Posts Tagged ‘technique’

Gradient-spun yoked sweater 1Anyone who knows me on Ravelry even a little bit well, probably knows that I have a fondness (well, more of a passion) for transforming variegated spinning fiber into a continuous color progression or gradient, and then, if possible, knitting a sweater from it.

This isn’t nearly as complicated as it looks, or sounds: it just takes a little planning and preparation before you start actually spinning your yarn.

The sweater shown to the left here is actually a bit of a cheat – I forgot to plan the sweater, and only planned the gradient. I paid the price, as I had to knit the both sleeves and the body simultaneously, breaking and rejoining yarn all the while, in order to get the progression to travel evenly up the entire garment. Normally, that can be managed rather more elegantly, as we’ll see later.

Anyway, let’s use this sweater (because I just finished it, and I am super-proud of it and think it’s about six kinds of awesome) to show off the process of making the gradient yarn.

I started off with three bumps of fiber (12 oz) from two of my favorite dyers – Southern Cross Fibre and Hello Yarn. The colorways were the HY/SCF collaboration Lazy Eel, on Falkland, and HY Bristling, on Shetland (I had two lots of this). This what they looked like to begin with:


First, I pulled the fiber apart into into color sections, and then I made fauxlags, using a dowel and the technique David (of SCF) documents here, although he uses a rolling pin. My dowel is a lot smaller – only about an inch in circumference – but I find it easier to handle. If you want to play with this for yourself, I don’t believe there is any right or wrong – all you are doing is finding an easy way of tearing off a staple length at a time and wrapping it loosely around itself – so just experiment and see what works for you.  There’s no need to make a fetish of having the “right” tool.



Full disclosure: I am a lazy long-draw-ish type of spinner, and I like an airy woolen two-ply for sweaters, and spinning from faulags gives me that, so it suits me very well, in addition to providing nice little bite-size chunks of color I can manipulate easily.


You don’t need to make fauxlags, however.

The yarn I am spinning at the moment is Polwarth, and I want a smoother, more worsted spin, so all I did was pull my fiber into chunks. The sections of darker/ lighter/ a.n.other color on the edges of each strip will produce some subtle variegation through your yarn.



If you just want a gradient yarn, all you need to do now is arrange your fauxlags in the order that pleases you, and if you are making singles, or navajo-plying, you’re good to go.


If you want a traditional plied yarn, there’s one more step before you start spinning: you will have to divide your fiber into equal piles corresponding to the number of plies you want in your finished yarn.  This is pretty easy, and there is unlikely to be much difference in the amount of fiber in each pile, especially if, like me, you use smallish fauxlags, or shortish strips of fiber. (If I’m doing a two-ply yarn, I simply divide each strip in two. Voilà! There’s never more than a few yards difference between the bobbins at the end of the day.)


And there you go. You should now have gradient yarn. All that’s left is to pick a pattern, pick a needle and knit. Enjoy. Admire.


But wait, I want to knit a gradient sweater

No problem. This just requires a little more fiber organization before you spin. I’m going to assume here that you are happy to let the pretty yarn do the talking, and knit a plain, simple raglan or yoked sweater. Anything else will require more calculation, but for a plain sweater, of standard length, you can make some rough-and-ready assumptions based on Elizabeth Zimmermann’s percentage system.

Here’s a project constructed on this principle. First, the fiber – again, a mix of Hello Yarn and Southern Cross Fibre (this time on Bluefaced Leicester).

IMG_0082_medium2 IMG_0081_medium2

This was turned into a nice tray of fauxlags, arranged by color.


I assume I will need approximately one third of the total fiber for the sleeves, and one quarter for the yoke. So, 2/12 for each sleeve, 5/12 for the body up to the armpits, and 3/12 for the yoke. It’s important to remember that ALL of the yoke color comes AFTER (or BEFORE) the sleeves (depending on whether you are knitting bottom-up or top-down), so the yoke section is an an unbroken quarter of your total, at one end of your progression. You don’t need to separate this part other than for your plies.

If I am working with fauxlags (which is the easiest option, in terms of dividing the fiber evenly) I lay out my remaining fiber (three quarters of the total), and just divvy it up – two here on the one side, then five in the middle, then two more on the other side, then another two-five-two, and so on, until it’s all shared out. If you find it easier than taking 25% off before you start, in every round of divvying you can take three off the (top) end for the yoke at this stage.  I like to lay the whole thing out on the floor as I go, keeping the progression so I can look at it as I work, and swap things around if I think they need it. Remember to make any adjustments at this stage, if, say, you don’t want to use the entire progression of colors on your sleeves. Then, I decide how many plies I want. OK: I lied about that. I have always decided that two is a good number. It gives me a yarn I like, and doesn’t make my head go too splodey when I do the final part. Because, yeah, you’ve probably guessed by now: I divide each of my sections – each sleeve – the body – the yoke – according to my total plies. For my two-ply sweater, I now have 8 piles of fauxlags (two for each sleeve, two for the body, two for the yoke). Granted, they are small enough piles, but it’s still quite a bit to keep track of.

Behold the master-stroke. Kebabs.

Sleeve "kebabs"

I call these “kebabs”, but I actually use straight needles in the small sizes. (When I started knitting, before I even knew about circular needles, I ordered a cheap set of bamboo straights off eBay. This turns out to be almost the only thing I use them for.) I run each progression onto a needle (or three), so I know what order to spin the fauxlags in for each ply and each section. Shown here are the “sleeve kebabs” for the BFL sweater.

Note. I only do this if I’m feeling super finickety about the color progression. If it’s more  organic, I simply put each section into its own bag, and pull bits out and spin them at random (or for a two-ply yarn, I often spin “pseudo-fractally” – one ply random, and the other ply dark to light). In that case, the only important thing is to mark your bags and not get sloppy, or you will (if you’re like me) start off convinced that you know what’s where, and end up, well… finding out that you, er, don’t. Do yourself a favor: label the bags.

So, sooner than you know it, you should have four yarns:


This was not exactly divided as per the technique described, so the sleeve skeins are clear to see, but don’t follow the full progression of colors along the body, and the “yoke skein” (the gold to blue) is larger than it would be if divided in accordance with the instructions, incorporating as it does about half of the body section. I ended up not using the dark blue on the outside of the last skein at all.

It honestly isn’t anything like as fiddly as it sounds, and it has some benefits. I find I enjoy reducing a big, potentially intimidating, sweater spin to a series of discrete – and much less scary – units. Another really nice thing is that you also get clear and early feedback from your yarn about whether you have enough, or too little, or too much. You can chop out sections of yarn if you want, or spin up something extra if you need to. Knowing your yarn proportions acts as an early-warning system, alerting you to trouble. Having the yarn divided up appropriately even has the bonus of making it a more travel-friendly project (I carry a sleeve around instead of a sock, and no more yarn than I need. I take more pleasure out of that little economy than I should perhaps admit.)


So, give it a go, and if you do, I’d love to know. Good luck, and happy spinning. (And any questions, just ask.)

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Every now and then, I get some proof that real honest-to-goodness actual people read this blog, at least from time to time. This information always delights me, although on one occasion it also rather disconcerted me. Sometimes, a gentle reader will pop up and ask a question. So, thank you for asking, and here are a couple of answers.

Firstly, as spotted by some of you, the sweater I accidentally striped, was indeed the thoroughly excellent  ‘Owls‘, a pattern that is charming, well-written, and most importantly, simple. Additionally, it is written for big wool, and should knit up delightfully fast. I actually substituted Malabrigo worsted, which forced me to go up from the smallest to almost the largest size to mitigate the gauge difference. While a nice wool, which I had been itching to try, in a color I adore, and that I had on hand, I was a little upset to end up knitting 25% more stitches than I might have. No matter, the result – even striped – is pleasing to me, and the deep green is ideally suited to my coloring.

The owls themselves are as cute as a button, but despite that, I decided against adding actual buttons for their eyes, as per the pattern. It seemed like, while making them more clearly owls, it might just be de trop. Perhaps I’ll find the perfect buttons, and change my mind, but in the meantime, that’s 40 buttons I don’t have to sew on, which might be another thing that swayed my judgement in the direction of less-is-more.

To answer a couple of questions that haven’t come up, but might, potentially: yes, everything you may have heard about Mal worsted is true. It stretches like nobody’s business (think, carrying quintuplets); it pills like nobody’s business (think, ransacked pharmacy) and the dyelots match as consistently as if they’d been put together by a blind person. And yet, like so many other knitters, I love it madly. And no, I don’t have the answer to ‘why’ exactly.

Now, moving swiftly along to the other – and not unrelated – question. One of those gentle readers who has, like myself, been bothered by a sweater of accidental stripes, asks how you actually go about alternating skeins. Dear reader, this is what my wise friend told me, when I asked her the same question:

Alternating yarns is just a matter of knitting two rows with one then two rows with the other, it doesn’t create any extra bulk and isn’t unsightly at all. I just make sure to bring the new working yarn in front of the old one every time. Also, the selvedge that I’m using makes it even cleaner looking than what I have tried before. Here’s the selvedge trick: knit the first stitch of every row, slip the last stitch purlwise with the yarn in front. Every row. It makes a beautiful, orderly, smooth selvedge, and completely hides the yarn being switched every two rows. (Printed, shamelessly, without permission.)

And my friend knows what she’s doing. On the left you may contemplate the result of her alternating skeins. What do you see? Nothing. Quite. Now, if you really want to be inspired, here is a closer look at the selvedge she refers to. What do you see? Quite simply perfection.

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So a couple of weeks ago, I went into one of the local charity shops (thrift stores, of which we have more than our fair share in the neighborhood), just to distract a child from the fact that its sibling had a playdate, and it wasn’t invited. So, yes – basically – I offered shopping therapy. It was meant to be a quick walk and a browse, and not too far, so back home again shortly. It so happened that this was the shop where I’d actually scored some yarn at Christmas time, so I decided to ask the time-honored question, “have you any wool?” to which the reply was a resounding no, not at the moment. That’s OK, I didn’t expect them to have much of interest (I reckon one ball of pure cotton – which I made into my camouflage beret for use when bagel-buying in the Orthodox (“frum”) districts of North London – was probably a lifetime of yarn luck for that shop). As I left, a woman sidled up to me and asked why I was asking, and if I was looking for proper wool, did I know of the nice yarn shop in Penarth (safely on the other side of Cardiff)? It turned out I’d met my first Other Knitter. A live in-the-flesh knitter. Gadzow. Fabulous. Someone who understood the obsession, and who existed outside of a blog. Amazing: I didn’t realize other knitters could actually be in 3-d. All my glass friends are baffled. They are completely obsessed with glass, but knitting? They’re all, like, how weird is that? And you mean, it’s soft? But not only when it’s hot? And you can’t cut yourself wth it? Really? And it’s still fun? Me, I’m clearly able to run multiple obsessions off the same power circuit. As long as I don’t try to run a real life off the same main, I should be fine.

She felt more or less the same, and we are now offiicially friends. Friends on Ravelry, even friends on Facebook (not that I ever hang out on Facebook: it bores me rigid, but I got sick of ignoring invitations). And we have had coffee a couple of times. If I’m very nice she might let me play with her new drop spindle (only secretly, now I’ve seen it, I plan to make one out of a dowel and some part of some toy purloined from one of the children. Why, oh why, don’t we have Tinkertoys in this country. I’m sure they’re the answer to everything).

Today, she dropped a bombshell.

“Do you know,” she said, “I’ve just discovered that I’ve always purled the wrong way?” So I got her to describe what she was doing, and it sounded just like what I do. So I said, “show me” and she did. And it was – exactly what I do. Ahem. This was wrong? So then she showed me the microscopic twists at the base of the purls. Wrong, wrong wrong. We got out her book, and it was indeed right there in black and white, and clearly (well, now it was clear) quite the other way from what she -and I – had been doing, and I got home and checked out my book. And it was just the same as her book. So there you are. We have both purled every purl we have ever purled (and between the two of us in our combined couple of years, that’s still a fair few purls), backwards, upside-down or inside-out. I’m not sure which it is, but they’ve all been wrong. [For the record, we’ve been drawing the yarn straight up between the needles rather than wrapping it round to the right – clockwise, rather than counter-clockwise]. What interests me is a) that you can’t really tell, whcih seems like one of those deep lessons for life that knitting keeps throwing up, and b) that we’ve both spontaneously done the same thing, and are presumeably not the only people to have done it. It’s vaguely evolutionary: I don’t know if that stitch has a name, but if not, might I suggest “Mutated Purl”? Alternatively, it’s amazing how many smart people can’t read. Or follow a diagram. And not notice. I’m trying not to worry about the implications of that. I prefer the random spontaneous mutation theory.

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– and I have seriously stalled on making the decorations. I somehow didn’t get any made over the weekend at all, or any today. I sent off a cheque for the big Christmas fair too, so I am now really and truly committed to doing it. Yikes, help and double-yikes.

frit decorations

So here finally are some -not very good- images of the aforementioned decorations. The cat looking out of the window at a snowy landscape is about 2.5 inches across, and the others are just under 2 inches. There are various others – quite a lot of different trees (in the snow, with red berries/baubles) and several snowmen (wearing fedoras, assorted bobble hats and scarves of many colors, and at least one deviant snowman actually smoking his pipe – complete with 1mm wide smoke rings [why?] ) as well some angels, and black cats turn up around the place from time to time…

These frit scenes are “painted” with the following technique and tools:

  • a teaspoon
  • a cocktail stick
  • a tweezers
  • a small paintbrush with a sort of spatula/chisel end (this is lifesaver)

For a really frustrating, fiddly, self-torturing experience, the results of which will be well-nigh invisible, proceed thus: take a small amount of fine or powdered frit on the end of the teaspoon and knock it off with either the cocktail stick or the end of the paintbrush, depending on whichever you happen to have in hand at the time, trying to get it as closely as possible where you need it, and in a thick enough layer (you always need significantly more powder than you think as it seems positively to disappear when it’s fired). Reposition the frit more accurately with the back of the brush and very carefully sweep excess away from the painted area. Doing this without proper precaution just swirls the dust around as it moves in the faint draft you create (I did say it was tedious work), and any slightly out of position brush hairs also drag through the design. For powder, gently level off the domed frit you will likely have (no dome probably implies not enough powder). To finish sharpening the outline of the shape, use the chisel end of the brush again. Proceed to the next color. When all powders have been applied, add any grain frit elements (eyes, baubles, etc.), dropping them on one grain at a time with the tweezers. A single grain of fine frit will often stick irritatingly to the tweezers, but can usually be knocked off with the cocktail stick which you are already holding awkwardly in the other hand. Pray that you do not have to do this – it’s the most risky part of the job and if you get it wrong, you can have a lot of reworking to do. Don’t drop that cocktail stick! Alternately, try using a fingernail (but be warned, the frit can end up just transferring onto that, which is the main advantage of the stick).

A note on sorting frit: be aware that there is quite a wide variation in the sizes and shapes of individual grains within a given size, at least with the Bullseye frit I use. Take a small spoonful and sort through it for, say, a likely pair of eyes that match (somewhat).

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