This is the story of a sweater that began in the middle of the 1970s, when I bought a few skeins of blue superwash yarn (superwash was relatively new then) and knitted a simple sweater with lace patterning and raglan shaping that I've been wearing fall/winter/spring ever since. That sweater has definitely earned its keep in my wardrobe, and is still a favorite. However, it has been showing its age. (Again.)
The next part of the story began at Sock Summit 2009. I was teaching and helping another teacher and had very little time to spend in the alluring marketplace. Yet as I walked past the market booths, moving at warp speed for somewhere I needed to be, a table at the end of a row caught my attention and I veered off-course to take a quick closer look. It was covered with beautiful colorways of hand-dyed yarn. I picked up the one that drew me most strongly, and was caught short by the label.
It said "Color: Ink for Deborah." Not only was it gorgeous, it had my name on it. Further study was obviously in order, despite wherever I needed to be.
The booth contained Karin Maag-Tanchak's Periwinkle Sheep offerings. The table that had stopped me short was filled with a set of special colorways she had dyed for Sock Summit, one for each of the participants in the Luminary Panel that would be taking place on Sunday. This was my color.
I'd never had a color before. Especially one that was called "Ink," bringing together all the knitting and publishing and writing that I have done, and continue to do, in a subtly variegated way that mingled a lot of my favorite shades. Sometimes I feel very scattered between all these activities, in addition to the need to earn a living. The yarn said to me, "It's all one, and it's definitely you."
I didn't know Karin. The whole thing seemed a touch magical. After having finished the whatever-it-was that I was scheduled to do when I went skimming along the edges of the market, I went back and bought a skein from the person who was assisting Karin, who was then on a break. Later I went back for a quick visit to tell Karin how much I liked the yarn, and she gave me a skein. (Apparently each Luminary was in line for a free skein, but the assistant hadn't known that, and also didn't have any reason to suspect that I had any special interest in the yarn I was buying, other than being a random person who thought it was pretty.)
I took the snapshot of one of my two skeins, opened out, shortly after Sock Summit, when I was at a family gathering that took place not far from Portland. The question I had begun to face, of course, was what to make with the yarn. At that point, I had two skeins. The more I looked at it, the more I liked the colorplay (as well as the colorway). I knew I would need to make something other than socks, even though I now had enough yarn for two pairs of regular socks or a nice pair of knee socks. Merino socks and I do not have long-term relationships. I tend to walk around either barefoot or wearing socks without shoes, and my feet behave like they belong to someone who walks around barefoot a lot. I need sturdy sock yarns.
When I got home, I contacted Karin to see if she had any "Ink" left. She had a few skeins. I bought four more, for a total of six. That would be enough for a sweater. Then lots and lots of other work intervened (mostly intense attention to The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook), although I kept looking at and thinking about the "inky" yarn. I wanted to make something I would wear frequently.
The following winter, I noticed that the previously mentioned favorite garment, knitted when I lived in Port Townsend, Washington, needed mending again. It had already had its cuffs re-knitted twice because of wear. I'd patched some other spots, too. Now new locations were showing holes, and this rude type of disintegration was the sort that is harder to fix than just re-knitting cuffs, or re-securing the neck facing, or tightening and re-fastening a broken strand.
Calculating from when I lived in Port Townsend, the sweater was at least 32 years old and probably more like 35. It might actually be time to think about constructing its successor. Perhaps the Ink yarn would be appropriate. The original yarn was a worsted weight of unknown breed, in a heathery, grayed blue. The new yarn was a superwash sock or fingering weight of Merino, in a subtly variegated brighter blue with bits of purple here and there.
I could not in any way duplicate the first sweater, but there was potential here for continuing in the same spirit.
So I began to consider why I liked, and used, this sweater so much.
Although I was tempted to think in terms of more complex and sophisticated structures, I enjoy the simplicity of this garment. It's plain 1/1 ribbing, and a basic raglan shape. The neckline is not shaped, so neither side is the front or back. It goes on correctly any way I grab it.
Yet within that simplicity resides a nice set of details. The body and sleeves are worked in the round, with an even number of repeats of the pattern in each of those sections. (This means the increases, for both body and sleeves, all occur in the final row of the ribbing. Both sleeves and body are worked straight from ribbing to underarm.) Although this part isn't entirely clear from the photo, the patterns match up along the raglan decreases, and because I worked partial repeats of the Horseshoe lace pattern, the design goes right up to the edge of the decreases. (It doesn't look that way in the photo, and I'm not sure what happened with the image, but the actual sweater does have partial repeats at the points where things look blurry along the raglan lines.) I found the original pattern in a 1970s issue of something like Woman's Day or Family Circle. I don't recall having modified the instructions, but I might have. I suspect the attention to partial repeats was my contribution; that sort of pickiness is hard to write into a published pattern that needs to convey enough information for multiple sizes.
I thought about using a Horseshoe lace pattern again, but it didn't seem like the right choice for this yarn, for reasons I can't completely explain. I felt a slight sense of anticipatory boredom when I considered it, even though I thought I could knit another type of Horseshoe-lace project (say, a blanket) in an instant, if that pattern felt like the right match for the yarn. I've learned to pay attention to even a hint of boredom in the design process and to quickly discard the idea that evoked it.
Yet lace felt like the right direction to be going to maintain the qualities I'd enjoyed in the original sweater.
I find leaf-lace patterns especially appealing, so I cruised my books for options and swatched several. The one I settled on was pattern 22 in Nihon Vogue's Knitting Patterns Book 300. I was partly charmed by the alternation between the smooth and textured edges of the leaves. While I was swatching, I thought about "fixing" them to match, and then decided that I liked the hint of two different types of leaves, with both rough and smooth edges, in one design. It reminds me pleasantly of working through tree identification books ("Are the leaves alternating or opposite? Are their edges smooth or sawtoothed or lobed?").
I measured the old sweater, then compared its dimensions to the raglan sweater proportions in Knitting in the Old Way. This sweater's sleeves are narrower than the percentages presented in Knitting in the Old Way. On other occasions, the additional ease in the proportions from Knitting in the Old Way would be what I'd want. But since I'd decided to replicate the old sweater, I decided to stick with its measurements. I calculated pattern repeats, thought ahead to the sleeve joins when I picked my cast-on number, and began.
I started with the sleeves. It's always handy to check out a pattern with a sleeve, because it acts like an extra-large swatch. Plus if I do the sleeves first, then when I reach the underarm on the body I'm immediately ready to join all the sweater parts and work the yoke area. I always feel like I've gotten a jump start when I've finished the sleeves. I completed them, and then began the body. Here's what the body of the sweater looked like last February:
I was on a ferry between Friday Harbor, Washington, and Seattle when I took that snapshot. I can tell because the photo carries the right date, because some of the Washington State ferries have bench seats in that color, and because some ferries also have linoleum flooring in the pattern that shows in the corner of the snapshot. So I was working on sweater 2 not far from where I'd made sweater 1. I like that part of the world a lot.
Much deadline-knitting and writing and teaching and traveling and other responsibilities slowed my progress, but it was always a treat to come back to the sweater, wherever and whenever I found myself with a few moments to work on it. When I reached the joining point—when I put both sleeves and the body together in one big loop and began to knit the yoke—I had to decide what to do about the raglan decrease areas. I decided to work the pattern as close as possible to the decrease points, and not to have a column of plain knit stitches run up those lines, in the way that had pleased me so much on the earlier sweater. This was an on-the-fly decision, made while looking at the fabric in front of me and deciding what I thought would work best for it. I was prepared to rip back to the joining area if I didn't like how it was looking after a few inches. I evaluated and pressed on.
And then, a couple of weeks ago, I reached the neckline. After wavering for a bit—Should I shape the neckline after all? It seemed like a dereliction of my design duties to leave it completely unshaped—I stuck to my original plan, knitted twice as much ribbing at the top as I wanted in the neckband, folded the extra to the inside, and tacked it in place, making my stitches loose enough that they would expand along with the ribbing when I pulled the sweater over my head but not so loose that the stitching would snag on anything. I washed the sweater and laid it out on towels to dry and find its destined shape.
When I put it on. . . .
it worked just fine.
How do sweaters 1 and 2 differ? The original sweater was made of worsted weight yarn at 20 stitches to 4 inches (10 cm), or 5 stitches to the inch (2.5 cm). The Ink sweater is fingering weight yarn, at 30 stitches to 4 inches (10 cm), or 7.5 stitches to 1 inch (2.5 cm). Sweater 2 doesn't have sweater 1's neatly angled raglan lines, but I did get pattern connections along the decrease area that please me equally well: the raglan joins meander back and forth with the leaf patterning and are almost invisible. There's more depth to the patterning in #2, and the yarn is livelier, so the result is more sculptural. Sweater 2 is slightly warmer than sweater 1 was, even though it's made of significantly lighter-weight yarn.
Similarities include the ease of wearing, the extra-long sleeves (I like my sleeves on the long side), the practical goes-either-way neckline, and the fact that I like it a lot.
It comes as no surprise to me that I'm wearing the sweater today.
Those aren't pictures from today, though. The pictures were taken a few days ago. Today we have a bunch of snow on the ground. The sweater works for both sets of conditions.
Sweater 1 can now take a well-deserved rest.
The previous photos have all been taken in sunshine. I like colors that shift slightly depending on the light in which they're seen, and the dyes on this yarn fall into that category.
There's one more photo I need to show, and this one was taken inside, without the brightening sunlight. I snapped it when I was cleaning my pen. The container holds water along with fountain-pen ink, dissolved from the nib that's soaking.
Could it be more a more perfect match?
What doesn’t show is how perfectly that color reflects your eyes–I’m delighted to see the finished product!
Fabulous color and lovely sweater! Knitting Patterns 300 is one of my shaggiest, most bookmarked resources ;^)
brilliant – a great example of knitter/dyer synchronicity!
Deborah, I just about cried when I read your post. Thank you so much for making such an incredibly beautiful sweater. And your writing is, of course, perfect…
Wow, that really is kinda magical (with a lot of work and thinking thrown in too!)
Thank you all! I’m glad you like the sweater. The hardest thing about making it was keeping it as SIMPLE as it is. There are so many bells and whistles in knitting that wanted to intrude. But I kept coming back to the delight I have taken in the original sweater, even though it does not have an inventive construction, stylish neckline, or any other attribute that currently seems pressing.
A special note for Karin: as you can tell, I am so grateful for your idea of the Luminary colorways, and especially of the one you chose for me. What a wonderful thing this is, and it reminds me of so many fine experiences (including Sock Summit itself, of course) every time I wear it. Which is, in fact, daily in this season. On washing: even though it’s superwash, it will likely always be handwashed, as its predecessor was. I want it to last a very long time.
And I’m so happy with it that I feel a bit tear-y myself!
Marilyn van Keppel
Deb, the sweater is truly beautiful and touched me in the same way that your writing does. I was especially moved by your tribute to Richard Cabe on Susan’s blog. Thanks for sharing your knitting and your thoughts!
Gorgeous Deb. I would envy you all your beautiful sweaters if I didn’t have so many that my Grandma made!
Lovely sweater! And lovely biographical summary of the sweater! May you and the sweater have many happy adventures together.
What an interesting post – beautifully written and knitted. But one would expect nothing else from you! Beautiful, beautiful colour – and how amazing that you found and loved it without even realising it was ‘yours’! (I’m looking at this and thinking it would be lovely in green knitted downwards so the leaves are hanging…)
Simply beautiful :-}