Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Finding Salvation

I needed to visit the amazing Colleen, assistant extraordinaire, today.  On the way home, I stopped at the Salvation Army Thrift Store to drop off some of my daughter's outgrown clothes.  Usually they want you to drop off around in the back.  Not today.  I had to go through the store.  Guess what?  Surprisingly to me, the place is a knitter's bargain basement.  I walked around waiting my turn to donate, and found multiple pots of gold.

In the book area, I found three different knitting books.  They were all ones I had, but good ones none the less.  There was a classic Barbara Walker, an excellent Jacqueline Fee, and recent Melissa Leapman. $2 each for hardcovers.  Oooooh!  Okay.  Maybe I'll nose around after my turn.

And nose around I did.  In the housewares area, there was a garment steamer.  Any knitter who blocks their work will tell you that a garment steamer is the fastest way to block anything, and  $6 is definitely the right price.  A couple of shelves over, some very large canning pots would be great for dyeing projects.  $2.  In arts and crafts, several skeins of high end yarn (Gefrida, Knit 1 Purl 2, Louet).   $1 ea. Yep, this is good stuff.

In the kitchen department there were 8 sundae glasses for 50 cents each.  That would be perfect for a yarn tasting at the Knitting Guild or LYS.  An old wooden changing table with two shelves ($11) would be a great storage/display for baby yarns.  A teapot without a lid (75 cents) is a perfect yarn bowl - put the working yarn through the spout and never have the yarn roll across the room again!

In shoes and luggage there were easily a dozen different tote bags perfect for a project bag, many of which still had their tags on and hadn't been used.  In the window was a huge empty apothecary jar that would make a joyful display piece for a dozen balls of color-saturated wools.  So would the very large fishbowl.  And the wine rack.  Okay, I need to get out of here while there's still room in the car for the kids. 

If you've never shopped at a charity thrift store, you should know that the money you spend goes to support the charity.  Purchases should be checked before you buy, as it's an As-Is situation.  If you're a non-smoker or an allergic person, you may want to give things a cursory sniff.  And everything that can be cleaned should be, on principle.  A little Lysol goes a long way.  Loosely skein your yarns you've bought and wash lightly in SOAK or Woolite or shampoo.  Hang 'em to dry away from the sun to avoid fading.  For a fraction of full price, you'll have some fresh and lovely new knitting tools and stash members.

Monday, July 23, 2012

10 Ways to Knit Faster

There are dozens of articles in magazines and websites about knitting faster, and in general they all tell you the same thing: Knit continental style, use big needles and big yarn, and knit uncomplicated patterns.  Yes, all of those things will help you knit faster.  But I'm thinking you probably knew that already.  What about knitting the stuff you want to knit, complex or small needle, or English style?  Can we knit those things faster?

Yes.  Here's how.

1. Learn to cable without a needle.  This works for smaller cables, but is less successful on cables that are 4 over 4 and larger.  If you have any trouble with too-tight tension, this will not be successful, so be forewarned.  Slip your right needle into the stitches that need to change position from the back or front, whichever way the pattern dictates.  Slip the first stitches destined to be a cable off the needle, and carefully transfer the unknit stitches from the right needle onto the left needle.  Carefully slip the left needle back into the remaining stitches of the cable.  Now knit!  It's pretty easy, and saves time. 

2. Use slippery needles.  The "action" on needles is a reference to how quickly and smoothly the yarn will move across the needles as you work.  Metal needles are usually have the quickest action, and nickel tend to be the fastest among metal.  If you're using circs, look for circs with a very smooth joint between the cable and the needle.  It makes a huge difference.

3. Limit distractions.  It's much easier to knit quickly when you're not dividing your attention in any significant way.  Listening to a book on tape or to the radio allows your eyes to stay on your knitting - not too distracting.  Helping the children with their math homework usually means shifting your visual focus to the book or worksheet, and concentrating on problem-solving and teaching - very distracting!  Try to keep your eyes on your work!

4. Commit to a schedule.  Commit to a certain number of rows per knitting session.  It's enough to keep you moving along when your project or schedule is throwing up roadblocks.  If you usually manage 6 rows at a sitting, commit to 7.  If you pass 7 and want to keep going, you'll still own yourself 7 more rows at your next sitting.

5. Swatch.   Swatches are knitting scrap paper.  Learn new skills on a simple narrow swatch.  You won't waste time ripping back rows of your project because your design element "looks funny".  Swatch it once or twice until you like it, then work it into your project.

6. Use stitch markers.  Any of these uses will speed up your process: Mark the edges of a design element so you don't have to count.  Place a stitch marker at the beginning of rounds.  Place a stitch marker every 10 stitches on wider projects.

7. Knit in the round.   Knitting in the round speeds your work in several ways.  It eliminates a certain amount of seaming.  It eliminates the need to turn and adjust your work.  And since most patterns have more knit stitches than purl stitches, and most people knit faster than they purl, knitting in the round has you spend more time knitting the fast stitches.

8. Use fast yarn.  What makes a yarn slow?  Anything that makes it hang up on itself.  Most novelty yarns are slower to knit, as are mohairs and other yarns with a halo.  Boucle yarns are notorious for hanging up.  Lower quality yarns that split and pill also create unnecessary obstacles to navigate.  Use high quality high twist yarns whenever possible to help maintain a smooth rhythm.

9. Read through the entire pattern first.  I know, it's not very sexy, but it really helps. The whole pattern, line by line.  If something is unclear, figure it out before you start knitting.  Swatch if you need to.  The farther into the pattern you are when you get stuck, the less likely you are to finish your project.

10. Take good care of your hands.  Dry hands, hang nails, and rough nails and cuticles are uncomfortable, cause the yarn to snag, and slow you down.  Thoroughly wash your hands and moisturize with a deep moisturizer at bedtime every day.  (Don't moisturize right before you knit!  Moisturizer gets transferred onto the yarn, making dirt cling to the yarn.)  File your nails regularly to maintain smooth edges.  When you have to wash dishes or do some house cleaning, wear rubber gloves.  Gently stretch your fingers and wrists several times per day to maintain flexibility and good blood flow.  Not only will your skin on your hands be healthier and more supple, they will do a better job with your knitting.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Knitting Without Guilt

I think we've all been touched by the amazing work various charitable organizations have done over the years, be it the Red Cross, or Toys for Tots, or Habitat for Humanity.  We see people step outside their own routines to reach out and help others, and we are deeply moved and impressed.  Most of us have charities that hold a special meaning for us personally, to combat an illness or problem we or our loved ones face. 

I made it a New Year's Resolution to do more charitable knitting this year.  I'm ahead of last year, but still not as far along as I'd like.  For me part of the disconnect is knowing what knitting projects are right for what charity.  I have an extravagant stash, and all want to knit sorts of things I can't use.  The trick is pairing the project with the charity.  In case you're having that same dilemma, let me direct you to the charities below:

Caps for a Cure is a group supporting cancer centers around the country with chemo caps.  Visit their website for recommended patterns, or for the address to send completed projects.

Hats For the Homeless is a group that distributes hats, gloves, mittens, and scarves to the homeless of NYC.  For those not familiar with northeast winters, nights are routinely in the 20s and below from November through April in NY, and these garments are seriously needed.  On this site is information on how to arrange to become a donor, and also how to coordinate a garment drive in your area.

The Mother Bear Project is just the thing for all of us who love to knit toys!  The recipients of the bears are children who have been orphaned or affected by HIV/AIDS.  These lovely toys have been distributed throughout the African continent, bringing comfort to over 76 thousand children.

For all you blanket knitters, and especially for those who love to knit children's blankets, Project Linus is an amazing charity operating in all 50 states.  Named for the classic Peanuts character who was never without his trusty blanket, they supply blankets to children in need in a variety of situations including hospitals and social service centers, and more. 

If none of these organizations tickle your fancy, ask your LYS for a list of local charities who want knitted goods.  Local hospitals and cancer centers, nursing and rehabilitation facilities, Meals on Wheels, Department of Child and Family Services, and churches/synagogues/mosques all have periodic needs, drives, and distribution networks.  Check with your local outlets.  You'll find a charity that matches your love of knitting and your existing stash with projects you're excited to make.  The knitting is that much more enjoyable when you know it's going to an excellent cause.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Building Your Knitting Skills With Books

Knitting is one area of life where we learn best by doing.  We can read about knitting, watch someone else, or study a completed garment, but nothing gives you the muscle memory and even tension that experience will develop.  So why do people try to learn to knit from books?

For me pride is involved.  I know I hate when I'm in a class working on a new skill and I'm having a hard time picking it up.  I don't want to hold up the class, and I feel a lot of pressure to figure it out, so I'll break out the books when I get home.  Another time to learn from books is refreshing an old skill.  If we haven't done it in a while, we figure reading it through will put us back on track.  And of course, sometimes we want to learn how to do something when we have no opportunity for a friend or colleague to teach us.

The bummer is that we'll spend a small fortune on a book only to learn that it doesn't make sense to us.  Not every book is meant for every knitter.  How do you know what book is a really good bet?  Borrow from the library or a friend first, whenever you can.  A preview will increase your odds of buying the book that works best for you.  Can't find what you need?  I'll recommend some of my favorites.

The way I build or rebuild a skill when I need improving is by knitting swatches.  I've made a couple of blankets this way, just by making all the swatches the same size and in coordinating colors.  There is a wonderful book by Barbara Walker called the "Learn to Knit Afghan Book" that takes this concept as far as I can imagine it.  Her directions are very straightforward.  She walks us through knit, purl, mosaic stitch, cables, lace, and a variety of shaping techniques one small square at a time.   Since each square is a manageable size, it isn't at all intimidating.  And you can make as many or as few squares of each type as you need to feel good about a skill before moving on.  Combine them into blankets, pillows, bags, etc. There are several editions of this book available - it originally came out almost 40 years ago - so you can pick it up new or used, locally or on line.  It's well worth it.

Another indispensable book is Seven Things That Can "Make or Break" a Sweater, by Margaret E. Fisher.  Published in 2008, it is a common sense guide in the vein of what a close girlfriend would teach you as you sip coffee on her couch.  Ms. Fisher walks us through the knitting and assembly of a child's sweater.  It builds and reinforces all the necessary skills, but in a small sized garment that won't cost a fortune in yarn or time.  I've seen several brand new knitters turn out lovely garments on the first try by using this book.  Even if you don't have a special child in mind to receive the finished sweater, buy this book and make this sweater.  Maybe make more than one.  The sweater is adorable!

The Knitting Answer Book by Margaret Radcliffe is always in my knitting bag.  The layout is unique, in that the entire book is a question and answer format.  It's my go-to answer guide to confirm the order of steps in a particular bind off style, making an unusual button hole, and just about everything else.  (It would be swell if she'd write a book about coping with teenagers, but I digress.)  It's very small and lightweight, so it's the ideal guide for your project bag.
Looking to get into socks?  The first few pair are going to involve a learning curve.  Rather than get a big book with dozens of involved patterns, I recommend How to Knit Socks by Edie Eckman.  There are ten attractive but uncomplicated patterns.  She explores three basic methods of knitting socks in the round, on several needle sizes and sock sizes.  DPNs, magic loop method, and working on two circular needles are all represented, and explained with clear and simple instructions.  You'll enjoy knitting your first socks from this resource.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Stranded Colorwork Basics

For the longest time I was deathly afraid to knit stranded colorwork patterns.  The patterns look complex.  There are often charts involved, which I didn't feel confident about. Choosing yarns and colors is not terribly easy either, especially when the yarn specified in the pattern isn't available locally.  I don't like ordering yarn on line - I like to touch the yarn and see the colors in person.  And then there's the question of what the finished project will feel like, as many colorwork patterns result in a fabric that is at least two layers thick.  I was also reminded that most people knit colorwork at a different gauge than they would knit the same yarn on the same needles in a single color piece.  Sheesh!  Reading all of that, it's a wonder I ever started knitting colorwork in the first place.

And then, as happens, I found a pattern I couldn't resist.  I had to take the plunge.  There are a few tips I learned that made the process much easier, and a lot of fun, and I thought I'd share them here.

1. Choose yarns from the same line from the same manufacturer.  For example, use two (or more) different colors of Cascade 220 Superwash.  Yarns from the same line and manufacturer will be dyed from the same base yarn, and will exhibit identical characteristics.  If you choose two different yarns, they will differ in more than color!  They will also have different content, different finish, different dye processes, different diameters... The variables aren't worth trying to manage when your trying to learn colorwork. 

2. Photocopy the pattern chart, and use the copier to blow up the chart to a workable size.  Mark the chart off in increments of 5 stitches at a time in pencil.  Use Post-It tape to mark off one row at a time to keep from becoming confused.

3. Knit a colorwork swatch.  In fact, knit a couple.  You'll discover how the two strands stick to each other, slide on one another, and how it affects your gauge.  Most people have a tendency to knit colorwork tightly, causing the fabric to have lumpy surface.  Practice on your swatch until your piece lays smoothly.  Once the work lays smoothly, check out the gauge, and adjust needle sizes until you achieve the recommended gauge.

4. Carry one yarn "high" and one "low".  I usually choose to carry the first color used low, and the second color high.  What that means is that the second color will be introduced by carrying that working yarn over the first working yarn.  When it's time to use the first yarn again, bring it up from under the second.  This keeps your yarns from getting twisted around each other, and results in the smoothest fabric.

5. Don't get discouraged.  You will make mistakes.  That's good!  Most of us learn faster from making our own mistakes than from being told what to do.  (I tell myself this every time my teenagers do something ridiculous that I've asked them a hundred times not to do.)  So swallow your pride, and dive in.  It's fun!  Remember the first time you went miniature golfing?  Remember learning to knit in the first place?  There you are.

6. Block your work!  Nothing helps make colorwork look lovely like blocking.  It smooths the surface and makes so-so work look great.  No matter what you think of your finished project, block it before you give up on it.  You'll be glad you did.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Where's my blog?

Friends, I'm sorry to say that I'm pretty darn ill.  I've been in and out of the MDs and hospital, and sleep most of every day.  I won't be posting much in the next week or two, but it isn't because I don't think of you!  It's because I'm ill, and away from my computer.  I manage to update Facebook and Twitter about once a day, and that's all I'm up to.  I'll be back - pinky swear.  And the intrepid Colleen will stand in in the interim.  Talk to you soon!