The Knit Knack's Blog

my handspinning, knitting, natural dye, weaving fibre home


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An indigo dyed handspun cardigan

Handknit cardigan with lower lace panel Vodka Lemonade pattern in handspun Polwarth wool indigo dyed work in progress with double point needle holder

Warming my nights: an indigo dyed handspun cardigan knit

Currently on my needles with enough yarn for a second long sleeve is the handspun Polwarth 2-ply wool from last summer’s indigo dye fructose vat.

The knit’s pattern is the popular 2012 Vodka Lemonade by BabyCocktails, Thea Coleman.  Needle keeper shown is by @knitspinquilt.

Substituting a handspun yarn

Knitters have recently been discussing the financial accessibility of new sweater designs on social media, blog posts.  For a bunch of reasons that I do not plan to unpack the discussion gave a slight nod to spinning as an option, and then moved right along.

Premise of this post:  spinning yarn for garments is an option.  Yes, even slightly pear-shaped yarn.

Spinning single undyed Polwarth wool yarn by irieknit on Spinolution Mach 2 spinning wheel flyer detail

November 2015, dreaming of a sweater quantity

It was a simple idea really.  In September 2014, a 1 lb bag of Polwarth combed top from a large commercial mill cost A$38.59 plus tax & mileage to/from The Fibre Garden in Jordan, Ontario.

Spinolution Mach 2 spinning wheel bobbin with 2-ply undyed Polwarth wool spun by irieknit

Comfort spinning on Spinolution Mach 2

Earl, the Spinolution Mach 2 wheel was a good choice for my easy default worsted-style yarn but I ran into a mechanical issue of the drive wheel knocking the frame.

Melvin a tuxedo domestic short hair cat lying in lap of irieknit during Polwarth wool spinning at Spinolution Mach 2 spinning wheel

Sometimes Melvin appears as if from nowhere to see about his spinner

Customer service was responsive.  I was able to finish through to almost 1,400 yards of 2-ply 100% Polwarth wool but the wheel action changed.  Time frame is August 2015 – December 2016.

Evaluating the handspun yarn

In addition to a big wheel action change, 2016 was my watershed year.  The last 7 months were a special challenge.  As a result, skeins 1 – 3 are finer weight (i.e. higher grist) than 4 & 5.

What the industrial yarn complex is very good at is giving consistent grist even between lots.  And then there is my handspun sweater quantity (SQ) that we can follow Diane Varney & call a “coordinated yarn.”  Her galley in “Spinning Designer Yarns”, 2003, p. 22 states:

Coordinated yarns come from spinning wheels not mills.

The text says how I ultimately resolved my issue:

Spin different sizes of yarn to be used in different parts of a garment, or in coordinating separates.  For a bulky sweater, a lighter yarn may provide a more supple and comfortable ribbing.

The all-in number of 1,400 yards per pound is on the light-weight end of a DK mill-spun yarn.  For a chart of yarn weights, grists, knit uses scroll through “Calculating Fibre Quantities for Spinning” by Felicia Lo here.

Botanical colors Indigo Shibori Kit photo by irieknit

How a plan solidifies – Indigo!

The yarn found its voice last summer when the Botanical Colors 1-2-3 indigo vat recipe (adapted from Michel Garcia) not only dyed all of my Orlando mohair bouclé but still had legs.

Heya, Polwarth!

Wet freshly dyed indigo handspun Polwarth skeins suspended on wood rod over chair with dye pot and mixing stick

Seriously thrilling first indigo dye day here

This was when I settled the question – there would be no separation; I had an indigo handspun SQ for sure.

You see a shift in grist – what does this mean for a knitted garment?

When hoping to knit with any non-standard yarn, I start by looking for a suitable pattern that will flex.  As June Hemmons Hiat writes in Chapter 23 on Stitch Gauge:

Some projects require greater precision for a good fit, while with others you can take a more relaxed approach… (“The Principles of Knitting – Methods and Techniques of Hand Knitting”, 2012, p. 455)

The Vodka Lemonade cardigan has helpful notes on yarn character, and shouts ‘a more relaxed approach’.  Over time, I have enjoyed knitting patterns from designers who also spin well.  Even if the pattern itself features mill-spun, there is typically more attention paid to communicating about yarn choice.  If a project database is accessible, a quick search using “handspun yarn” can also round out the information, offer inspiration.  Many spinners work harder to shed light on the creative process in their notes.  Handspun garments are rarely featured FOs on selling pages but information gathers slowly in the database itself.

Here the mill-spun given as the design sample is 1,100 yards Zen Yarn Garden Serenity DK for a 38″ bust size with ¾ length sleeves.  Each skein is around 250 yards/ 100g or 1,100 yards per pound standard DK-weight.

With more handspun also with a higher grist, I have been able to extend the sleeve length (yes, winter is coming) & to knit the body straight with no waist shaping.  Polwarth is soft, has bounce & drape so is a good choice for a next-to-the-skin garment.

Gauge is a snapshot

Leaving the standard consistent grist market, I swatched a first (thinner) yarn.  The substitution stuck but one thing my snapshot swatch is not going to safely do for my knitting is where The Principles of Knitting advises next:

Information obtained from a swatch can also be used to calculate how much yarn you will need if you are designing something, or want to substitute a different yarn for the one called for in a pattern.

It’s possible to swatch within your handspun SQ.  I will leave that intensity for a heirloom knit (or still not!).

The pattern sample yarn has 10% cashmere & 90% merino adding plumpness to the stockinette fabric with US#5/ 3.75mm needles.  A suggested substitute that I know well is far less plump, drapey Elsebeth Lavold Silky Wool.  The handspun Polwarth stitches ease when washed, blocked.

Knitting in progress of handspun Polwarth 2-ply indigo dyed wool for cardigan

The single swatch got gauge nicely down 2 needle sizes to 3.25 mm.  How I arranged the skeins was to use the lighter-weight yarn in the cardigan’s body, heavier-weight yarn for warm sleeves.

Getting real with the limits of my swatch, I like that this still-on-the-needles cardigan seems organically swingy & light.  We do still need to read the pattern well, and this is where I think Kate Atherley’s article “On Yarn Substitutions,” here, is helpful:

After all, there are lots of yarns that are called Worsted, but there’s a lot of variance in how thick they are, and how they knit up. Same for Fingering, DK, etc. A yarn weight name is a category, it’s not precise enough on its own for yarn selection. (And those category numbers? Same thing – they get you in the right section of the yarn shop, that’s it! They’re ranges.) The stockinette gauge is what’s used on the yarn label, so that’s how you can identify more precisely what to buy.

The spinner is just only reading from that industrial wool complex & not still within it.  They take the range, gauge information & still keep an eye out for variance within the handspun lot.

What happened?  At the top of the sleeve, I weighed 87 g for each sleeve & measured as I went.  Now at the cuff of sleeve 1, around 48 g is used.  The stitch gauge is constant.  I marked each sleeve increase in case I needed to rip back.

For Designers, Technical Editors

After many sweater pattern searches (and flops) for other handspun in my stash, I ask that you consider adding these points in your pattern landing space.  If you are able to contribute longer articles, interviews, texts there is a need for spotlights on the creative process details as well.

  1. Materials specifications, including put-up & fibre content.  Where you know yarn structure this would be very helpful as well, e.g. conventional plied yarns (single or how many?), chainette, cable, core-spun, etc.  Yarn companies as a general rule give scanty clues about the structure of their bases.  Journalism, texts that focus on yarn manufacturing trends seem to be on the decline.  Your insider knowledge as a design professional is valuable.
  2. Yarn notes, texture suggestions.  Kate Atherley articulates this point very well in On Yarn Substitutions, linked above.
  3. Yardage requirements within the size range.  My last pattern purchase is Heverly Cardigan by Julia Farwell-Clay.  It is a one-yarn fingering-weight design.  The landing page broke out yardage per size, and this was critical to my purchase.  The last 350 yard yarn package spans 3 sizes, including mine in the middle!  Yarn combinations are especially difficult to eyeball when use shifts through a yoke, shawl construction and for borders.

Please understand that gauge is a limited tool at best when substituting off-market yarns because sometimes Life Happens, and also because spinners can do wonderful things with materials not available to conventional knitters.

Professionals have voiced strong opinions about customer skills (lack thereof), hand-holding.  However, spinners who knit are expanding the tent beyond the mills, are able to add value themselves.  Adding information diversifies your customer base, and is not hand-holding.  Selma Miriam’s 1989 experience speaks to the craft’s possibilities:

She purchased handspun yarns for the first time when she couldn’t find soft, fine commercial yarns with which to make lace shawls and scarves, and then almost immediately decided that she had to learn to spin herself.  “I had never knit with yarn that felt so good, alive, and beautiful in my hands,” she recalls.  With a year she had… purchased a wheel and taught herself to use it… (“America Knits“, Melanie Falick, 1996, p. 50)

Handspun garments are sadly not always well-regarded even within spinning communities.  Any that I have made have aged well, drawn me forward.  A stalled project is out and in search of a solution as I type.  These are barriers that can be eased, attitudes that can shift.

Indigo fructose dye kit in plastic zip bag from The Yarn Tree picture by irieknit

Indigo has my attention now

With luck, I will have an indigo fructose vat from The Yarn Tree’s kit to start new exploration & keep that puppy fed.


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In the thick of it

Life this year has continued to come at us fast.  The past quarter alone has included loss, grief, so many appointments, learning & back in school teamwork.  There are new welcome supports & progress but it’s been a lot.

Early fall trees with heart-shaped patch of blue morning sky

Relieving the strain

One plus of fall is that I am taking my walks again after morning drop-off on school days.  We are now facing a strike that will close the doors as of tomorrow morning.

The work-to-rule this past week was fairly brutal, and I hope that the parties negotiate a settlement very soon.

Bee pollinating Goldenrod in morning walk

Goldenrod blooms and good morning, Bee

The busy times included trips home to Jamaica – one very short for a funeral.  My Mom just spent her first birthday after retirement with us last month.  The biggest summer project was to weave her a throw as a retirement gift.

Best Planning is Asking First

There was a very specific idea wrapped up in Mom’s mind when she said the word, “throw.”

Weaving yarn in Made in America white Rayon Chain, Harrisville Shetland poppy and one ball of Cushendale mohair

Yarn choice with lots of consultation

Here is how we got to a 34.5″ wide warp of Harrisville Shetland in Poppy #65 plain weave with a cone of white Rayon chain from Made in America:

  1. Q:  Handspun shawl-shape because I love you!  Mom’s A: That sounds too narrow.  Can you make it wider?
  2. Q:  Wider cool, I can do your first initials in twill!  A:  Hmm, that is not exactly a cushy throw but flat right?
  3. Q:  Wow, I found the cushiest!  It’s mohair bouclé and the online classes told me how to weave with it!  A:  Mohair sounds very hot, Lara.

At each stage, N got the brunt of my But I Did a Weave Plan frustrations.  He’s a champ.

Handweaving wool and rayon chain throw on Schacht Mighty Wolf loom by irieknit

Weaving is a happy place

Not shown here is the LeClerc temple that I used during weaving.  The weft chain yarn is 8 ppi.  The warp is threaded straight draw on 4 shafts.

Handwoven throw in wool and rayon chain yarns by irieknit

Hand-delivered to Mom with love, the finished throw!

The loom still has our home throw warped, and ready for weaving.  The luxury of Orlando mohair bouclé came home to me from a weaver’s destash, and I then did a thing.

Orlando boucle weaving yarn

Undyed Orlando boucle yarn

A very first indigo dye day at our house!  The socks were a flourish for Ty who was not fully on board until he saw this happening.

Natural dye with indigo vat mohair boucle yarn and cotton socks

Indigo you exceeded my expectations

Packs some insight

It’s still a season of wrapping our heads around a new paradigm, research and oh my word the appointments.  None of my knitting has led to sweet finishes… in a good little while.  I seem to be frogging more often, and casting-off far less.  That’s okay.

Kid sock knitting in progress by irieknit and Stitched by JessaLu bucket bag

To be Reknitted curse

Nobody is walking around with cold feet just because I made this first sock too tight.  It will just have to be re-done.

Ball of handspun Shetland wool yarn by irieknit

Wound and now on the needles

The idea of a light Aestlight shawl in this Shetland wool handspun was my September pause from serious things.  It hit a snag in the Bird’s Eye lace border that has me carefully using a lifeline now.  I am short on yardage, and a second yarn will help finish.

A sock for me & a sock for N are on the back burner with handspun sweater ambitions.  All in the fullness of time, I suppose.

Seven year old's first weaving cotton multi-coloured potholder

Ty’s first potholder! Can you see the H?

Now is a time of reflection not speaking out or even following trends.  When I post it may be focused on the finished projects, and how they fit with the new lessons.

Ty’s potholder is a bright spot.  He loved choosing the loops.

Learning to weave is a bit like learning to ride a bike or play an instrument:  the more you practice the easier it becomes. Sarah Swett, p. 5, Kids Weaving, 2005

This wasn’t our path to a potholder or other learning.  I am starting to go beyond the typical, “This is seven!” thinking that I hear so frequently in the craft spaces.  The consistent practice advice works well for typical learning & behaviours but cannot work for everyone.

What I am doing is different:  a support for exploration.  We got to stuck points, stepped back & I took out the expectation that Ty was going to do the tighter steps at all.  Now there is a bright spot all arranged by his colour choices.

Homebaked star biscuits

Starry and yum

Another great small loom weaving was this set of 5 mug rugs on the Louet Erica.  Ty’s favourite is the stripey version with Peace Fleece alternating with my aqua handspun Corriedale as weft yarns.

Handweaving mug rug on Louet Erica table loom by irieknit in Peace Fleece and handspun yarn

Experiments in mug rugs = fun!

Here we have sage green 8/4 cotton sett at 8 epi in a 12 dent reed.  I can weave quietly with the family, and Ty really loves to sit in my lap for his turn.  It was 64 ends of cotton warp wound 65″ long.

Coffee cup on handspun weft mug rug woven by irieknit on side table with carved wood turtle and zinc planter

Handspun mug rug in morning action

Each oversize mug rug was woven around 8 ¼” long.  They really set our individual spaces apart at the large, round dining table.  We use them daily.  Why did I feel guilty about this loom?  It’s a very good time-in tool.