from the periodic table (P2K4C2P2), but really, because the cable is one of knitting’s core elements. The cable plays an architectural role in knitting at once an intrinsic building block and a decorative element.

Something so basic to knitting, I felt, must have a long history. The real history, we don’t know, but the recorded history is rather recent. The Oxford English dictionary dates the first mention of cable knits to 1882 (in Sophia Caulfeild & Blanche Saward’s Dictionary of Needlework, 1882). Richard Rutt dates the first printed reference to knitting patterns earlier, to 1844 in his History of Hand-Knitting, 1987.

All early references lead—surprisingly—to American sources, and point (as does common sense) to the cable’s visual likeness to nautical ropes. Although we (or I, anyway) tend to associate cable knitting with Aran fisherman sweaters, Richard Rutt takes great pains to explain that the white, Irish pullovers we have all grown up loving were developed in response to a marketing effort in the mid-twentieth century. Even so, some of the most interesting cable patterns evoke a strong connection with Celtic design motifs. Alice Starmore’s examples in her Celtic Collection (1993) come to immediately mind. The “Girl from Auntie” (such an inspired name!) offers some wonderful celtic cable patterns on her site.

More recently, Nora Gaughan has gained recognition as the inspired queen of the cable, especially through her Knitting Nature, 2006. Her intricate cable patterns make even the most die-hard colorist quiver with delight at her incredible sensitivity to texture and architectural pattern.

I wish I could offer a better example of a cabled letter here, because patterns and inspiration certainly exist. I just haven’t done any. The real paradigm for cabled letters can be found in Elsebeth Lavold’s work in charting cables for Viking runes in Viking Patterns for Knitting, 2000. For more details on her work, including a description of her recent exhibition, take a look at her site.

DSC01743So what is the cabled C-shape pictured above, then? Well, after all the space I’ve devoted to nautical and Celtic allusions, this represents nothing either seaworthy or northern European. It is a detail; full square at left (click to enlarge, if you like). This is a very long-term project that I have been avoiding for reasons better left unwritten. It was meant to be an exploration through cables of iconography in the work of the French realist painter, Jean-François Millet (1814-1875). Perhaps more than any other painter, he celebrated knitting, spinning & shepherding. This particular cable represents his work in the 1850s of faggot-gatherers (Here’s an example, from 1858). It’s meant to evoke the texture of the wood grain. [See: Barbara Walker’s Third Treasury, Woodgrain pattern II, as featured on the Walker Treasury Project]

DSC01742Here are some other images of the project:

A basketweave cable surrounded by seed stitch and lines of growing wheat to represent Millet’s archetypal Sower. He did many versions, but one of the best known is in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, of 1850.

DSC01741This last square celebrates Standing Spinner (1850-1855, also in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts). It features a latticed spindle with small, circular spinning wheels across the top and bottom. That’s about all I’ve finished. This is going to be a small blanket of some kind at some distant date in the future.