Aran You Glad I Did?

I know I'm a little behind the rest of the knitting community on this one, but I'm sharing anyways because I'm so excited that my copy of the new and revised edition of Alice Starmore's Aran Knitting has arrived!

First published in 1997, it's been out-of-print for a decade, and I have thought more than a couple times of biting the bullet and paying the scarcity going rates on ebay. Happily, I didn't have to -- I found the new edition on sale for just $17.

It got me thinking about one of the projects of my youth: my first Aran.

I started this sweater in the summer of 1986 on Martha's Vineyard. My family had a home and spent summer months there from the time I was in kindergarten. Little did I know then that 1986 would be the last summer we spent there together: my parents split up the following October. I've only been to the house twice since then.

Each year from the time I was in 7th grade until that summer before my senior year, I would look forward to our trip to the Island in no small part because I would get to pick yarn and start a new sweater. This one was especially exciting. A few years before, I had watched my mom knit an Aran cardigan and practically salivated over every stitch she made. This, then, was my first Aran knit. In fact, it was my first cable project at all, and with it I felt like I'd arrived at the apex of knitting.

I can't recall the name of the yarn store in Edgartown where I made my annual fiber and pattern purchases. A quick search of the internet indicates there isn't a yarn store in Edgartown any longer... although I find that hard to believe. Anyone know for sure? The only fiber arts-related store name I can remember right now is the Silver Needle -- and even that seems to have transformed from a brick-and-mortar retail to an online shop. Ugh! Oh how I loved to browse their gorgeous hand-painted needlepoint canvases! While on my honeymoon in 1991, I picked up the wonderful Benjamin Bunny for my mother, to go with the Peter Rabbit she'd already stitched for a pillow. But I digress...

My Aran, started in summer 1986 and finished in winter 1988 (I lost a year dealing with my parents' divorce and heading off to college, but I did finish during winter break of my freshman year), was completed nearly a decade before Starmore's book even came out!

I tried to locate the pattern I knit this from so I could give design credit where it is due, but I no longer have it. Anyone recognize the design?

(Yes, that's my shadow creating the discoloration in this picture and the following.
I can't believe I made such a rookie mistake... but I'm also not going to re-shoot.)

I remember being especially pleased with the bold and flat geometry of the center panel checkerboard. It was different than other Arans I'd seen because it didn't feature some kind of open cable in this position.

And I adored the cabled knots,

which created a visual line along the vertical without extending, themselves, as solid vertical lines. I'd never seen cables handled quite like this before, and I loved it. They almost look Asian -- like Chinese glyphs.

The sweater was knit in flat pieces, and features a saddle shoulder construction that seamlessly extends the knot line to the neck. This is in line with the conventional post-World War II construction. I had thought the bobbles flanking the panels were a more (then-) contemporary touch, but according to Starmore's research, the bobbles have been an Aran fixture for about as long as this sweater genre has been around.

It's held up remarkably well these 23 years, don't you think? My mother always allowed me to work with the best wool. She viewed handknit projects as heirlooms in-the-making that we would want to last, and she was right. There's absolutely no pilling. I didn't even re-block the sweater before shooting these pictures today, and it still looks great.

I'm quite proud that at 17 years old, I already was a veteran knitter of numerous complicated sweaters and had such advanced techniques under my belt. I owe this to my mother, who didn't futz around with teaching me on dull repetitive projects like dishcloths or scarves. I probably would have put the thing down out of boredom and never finished if she had. Instead, she threw me into the deep end: I learned how to knit on a beautiful cardigan pattern with bobbles and smocking and buttonholes and set-in sleeves with puffed caps -- and I wore that sweater for years. She never once let me think that I wasn't ready for a new technique, and I know this made me the fearless knitter I am today.

Of course, since our move to Seattle from Ohio eleven years ago, my first Aran has gotten much less wear than it used to. We simply don't have cold enough weather here for a sweater so thick and warm.

If you've never knit an Aran, you should! And if you haven't checked out the Starmore book, you should! Not only are her designs gorgeous, she presents wonderful scholarship -- both artistic and historical -- about the art of Aran knitting. Anyone out there who thinks these sweaters originated any time before the 20th century is in for a big surprise!


Basic Instincts Shawl

This is a story about yarn and instinct.

When I bought two 50-gram skeins of Cherry Tree Hill's Fingering Alpaca in the Spring Frost colorway in Spring 2008, I had every intention of knitting them up into a cozy pair of socks.

Then I lost my interest in the yarn, and it sat in my stash until January 2010, when I wound it into cakes and took it with me to Orcas Island -- again, intending to make socks.

While on the island, I knit up a gauge swatch. A pretty little thing: so light and delicate and beautiful. I caressed it. Showed it to my mom. Caressed it some more. But I couldn't bring myself to cast on. The swatch was beautiful, yes... but there wasn't a chance I was going to use this yarn for socks. Despite CTH's recommendation that it would make a fine choice for socks because of the 1% nylon binder, I didn't trust it would wear well enough for socks for me.

Rather than end up with the heartbreak of discovering such an error only after having spent precious knitting time completing an ill-fated pair, I left the yarn to linger for yet another year -- this time in the bottom of my wip knitting bag. From there it would needle me with constant reminders that I needed to find it a suitable project.

This January 1, I threw caution to the wind and with little more than a vague idea of what I was doing, I cast on and just started knitting. The result is my Basic Instinct Shawl:

With just two 50-gram yarn cakes and a desire to make them go as far as possible, I decided on a basic triangle construction, knit side-to-side. (Truth be told, another reason I took this approach rather than starting from the bottom, center-back and working my way up is because I can't stomach knitting those interminable long edges along the tops of shawls in one go.)

Starting at one side corner, I knit with increases every second row until my first yarn cake ran out; then I used the second skein to decrease every second row until I reached the far corner. This way I could use every last bit of yarn and trust I would have enough to get me through both sides. Thoroughly stressless!

One important criteria for me was that the finished shawl be fully reversible. Nothing's worse than fiddling with a shawl or scarf to keep the right side facing out on a non-reversible piece!

I had no desire to either make or wear a skimpy little bandana-sized shawlette, as I've seen done with so many sock yarns on Ravelry. To maximize my 100 grams, I found myself drawn to one of the most basic of stitches -- an airy faggot stitch turned almost into a whisper by using a larger needle than normally called for with fingering-weight yarn.

Please forgive the less-than-aesthetic background on the image below, but my strategy worked so well that I had difficulty finding a well-lit space in my house large enough to spread out the finished piece for a picture!

To avoid creating a shawl with just a big sea of unbounded openwork, I inserted five garter-stitch dividers along the way: one at center back, one at each shoulder, and one to be visible in each corner of the front. Because the shawl is knit sideways, these bands of garter form pretty vertical lines and add textural and visual interest.

The garter bands have more density than the faggot stitch, but they are bordered on each side by slightly larger eyelets formed by the yarn over that is, otherwise, drawn into decrease through the faggot stitch. I find this very pleasing.

A four-stitch garter edging on all sides completes the piece.

It was a relatively quick knit, taking just about 10 days of actual knitting, done mostly in couple-hour-increments after the kids went to bed at night. I also took a break from this project to knit up the fingerless mitts for my mom before she left.

I simply adore the way this shawl turned out! The fabric is warm around my shoulders, but it's also so light and airy that it can be folded and bunched without creating bulk.

This gives the piece wonderful flexibility because I can also wear it around my neck as a cozy cowl...

... if I can pry it away from my daughter!

Pattern: Basic Instincts Shawl (designed by me, pattern to come)
Started: January 2, 2011
Completed: January 17, 2011
Materials: Cherry Tree Hill's Fingering Alpaca, 2 skeins, 100 total grams, Spring Frost colorway
Needles: US 6 - 4.0 mm


Right Place Right Time

I love cables, and I love how they flow across the fingerless mitt pattern that used to be available on Chavi's Mashpits blog (Original URL: mashpitsknits.blogspot.com/2007/09/cabled-fingerless-mittens.html.)

The pattern was pulled from the website shortly after the first time I made it. I contacted Chavi to find out if it would go back up or what had happened and received a very short response that the pattern would not be reposted but no explanation as to why. It's still my favorite fingerless mitt pattern, so I consider myself lucky for having gotten to it before it disappeared.

During my mom's visit this winter, she fell in love with the design, too. Her right hand, especially, gets very cold since the stroke. After testing out my pair one chilly afternoon, she became fixated on the idea of making a pair for herself. I agreed to let her use the pattern, and we picked up some yarn to match a necklet she's currently working on.

But if I sent Mom off to work these out for herself, it would be sometime during next year's visit before she got them done. So I asked if I could knit them up for her before she left, and four days later they were done. She's happy with them, and I love the way you can lose yourself in the design.

Pattern: Chavi's Fingerless Mittens
Started: January 9, 2011
Completed: January 12, 2011
Materials: Cascade 220 Wool
Needles: US 6 / 4.0 mm


Short Row Heels Have A Place...

... and apparently that place is on any and all socks knit for my mother's feet.

Until this winter, I hadn't knit a short-row heel for at least 4 years. I understand the economies of time involved in short-row versus heel-flap socks. I just don't understand why anyone devoting their time to making hand-knit socks would want to put their creative efforts into a machine-style heel, especially when heel flaps have such luxurious extra cushion and the variations of beautiful stitches and stitch combinations in the heel-flap/gusset construction are so much more aesthetically pleasing.

My mother presented a convincing reason: short-row heels stay on her feet better. Post stroke, her right foot has been largely numb and doesn't function as it did before. The change to her foot is not only functional, it's also visible. It looks rounder and less toned -- almost in the same way as a baby or toddler's foot.

One of the things I prize most about hand-knit socks is their customized and, therefore, more comfortable fit. Given my mother's needs, I had no choice but to set aside my personal aesthetic and kinesthetic feelings about sock heels... and I did so happily.

Mom provided the yarn from her stash. Last year my sister and I had added up all the yarn Mom's collected in the last four years or so since she started knitting again, calculated it by the amount of time it takes her to complete a pair of socks, and determined that she could knit for 15 years solid before depleting her stash. Something had to be done!

So before her winter visit this year, I offered to knit up some socks for her from her stash yarn. I asked her to bring some from the lighter fingering weight options, figuring this would reduce her burden even greater because I would not only reduce stash stress but also take on a greater number of total gauge stitches per inch required by her stash choices. I'd rather leave her with yarn that works up more quickly with fewer stitches per inch rather than yarn that knits up at a gauge of 7.5 stitches/inch or greater. If she were working 9 stitches/inch, I think it would take her 18 months or more to complete a single pair!

We spent a good amount of time contemplating stitch patterns. She wanted a pretty, all-over pattern that hugs her foot and leg. It's also important to her that the socks keep her feet warmer and not be too airy. We ruled out lace or slip-stitch patterns. And based upon the yarn she had brought, I also ruled out cables. We settled on the lovely little twin rib stitch, which I placed on the leg and top of the foot.

The socks worked up quickly, and not only because she prefers a 7-inch leg height (as compared to my preference for a 9- or 10-inch leg height on my own socks). The twin rib is a very simple, 2-row, 6-stitch pattern that flows easily over the needles -- and the yarn flowed equally easily. I spent just a week on them, knitting only a couple hours each evening.

Ironically, my efforts made it possible for her to add another new sock yarn to her stash during her visit -- a gorgeous single-ply wool hand-dyed by Lollipop Cabin, a local dyer in Snohomish. How could I refuse her? She also added another skein to her stash for a pair of fingerless mitts like the ones I knit several years ago.

Not to be accused of moving her one step forward just to let her take two steps back, I've now taken on the project of knitting up the fingerless mitts for her before she leaves Thursday morning.

I've also spent the last week working to teach her how to knit short-row heels. She's determined to be able to do this herself rather than rely on me or my sister to work the heels. It took us 5 days to get her through the first heel -- and I'm pretty sure I unknit more stitches than she knit -- but she finally did it! And she's made good progress on the second heel all by herself, with no help from me other than to confirm that she's on the right track.

How wonderful for her! (And I can return to my personal heel-flap/gusset bliss.)

Project: Twin Rib Holiday 2011 Socks for Mom
Pattern: Mash-Up Magic Toe-Up Socks (pattern by me). Freely available here on Aesthetic Entanglementz (in pictorial or conventional pattern forms) or on Ravelry.
Primary Stitch Count 64. Modified for short-row heel.
Started: December 26, 2010
Completed: January 1, 2011
Materials: Regia Bamboo Color, 2 skeins, colorway 1065 (pink variegated)
Needles: US 2 - 2.75 mm


Over DeFenced

The moment I laid eyes on the DeFenced Bracelet, by Seattle indie designer Zuzana Willis of Zuz K Jewelry, I wanted it. As you know, I'm still sorely lacking in the accessories department following the burglary of our home last January. Even so, the mid-$300s price tag was a bit steep for me. I was ecstatic to learn that Zuzana taught a project class on this gorgeous piece at Fusion Beads! I took the six-hour class November 21, and here is the glorious result!

Stunning, isn't it?!

Before any of you ask, the design is Zuz's property, so this is the absolute only DeFenced Bracelet I'll be making.

Except for the tube clasp, every single bit of it was handforged by me from just 2 lengths of fine silver wire. The longest headpin is just under 2 inches.

I spent a lot of time wielding wire cutters and hot torches. I felt like a cowboy double-fisting his pistols. It's a time-intensive piece to make, and for awhile there it didn't look like the six hours would be enough for me to complete the project. But then we started the weaving part, and that's where my hopes were renewed!

My fiber brain turned on, and I mastered the weave quickly. From then on I knew I'd walk out of there with the bracelet completed. I flew through the weaving and managed to be the only person able to wear her bracelet away from the class!

Yes, that's right -- a boost to my ego. This was just my second metal class, and until we started the weaving technique, I'd been dead last to complete almost everything. It may not be a perfect incarnation of the bracelet, but it was done within the given time, it has character, it makes a spectacular statement on my arm, and I love it!

I received some metal working equipment for Christmas and see much, much more of this work in my future.

I also see a trip out to Zuz's studio on Vashon Island in my future. She invited me and my friend Kris, who also took the class, to drop by in the spring. I can't think of a cooler thing to do right now than visit Zuz in her studio!


Accidental Bunny

It's a boy!

Friends of ours had a baby last April. I've been a little overdue on finishing his knitted gift, but I finally wrapped it up on December 23 and gave it to him Christmas Eve.

Pattern: Baby Brofsky's Baby Bunny, a shop pattern from Churchmouse Yarns & Teas
(not available online)
Started: Fall 2009 by my then 9-year-old daughter
Progress: Knitting completed by me in Spring 2010
Completed: December 23, 2010
Gifted: December 24, 2010
Materials: Rowan Handknit Cotton, shade 327
Needles: US 4 - 3.5 mm

I'm a sucker for the view from behind!

In all honesty, I never had any intention of even buying this bunny pattern and yarn, let alone knitting it myself. On a trip to Churchmouse Yarns & Teas on Bainbridge Island last fall, my daughter blackmailed me (with promises of good behavior) into purchasing the yarn and pattern. She assured me she would knit the project to completion, and for some reason -- despite the fact that she has never ever completed one single knitting project -- I caved.

She got through the head and about to the neck on one side (the back side) before she got distracted. Poor little bunny lingered, unfinished, until spring. When the neighbors' little guy came along, I knew just the thing to give him! I finished the knitting on an afternoon drive to the Tenino Vintage Motorcycle Rally with my family... and then with our move and the progress towards adopting a little guy of our own, I, too, got distracted and bunny lingered longer.

Call it shame, embarrassment, desperation -- I finally finished so I could make the bunny a present to Wes (now 8 months old) on Christmas Eve.

Wes's response? Put the bunny in his mouth. He likes it!

I like it, too. Although I have to admit being less than fond of knitting with cotton. I miss the sproinginess of wool.

The pictures were shot hastily before we rushed off to the Christmas Eve party, and I'm afraid they betray that hastiness in their quality. Bummer!

I would have made a second bunny for our own new little guy here. Sadly, the pattern uses just a little more than half the skein of Rowan. I won't be able to eek out anther bunny at full-size, but perhaps I'll take a chance on reducing the pattern a little bit.