Sweater archaeology: navy blue wool, chunky

posted in: Knitting | 7

Every fall, I get to rediscover the navy blue wool sweater. This week I’ve worn it several times, while outdoors walking the dogs, either without a jacket or with a windproof shell over it. On the coldest days of the coming winter, it will become the most important layer in an upper-body warming sequence that runs through silk camisole, turtleneck, blue sweater, puffy winter jacket.

The sweater has evoked compliments yet again this year: “Gee, that’s a great sweater!” people have already volunteered.

When I say, “I love it. I made it more than thirty years ago and it’s still going strong,” the eyebrows rise in disbelief.

“Wow. It looks new.”

The navy blue sweater—and a couple of others that I still wear with equal pleasure—has moved around the country with me. It has outlasted two marriages. It’s got a few pills, but not enough to care about. That’s more than can be said for some more recent knits that I’ve already taken the sharp, pill-nipping scissors to.

Sweater1lg

Moving around, just part of life for so many of us, fragments relationships. I often think of friends that I wish I could still see regularly, could even stay in touch with. They are scattered across North America, both the U.S. and Canada, and a few are in Europe and Asia, and a couple may be in Africa. I know where some of them are. Now and then I have time to connect briefly and they have time to connect back. I’ve lost track of others. Every decade or so, as a result of a reunion effort put together by a school or college, I catch a scrap of news about people I’m glad to align with again, even if temporarily.

Of course I make new friends in each place. I can’t even keep up with everyone I know in this city, yet I still miss good friends from other places so much it sometimes hurts. This past Sunday morning as I woke up, I felt that particular, natural pain to an unusual degree and for no particular reason I could identify.

It’s true that some of my good friends in this place are retiring and looking at where they will move for the next phases of their lives. They are still here and we’re in frequent contact. I remind myself that now is what matters. Others have already gone, relocating for love or work or just because. I think of people in many states and provinces that I’d love to have a cup of tea with today. It’s not possible.

Each of us lives where we are, of course, but bits of my heart end up permanently attached to people and places that are now out of easy reach. Because I haven’t done well at staying in touch, although I make an effort when I can, I feel a twinge of melancholy when I think of them.

This sweater is no tour de force of knitting. It’s simply a handmade garment that comforts me outside and in when I wear it. Oddly, when I put it on I feel closer to all those folks I miss. In many cases, I wore this sweater when I could see them regularly—whether that was in the Northwest, the Northeast, or any of the other places I’ve lived or visited since I turned this piece of potential (yarn) into reality (garment).

That’s a long time ago. My best guess is that this sweater was on my
needles somewhere between 1973 and 1975, which makes it between
thirty-one and thirty-three years old.

When I made this particular sweater, I lived in Port Townsend, Washington, and was married to J. I don’t recall having used a pattern. Although the first sweater I ever made was patternless and successful, it took a number of years for me to feel comfortable working without patterns—to get past that sense of beginner’s luck and to work without the minimal but crucial advice offered by a college roommate and a yarn-store owner, both of whom launched me and then left me alone. I have also always used, and still use, patterns to learn new things about knitting.

But I think this sweater may be an original design. If that’s the case, I wonder where I was in my knitting history and how I felt my way into designing it, because I certainly didn’t have the experience or resources that I now have. Several great books that have guided many people to leave patterns behind hadn’t been published yet! A couple had been, and they were wonderful. . . . More on that later, though. I’ve looked at those books and this sweater differs enough from their specific techniques that I don’t see their influence.

This sweater is a raglan, a style that I currently tend to skip over. I only figured out later how narrow my shoulders are in comparison to other people’s. From the visual standpoint, a raglan doesn’t help balance a narrow-shouldered body. If you care about that sort of thing.

I should make another raglan, though. As it turns out, two of my thirty-year favorite sweaters are raglans. One, knitted in a lace pattern from light-blue worsted-weight yarn, is beginning to wear out.

This one, amazingly, looks like it came off the needles a few weeks ago despite the fact that I have worn it not only to walk dogs (for decades) but to split and stack many cords of firewood. I made it from a very thick wool, medium navy with very small amounts of green and yellow well mixed in. The yarn looks like a four-ply—perhaps one of the reasons it has held up so well despite its bulky size. The fabric is ever-so-slightly felted, so I don’t want to pick apart a strand to seriously analyze the structure.

I made this sweater just about the time I started spinning, but before I’d made my first handspun sweater (white Romney, ribbed all over, cardigan with a shawl collar; gone to a clothing donation after about twenty years . . .  another story, or maybe three). The gauge is 2.3 stitches and 3 rows to the inch (9.2 stitches and 12 rows / 4 inches or 10 cm). The finished sweater weighs 1.75 pounds (800 g). Chunky!

In its way, this sweater is as simple as the baby caps I’ve been knitting for Caps to the Capitol.

I look it over carefully, to see if I can determine exactly how I constructed it and if that will help me remember more about how it came into being. I know I bought the yarn in Port Townsend, after the little knitting shop opened. That shop stocked fantastic yarn: I am still wearing three sweaters from yarn I found there. I moved away in 1977.

I worked this sweater in the round. I usually work in the round, and have done so since sweater number 1, which I made in 1966 or 1967 in Northfield, Minnesota. I don’t have that sweater any more. Although I made it for myself and wish I still had it, I gave it to J. I hope he loved it.

There are 100 stitches in the body and 30 in each sleeve (the sweater is 43 inches [109 cm] around the chest). There’s a three-inch band of ribbing at the bottom of the body and each sleeve. The ribbing is k3, p2, with a small twisted rib worked on the first two stitches of the k3, twisting on the first and then every third round, for 9 rounds. Then I changed to plain stockinette and worked the body for 15 inches (38 cm) from its cast-on and the sleeves for 17 inches (43.2 cm) from their cast-on (yes, the sleeves are worked straight—no increases).

Navy_sweater_3crop

At each underarm, I put 6 stitches on holders: 3 on either side of the underarm marker on each sleeve and on either side of the side-seam markers on the body.

Then I joined the body and sleeves into one big circle, with four markers in place, one at each intersection between sleeve stitches and body stitches. I knitted 6 rounds plain before I began the raglan decreases. I worked the decreases on every other round, on the 2nd and 3rd stitches before and after the stitch markers: each raglan decrease line is a nice, broad, four-stitch “panel” running diagonally toward the neck. There are 11 decrease rounds . . . and I ran out of stitches to “lose” on the sleeves, so I decreased out the two stitches on the sleeve portion of the “panel.”

Navy_sweater_2type_copy

I ended up with 22 stitches each on the front and back, for 44 stitches in all. Because the neckline finish required 45 stitches (9 repeats of the k3, p2 ribbing that I used on the bottom edges), I fudged in an extra stitch. I’m not interested in finding it.  I’m just interested in looking at what I accomplished. If I were going to make this sweater again, I’d re-invent that fudged stitch when I needed it, maybe in a better way than I did thirty years ago.

At the neckline, I worked the k3, p2 ribbing again. On the front (or back; they’re interchangeable), a k3 rib flows up uninterrupted from the remaining stitches of each shoulder’s raglan “panel.” (The other shoulder on this side of the sweater has the same match between raglan line and ribbing. And it’s hard to believe those wide purl bits are only 2 stitches wide, but it’s true.)

Navy_sweater_1adjust_copy

On the back (or front, if I’ve put the sweater on the other way around . . . it’s as forgiving in the wearing as it was in the knitting), a p2 rib is centered on the 22 stitches.

I worked a long stretch of ribbing: 4.5 inches (11.5 cm). Then I cast off, folded it to the inside, and very loosely sewed the cast-off edge to the base of the ribbing. I joined the 6-stitch sets I’d reserved at each underarm, washed the sweater and laid it flat on towels to dry, and it was done.

I normally think that I figured out how to do pattern-flow elements, like the symmetries of the neckline ribbing in this garment, much later, although examination of another sweater from the same era suggests that I’ve been interested in having the dance of the stitches fit the music of the composition for longer than I recall.

In the final analysis, I am not sure how I came up with the design for this sweater. It doesn’t match the techniques or ideas in the books that I know I had available at the time. If there was a pattern, I don’t remember it . . . and I do know where I got the patterns for the two other sweaters I still wear that I knitted during that time.

For the moment, the navy blue sweater’s genesis remains slightly mysterious. If anyone recognizes a possible simple raglan ancestor from the early 1970s, one that has these details, I’d be interested in hearing about it and seeing if I might have come across that item. Most of my reading came from the newsstands. Mon Tricot collections were my favorites. They tended to have more complex designs than this!

Despite the lack of information about its origins, the sweater’s presence in my life is completely straightforward. It’s here. It keeps me warm. People say nice things to me when I wear it.

I bury my nose in the fabric—it’s one of those fiber-people impulses, like reaching out to touch someone else’s handknitted garment. My nose is surrounded with the complex of aromas that I connect with commercial wool—a little dry, a little far from the sheep. There’s a sweetness to handspun yarn that is missing here. The hand of the fabric is a bit crisp, too. Handspun from well-prepared fiber feels bouncy. But this sweater completely embodies essence-of-wool, something acrylic will never manage.

At 8 on that quiet Sunday morning in early fall, I turned the clocks back and it was 7 again. Wispy white clouds streaked the blue sky. The cottonwoods and poplars still bore half their complement of goldy-brown leaves; the other half had dropped down to cover the ground and had turned all the way brown. Getting ready to walk the dogs, I pulled on my almost-as-good-as-new, more-than-thirty-year-old navy blue sweater. The only place it may show any sign of wear is in the underarm seams, where some of the stitches gap apart a little. I think those seams may have been a touch loose since I first joined them.

As I pulled the sweater over my head and it settled around my shoulders, arms, and torso, I felt calmer than when I woke up and very much at home, as if I were in the company not of memories but of old friends who have known my faults for long enough to love me anyway—the ones who understand both my fumbling and my finesse.

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7 Responses

  1. Corey Mahoney

    I’ve seen you in that sweater!

    I’m thinking possibly to make a sweater, but am intimidated. I’m all about the raglan! my shoulders are too broad–I’ve instituted a raglan-only shopping rule.

    I’m feeling more and more like knitting the worse this plagiarism saga gets…

  2. This is such a lovely “homage” to a sweater. Sweaters have a certain nostalgic heft, no?

  3. I often make things more complicated than they need to be. This sweater is a lesson in not doing that .

  4. Very lovely story! I found my way over here from Color Joy. Your essay is really eloquent and lovely. And how wonderful that the blue sweater has endured in such wonderful shape. I bet when you knit it, you never imagined you’d have it for three decades.

  5. That sweater still looks so new! I love hearing the story about your relationship with that sweater. I have a similar relationship with a blue acrylic sweater that I knit for my son -the sweater has made it though his two younger sisters as well. Wool wears so much better than acrylic, lol! But with luck, it may make it to a grandkid or two.

  6. Deb, what a great story! My mother won’t let me throw out the very first sweater I made (I think I was 18 or so). It’s not my best work (ha!) but she has squirreled it away somewhere.

    Thanks for the walk down your memory lane.

  7. What a meaningful and careful post! I know exactly what you mean, both about the sweater, and the friends… I cherish a “hiking” sweater that I have had for perhaps 15 years…but I also own two sweaters knit by my mother, 40+ and 55+ years old, respectively.

    I too have moved around a lot, and miss my friends, some long gone. However, I have such wonderful new cyberfriends to take their places! Thanks for reminding me of that…

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