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A Yarn Story

Inishmeane - Designer's Perspective October 26 2016

Last Friday we released the brand new pattern Inishmeane, a men's sweater designed in The Fibre Company's newest yarn Arranmore. I wrote about the sweater and a bit of the design process on the blog last week but I thought it would be fun to share the designer's perspective as well, as really, Rachel did most of the work. So, in her own words - here is what my friend and talented designer Rachel Brown of Porpoise Fur has to say about designing Inishmeane:

Early this past summer I got a ping from Carmen at A Yarn Story saying "Have you seen this new Fibre Company yarn Arranmore? It's luscious and glorious and I want a men's sweater design for it!" Before I knew what had hit me we were looking at a Pinterest board and discussing constructions and yarn colours and motifs. We debated henley style versus gansey, raglan versus set in sleeve...the possibilities were endless!

Most importantly, we wanted to come up with a men's sweater that would appeal both to men and the knitters who knit for them. The stereotype is that men want plain, boring, miles-of-stockinette navy or black or brown or dark green pullovers. That's it. But honestly, who among us wants to knit that? I can envision a scenario in which my brain was so fried that I would be good for nothing but plain stockinette in the round, but the prospect is just a bit too blah to be appealing for very long.

So we decide on a mostly stockinette sweater (to cover the standard insistence on "plain") which would highlight the tweedy rustic nature of the yarn, but with some interesting details to keep the knitter of said sweater from going nuts in a sea of blank canvas. A couple of serious cables for example, and a saddle shoulder construction. A tall collar and a henley neckline. A cozy sweater in a glorious Aran yarn that wraps around you like a big hug.

Then there was swatching and knitting (in the ludicrous heat that was Washington DC this past summer when we were there) and a frantic round of button choosing, and some pattern writing. And now, Carmen and I are thrilled to present Inishmeane, named for a small island off the coast of County Donegal.

A dog almost as cute as The Wee Ridiculous Dog that lives in my house

Worked in seven sizes (finished chest measurement from 96.5-157.5 cm/38-62"), Inishmeane is worked in the round from the bottom up, starting with a turned hem. The body is worked in the round to the underarms, and then the front and back are worked flat. Sleeves are worked (also with a turned hem) with a mirrored cable panel on each, and then the cable continues across the shoulder, getting attached to the front and back as you work. Then the collar is worked flat, with the cables continuing on either side, and the front button bands are picked up and worked flat.

I am super thrilled with how this sweater has come out, but it wouldn't have happened without the support of a lot of people: first off, Carmen, who asked me to come up with something for her, and was an absolute pleasure to work with from start to finish (let me know when the next one needs to come through, ok?), my lovely tech editor Deb for her eagle eyes (!), Daphne and Ian at The Fibre Company for yarn support and being generally all around some of the most lovely people it's been my pleasure to meet in this industry, and Tommy Martin who takes unbelievably phenomenal pictures of knitwear in the Lake District (as evidenced by these photos and the gorgeous shoot he did for Nordlándda last year).

The pattern is available now from Ravelry and from A Yarn Story directly, along with oodles and oodles of gorgeous Arranmore. I'm already contemplating what colour to pick for my, I mean Alex's Inishmeane!

Thanks so much for sharing Rachel and thanks for creating such a beautiful garment!

- Carmen


Do I have to swatch? July 13 2016

We’ve all asked this question at one time or another. You’re in the grips of the excitement of starting a new project, and you just want to get going immediately. But then comes those dreaded phrases – “adjust needle size as needed to get gauge”, “please swatch to ensure adequate yarn”, “swatch to avoid disappointment”. Argh!

Even though I am firmly in the camp of Swatching Is Good, I still get frustrated by having to pause in my casting on frenzy, knit a square, block it, wait for it to dry, measure it, and repeat ad infinitum until I get close to the recommended gauge. In this post I’m going to talk about why swatching is important, how to swatch, and then discuss three factors that will play a big role in whether or not your swatch tells the truth.

Why swatching is important:
You certainly don’t have to swatch – there are no swatching police. But if you want your project to end up the correct size and match the schematic measurements, swatching is critical!

Some years back when I was at university and had gotten back in to knitting (there is not much else to do in northwestern Massachusetts in the winter), I embarked on a grand project to knit myself an all-over cabled jumper. I went to the yarn shop, stocked up on yarn, got my pattern and started to knit – gauge was not even on my radar. I got through the back and halfway up the front before I ran out of yarn. Back to the yarn shop, more yarn and on I went. Three-quarters of the way through the first sleeve I ran out of yarn again, and headed back to the shop (you can see where this is going, right?). I ended up with a beautiful sweater encrusted with gorgeous cables. It was truly a work of art and I was justly proud of it. The only problem was that it fit me with 16” of ease. For those of you on the metric system, that’s 40 cm. I could have fit myself, my entire crew team and a couple of cats in there for extra measure.

Please learn from my mistake: swatch. Particularly if you are starting a project for which fit is essential (jumpers or socks for example), swatching can save you hours of wasted time and considerable heartbreak!

How to swatch:
There’s no gold standard protocol for how to swatch correctly, but there are some general guidelines. Most importantly: make your swatch big enough! The minimum size for a swatch is 4 x 4”/10 x 10 cm, but I’d definitely recommend making one bigger then that if you can stand it. Casting on 10 sts, knitting for 12 rows and casting off does not make an adequate swatch, even in super bulky wool.

Work a garter stitch border around your swatch so it will lie flat when it’s finished. For all the swatches pictured below I cast on 26 sts and worked the first and last three stitches of each row in garter stitch, with 6 rows of garter to start and finish.



If you project is knit in the round, please swatch in the round! You don’t actually have to work a tube – use circular or double pointed needles, cast on and work one row. Slide the work to the other end of the needle and work the next row, leaving a long float across the back of the swatch so there’s plenty of room for it to lay flat when you’re done. Keep going until the swatch is the size you want, bind off, and block. You can cut the floats if you like, but just be sure to fasten them off at the edges in some way so that the stitches are even along the edges.

Also make sure to finish your swatch as you are going to finish your finished project. If you plan to steam block the piece, steam block the swatch. Pin or smooth it out as you will the final project. Let it dry. Then go back and measure the gauge.


To measure the gauge lay the swatch out flat without stretching or pulling. Take a ruler or a measuring tape and lay it across the portion of your swatch between the garter edges. Measure this section and then divide it by the number of sts in the swatch (not counting the edges). Do the same for the row measurement. Then you can extrapolate to sts/rows per inch/cm.

A word about interpreting measurements: swatches with looser gauge will have fewer stitches or rows per unit measure. Swatches with tighter gauges will have more stitches or rows per unit measure.

OK, let’s take a look at some factors that will affect your gauge and how those factors can be used to your advantage.

Stitch pattern:
This may seem completely obvious, but the stitch pattern that you use for your swatch will affect your gauge dramatically. Case in point: the three swatches below were all knit on the same needles with the same number of stitches cast on and the same number of rows.  They were all blocked the same way.

The swatch knit in stockinette has a gauge of 20 sts/10.8 cm and 26 rows/10.3 cm. The cabled swatch has a gauge of 20 sts/8.3 cm and 26 rows/10 cm. The lace swatch has a gauge of 20 sts/13.5 cm and 26 rows/10 cm.

Swatch

20 sts

26 rows

Sts/rows per cm

Stockinette

10.8 cm

10.3 cm

1.85 sts/4.38 rows

Cables

8.3 cm

10 cm

2.41 sts/2.6 rows

Lace

13.5 cm

10 cm

1.48 sts/2.6 rows

 

Cables draw fabric in dramatically, while lace patterns open the fabric up and give fewer stitches per cm, as you would expect.

Now there is certainly a problem when the pattern you’re working is in a stitch pattern of some kind but the gauge is given in stockinette. In that instance, you may need to swatch both patterns and see how your gauge changes between the two. If they’re the same, you’re good to proceed.

Tools:

Strangely enough, the type of needles you use may have an impact on your gauge. The four swatches below were all knit with 5.0 mm needles, but the type of needle varied. One swatch was knit on metal needles, one was knit on plastic needles, and two were worked with wooden needles – one set smooth and polished, the other set rougher and stickier.  All swatches were knit over the same number of stitches for the same number of rows, and were blocked.

Here’s how the gauge came out:

Swatch

20 sts

26 rows

Sts/rows per cm

Metal needles

12.8 cm

11.7 cm

1.56 sts/2.22 rows

Plastic needles

11.8 cm

11.6 cm

2.20 sts/2.24 rows

Wooden needles (smooth)

11.4 cm

10.5 cm

1.75 sts/2.47 rows

Wooden needles (rough)

12.5 cm

11 cm

1.6 sts/2.36 rows

 

You can see that the plastic needles gave the tightest stitch gauge, while the rough wooden needles gave the loosest stitch gauge. Metal and plastic needles gave similar row gauges, while wooden needles had looser row gauges. Generally speaking, smoother needles will give tighter gauges, while rougher needles will hold on to the yarn and give a looser fabric at the same needle size.

The take home message from this experiment is that if you are swatching and having trouble getting correct gauge, but changing to a different needle size is too dramatic a difference, try a different type of needle.

Fibre choice:
I wrote in my last post (link) about the importance of fibre choice and how it can affect your finished object, and all of those suggestions still hold true. But this also comes in to play when answering the second most common question I hear about swatching: do I really have to block my swatch?

Yes, you really do have to block your swatch. For some fibres this is more important that others, but very often yarns will change when they’re washed. Many commercial yarns are treated to make them easier to skein or wind into balls, and washing that stuff out in blocking makes the yarns bloom and can change the gauge. Similarly, some particular fibres (even untreated) will change with washing, becoming plumper or developing a halo. There isn’t always a huge gauge change when the fabric is washed, but you should always wash and block your swatch exactly as you plan to wash and block your finished object.

Superwash wools are an example of how blocking can really influence gauge. The three swatches below were all knit on 4.0 mm needles over the same number of stitches and the same number of rows but they were all finished differently. The swatch on the left wasn’t blocked, the swatch in the middle was wet blocked but left to air dry flat, and the swatch on the right was wet blocked and dried in the clothes dryer.

 

Swatch

20 sts

30 rows

Sts/rows per cm

Unblocked

10 cm

11 cm

2.0 sts/2.73 rows

Blocked, air dried

9.9 cm

10.7 cm

2.02 sts/2.8 rows

Blocked, machine dried

9.6 cm

9.6 cm

2.08/3.13 rows

 

For this particular superwash yarn, blocking slightly decreased the stitch gauge, but really changed the row gauge, particularly when the swatch was dried in the machine. Since superwash yarn is marketed as being machine washable and dryable, this is going to have an affect on your project.

But not all superwash yarns are the same! Here’s another example, swatches knit on 5.0 mm needles and worked/finished as the previous set.

Swatch

20 sts

30 rows

Sts/rows per cm

Unblocked

10.7 cm

11.6 cm

1.87 sts/2.58 rows

Blocked, air dried

11.6 cm

11.6 cm

1.72 sts/2.58 rows

Blocked, machine dried

11.2 cm

9.9 cm

1.76/3.03 rows

 

For this particular superwash yarn, blocking reduced the number of stitches per cm. When the blocked swatch was then dried in the machine, the stitch gauge increased slightly but the row gauge tightened up dramatically.

While the variations in all these measurements may seem very small, keep in mind that over the body of a jumper for someone my size (bust circumference of 101.5 cm), a difference of 0.1 st/cm works out to just over 10 cm of difference in the size of the finished garment.  Not quite up to my 40 cm standard, but enough to make a serious difference in the fit! As is evidenced by the photo above - this is the back piece of the first sweater I ever made for myself, I was at Uni and when completed myself and two roommates fit into it... So with that in mind, get out there and swatch!

- Rachel

You can find Rachel as @porpoisefur on Twitter and Instagram.


Choosing the Right Yarn May 12 2016

This week's post is brought to you by Rachel Brown of Porpoise Fur. She'll be writing a monthly guest blog series of tutorials for us as she is a proper knitting, spinning and fibre guru. You can read more about Rachel's story here. We're kicking this off at the very beginning, with an in depth look at fibre and how it plays a big role in the outcome of your project.

Choosing the right yarn
Have you ever spent weeks or months working up a beautiful handknit sweater only to have the finished object pull out of shape and be unwearable within a few outings? Ever wondered why everyone else’s gorgeous crocheted market bag looks great and holds up when yours comes back from the store with snags and holes? Today we’re going to talk about why it’s important to think about yarn choice for projects, and what factors you can control to make sure that your finished object is a success.

Usually a pattern will specify using a particular brand of yarn. This does not mean you must use that yarn, but it’s important to choose a replacement that has similar characteristics to the yarn used by the designer – they’ve usually chosen that yarn for that design for a reason! The designer will have swatched with the yarn, thought about what stitch pattern will work well, and will have tested out alternatives. If you choose a cotton/bamboo blend with almost no elasticity for a pattern that uses 100% wool and includes lots of cables, you’re going to be disappointed.

The natural fibres used in yarns fall into two main categories: protein fibres and plant fibres. Protein fibres include wool, mohair, cashmere, alpaca, llama, and silk.  Plant fibres, as the names suggests, are derived from plants. These include the obvious candidates like cotton and flax, but bamboo, Tencel, Rayon and acetate are also plant fibres. These fibres all have certain characteristics that define their yarns, and affect the resulting knitted or crocheted piece that you make. I’d like to go through two of the key features that vary between yarns made from different types of fibre, and talk about what characteristics need to be considered to get a successful finished object.


Elasticity

Have you ever picked up a skein of yarn and thought “Wow, this yarn is really bouncy and squishy”? Some yarns are super plump and elastic, and will stretch and return back to their original length easily. Most often these yarns are made from wool, which has a number of traits in the individual fibres themselves that contribute to the yarn’s elasticity. The major contributor to wool’s elastic nature is crimp, which is an indicator of how wavy the fibres are in the fleece. Wools with high crimp have many bends over the length of the fibre, while wools with lower crimp may have only one or two. You’ll probably recognize some of the breeds associated with high crimp, such as Merino, Cormo and Polwarth, to name a few. High crimp wool tends to be finer (smaller in diameter) then low crimp wool, so not only are these yarns elastic, they can also be very soft.

The other determining factor in the elasticity of a yarn is the way it’s been spun. Yarns that have lots of twist and are tightly plied tend to be more elastic and stretch-resistant then yarns that are lower twist, or are more loosely plied. This is due to the extra energy stored in high twist, tightly plied yarns, which enables them to resist stretching and bounce back to their original length and shape.

Usually these super bouncy, elastic yarns will be 100% wool or have a very high percentage of wool. They may also be tightly spun and plied. These yarns a great for patterns needing lots of stitch definition (cables, textured patterns), and will keep their shape through multiple wearings without stretching out too badly.

Drape

The second characteristic to consider, both in the yarn and the finished fabric, is drape. I think of drape as the fluidity of the fabric, how it moves in space and how it flows over the body. Some yarns lend themselves better to drapey, slinky fabrics – think of yarns containing linen, silk and bamboo, for example. This is because of two factors: these fibres have virtually no crimp, and the length of the fibres used in the yarns is very long, so they require very little spinning twist to stay together. The results are yarns that flow like water in the crafted fabric. Rayon and acetate also fall into this group of long, drapey fibres. In addition to many of the plant fibres, protein fibres like mohair, alpaca, and llama tend to have less crimp and elasticity then most wools, so they will also contribute a drapey factor to their resulting yarns. This is also true for wool yarns made from longwool sheep breeds like Wensleydale and Teeswater; although these wools still have crimp, the crimp is very loose, giving these yarns drape far above their crimpier cousins.

Drapey yarns are ideal for shawls, for lace, for flowing sweaters that don’t need to be form fitting. They are not great for things like socks or closely tailored garments that depend on keeping their shape to looking good.

Cotton

Cotton is a bit of an oddball out in this discussion. Although it is a plant fibre with no, if any, discernable crimp, it’s also a very short fibre, so it tends to be spun and plied tightly to keep the yarn together. This means that cotton yarn tends to very low on the spectrum of elasticity and drape. The yarn doesn’t bounce back once stretched, and it also tends to be very dense, so cotton items are quite heavy, leading to a greater tendency to sag and fall out of shape. The shortness of the fibres means that, except when worked at a very fine gauge, cotton yarns don’t have great drape either, and the resulting fabric is stiff and unweildy. This leaves cotton as a good candidate for things that need to be sturdy and strong, but don’t necessarily need to hold their shape or fit particularly well: dishcloths, baby blankets and bags spring to mind as good candidates for cotton yarns.

That being said, cotton is great in blends with other fibres. When combined with crimpy wools, cotton gives a yarn that can be great for warmer weather tops and accessories, as the wool adds some bounce and memory to the yarn. Go the other direction and blend cotton with bamboo or silk, and you’ve got a strong yarn with excellent drape and swing.

The key to choosing the right yarn for your project is to try to match the yarn characteristics of the original sample as best you can. Take a look at the fibre content and construction of the suggested yarn and think about why that yarn was chosen by the designer. Find yourself a close cousin to that suggested yarn and you’re on your way!